April 15, 2021

‘Lockdown sceptics’ should be more sceptical of their scepticism

Deriving from Greek, scepticism means ‘to consider’ – but inexpert commentators are rarely suspicious of their own findings

Are you one of the “lockdown sceptics”? They are a vocal but largely inexpert minority of commentators who argue that Covid lockdowns are doing more harm than good, or don’t work at all. But is to believe that really to be sceptical?

The Greek skeptesthai means “to look out” or “consider” (“scope” as in “telescope” is from the same root). The ancient Sceptics, or “inquirers”, followed the heroic example of their inspiration Pyrrho, a man who was determined to withhold judgment on everything unless absolute certainty could be achieved. So much so that, on some accounts, his friends constantly had to prevent him from walking into the path of speeding wagons or off cliffs.

Since then, “scepticism” has also meant the philosophical doctrine that true knowledge of anything is impossible, or irreligiousness. In general modern use it is a reasonable sort of doubting, and one that arguably undergirds all of science. Political scepticism, though, is often oddly one-sided. Global heating “sceptics”, for example, reject the consensus in climate science, yet they appear naively credulous of all contrary claims by cranks or shills. So, too, might one diagnose the “lockdown sceptics” as being insufficiently suspicious of their own supposed evidence.

Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus.