The Fallibility of Prominent Skeptics: The Lawrence Krauss Fiasco
Posted by mattusmaximus on April 10, 2011
Every now and then there is a controversy which rips through the skeptical community, because – whether we like to admit it or not – skeptics are humans, too. As such, we are subject to the same limitations & failings as are all people, and this latest frackus has certainly put that on display.
Apparently, prominent skeptic and defender of science Prof. Lawrence Krauss – a man whom I have admired for many years – has, how shall I put this, rather stupidly inserted not only his foot but the majority of his leg pretty firmly into his mouth. He did this by coming out and at least giving the impression that he is publicly defending a known & convicted pedophile – oooh, ick.
I’m not going to spend a huge amount of time writing on this topic, and I’m certainly not going to get into the whole issue of underage sex, prostitution, pedophilia, and that related morass. I choose to leave it to the reader to check out the Skepchick link on the matter (as well as the rather colorful comment section in which Krauss defends his remarks and others respond) and come to their own conclusions. Suffice it to say, I think Krauss is on the losing side on this one, and rightly so.
What I’d like to speak to is something more general and, in my opinion, far more important that what I’ll call the Lawrence Krauss Fiasco has illustrated: even prominent skeptics & scientists are capable of making horrendously stupid mistakes, especially where emotions (such as one’s allegiance to a close friend) are involved. In this, they are every bit as human as you and me.
I like the way in which the question was put on this post to the JREF Forum:
One reason I find this so disturbing is because it seems so obvious to the rest of us that Krauss is relying on nothing more than gut feelings right now, yet he’s 100% sure that this is enough to support his personal opinion. In other words, a well-known and well-respected skeptic is acting like a complete woomeister, it’s been pointed out to him repeatedly, yet he’s refusing to acknowledge it. Does this mean that any one of us could be subject to the same embarrassing lapse in judgement?
My response… in a word: yes.
We are all subject to cognitive dissonance, in one form or another. I’m sure we can all relate to experiences in our lives where, upon looking back on them, our cognitive dissonance and lack of skepticism & critical thinking was obvious. Thankfully, though, I’m guessing that most of us don’t take it to the extreme or do so as publicly as Prof. Krauss has done in this case.
This is why having a community of critical & skeptical thinkers is so important – it gives us the capability to hold each other to a higher standard. By doing so we root out loose, sloppy, and – sometimes – downright repulsive argumentation & reasoning. By not putting all of our intellectual eggs in one basket and engaging in demagoguery via some kind of twisted hero worship, we as a community can sit back & objectively examine the reasoning & opinions of our leaders. And, as in the Lawrence Krauss Fiasco, we have seen that it can be a very useful method of calling out even our most prominent skeptics when they are dead, flat wrong.
And, for the record, the day the skeptical community ceases to engage in this necessary & vital form of self-reflection & criticism, then that’s the day I call it quits. But that day isn’t anywhere close, from what I can see :)