Here’s the story how I came to distinguish between two stances: good ol’ skepticism and something new to me that I will call incredibilism.
Before I define the term, have a sneak peek at an example, courtesy of Geoff Chambers:
Let’s take an example from the familiar world of vital statistics – women’s breast sizes [...] We plot them along the x axis, from A to triple F or whatever. We know that B is the mean, and that a size smaller than A is impossible, so we naturally expect a skewed distribution with a long tail trailing off into the realms of fantasy. [...] What do these graphs mean? If you’re Landowsky [sic], they mean that the less you know about women, the more likely you are to think you’re going to meet a woman with really enormous ones. In your dreams. And the more you think that, the more necessary it is to be prepared to meet such a woman, because you never know, and the less you know, the more prepared you need to be. [Our emphasis.]
What matters here is not the validity of that example, but its expression of incredulity. By replacing “Landowsky” by S (for Stephan, actually Stephan Lewandowsky) and “Geoff Chambers” by G to represent the two positions expressed above, we get the skeleton of an incredulous stance against a proposition P:
[The incredulous stance] Against P (claimed by S), G claims that P is incredible: G can’t believe that P. Therefore G concludes that P can only be the result of something silly: a sleight of hand, stupidity, or else.
If we read the whole exchange, we see that G also disbelieves that anyone could believe that P. We can surmise that it’s quite common. Once we find P incredible, we could easily be led to disbelieve that people could believe that P. But this particular disbelief is not essential to the what is defined here as an incredulous stance. Rather, let’s focus on the point that G expresses the belief that P, as propounded by S, is simply incredible.
The incredulous stance relies on one’s own sense of incredulity. We can see how it limits the power of such a stance by returning to the bra example. In the sentence we emphasized in Geoff’s quote, it is not clear on what authority Geoff can presume men’s dreams. They’re certainly not mine. Let’s hope that contradicting Geoff’s sexual stereotype will encourage more study about uncertainty.
Arguing from incredulity is only a kind of argument, while incredibilism is not only an argument from incredulity: it’s an overall stance by which a proposition is being portrayed as incredible. Skepticism, on the other hand, is an overall principle which guides epistemic practices. Here’s how I would abstractly describe what I believe is the essential part of skepticism:
[The skeptical stance] S claims that P. G asks on what basis is P asserted. S offers an argument: a conclusion C following some assumptions A. G can question the choices of A; G can ask if the conclusion follows from A; G can ask how to interpret C; and so on.
This description does not replace an introduction to the overall topic of skepticism, but will have to do for the moment. For a state-of-the-art paper on the subject, I suggest **Closure Reconsidered** by Yuval Avnur.
According to our definition, endorsing a skeptical stance entails refraining from having a dog in the fight. That’s what requires to be thoroughly and only questioning every step of the argumentative process. A person who endorses the skeptical stance forces his interlocutor to come up with the best argument the exchange can produce. This is not what happens when someone endorses an incredulous stance. As underlined by the quote above, and more directly by the sentence we emphasized (in your dreams), all that obtains is the a state where an incredulous person convinced himself that he simply couldn’t believe some claim.
From an incredibilist perspective, just about anything could raise suspicion. When we reach this sorry state, the incredulous stance seems almost hermetic: if I can justify my disbelief on the grounds that a claim can’t be true, or alternatively, that it’s too cute to be true, I then might have a tough time changing my mind about any claim at all. Once I let my incredulity guide my beliefs I am immune to argument and to evidence.
So which stance would you prefer to face, the skeptical one or the incredulous one?
It is by asking myself that rhetorical question that I found the word incredibilism. I hesitated before telling this story, which I’m telling more or less the same way I told Michael the last time we met in Montreal. First, it rests on a gruesome backstory: see below. Second, it is complicated by this retrospective realization: Michael’s post about the Statues that Walked, where Michael clearly argues from incredulity. For instance:
[W]hat especially turned me back to Diamond’s side of the story was the “Statues that Walked” hypothesis. Lipo and Hunt propose that rather than rolling the massive stone obelisks down the hill, they were tilted upright at the mine, and shifted down the hill vertically! Now why the hell would anyone do that?
Indeed, that story is quite incredible. But that does not mean that it ain’t plausible: in fact, it’s way too plausible. It is so perfect that I attempted this pastiche at Keith’s.
Arguing from incredulity generally lacks credibility because it has the curious tendency to be backed up by other arguments from incredulity. When the incredulity is justified, an argument stays on the table as long as it’s not replaced by a better one. Therefore, an incredulous chap always needs another counter-argument to beat the one he finds incredible.
This is where my story ends. I’m not sure how to conclude. Sometimes, trusting one’s incredulity seems useful. Sometimes, as we saw, it’s suboptimal. In any case, the skeptical stance, as underlined above, seems like a more constructive strategy. In doubt, asking questions is rarely a bad move. Unless, of course, it leads to analysis paralysis.
The incredulous stance seems pervasive in climate blogland. The skeptical stance, as I just described, might very well be quite rare. In a way, we already knew that. I can’t believe I am writing this story. This incredulity could be hidden behind the fact that Michael Made Me Do It. He’s the one who suggested that I write this story and the backstory that follows.
Once upon a time, Stephan Lewandowsky wrote a series of posts, the last one republished here, arguing for the inescapable implication of uncertainty. This implication, that lies beyond our story, was criticized by Ben Pile in a such a fashion that James Annan, the James Guthrie Award winner for 2010, called “a really strange attempt“. So there are four posts to read before getting to our backstory. Five if we like to be thorough, and we all know that auditors like to be thorough . The Woody Award post is only mentioned to plug NG’s: please do go read NG’s if you don’t already.
Our backstory begins in the comment sections of Ben’s and James’. Among the numerous comments, the most interesting exchange, to me, was the one between Tom Fid and Ben’s guild. The less interesting one was between me and Pile, which we can’t read anymore since Ben wisely decided to delete it, thereby breaking a promise. By chance, our story is not about these 15 deleted comments or so, but please do go read the Ben’s beautified comment thread: it’s quite neat and tidy.
Our story is a small part of my exchange between Geoff Chambers and me at James’, where it can be seen that the backstory has no direct relevance to the story I told. This exchange partakes of a discussion where Geoff finds many things incredible, among them the way he gets treated at James’. Our backstory is even more insightful in the light of a related backstory at the Oil Drum, courtesy of WebHubTelescope.
In many ways, our backstory is even more incredible than our story.