Drawing the Line in Skepticism

Doubt and skepticism in science lead to healthy conversations and debates as well as newfound curiosity. However, doubting can have its limits, and the effects of skepticism of established scientific evidence can have unhealthy consequences in society.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Cover Image
By Christina Jiang

Amidst the sprawling Greek state of Athens, the philosopher Socrates built himself a distinctive reputation, one that was not necessarily appreciated by all Athenians. To prove his belief that humans were ignorant, he went around the city questioning the most powerful people with an endless series of “whys?” Eventually, these antics led to Socrates’s imprisonment, trial, and execution by the Court of Athens. Ironically, the reason behind Socrates’s unfortunate end is something that is highly valued in today’s society: doubt.

Doubt is part of human nature and is shown at an early age: toddlers are known to question many of the simple aspects of the world around them. Indeed, the scientific method is centered around the practice of asking simple questions and formulating hypotheses to answer them. While doubt in science often leads to healthy conversations and debates and serves to deepen one’s curiosity, skepticism must be practiced in moderation.

Maintaining an open mind while performing research limits the impact of biases and helps to provide the most accurate results. In some cases, though, scientists may subtly alter their data or even publish false results due to journaling pressure or personal opinions, a tendency commonly known as confirmation bias. For example, 19th to early 20th-century anthropologists claimed there was a correlation between the intellectual capacity of different races and skull size, a theory that favored Caucasians. Skeptics were largely overlooked because most were of the races and genders whom the theory did not favor, so it was not until the scientific community became more inclusive that this claim finally became widely disproved.

Debunking long-held beliefs like these relies on being skeptical of results. An important part of a published scientific experiment is clear procedures, so it can be repeated by scientists who may be skeptical of the conclusions. One well-known experiment is Louis Pasteur’s rebuttal of the theory of spontaneous generation. When Pasteur had doubts on the long-held doctrine of non-living things arising from living organisms, he tested the theory on his own by building upon the experiment conducted by Francesco Redi in the 17th century. From it, he famously disproved spontaneous generation.

Skepticism is also important in the consumer world when it comes to purchasing new products and interpreting the reliability of advertisements and product recommendations. With some companies providing embellished claims to attract customers, many can fall into the trap of misleading advertising. Greenwashing is a type of advertising where companies give a false impression that they are environmentally friendly through irrelevant information, vague phrasing and claims without credible proof. For example, in 2019, SC Johnson claimed that their Windex Vinegar Ocean Plastic bottle was “non-toxic.” However, that statement was misleading and not backed up by evidence. Instead, the cleaning solution was discovered to contain ingredients that were harmful to humans, animals, and the environment. This led to a legal dispute, and eventually, a lawsuit.

In other cases, people may be highly encouraged to purchase a certain product or shop at a certain store. With pharmaceutical drugs, consumers are always looking for the most effective products to ensure good health. However, the growing demand for effective drugs can make consumers susceptible to misleading pharmaceutical marketing. Due to the increase in online platforms, consumers place a heavy amount of trust on the Internet without taking time to research the validity of the advertisements’ claims. This lack of skepticism and excessive trust in pharmaceutical ads can go as far as endangering one’s health. Thus, being wary of these recommendations for products would be the safest approach.

Despite the value of skepticism in research and consumerism, people can misuse this attitude, to the detriment of their health and even society as a whole. It can be harmful to continuously doubt an established scientific claim, as skepticism turns into cynicism, a flat denial of proven scientific evidence. During COVID-19, skepticism led to people refusing to get vaccinated or wear masks due to religious beliefs or personal biases. A survey revealed that 58 percent of North Americans favor religion over science even when science disproves religious claims. While those with extreme personal beliefs are often a minority, spreading skepticism not based on scientific evidence but rather conspiracy theories can hurt the community as a whole by risking the health of others.

In turn, unhealthy scientific skepticism negatively affects the scientific community as well. Especially for urgent issues such as climate change, it has prevented scientists from taking more vigorous action in fixing carbon levels and setting stricter environmental guidelines. Increasing distrust in science leads to scientists having to pause research to reprove already established findings, significantly slowing down scientific advancements.

Distinguishing unhealthy cynicism from healthy skepticism is integral to making decisions and evaluating claims that we encounter. For example, when assessing the credibility of the claim that ivermectin, a drug used to treat parasites in livestock, can treat or cure COVID-19, we should first look for its source. In this case, ivermectin was not promoted by scientists, but mostly by media figures. The presentation of relevant scientific evidence is also a key factor to look out for. Here, almost no one provided evidence supporting the effectiveness of the drug. Another important question is if there is any scientific evidence supporting it at all, which would require research on credible websites, such as ones run by the government or scientific journals. In fact, the FDA stated that they did not approve this particular drug to treat COVID-19, and there is currently no available data to show that ivermectin helps against the virus. By asking questions and researching, we find that this claim is not reliable.

By incorporating questions and harnessing the value of skepticism into investigative thinking, we can take precautions against the spread of misinformation and refrain from unhealthy skepticism ourselves as well. Though ancient Athens may have not appreciated doubt all that much, in this age of constant new scientific discoveries, we can learn to use it to our advantage to enlighten ourselves and society.