A good way to understand the difference between pathological skepticism and healthy skepticism is to look at it in terms of how the skepticism is based. Pathological skepticism is based on faith. Healthy skepticism is based on evidence. Evidence in turn can be faith-based or understanding-based. Faith-based evidence is evidence provided for from a trusted authority which is taken on faith. Understanding-based evidence is evidence that comes from truly understanding the factual nature of the evidence. An example of faith-based evidence would be accepting that the Earth is round simply because you were told it was round. An example of understanding-based evidence would be taking a sea voyage and performing the measurements that prove the Earth is in fact round.
Let’s face it, not all of us are experts in every field. So sometimes when making a decision we must look to authorities to help with that decision. We are simply trying to make the best decision based on what information we have on hand. However, it’s very important we always remember that these authorities could be wrong. The history of science is a history of the consensus being at least partially wrong. This trust in authorities becomes pathological when it is made absolute. Those that automatically believe something is true because of a scientific consensus are faith-based not science-based. An appeal to consensus involves faith in the beliefs of a group of others.
Take the issue of climate change. On both sides we have skeptics that appeal to authorities. Human caused warming proponents appeal to the consensus of climate scientists. Global warming skeptics appeal to a group of authorities who are mainly not climate scientists but do tend to have at least indirect ties to fossil fuel industries.
Like all large companies dealing in controversial commodities, oil companies engage in expensive and successful public relation campaigns to convince people that their product is safe. They setup front organizations, like the Global Climate Coalition, to present a favorable image and counter negative information. They buy studies that show their products are beneficial and bury studies that don’t.
Faith-based evidence only works when the authorities dispensing it are on the level. When their minds are distorted by arrogance or perverted by corporate interests they can’t be trusted. For that reason we can never assume a scientific consensus constitutes truth.
1. Stauber J. C., Rampton S. (1995), “Toxic sludge is good for you : lies, damn lies, and the public relations industry”, Common Courage Press