Essence of Skepticism

Al Jacobs

The heated charges began June 1, 2017, when President Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. Although his skepticism of global warming had been long known, his formal action to exclude the United States from participation in worldwide climate change activities proved to be more than his detractors could tolerate.

As expected, castigation came from such persons as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, each with a vested interest in the matter, as well as from the usual erratic critics, the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio. However, a meaningful disapproval came from a more informed source: Richard Muller, professor emeritus of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, who acknowledged the president’s skepticism contained some basis in fact, but felt he might be persuaded otherwise with a convincing argument Professor Muller offered to deliver in “under two hours.”

It’s refreshing, and rather rare, to hear a sensible comment on a matter as controversial as global warming … now dubbed “climate change” by its supporters, as the warming did not materialize quite as predicted. I admit to my doubts as well, though with few facts at my command, I don’t find it possible to embrace either viewpoint knowledgably. I therefore regard myself as a skeptic: an approach to life I thoroughly endorse. With this said, I can’t resist the urge to expound on skepticism.

Skepticism as it’s regarded today involves a doubting or questioning attitude toward matters generally accepted. A person not easily persuaded and who habitually suspends judgment until adequate evidence can be obtain is known as a skeptic.

It’s not a new human phenomenon, dating back at least to the Greek philosopher Pyrro (c. 360 – c. 275 BC). However, as the Christian Church grew in strength and authority, the developing religious attitudes and dogmas resulted in a decline of skepticism. Not until the seventeenth century, following the Reformation in Europe and England, did skepticism reemerge as a school of thought, with its foremost advocate mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650).

At about the same time, the Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) systemically investigated the solar system with the newly invented telescope. With his early education in Greek, Latin and logic, supplemented by study in mathematics and science, Galileo utilized this training together with careful observation, experimentation and inductive reasoning to qualify, perhaps, as the first modern physical scientist. Despit admonition by Pope Paul V for denial of church teachings, and the threat of Inquisitorial penalties, his defense of the Copernican view of the solar system was masterfully expounded. If he did not, in fact, regard himself as a skeptic, he certainly qualified in all but name.

With the advent of modern times, the advocacy of skepticism began to emerge in different forms. The Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume (1711-1776), who disputed the religious basis of right and wrong, made contributions to the theory of money and commodities, a factor in the works of Adam Smith (1723-1790) and later economists. Another prominent advocate of the period, the German professor of logic and metaphysics, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), developed the concept of reason as the final authority for morality, and advocated for the establishment of a world federation of republican states. His promotion of ethical ideals and fundamental freedom of the individual contributed to an influence perhaps greater than of any other philosopher of modern times.

In the twentieth century the movement was sustained by such persons as Harvard philosophy professor and novelist George Santayana (1863-1952) who helped develop pragmatism as a comprehensive doctrine, German-American science professor Rudolph Carnap (1891-1970) who sought the development of a system of logic employing probability theory, and prominent British mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) whose studies helped restructure mathematics from an abstract activity into one with a more precise scientific framework.

To this day, as throughout its history, skepticism continues to be viewed less than favorably by society, even among persons who consider themselves enlightened. One reason for this modern-day disfavor is the public’s blurring of the line between the questioning attitude of the “skeptic” and the dismissive attitude of the “cynic.”

Admittedly, the doctrine of Cynicism as a philosophy dates back to the fourth century BC and to its founder, Diogenes, best remembered as the lamp-bearer in search of the elusive honest man. However, it has never been an important school of thought, with its adherents recognized more by their nonconformity and eccentricity than by the force of their logic. Nonetheless there are superficial resemblances between the two ideologies that cannot be shaken.

Irrespective of the technical similarities between skeptic and cynic, there’s a factor which establishes the fundamental difference between the two. It’s the recognition of one of life’s more helpful rule of thumb: 95 percent of everything is nonsense.

The cynic tends to dismiss everything as nonsense; the skeptic recognizes a segment may be valid and eagerly seeks to find that portion. There’s a somewhat less valid inference from this basic truth in the oft repeated admonition “Believe nothing you hear and only half of what you see.”

This may be adequate for the cynic, but not for the skeptic. In the first place, just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, a portion of what you hear is probably believable and should not be dismissed out of hand. Conversely, far less than half of what you see – or think you see – may be valid and dare not be accepted on faith. In the second place, even if half of something is believable, the trick is to figure out which half to believe.

So, again, this is where skepticism, not cynicism, applies. Being right by pure accident is little better than being wrong, since it leads nowhere of value. Logically, you must know why you’re right.

So much for how skepticism developed, where it fits into the world, and how it differs from its chief rival. Its principles, applicable to every human endeavor, deserve to be considered in each situation you confront. Since no two persons bring with them the same experiences, their two sets of conclusions on an observation will not necessarily match. But what should match is a questioning approach and an unwillingness either to believe or disbelieve without persuasive evidence.

A final word on climate change: As a former college chemistry instructor, and one-time graduate student of University of California, Irvine professor Frank Sherwood Rowland (1927-2012), whose research on atmospheric chemistry and chemical kinetics resulted in his award of a Nobel Prize, I’ve been asked numerous times of my opinion on the validity of global warming. Despite a certain familiarity with the matter, the political intrigue and financial machinations involved must make any evaluation suspect. Accordingly, I consistently decline to give an opinion on the subject, with my standard reply to such a question: “Sorry, but I choose not to debate theology.”

Al Jacobs, a professional investor for nearly a half-century, issues a monthly newsletter in which he shares his financial knowledge and experience. You may view it on


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