It is a fact that science follows a certain methodological framework as a basis for the many developments in its different sub-disciplines. From Biology to Chemistry, it can be observed that there is often, if not always, the scientific method as a guide in establishing certain findings. Without following the procedures espoused by scientific method, scientists can hardly be at any agreement on the validity of any findings that may be produced from experiments or researches. But even though there have already been countless scientific findings throughout the generations, skepticism still occupy a significant role in determining the truthfulness and validity of these findings. The scientific attitude should be one which gives a certain space for withholding judgment or, at the least, doubting the entire validity of a scientific finding for as long as there are reasonable justifications.
That being said, science should be inherently skeptical in the sense that there should not be a monopoly of agreement. There should not be coercive and unreasonable ways to push a scientific finding into gaining merit just because the results are convincing on first impression even though certain contradictions may arise later on. In these cases, skepticism is understood as questioning the reliability of the claims being proposed or introduced through a rigid or systematic form of investigation. In a general sense, it can even be argued that the whole body of science is a large-scale body of skepticism by virtue of making use of the scientific method to arrive at scientific findings and to verify them in or after the process.
Yet skepticism should never be unfounded on reasonable justifications. Although skepticism can become a healthy form of exercising scientific reasoning, it should not be the case that a skeptic attitude should remain even when there is no justifiable reason to do so. Skepticism based on nothing but pure emotional bias or prejudice will not be of any contribution to the advancement of the sciences.
David Hume tells us that it is reasonable to abandon miraculous claims or claims that provide arguments for any violation of natural laws. Experience being our only guide in establishing these laws of nature, the acceptance of miraculous events corresponds to an acceptance of the failure of experience of being a reliable guide. Thus, Hume might approach the question of skepticism in science as a matter of human experience, such that anything that goes beyond what is immediately perceivable such as the essence of the objects being studied, with or without the help of scientific instruments such as microscopes, should not be accepted readily or should not be accepted hook, line and sinker. Hume’s approach of skepticism in the field of science would tell us that skepticism provides a way for us to rely on sensory experience, which is inherently important in science inasmuch as logic is important, and relieve ourselves of what is anything beyond the scope of the scientific method. That being said, Hume will most likely argue that scientific skepticism is a means for us to confine ourselves within the boundaries of natural laws and reject any proposed metaphysical value to any of the objects under inquiry such as the object’s essence.
On the other hand, Wesley Salmon argues that events are nothing more than the products of causal processes. To everything there is a cause and an effect, or that there is a certain cause which leads to a certain effect, and that effect in turn can become a cause of something else, and so on. On a large scale, it can be said that Salmon points to the idea that the world is a huge series of causal process where events intersect as results of certain process of causation. That being said, Salmon’s view of skepticism can be put in this way: skepticism in science seeks to target the very process of causation itself. In a sense, Salmon might argue that to question the reliability of scientific claims is to question the causes that led to such claims. For instance, a skeptic questioning the reliability of the claim that red tide is affected by the phases of the moon is actually questioning the relationship of the elements involved in the red tide event. Thus, the skepticism determines the validity of scientific claims or events through a rigorous analysis of the processes of causation or causal relationships of the elements or objects with the rest instead of focusing on the individual elements or objects involved.
As for Karl Popper, his view towards skepticism can be understood in terms of his critique against classical empiricism. Popper argues that theories under the scientific domain are abstract, and that testing these abstractions can only be done by reference to their effects or implications. More specifically, Popper upholds the argument that the positive results in the experimental phase of the scientific method cannot confirm a theory in science precisely because these theories are abstract and can only be analyzed in terms of their purported implications. Hence, Popper claims that a theory is scientific if and only if it can be falsified. Otherwise, a theory cannot hold much ground as scientific in nature simply because it cannot be examined from a skeptic’s point of view. Thus, given the position of Popper, it can be said that skepticism holds a significant position in determining the validity of scientific theories in terms of their implications and not in terms of what they really are because these theories are abstracts and, hence, cannot be empirically grasped by virtue of itself. It can also be said that, without the skeptic attitude of Popper towards the long-held importance of the empirical method in arriving at scientific claims, he would have been unable to come-up with his position that science is all about falsifying claims, claims that, in the end, are not scientific at all since they cannot be falsified.
Lastly, Philip Kitcher’s position on skepticism can be noted on his belief that it is simply not true that modern evolutionary arguments are not falsifiable as proposed by Creationists. Kitcher believes that science must make use of independently testable auxiliary hypotheses. Science, according to Kitcher, must also be unified and unifying inasmuch as it should also be able to open new areas of research (Ruse, 1984, p. 350). It can be easily interpreted that Kitcher’s position towards the standpoint of Creationists towards Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is skeptic towards the idea that modern evolutionary arguments are not falsifiable and, hence, not a genuine science. That also reflects the argument that modern evolution is not a scientific theory because of it cannot be falsified, which takes the position of Popper against Darwin’s theory. Nevertheless, Kitcher believes that modern evolutionary arguments are very much a part of science because the arguments have been able to unify previous disagreements towards the origin of life although there still are notable debates persisting. The arguments have also been able to make use of independently testable auxiliary hypotheses especially with today’s scientific technologies that continue to refine our understanding of genetics. More importantly, the modern evolutionary arguments have opened the way for more branches that seek to study and understand evolution.
In essence, David Hume, Wesley Salmon, Karl Popper and Philip Kitcher are good examples to illustrate the value and roles of skepticism. The value of skepticism lies on its ability to straighten our crude and bent understanding of the world even if it takes a major overhaul of what we have earlier learned. The role of skepticism, when used in a justified and reasonable manner, is to not only contribute to the expansion of our knowledge but also to refute and abandon theories and ideas which simply do not hold enough ground to be treated as scientific theories first and foremost.
Hume, D. (1998). An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, II, IV-VII. In J. Feinberg & R. Shafer-Landau (Eds.), Reason and Responsibility (10 ed., pp. 238-262). Albany, NY: Wadsworth.
Ruse, M. (1984). Critical Notice: Philip Kitcher, Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism. Philosophy of Science, 51(2): 350.
Settle, T. (1979). Popper on “When is a Science not a Science?” Systematic Zoology, 28(4), 521-529.