What is Skepticism, and what ISN’T it?
I’ve posted a lot, perhaps too often, on my reasons for the sort of skepticism I practice and the peculiarities of my approach to it. Over time, my enthusiasm for it has been deepened by what I’ve learned and refined as a more realistic, robust skepticism and hopefully a more humble confidence in my exercise of it.
I have, though, been less and less in favor of the use of the label ‘skeptic,’ or more accurately, its overuse for this reason: While it’s a nice, useful shorthand, for use in magazine titles and organizational names, and for referring to pub gatherings and conferences, I increasingly feel that its use to refer to specific people is a little too partisan, too divisive, too exclusive, too separatist, as though there were some sort of silly litmus test or doctrinal requirements for obtaining the status, so I’m minimizing my use of it in future posts and pages.
I would like to deal here with exactly what I mean when I say, “skepticism,” and something I’ve not dealt with in much detail before: what I do not mean when I use it, what I think it is not when discussing it.
First, a caveat: Nearly everyone is skeptical of something, of some idea or claim that they are given to doubt or are suspicious of, but that’s not what I mean by being ‘skeptical.’
Here it is, as precisely as I can give it at present: Skepticism is an open-minded requirement for acceptable evidence for any given claim, proportional to the nature of the claim.
Further, it is the evaluation of this evidence through sound reasoning and careful observation, this for arriving at the best possible conclusion concerning that claim given the accuracy, availability, and completeness of the data, even an objectionable or counterintuitive one.
Finally, it is the acceptance and understanding of the fallibility of the human mind, and the ways in which our thinking and perceptions can go seriously wrong in even the sanest, most sober, most intelligent, sincere and best-educated and highly trained among us…It allows us to recognize that none of us are immune to being fooled, by ourselves or others.
This sort of skepticism is fundamental to the processes of science, in testing its hypotheses, in systematically asking questions and getting the best, most likely possible answer.
The sort of thinking involved with this can go a long way to dramatically offset, though not infallibly prevent, the likelihood of being taken by scam artists as well as misleading political and media claims of all sorts: No other method I know of works quite as well.
The following is NOT what I mean by ‘skepticism.’
It is not the a priori rejection of claims, ideas or the statements of others operating within their field of expertise that disagree with your beliefs, opinions, feelings, or values, those claims that one may find difficult to imagine, nor those that don’t make immediate sense, for many very real things are counterintuitive.
It is not the rejection of well-established scientific theories and historical facts — by demanding more evidence and certainty for them than can possibly be provided and using junk science to discredit them in the eyes of others — this is simply obstinacy and denialism, and is only useful for scoring political points by abjectly deceptive manipulation, not a scientific inquiry into the truth of a matter.
It is not merely agreeing with others, of believing or doubting the very same things they do.
It is not mere suspicion of motives, vested interests and biases without putting them in the proper context, nor the rationalization of facts to fit theories, starting with a presupposed conclusion and mining or fishing through the data for facts to support it.
It’s not being fiercely suspicious of the establishment merely because it’s the establishment, nor uncritical rejection of rational inquiry because it leads down the uncomfortable path of doubting one’s cherished core beliefs.
It is not a reason to feel superior to or be contemptuous of others, to belittle them for their beliefs or lack of them, nor is it the violation of the rights of others, the imposition on their freedom of will, but the exercise of the right to find out and inform others when they are in error and to allow them to change their own minds if they wish.
Finally, it is not a goal, a destination, some lofty pinnacle to be reached — it’s a means of reaching a better understanding of the world and ourselves — nor is it an ideology, a doctrinal tenet, a belief system, a guarantee of perfect rationality, inhuman objectivity or absolute truth, only a method of reaching the best possible approximation of what we can know of the truths pertaining to the natural and human worlds.
There is a way that the world and things in it really are, even those things particular or subjective to us as individuals, and these facts will not stop being facts by mere arbitrary fiat. Even the subjective needs reality, though reality doesn’t need it. The universe can do just as well on its own, even with nobody around to behold and wonder about it. This is what skepticism shows.
- The Whys Of A Skeptical Blogger (kestalusrealm.wordpress.com)
- I’m a Skeptic, Not a Cynic (psychcentral.com)
- Think Like a Skeptic (psychcentral.com)
- What are NOT Reasons for Active Skepticism? (kestalusrealm.wordpress.com)
- Nope, No Skeptical Burnout Here… (kestalusrealm.wordpress.com)
- Think Like a Skeptic, Part 2 (psychcentral.com)
- Skepticism 101 (skeptology.com)