By Roberta Millstein
Philosophers, and many thoughtful people more generally, pride themselves on having a healthy skepticism toward claims made by the media, by politicians, by scientists – by pretty much anyone. And rightly so. Many issues are complex and have not just two sides, but multiple sides. One ought not accept proffered claims without examining all of the evidence and without thinking about whether the evidence supports the claims being made. But are there times when a healthy skepticism becomes unhealthy?
In my field, philosophy of science, we often have meta-discussions about the extent to which we should accept scientific findings or question them. But even the most naturalistic philosopher of science thinks that we ought to be skeptical of scientific findings at least some of the time and under some circumstances.
In politics, some claim that we are starting to see a surge from U.S. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. But some are skeptical. Some think that Sanders doesn't actually have a chance of winning the Democratic nomination or the U.S. Presidency. Should we be skeptical, too – would that be a healthy skepticism?
I don't think it is. I don't think we should have the same skepticism toward towards claims about future political outcomes as we have towards scientific claims. The reason is simple: in evaluating scientific claims, we are evaluating existing evidence. As new evidence comes in, we might change our evaluation, but our beliefs, whether in favor or against a given claim, are not affecting the evidence or the truth of the claim itself.
But when evaluating claims about future political events, the situation is different. To see this, let's suppose that Jane Voter likes Sanders's platform, agrees with his values and proposals, but, being of skeptical bent, Jane decides that Sanders is too much of a long shot and doesn't really have a chance. This belief leads her not to support Sanders's campaign; it also leads her to suggest to her friends and and family that it would be a waste of time to do so.
The more Janes there are in the world, the more they can convince their friends and family, the more their beliefs become a foregone conclusion. That is, unlike like beliefs about scientific claims, beliefs about political outcomes actually change the outcomes. The skepticism becomes unhealthy.
We should act to bring about the outcomes that we find desirable, not sabotage those outcomes while brandishing the banner of skepticism.