Stephen Jay Gould’s Skepticism

The biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) was one of the most prolific and widely read authors of popular science in the twentieth century. (Links to a few of his books can be found below.) In addition to authoring or editing more than twenty books, he penned the foreword to Michael Shermer’s 1997 bookWhy People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. That foreword is a clear and concise statement of the value of skepticism.

Gould begins by noting that the intellectual and moral need for skepticism arises because “Our patterns of thought and action lead to destruction and brutality as often as to kindness and enlightenment. In short, humans are capable of heartrending nobility and unspeakable horror. How then to save ourselves from violent crusades, witch trials, inquisitions, enslavement, genocides, and holocausts? To do so we need both morality and rationality. For without reason

“we will lose out to the frightening forces of irrationality, romanticism, uncompromising “true” belief, and the apparent resulting inevitability of mob action. Reason … is also our potential salvation from the vicious and precipitous mass action that rule by emotionalism always seems to entail. Skepticism is the agent of reason against organized irrationalism—and is therefore one of the keys to human social and civil decency.”2

Reason is our most powerful instrument to combat irrationality in all its forms—psychics, young-earth creationists, faith healers, holocaust and climate change deniers, Ayn Rand cultists, vaccination avoiders, and all the other pseudosciences and superstitions of our time. As Gould says: “Our best weapons come from the arsenals of basic scientific procedures—for nothing can beat the basic experimental technique of the double-blind procedure and the fundamental observational methods of statistical analysis.”3 The application of elementary scientific tools easily defeats almost all modern irrationalism.

Why then skepticism’s lousy reputation? Perhaps because it is thought of as a debunking, nihilistic activity. Skeptics seem to take away the magical and mysterious explanations that we so enjoy. But skepticism does more than debunk—it offers a better, alternative explanation rooted in reason and evidence. As Gould concludes: “The alternative model is rationality itself tied to moral decency—the most powerful joint instrument for good that our planet has ever known.”4

I miss Gould’s voice.

The Mismeasure of Man (Revised & Expanded)

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory

The Book of Life: An Illustrated History of the Evolution of Life on Earth (Second Edition)

Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life

Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

1. Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, (New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1997) ix.
2. Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, (New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1997) x.
3. Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, (New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1997) xi.
4. Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, (New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1997) xii.

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13 thoughts on “Stephen Jay Gould’s Skepticism

  1. He, Gould, was controversial. Personally, I learned a lot from reading his work and read a lot of it. The NOMA principle fascinated me while it was revolting to some. I believe much of his success as a writer stemmed from his skeptical view and the fact that he thumbed his nose at his detractors. And, as human nature would have it, the more popular he became, the more the experts despised him. Anti-heroes are frequently more loved and respected that the other kind. As Ken Wilber might have said: and just so.

  2. William James, who balanced reason and belief as well as anyone, offers a middle ground. “I am tired of the position of dried-up critic and doubter,” he wrote to a friend. “The believer is the true full man.” So we should believe in anything? No, James “Pragmatism” finds a place for both reason and faith. Above all, he recognized two types of minds, tender and tough. The tender-minded simply must believe in superstition, in mysticism. Their world and their well-being depends on it. Gould’s “tough mindedness” is not plausible for everyone. We need more of it these days but we can’t abandon the belief, even if at times it takes us down the wrong road, that has brought us this far.

  3. Gould was also a wonderful writer whose prose could be very funny at times. He also was a first class paleontologist.

  4. Thoughtful reply Bruce and I always liked James. But while I admire “The Will To Believe” and think we need both reason and (I prefer hope to faith), in the end I agree more with W. K. Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief.” So dangerous to believe without evidence since our beliefs affect others. Very complicated issue though. I also think the distinction between tough and tender minded is a valuable one. Others have made the same distinction with the terms prickly and gooey thinkers!

  5. I have most of Gould’s books; I find him to be delightful writer. Obviously, I learned a great deal about biology and evolutionary theory from his works, but his brilliant writing style inspired me to try harder with my own writing. Especially impressive were his many essays demonstrating that historical ideas that we now laugh at (such as James Ussher’s calculation that the world was created in 4004 BCE) were entirely consistent with the state of knowledge at the time they were developed. There was one major claim of Mr. Gould’s that I rejected — but I cannot recall it now.

  6. Thinking a bit more on Gould, I wondered a few things. While he was living and writing, as a paleontologist, it was not especially accepted for science people to spout philosophy. The territoriality thing. I think Gould went to Antioch, in Ohio. So, the liberal arts thing fits, pretty well. Forward a few years and after his death, every academic professional seems welcomed into the philosophic phold …this, in a time when philosophy languishes? Dr. Gould, in his shortened lifetime, challenged temporal notions of professional propriety. And suffered exile for that. Now, cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary relationships are blessed. Applause for a little honesty-in-dishonesty, please. I studied under a Dr. Gould, at OSU. His favorite quip was: make it easy on yourself. But he was only kidding. And we knew that.

  7. There is something else which bothers me and limits my appreciation of television, which, in turn limits my viewing time of such. I am not entertained by “canned laughter” I don’t think I ever was, even though I was an ignorant hillbilly kid, who would never amount to anything—knew better than to question his elders about anything, in fear of being slapped up side the head. Or,worse. We all have our limitations. I dearly loved my parents. But they failed to show me how things would be…just as they failed themselves.
    Doing life as it always has been done, does not work. Canned laughter was—is— illusion…absurd.

  8. Note:
    I was too hard on my parents. They were suppliant with the transgenerationalism they knew and were taught in the 1920s and 1930s. You, and I are not far apart, agewise.(The tablet printed: statewide, again, so much for AI). Our advantage, I think, as products of the greatest generation, is we figured out how to try harder, think better, and so on. Somehow, education, with, or notwithstanding, we got here. I don’t know about you, but I am OK with that.

  9. This is off-topic, Dr. Or maybe not. 1. The supreme decision on free speech vs. equal protection under law is indicative of chaos in the court, seems to me. This, and what should have been well-settled by Roe, but the conservative right refused to leave alone.2. We don’t always get what we want and don’t always want what we get…see #1. I hold the high court responsible for continuing turbulence. 3. There is, I hold, corruption attending chaos. I left a comment, on another blog, today, regarding excess, exaggeration and extremism. I don’t like our high court. My meagre experience in administrative law is my best barometer. Be well, live long and prosper.

  10. The corruption of the SC is self-evident. Alito and Thomas are bought and paid for and probably Gorsuch as well. The other 3 Republican appointees are ideologues pure and simple and don’t even try to appear to be impartial. Heck Barrett was/is a member of the People of Praise, a ridiculous religious cult. None of them are going to carefully reconsider anything they have believed for the past 30 or 40 years. They don’t care about law, precedent, truth, justice or anything else. Simply self-righteous individuals determined to impose their values on the rest of us. Alito and Thomas are especially horrific human beings. For more see:

  11. There will always be; “Simply self-righteous individuals determined to impose their values on the rest of us. Alito and Thomas are especially horrific human beings.”
    The faction you despise also have their cheerleaders who agree with everything they say.
    Don’t dis pare, nothing lasts forever, and things are changing fast now, Changing into what? is the question I don’t have an answer for, but I do sincerely doubt it will be any idyllic time we may remember fondly in our past!

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