Knowledge through doubt

By Keir Liddle

The oft quoted motto of the Royal Society “nulla in verbus” (take no-ones word for it) is an important phrase for scientists, skeptics and everyone else in the world to take on board. In encapsulates the risks of falling prey to cognitive biases and heuristics and why the scientific method is pretty much the most logical and robust means for human beings, prone to all sorts of irrational nonsense, to understand and explain life the universe and everything.

However I think the phrase is all to often used to refer to others external to ourselves. It is used as a means of questioning anecdote and evidence that we find questionable in favour of more robust evidence and scientific consensus.

I think there is a strong case that nulla in verbus should not simply be used to refer to anyone elses word but to our own word as well.

No doubt there will be those who are fed up of hearing me state the rather banal, but I think also important, truth that scientists and skeptics are also human beings. We are prone to the same biases and heuristics that affect everyone else on the planet and, though we pay lip service to the idea, I am not convinced that we accept that nulla in verbas applies (or at the least should apply) to our ideas, our preconceptions and our thoughts just as much as anyone elses. If not more so!

  • We may have a pet theory that we are particular attached to and this may cloud our judgement from seeing where it is flawed.
  • We may be wedded to a particular system of values or political thought that influences how we conceptualize the world and how we evaluate and perceive the value and importance of evidence.
  • We naturally “cherry pick” evidence to support our positions rather than engaging in the cognitive load of a more systematic approach.

There are in reality countless ways in which we may fool ourselves.

Thus it is worth taking pause every now and then to remember that we engage in all manner of cognitive deceptions to preserve our sense of being right and to back up our own prejudices and beliefs. That we know we do this is simply not enough we have to realise when we might be doing it or at least acknowledge that on occasion our judgement may be clouded by taking our own word for it.

Which is why I think that perhaps a better motto for skeptics, or at the least one that would complement “null in verbus” would be knowledge through doubt. For me it is hard to conceive of a phrase that better encapsulates how science should progress and the actual mechanics and thought behind the scientific method. It also, for me, captures the idea that we most also doubt ourselves if we truly want to generate or obtain knowledge.

Though I may of course simply be neglecting not to take my own word for it.

Knowledge through doubt: Scientia in dubium.

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