Credible Incredulity

Has skepticism become a victim of political correctness and adversarial zeal?

In the last century, philosopher Bertrand Russell advanced intelligent skepticism against myriad enthusiams and mindless beliefs, political, religious, and pseudo-scientific. Russell saw unwarranted certainty as a serious intellectual offense:

“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Bertrand Russell, “The Triumph of Stupidity” (1933), Mortals and Others: Bertrand Russell’s American Essays, 1931-1935 , at 28 (1998).  When many American intellectuals were still in their love swoon over Stalin, Russell chastised the Soviet dictator for his betrayal of ideals and his enslavement of Eastern European. Stalinism’s certainty about politics and science was not a virtue, but a grave sin.  Or, in Russell’s words:

“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”

Bertrand Russell, New Hopes for a Changing World at 4-5 (1951).

In the 21st century, ideologues of various stripes have tried to silence healthy skepticism and doubt by claiming that their critics have “manufactured doubt.”[1] This aggression against skepticism and doubt, joined with a biased conception of conflicts of interest, have become part of a concerted campaign to privilege tendentious scientific claims from critical scrutiny.

Philosopher Susan Haack, who has aligned herself on occasion with these politicized acolytes of certainty,[2] recently has pushed back, with a reminder that credulity for unwarranted claims, in all walks of life, is unethical.[3]  Haack’s essay is a delightful effort to clarify what credulity is, and to explore why credulity is an epistemologic vice and a social hazard, as well as the implications for citizens and scientists of living in an evidence-based, not a faith-based world.

Drawing inspiration from the the English mathematician and philosopher, William Kingdon Clifford, Haack has adopted one of Clifford’s bon mots as her motto:

“The credulous man is father to the liar and the cheat.”[4]

Indeed! And credulous judges and juries are the parents to specious claims and shyster lawyers.

Clifford’s essay should be required reading for politicians, judges, regulators, and legislators who evaluate the claims of scientist advocates.  Spurning ethical relativism, Clifford identified the key intellectual “sin” in an evidence-based world:

 “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

William K. Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” 29 Contemporary Rev. 289, 295 (1877).

Professor Haack should be commended for her fulsome irony for publishing in a journal of one of the world’s more credulous institutions, and for reminding us that credulity is an intellectual vice.


[1] See, e.g., David Michaels, Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health (2008); Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (2010).

[2] See, e.g.,Bendectin, Diclegis & The Philosophy of Science” (Oct. 26, 2013).

[3] Susan Haack, “Credulity and Circumspection: Epistemological Character and the Ethics of Belief,” 88 Proc. Am. Catholic Philosophical Assn 27 (2015).

[4] citing and quoting William K. Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief ” (1877), in Leslie Stephen and Sir Frederick Pollock, eds., The Ethics of Belief and Other Essays 70, 77 (London 1947).

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