Rather than go into a single definition of what modern skepticism is, already done in great detail here by Sharon Hill, I’d like to discuss those aspects, those faces, that make it up.
What are those faces of skepticism? There are three of them, and they are…
One: skepticism is a set of values, both intellectual and ethical: Skepticism favors intellectual honesty, sincerity, integrity, and a high value on the truth of whatever matter we look into. We have little patience with those who deceive, save those ‘honest liars,’ professional conjurors who are forthright about their trade. To skeptics, those who defraud, harm, or control others are fair game for skeptical scrutiny and critiquing. In my view, innocent believers are deserving of compassion. It’s the willing deceivers who exploit them who bear the brunt of our attention and our ire. Skepticism accepts and respects the limits of human perception, understanding and reasoning. It tells us that “I don’t know,” is a better answer to a question than an answer that isn’t even worthy of being wrong. If a skeptic is in error or is knowingly dishonest, he will be corrected or exposed by others who are not. Whatever your personal inclinations, if you are not honest in your work, other skeptics will be, and you will be found out.
Two: Skepticism is a set of methods, a way of evaluating arguments and evidence to determine the likely truth-status of claims. These are the methods of science, empiricism, and rational inquiry. Skepticism lets us know when someone’s trying to put us on, or putting others on, and that’s the first step to exposing them. Skepticism lets us distinguish sound claims from unsound and good argument from bad. It lets us know, when we are careful, when our prejudices are being pandered to, giving us the first line of defense against fraud and chicanery. These methods assume scientific literacy, scientific thinking, and an understanding of how we deceive ourselves and others through biases and motivated reasoning.
Three: The values and methods of skepticism assume a particular approach to reality. It assumes that there is such a thing as truth. It assumes the world is comprehensible and that it is possible to tell truth from falsehood. Moreover, it assumes that the world is real, regardless of the nature of that reality, it exists, and must for anything at all to be meaningfully true, false, or even possible. It assumes that the methods of science, empiricism, and rational inquiry are valid, useful, and powerful ways of knowing reality. It assumes in its methods that solid, reliable and effective ways of knowing are preferable to those that not only lead to error, but are neither self-correcting nor concerned with the actual truth of a matter. While it doesn’t necessarily assume philosophical naturalism, it does assume naturalistic methods, and so eschews resorting to unobservable or unfalsifiable ‘explanations’ for phenomena. But it has no trouble investigating anything that is knowably real and open to objective inquiry.
These are the three faces, the three aspects, of skepticism, and together they form the core of my understanding of the modern skeptical enterprise as a whole.
Skepticism concerns itself with extraordinary claims, but hardly just the obviously weird ones…
Unlike topic areas such as overt pseudoscience or the paranormal, more conventional claims count as extraordinary merely by being important and contestible — and there are few claims which cannot be important or contested in the right context. There is also the matter of how much a claim requires us to overturn what we already know if we accept it.
Note that the mere illusion of knowledge, in the form of pre-determined conclusions, fed by ideology, emotion, confirmation bias and rationalizations doesn’t count here.
What we need is a particular degree of evidence. Abstract philosophical argument alone with counterfactual ‘maybes’ and ‘possiblys’ are of no help to us here. This is why debates over the existence of a God or Gods are still raging even after thousands of years, strongly argued by both theists and religious skeptics.
To switch gears a bit, since this is not an antitheism blog…
Take a murder trial. This is hardly trivial given the usual penalties to the defendant if convicted, and even without ‘weird things’ involved it’s every bit as extraordinary as the most bizarre alleged haunting, alien abduction claim, or cryptid sighting. We know murders happen. What is contested here is the innocence or guilt of the defendant.
Rarely does this involve claims of improbable phenomena unknown to science…a body, a weapon, opportunity,a plausible motive and compelling case by the prosecution are usually all that’s needed.
The penalty for murder needs high standards of evidence to get a conviction…to back it up in court and make the conviction stick, after all. A conviction could mean the defendant’s very life in some jurisdictions. We’re not talking about being caught nicking candy from the convenience store.
Even a seemingly innocent claim such as ‘the sky is blue’ could require some evidence, especially when told this only seconds after just hearing of a local tornado warning — if the sky’s actually turning green, credulity could be dangerous as the wind picks up before getting to shelter, but one need only a look at the current weather alerts from safety using whatever device is at hand.
So nearly any claim can be extraordinary depending on the right context, and this depends on two major factors, sometimes in combination:
 The importance of the claim: What is at stake if we uncritically accept it, jumping to an unwarranted conclusion with serious consequences? If the claim is true, then there must be evidence strong enough to support it and once that’s in, we’d be wise to heed it. Reality’s a bastitch when spurned, and doesn’t care about your politics, your religion, or what you had for breakfast before updating your Facebook status. If the claim is false, on the other hand, we need to know so that no one wastes time, money, or risks their health or lives pursuing the claim as though it were true. Properly evaluating the evidence will show this. Again, reality doesn’t give a hoot what you believe, silly relativist arguments about the impossibility of objective reality or truth aside.
 The unusual or strange nature of the claim: This mostly applies to claims of ‘weird things’ but also for rare mundane phenomena, which can seem weird to those unfamiliar with them. Does there seem to be no explanation for the claim immediately on hand? Does the claim require that to accept it, we overturn much or even all of modern science to explain it? Given that, let’s face it, “Science, it works, bitches,”* we use science as the gold standard for factual knowledge even while publicly denouncing it. We cannot just accept or reject a claim unless we’ve given it a fair hearing, and that’s where science steps in. We examine the reasoning and the initial evidence, especially the scientific evidence for it. If it doesn’t pass muster, we are right to reject it as improbable or baseless in fact until shown otherwise, or sometimes as impossible. The latter, though, should be done with care.
*attributed to Richard Dawkins
And both of the above can apply to claims in which there is a legitimate controversy, not one manufactured by the media, zealots, or ideologues intent on undermining the science they don’t like. In any case, importance, consequences, and the plausibility of a claim at the time can make even seemingly trivial ones extraordinary…
…context and the stakes raised by the claim are deciding factors here.
“What may be asserted without evidence may be dismissed without evidence.”
~ Christopher Hitchens
Yesterday, on FB, I shared an item in my timeline, without reading it in detail, and without further thought
– without being skeptical.
Yes, my skepto-meter was broken yesterday.
It was a chain email about Holocaust denialism, and an alleged Holocaust Teaching Ban in Britain.
This item going around is a hoax, and I fell for it. I’ll admit being fooled before.
One of my dear friends, and a damn good skeptic posted the Snopes link above in the comments to the item, alerting me to my lapse.
I then took down the post. I don’t claim to be particularly rational, but this was a good reason we skeptics need to look out for each other as well as be constantly vigilant for ourselves, especially about things that ‘push our buttons.’
We can’t just assume that whatever is posted has been fact-checked beforehand, and we have to be careful of things that play to our individual quirks, weaknesses, our biases and prejudices.
Lesson learned. Now to get on with life. *sigh*
I’ve just read this book, the newest release by one of my favorite authors, and it played a major role in my latest milestone as a skeptic, the third one thus far. The first two were the collapse of my early religious indoctrination as a teen and my personal ‘genesis’ as a self-identified skeptic in 2006. I hope it doesn’t seem too much like I’m uncritically gushing over the book, but I’ll point out here that I’ve no financial vested interest in this — I don’t get any financial compensation for posting this. It is merely to set the stage for this blog’s upcoming 5th anniversary giveaway. I’ll also point out that the book discussed here has only very recently been released, and I’ve noticed a few typos, in common with other early-edition books I’ve read, though this does not detract from its readability, as these are easily noted, accounted for, and may be ignored. ~Troythulu
In Think, Why You Should Question Everything, Guy puts forth a compelling case for skepticism over credulity, scientific thinking over superstition.
In Chapter 1, Standing Tall on a Fantasy-Prone Planet, Harrison sets the groundwork for the book, on the value of scientific thinking, what skepticism is, why it matters, the need for taking responsibility for one’s own mind, and the wonders to be found in the real world even while still enjoying fantasy and fiction, and just as crucially, the use of a healthy approach to belief and believers, with a non-adversarial attitude toward the latter. He notes in this chapter that even the smartest of us can be prone to conviction in the most questionable claims, and the importance of vigilance in skeptical thinking.
Chapter 2, Pay A Visit to the Strange Thing That Lives Inside Your Head, discusses the biases and flaws in the everyday workings of even the most normal and healthy brains, in such things as the notorious fallibility of human memory, biases in our thinking, and perceptual quirks that can so easilly mislead even the best, sanest, and most intelligent of us, with a cautionary story of weak skepticism, The Tale of Little Gretchen Greengums, showing how even seemingly harmless credulity can vastly impact our lives in less than favorable ways.
Chapter 3, A Thinker’s Guide to Unusual Claims and Weird Beliefs, surveys a variety of extraordinary claims, such things as conspiracy theories, astrology, psychics, the Roswell UFO crash, miracles, Area 51, the Bermuda Triangle and other assorted oddities.
Chapter 4, The Proper Care and Feeding of a Thinking Machine, deals with ordinary means of maintaining good brain health, including healthy sleep habits, eating well, the most consistently reliable favor for your brain, regular exercise, and my favorite: reading as much as one can during the waking hours. The upshot? It’s your brain, and yours only — use it or lose it!
Chapter 5, So Little to Lose and a Universe to Gain, discusses the upside of all this fuss over one’s thinking; the wonders of reality to be gained, the benefits of clear, reliable thinking, and the things possible with thinking rooted in a firm grasp of what can really be known. Skepticism doesn’t have to be scary, and can indeed be empowering and liberating to those who embrace it.
Think is in my view one of the best guides to clear, reliable thinking that I’ve read in a while, and I’ve seen a few. Like some of Harrison’s earlier books, 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God, 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think are True, and 50 Simple Questions for Every Christian, this is a very user-friendly book, in the dual sense of being easy to read without its being dumbed down and its non-antagonistic approach to readers who may not be familiar with scientific skepticism both as a method for thinking and system of intellectual values.
I’d recommend this book for both good skeptics seeking to be better skeptics, and for current believers in the paranormal or supernatural curious about and interested in sharpening their ability to inquire into unusual and important claims without being bamboozled and parted from their money, political enfranchisement, or their health by con artists.
Skeptical thinking here is shown not as a destination, not a certain conclusion, but as a journey toward something ever closer to how things really can be known, as close as we can rightly say we do know without absolute or timeless Truths™. It’s a journey lasting a lifetime for each of us in a limited human timeframe, and throughout the whole of human inquiry over the centuries.
It’s something, both as a way of thinking, and as method of seeking answers, I find more useful and more satisfying than a need for false certainty, a need that too easily leads to mistaken conclusions, a sometimes dangerous need fostered by the media, popular culture, and charlatans or ideologues of all persuasions.
Think shows how to do so more reliably using methods tested by collective human experience over history.
Why a stronger, more consistent skepticism rather than the weak sort?
Weak skepticism can do more than just part the hapless victim from their money or their vote, it can also prolong grief over the loss of a loved one, and in the case of medical quackery, even kill. Weak skepticism is heavily promoted by despots, ideologues of all stripes, clergy, and people promising the latest magic snake-oil panacea for whatever ails you.
Even having identified as a skeptic these past seven years, I’ve found things here that I hadn’t considered, things new to me, and I recommend this book as something to come back to time and again.
- Michael Shermer Tells Elon Students to be Skeptical (jessicamiano.wordpress.com)
- Chopra Shoots at Skepticism and Misses (theness.com)
- About Thinking (richarddawkins.net)
- A Rational Skeptic’s Manifesto (atheistrev.com)
- Confronting the World’s Great Unrecognized Crisis (psychologytoday.com)
- Michael Shermer (emilyrihm.wordpress.com)
- Is Science Broken?|Steven Novella|Neurologica (theness.com)
(Last Update: 2013/12/10, 01:28 AM — Text Correction)
I feel up to blogging for this morning, and during this day and the next I’ll be reading up on SF approaches to zero-point energy production for a friend of mine, which should be fun.
*waves at @Ravenpenny*
Especially important in looking into zero-point energy is avoiding any use of blatant pseudoscience from so called “free energy” machine sellers…
Rubber science is acceptable within the context of fiction, implausible technological quackery is NOT!
So far, I’ve got two reference pages out of five candidates in separate browser tags. The other three candidate pages are all crank sites, with obvious red flags. I won’t sully my reputation, such as that is as a relative no-name in the skeptical community, by using those last as sources.
This raises a question…
Out of the arguments of both proponents and critics of any claim, how do I decide which claimant is more credible?
There are a set of steps I use that make for a useful start of any inquiry, and I’ll put these into three groups of related questions:
- First: Which side in a given controversy, genuine or manufactroversy, commits the fewest logical fallacies? Which side has the most valid or cogent arguments and makes the fewest errors in reasoning? Once these are compared and an answer obtained, I then choose the side with the best arguments and go to step two. Remember though, to take care to see fallacious arguments that are actually there, and not the result of wishful seeing. And so…
- Secondly: Which side has the better factual support for their claims. Do their respective claims add up under adequate fact-checking using reliable sources? Do credible sources support or reject the claims made? Which sources have the better track-record and reputation as a valid and reliable? Next…
- Thirdly: Related to the second, but worth it’s own step: Which factual statements, when checked, even if and when true, are actually relevant to the claims and counterclaims made? Does the alleged factual support of a given claim actually have anything to do with it?
These three points are a basic rundown of the steps I use.
Answering these questions on science and science-relevant news are one reason I tend to support climate scientists over so-called climate sceptics, and professional biologists over the various species of creationists found online and in religion and politics.
They are the reason that I tend to give more credence to the statements of astronomers than I do astrologers, Physicists and psychologists more than psychic claimants, chemists over alchemists, and neuroscientists over phrenologists.
These questions are the reasons I don’t get my science from clergymen, religious apologists, allegedly fair and balanced media outlets, politicians or radio talk-show propagandists.
Those are not what I would call credible sources.
I get my science from scientists, and science-writers with a real background in the field, thank you, not preachers, partisan bloggers, or people who loudly decry government and taxation while also running for public office so they can get paid a rather handsome salary, with kickbacks and bribes paid by lobbyists, otherwise funded by my taxes.
- Top 10 Fallacies of Internet Trolls (americanlivewire.com)
- Conservative media’s attacks on climate science effectively erode viewers’ belief in scientists (rawstory.com)
- 2013 SkS Weekly News Roundup #32A (skepticalscience.com)
- The Appeal to Authority (ethicalrealism.wordpress.com)
- The Prodigy Effect (ketyov.com)
- 5 Ways Right-Wing Media Make Their Fans Fear Science (alternet.org)
- Anti-science arguments: How do we respond? (newanthropocene.wordpress.com)
- Moving science communication beyond the standard argument (nrelscience.org)