We Need Scepticism More Than Ever

In times of crisis we should encourage — not penalise — critical thinking.

By Freddie Sayers and cross-posted from Unherd, where he is executive editor.

For much of human history, doubt was considered a personal vice. Status and advancement was generally conferred on believers and cheerleaders for the prevailing orthodoxy. Questioning the status quo was regarded as sedition and, as a result, discussions of “doubt” were confined to pedantic philosophers determined to discover whether anything in the world could really be known.

It was not really until David Hume, writing during the Scottish Enlightenment, that an attempt was made to reconcile Scepticism with the real world. Frustrated at the “insipid raillery” of those who claimed mankind could know nothing, he dismissed their obscure thought experiments as “mere Philosophical Amusement”, and instead chose to reclaim Scepticism as a critical mindset. To put it simply, for Hume it was important to be “a philosopher; but, amidst all of your philosophy, be still a man”.

At the end of last year, Edinburgh University renamed its David Hume Tower because the philosopher — at least according to those who demanded the change — “wrote racist epithets”. Whether or not that is true is an argument for another day. But this erasure of Hume – the Enlightenment philosopher who reclaimed the meaning of scepticism more than 200 years ago – is symbolic of something far more significant. For it seems to me that the term “sceptic,” and the attitude it represents, is once again in urgent need of rehabilitation.

On paper, that shouldn’t be too difficult. As Hume put in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, to be sceptical is “to begin with clear and self-evident principles, to advance by timorous and sure steps, to review frequently our conclusions, and examine accurately all their consequences”. At the time, this was radical. It encompassed everything progressive about the Enlightenment and the emergence of the scientific method. But it also seems eminently sensible. Who wouldn’t want to be a sceptic today?

Apparently, quite a lot of people. Scepticism is suddenly perilously out of fashion. More than that, it is now deemed dangerous. The reason? The rise of the “lockdown sceptics”, who in recent weeks have taken a battering for having made claims about the virus that turned out not to be true.

In a sense, this is what should happen in the scientific method — commentators and experts being held to account for predictions they make. But the ferocity of the attacks has left us at a place where all questioning groups are subjected to the same moral condemnation. Whether they are pundits peddling conspiracies, credentialed scientists recommending alternative approaches, or intellectuals worried about the political implications — “Lockdown sceptics” is used interchangeably for them all. Any dissent will mark you out as part of the global “anti-science” movement. So sceptic has become a dirty word…

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