Detailed guides to painful problems, treatments & more

Skepticism about skeptics from a skeptic

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

We need to beware of prematurely concluding that significant scientific consensus/consilience is “dogma” and a “myth” just because an expert or two says it is. More and more, I notice that simply hollering “myth” about anything is enough to inspire many people to repeat it. I have seen too many examples of skeptics “convinced” that something is a myth essentially just because another skeptic said so. Amplifying those signals has become a common form of shallow virtue signalling.

This has become particularly common in musculoskeletal and rehab medicine for two reasons I can think of:

  1. Quackery tends to swoop in where medicine has no clear answers and the research is surprisingly thin… and so there’s a lot for skeptics to criticize, so much so that it’s legitimate to wonder if any claim or conventional wisdom is actually correct. Dismissiveness starts to become an automatic reaction, an understandable adaptation to the infinite torrent of utter bullshit the industry produces (even its relatively mainstream segments).
  2. Just as the science is surprisingly thin, so is the skepticism: many critical thinkers in this niche are backing into skepticism. They are just beginners at this critical thinking stuff, and they don’t even know how much they don’t know. (Alas, knowing about the Dunning-Kruger effect does not immunize us against it.)

The skeptical community is generally well-educated and bright and seems to be mostly correct about the big myths… but it’s also as imperfect as any human community and is not remotely right every time they pipe up. Excessive scientism does exist, and it’s primarily skeptics who are guilty of it (even if we are also often accused of it unfairly). Skeptics are as vulnerable to cognitive distortions and motivated reasoning as anyone else, even when aware of them (and not all skeptics are); all too many skeptics are sociopaths, mere pedants and contrarians, or (ugh) just denialists; the community even includes (uuuuugh) a surprising number of misogynists, racists, and queerphobes.

Many are more committed to their “tribe” than they are to the truth. There’s a wide range of quality in skeptical rhetoric, and some of it is just sloppy and amateurish.

In short, we should take always take skepticism with a grain of salt. Skepticism is vital, and I will continue to call myself a card-carrying skeptic, but not every skeptical opinion is correct… and in particular not everything declared to be a myth is actually a myth.