Media Guide to Skepticism By DoubtfulNews.com, 2013
Purpose: To provide a clear, easy-to-read guide about the “Skeptical” viewpoint as subscribed to by many who might call themselves Skeptics or critical thinkers; to distinguish practical Skepticism from the popular use of the phrase “I’m skeptical,” and from those who claim to be “skeptics” regarding some well-established conclusion (such as climate change).
What is skepticism?
Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies tools of science. Skepticism is most often applied to extraordinary claims – those that refute the current consensus view.
The Skeptical process considers evidence obtained by systematic observations and reason.
The conclusion that is reached at the end of this Skeptical process is provisional because additional or better evidence may come along that points towards a more suitable explanation.
Example: Mr. X tells us that a new pill greatly improves his memory. This claim, if true, is important and extraordinary. So, it would be fitting to apply Skepticism to this claim. We would want to see evidence that his memory is improved and that the pill was responsible for that. We consider alternative explanations that could explain why Mr. X would say the new pill improves his memory: he may be mistaken, he might be going through a less-stressful time of life, he wants to feel like he spent his money wisely on the pills, he was paid to promote the pills, etc. Good evidence that his claim has validity would be quality research results (multiple studies) that show many who take the pill displayed a measurable improvement in memory. And, preferably, we would be provided a plausible explanation for how the pill works to improve memory. If the manufacturer of Mr X’s pills do not have well-controlled studies of large groups of people that show that the product actually works, we can’t just accept his word that they work as they say because the alternative explanations are more likely.
The more extraordinary the claim, the stronger the evidence must be to support it. If a claim is made that would require us to revise or overturn well established knowledge, we should be very suspicious and ask for a greater degree of evidence.
Example: Psychics claim that they are able to predict future events. That would not be in accordance with what we have observed about the human mind. It would not correspond to well-tested ideas in biology and physics. It does not make sense in terms of what we know. So, in order to justify discarding all we already know, the claimant must have a great deal of solid evidence that withstands scrutiny.
These are cases of applying scientific skepticism. Skeptics value contributions of science but also those of logic and math that lead towards the best explanation. Skepticism can be applied to subjects such as history, art and literature, as well, by using critical thinking and respect for the evidence for any claims that are made.
What does it mean to be a Skeptic?
You will often hear “I’m a skeptic” or “I’m skeptical” from people who are not sure about or who doubt some concept. That is a common, casual use of the term. Simply calling oneself a “skeptic” is not the same as practicing it. It’s easy to “doubt” things; everyone is “skeptical” about something. Good Skepticism involves understanding why one might or might not doubt the claim.
A Skeptic subscribes to a number of tenets.
Respect for the evidence. The application of reason to evidence is the best method we have to obtain reliable knowledge.
Respect for methods, conclusions and the consensus of science. Science is a particular way of obtaining information that is designed to reduce the chances of coming to an incorrect conclusion. Using a scientific process will minimize errors (but not eliminate them entirely). So, Skeptics are often vigorous advocates of science – in medicine, in schools, and for informing policy decisions. Fake, junk and pseudo-science is called out as a ruse. Logic and math are also components of science that can be valuable in assessing claims.
Preference for natural, not supernatural, explanation. Natural laws give us rational boundaries in our quest to determine explanations. Miracles are an example of using a supernatural agent (a god, saint or angel who operates outside of natural laws) as part of the explanation. A Skeptic will look for a natural explanation that does not call for a supernatural, unproven (and possibly unprovable) entity to be included.
Promotion of reason and critical thinking. Many Skeptics are good at identifying mistakes in arguments and reasoning.
Awareness of how we are fooled. People routinely fool themselves and are fooled by others. This is most commonly seen in our over-reliance on our senses and memory – for example, “I know what I saw,” or “I remember it like it was yesterday.” Skeptics are wary of eyewitness testimony because observation is fallible and memory is malleable. Stories of events, even from trustworthy people, make for very poor evidence on their own. Even collectively, anecdotes don’t tell us much about the validity of the claim. Skeptics also understand that people tend to look for, remember and favor the evidence that supports their preferred conclusion.
What Skepticism ISN’T
This section contains possibly the most important things to know about Skeptics. There are a many misconceptions about what it means to be a Skeptic. Not everyone who says they are “skeptical” are applying Skepticism.
Skeptic is not the same as “cynic” or “disbeliever”. Good Skeptics do not dismiss claims out-of-hand. The “Skeptic” is often seen as the “debunker”, the “downer”, or the “balloon buster”. It may appear that way for those who are very attached to certain concepts to which Skepticism is being applied, such as existence of ghosts, Bigfoot or UFOs. Skeptics aren’t skeptical of everything, either. In classical Greek Skepticism, the individual did not commit to stating “knowledge”; everything was doubted, there was no certainty. That is not a popular stance today. When we speak of modern Skepticism, we are talking about those who seek the conclusion best supported by current evidence and reason.
Skeptic does not equal “atheist”. Many Skeptics are atheists, but not all. Skepticism is a process of evaluating claims, not a set of conclusions. Skeptics are a diverse group so lack of religious beliefs should not be assumed. Scientific Skepticism is applied only to testable claims (such as “prayer heals”), not to untestable claims such as the existence of God, who is supernatural. “Is there a God?” is a question outside the realm of science. However, philosophical skepticism can be invoked in considering claims about the supernatural.
Skeptic does not mean “denialist” or “truther”. A practicing Skeptic is informed by the scientific consensus. So called “climate skeptics” are not practicing Skepticism when they doubt global warming based on selective belief and by ignoring the results that science has given us to this point. “Denialists” (of climate change, evolution, conventional medicine, etc.) reject science that does not support their view. “Truthers” insist that the real “truth” has not been revealed and instead put forth the explanation that a conspiracy is afoot. These stances do not give fair weight to well-established knowledge we have.
Skepticism is not a religion. Skepticism doesn’t tell you what to think. It tells you how you should think about something to get to the conclusion that has the best possibility of being true. Skepticism may not always be the best approach to decisions at the moment, sometimes decisions based on emotions can feel like the right thing to do. So applying skepticism to everything in life is not always the best policy. There may be other factors to consider.
Skepticism is important
Why use Skepticism as a process to evaluate claims? Critically evaluating claims for flaws, mistakes and inaccuracies lessens the potential that you will believe something that isn’t true. Skepticism and critical thinking can be applied in everyday life where an invalid claim might have serious effects on you or people around you – such as in consideration of a medical treatment, a financial investment, a consumer product, or life choices.
Proponents of a claim will frequently say, “You can’t prove it’s not true.” That’s a ridiculous statement. It’s not up to the Skeptic to show that an extraordinary claim isn’t true. It’s up to those making the claim to provide evidence and reasons why it IS true. We must have evidence that a person DID commit a crime, for example, not prove that everyone else in the world did not.
What do Skeptics do?
Skeptics have a loose community consisting of publications, web sites and online forums, organizations, and events. Skeptics are all around the world, organized into casual and formal groups and associations. It is a community made up of people with varying backgrounds, ideas, goals, communication styles and skill sets. It also gets very fluid at the edges. You might be a Skeptic and not even know it. Many people don’t self-identify as a “skeptic” but selectively follow the practices of Skepticism in their lives. Some people are disinclined to take on any labels or join a group.
Many Skeptics enjoy the fringe subject areas, they like solving mysteries and appreciate being around people who think as they do or who argue rationally when they don’t agree. Some Skeptics are activists who promote critical thinking and Skepticism in their communities and the public as individuals or as part of local or national organized groups and online.
Some of the topics Skeptics are involved in are science education, alternative medical treatments, the paranormal, dubious consumer products and services, hoaxes and scams, UFOs and aliens, monsters and folklore, superstition, and why people believe strange things.
Those who represent Skepticism in the public sphere are happy to provide a science- and reason-based viewpoint for the media. The backgrounds of the those in the Skeptical community are varied. Many participants in the skeptical community are experts in particular areas like the paranormal, medicine, cryptozoology, history, archaeology, textual analysis, linguistics, psychology, astronomy, physics and magic.
Here are the best means to connect to the people and ideas of scientific skepticism.
The major Skeptic organizations have as their mission a goal to promote scientific skepticism. There are three major national skeptical organizations in the United States.
CSI (formerly known as CSICOP) is a nonprofit scientific and educational organization, started in 1976. Their mission is to promote scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims. They publish the Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptical Briefs. They host an annual conference called CSIcon and many local events, workshops and lectures in conjunction with their overarching organization, the Center for Inquiry. Contact: info(at)csisop.org More
Founded by magician James “The Amazing” Randi in 1996, the foundation is dedicated to promoting “critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today.” They organize one of the largest gatherings of international skeptics and critical thinkers, The Amazing Meeting (TAM), every year and offer the One Million Dollar Challenge for those who claim paranormal abilities. Contact: +1 213 293-3092 More
Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the Skeptics Society is a nonprofit, scientific and educational organization led by Dr. Michael Shermer. Their mission is to engage leading experts in investigating the paranormal, fringe science, pseudoscience, and extraordinary claims of all kinds, promote critical thinking, and serve as an educational tool for those seeking a sound scientific viewpoint. They sponsor a monthly lecture series at the California Institute of Technology. Contact: skepticssociety(at)skeptic.com More
- Harry Houdini (1874 – 1926) Magician, psychic debunker.
- Martin Gardner (1914 – 2010) Popular math and science writer.
- Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992) Biochemist, professor, science fiction and science author.
- Paul Kurtz (1925 – 2012) Philosopher, professor, author, organizational founder.
- James Randi (1928 – ) Magician, investigator, author, organizational founder.
- Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996) Astronomer, astrophysicist, author.
- Richard Dawkins (1941 – ) Evolutionary biologist, professor, author.
- Stephen Jay Gould (1941 – 2002) Paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, science historian, author.
- Elizabeth Loftus (1944- ) Cognitive psychologist, world-renowned expert on human memory.
- Joe Nickell (1944 - ) Paranormal investigator, author.
- Carol Tavris (1944 – ) Social psychologist, author.
- Eugenie Scott (1945- ) Physical anthropologist, Director of National Center for Science Education.
- Lawrence Krauss (1954- ) Theoretical physicist, cosmologist, professor, author.
- Michael Shermer (1954 – ) Science writer, organizational founder, editor of Skeptic magazine.
- Steven Novella (1964 – ) Clinical neurologist, writer, editor.
- Brian Dunning (1965 – ) Science writer, video and podcast producer.
- Richard Saunders (1965 – ) Science educator, video and podcast producer.
- Richard Wiseman (1966 – ) Psychologist, popular science author, paranormal investigator.
- Christopher French (?- ) Professor, anomalous psychology researcher, editor-in-chief of The Skeptic (U.K.).
- Benjamin Radford (1970- ) Paranormal investigator, author, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer.
- Derren Brown (1971 – ) Illusionist, mentalist, TV personality.
- Tim Minchin (1975- ) Comedian, actor, musician.
What is Skepticism? Brian Dunning
What Is Skepticism, Anyway? Michael Shermer, 2013
Why Is There a Skeptical Movement? Daniel Loxton, 2013
Bigfoot Skeptics, New Atheists, Politics and Religion Steven Novella, 2013
The New Skepticism, Paul Kurtz, Prometheus Books, 1992
Eric Weiss from Skepticsonthe.net, David Bloomberg, Kylie Sturgess, Torkel Ødegård, Barbara Drescher, Robert Blaskiewicz, Massimo Pigliucci, Chris French, Adriana Heguy, Daniel Loxton, Eve Siebert, Eddie Scott, Daniel Loxton, Howard Lewis, Iain Martel, Tiffany Taylor, Terry O’Connor, Stephan Naro, Paul Wilkins, Richard Saunders.
Permission to reprint is granted as long as the following attribution is given: By DoubtfulNews.com, 2013
People who don’t like the rules of science because their ideas don’t get a free pass would do well to heed advice we gamers learned long ago: Before you complain that the rules are broken and try to change them, make sure you know and understand them — otherwise you’re wasting everyone’s time, including your own, and your ideas will come no closer to being accepted.
The rules of science, methods, standards of evidence, process, and so on are the way they are because they work. They’re not perfect, not infallible, and certainly not timeless and absolute, but they’re the best available given the practical realities of gaining knowledge in a changing world, and they’re getting better as science evolves.
Why not perfect?
Because the history of science has shown the futility of the Cartesian quest for certainty in our understanding of nature.
You cannot rule out or eliminate unforeseen data rearing its head and showing a beautiful hypothesis mistaken; you cannot rule out a new discovery calling a long-established idea into question.
You cannot trust nature to abide by human notions of sense and sensibility when the experience of human beings for much of our history has been limited to a tight portion of the visual spectrum, a narrow auditory range, a lifespan of decades at best, and a physical scale limiting our unassisted interaction with things very much smaller and things very much larger than we.
The problem with Cartesian certainty is that it aims too high, aspiring to a standard of knowledge that cannot possibly be met, and so leading to the erroneous conclusion that we cannot know anything for not knowing everything absolutely.
This inevitably leads, as it has, to the sort of nihilistic total skepticism that claims all knowledge is impossible. But if that’s true, how can we know
even that to be the case? After all, the statement “all knowledge is impossible” is itself a claim to knowledge…
Modern science has abandoned the need for total certainty, biting the bullet and aiming lower for more reasonably reliable, and better still, effective knowledge that allows practical applications.
Thus, science operates by the rules it
uses, rules which allow it to work, to make progress in our understanding, however imperfect those rules and their end results may be, no matter how messy and error-ridden, they do what they are meant to do: To tell us when we are wrong so that we may pick up the pieces, put our ideas in better order than before, and move on having learned something new.
No other claimed way of knowing has this trait. No other means of obtaining knowledge has any way of telling its practitioners when they err so that they may correct those errors and come to better conclusions; only the methods and tools of objective empirical inquiry allow this.
And it is the process of science, determined by its rules, by its philosophical underpinnings, its concepts and methods, that make this possible. Science cannot justify itself on any ultimate grounding of first principles, but then, it doesn’t need to. Science aims for what it can reach and no further, though always striving to stretch those limits with each grasp at the boundaries of knowledge.
Like a well-designed role-playing game, science abides by its rules and guidelines, correcting and amending them when these need fixing in a process of evolving methods and concepts working from the bottom up, any changes made by those who understand well the rules and guidelines in spirit as well as letter.
The rules of science are its instructions for getting generally reliable, testable and tested results, not absolute logical proofs. That last has no place in science.
To work, science must be played by whatever the rules are at any time, and its results are measured by those standards, but the rules do not need to abide by themselves.
In science, ultimate justification on first principles is completely unnecessary and in any event, a hopeless chimera.
All we need is a road to our destination, however that road may wind and turn, however uneven the pavement, and a way to travel there.
As one who values critical thinking, however spotty I sometimes am about it, there is a time for discussing it, and a time not for that as well. As both an atheist and a skeptic, most of the time I don’t care about any given position on the god-question, or my current positions on some questionable claims of alleged scientific fact.
Most of these claims don’t directly impact me, nor do their implications, those depending on the nature and consequences of the claim, and I don’t waste much thought on how much I do or don’t believe them, especially the claims of religion and of pseudoscience.
I just don’t care unless specifically looking up arguments online or in a book, to analyze or deconstruct. I rarely think of certain topics unless someone thinks to mention it or it’s part of a research project, like reading up on Indian religious philosophies and mythologies.
I can see how theists and paranormalists often suppose that we nonbelievers are just as concerned about the same topics as they. It’s easy and common to project one’s own attitude onto others, to think that other believers and nonbelievers are just as concerned about it as yourself.
When I once believed in a god, and in the paranormal, the seeming reality of the both made a big impression on my daily consciousness, so much that scarcely an hour went by without my thoughts turning to them.
But as a nonbeliever, that’s no longer the case, and atheism aside, I rarely wear my skeptic hat either unless posting on this blog, or the occasional scientific claim is brought up in a live discussion with others.
By scientific, here I mean any testable claim about reality with a knowable answer, not just the claims investigated by lab-coated academics looking very wise and thoughtful while tweaking their instruments carefully. It does one little good to obsess about how much one doubts certain claims, so I don’t do it much.
Here’s an example:
After much pondering and thoughtful consideration, I’ve decided that I’m an aUnicronist — I lack belief in planet-sized, world-eating monstrosities that transform into gigantic robotic humanoids….just as I lack belief in leprechauns, pixies, unicorns, and untold trillions of other things I can’t believe to be or not be because I’ve never even heard of them.
Being an aUnicronist has absolutely no impact on my life, and I tend not to give it much thought, though the subject matter does make for cool toys and passable 1980s animated feature films. I don’t have to believe it’s real to enjoy it.
Fantasy and fiction have real value even to nonbelievers.
Science is not the only part of my reality-equation, of course — All areas of human endeavor are — Science just happens to be the most rigorous and effective way of thinking we have of reliably gaining knowledge of things natural and human.
Science can say nothing of anything not part of nature, not part of the knowable, though its general methods of inquiry can very nicely apply to normative as well as descriptive human claims.
I’ll change my position on the existence or lack thereof of gods and paranormal forces when presented with credible evidence to soundly support my accepting them as real, and no sooner. Right now, I’ve simply no reason to, but someday some such reason may perhaps make itself apparent. I don’t know yet.
When it does, then it does. And only then. The burden of proof lies as always with the one making the claims, and only through meeting that burden will the reasons be not proven, not proven absolutely, but justified enough to make me to change my mind. Absolute proof is too tall an order for me.
Either way, things should be interesting.
I’ve decided to tweak this blog’s look for 2013, updating the background image and header text color with something just a bit less garish than previously, and I may do this again within the week to get things just right, and not too dark or bright for the skeptical scrutiny of browsing eyes.
During the past year, one of the biggest single referrers for links and steely gazes cast on this blog was the James Randi Educational Foundation for a video post on a talk that Steven Novella gave at TAM 6, so many thanks, JREF. The other referrers were social networking sites, including Twitter and Facebook, and thanks go out to all those who’ve shared or tweeted this blog’s content in 2012 — This blog couldn’t have been as active as it has without that. Also much appreciated was referrals to this site by my fellow bloggers from their own sites, and the discussions with them via comment threads both here and elsewhere online.
Strictures on commenting have been relaxed a bit, but nota bene the warning in the prompt just above the commenting box — attempting to promote your propaganda or advertise for your latest bestseller or porn site will not be tolerated — there are plenty of other places online to do that besides this blog. Free speech must be tempered with responsibility and honesty, not corrupted by bullshit.
I’m open to suggestions by any of this blog’s readers on good skeptical and sciencey topics for posting this year, and any ideas that may be used to make this site a tad more appealing in layout and artwork. I’m going to be reducing my posting of strictly atheist material, and focus instead on those areas and matters where it converges with science and skepticism.
For those of you new to this blog, be informed that this site is biased — it is unequivocally biased in favor of science and I fully support a scientific consensus unless and until it is shown wrong by the same process of evidence and thinking that led to it. — it will do no good to try debunking science by arguing from a religious, political, economic, or other ideological position, since that just shows a profound failure to understand the scientific process — again with attempts to promote your agenda in the guise of free speech.
On this I agree with Grumpy Cat.
Have a wonderful remaining Tuesday, and a very happy New Year. I know what my resolutions are for this year, and may all of you fulfill yours in the months to come! Thank you for your participation in this blog’s online community.
This week, my family was able to see The Hobbit on Christmas Eve, or this Newtonmas, or Festivus, or Saturnalia, or Yule, or whatever else your favorite holiday this year would be… The kitties are doing well, and I’ve been poking around a bit online for tidbits of information, like research on the ancient Indian Gupta empire and its leading intellectual achievers, particularly the astronomer and mathematician Aryabhata, who is said to have invented the concept of zero and hypothesized that the Earth went around the Sun. Here’s hoping that you are all snug and warm, with lots of cool things to do. ^(;,,;)^
- Merry Newtonmas, My Awesome Peeps
- The Ubiquity of Belief: On the Outside, Looking In — A Skeptic’s Perspective
- Pale Blue Dot — Animation
- Coalition Building for the Skeptical Activist — TAM 2012
- The Face of Creation — Higgs remix
- Post Hoc Reasoning, Special Pleading and Ad Hoc Hypotheses
- Fractals of the Week: Mad, Mad Mandelbulbs for the Call’s 4th Bloggoversary
- Review of New CPAP Mask
- Follow @IndigenousX – 10K Followers in 5 Days for a Donation to the Indigenous Literacy Fund
- OBLIGATORY END OF THE YEAR LIST!
——————–Sciencey Gnuz & Lynx——————–
- Video: Are You a Psychopath? Take the Test …If you have to ask, the answer might not be pretty.
- Investigators fear Big Cats could be dying out in Scotland See the immediately following link too.
- Tetrapod Zoology: British big cats — How good, or bad, is the evidence?
- Remembering Ramanujan: India Celebrates its Famous Mathematical Son
- The Top 10 Science Stories of 2012
- The Poisoned Debates Between Science, Politics, & Religion This got my attention.
- Amazing Photos of Florida Panther and Cubs Bring a Bright Spot to a Deadly Year Yes, moar kittehs!
- Top five retracted science stories of 2012 For a change, I’d like to see the the top five retracted ideological claims!
——————–Strange Gnuz & Lynx——————–
- Man Takes all Day to Create Massive Snow Patterns Yes, human artists can make patterns this complex, no need for aliens or ‘snowing devils’. Beautiful work these are.
- Total Hooey: The Strangest Non-Stories of 2012
- Mountains of Madness: Scientists Poised to Drill Through Antarctic Ice and Into Gothic Horror
- Jury Awards 100 Million in Wrongful Death Suit to Parents of Misty Horner What’s the Harm? This is. Nuff said.
- Psychic Predictions for 2013 Watch all of the reasonably specific ones fail, just like this year’s.
- Britain is well-prepared to fight an apocalyptic zombie invasion Cool!
- PSYCHIC FAIL: The 2012 predictions that just never happened
- 4th Narconon Closure: Scientology Rehabs Collapsing This surprises me not. Scientology’s had this coming for a while.
- 120,423 steely gazes cast,
- 1667 comments approved,
- 1940 posts published, including this one,
- 179 WordPress subscribers,
- 1887 Twitter fellows,
- 13 on Facebook,
- 213 Tumblr fellows,
Lawrence Krauss: Our Godless Universe is Precious
- Indian math genius Ramanujan’s theory finally proved right (firstpost.com)