Friendships with skeptics (by Mojo)

Recently, in the course of a heated debate about science and evolutionary biology a “friend” let slip some of his true feelings about me (Mojo) and my atheism/skepticism.  In his defence, he was upset and may not have known what exactly he was saying, but as you may have already guessed, I no longer consider this person a friend as I once did.

Chances are, if you read this blog, you are a skeptic or critical thinker and you may even be an atheist.  If this is the case, you may do well to remember this article as a bit of a warning.  If you are not a skeptic but have friends that are, maybe this article will help enlighten you to what it is like for them and perhaps increase your tolerance to their way of life.  Either way, this is purely a cathartic experience for me to get a few things off my chest.

1.  We skeptics cannot pretend to be fence-sitters for your sake.  Keep this in mind when you broach “controversial” topics like evolution, UFOs or alternative medicines.  It would be a lie to everyone involved if skeptics simply shrugged away catagorically wrong statements of fact as if they didn’t care.  If you’re not prepared to go all-in with these types of discussions, don’t bring it up.

2.  Try to ignore your personal feelings when discussing science.  If you are going to discuss these things and don’t like being told that you’re wrong, again, back away slowly.  A skeptic usually doesn’t treat any topic as a sacred cow.  If you are personally invested in this topic for any reason, you should remember that as a scientist, your skeptic friend will debate the topic… not you.  If he/she discounts your claim as false, try to keep it there and don’t take it as a personal attack.

3.  Not everything is a matter of opinion.  Very often, people who realize they have inadvertently opened a proverbial can of worms that is a skeptical debate will attempt to end the conversation with statements like, “That’s just my opinion” or “Well that’s just what I beleive”.  We have all learned from a very young age that most people will not challenge beliefs and opinions because everyone is entitled to their own.  Matters of science and the nature of reality however, are not matters of opinion.  Skeptics MUST have evidence to say something is real or not.  We have a hard time understanding how people can turn statements like “Big foot is real” into a matter of opinion.  As such, don’t expect to get off the hook that easily with a skeptic.  In all likliehood, a skeptic will brush that comment aside and get back to the topic at hand.


Check It! Bigfoot Special

Bigfoot, as imagined by a Canadian artist.

Image via Wikipedia

Hey, guys. Tonight’s installment concerns that well-known and suspiciously elusive cryptid of worldwide fame and folklore, and a classic skeptical topic that by rights should have been long debunked since the 1970s, the inspiration for the title character of Harry and the Hendersons, as well as that for the Marvel Comics character Sasquatch, the critter also known as the Yeti, the Yowie, the Almasty, the Mapinguari, and a certain snow man of the Himalayas, like the title of that hideous little abortion of a movie…Abominable.

Aside from the fact that this furry critter has been the subject of recent hoaxes, and failed expeditions to capture or study it, it still has an enthusiastic following, with Bigfoot ‘research’ groups around the country disavowing each other and promoting themselves as ‘the real deal.’ Well, as amusing as rambling on like this can be for my troythuluness, I’ll get to the point now and just present the links and URLs…enjoy.

  • …a blog post on the above on, of course, with Loren Coleman trying to save face from the whole embarrassing episode…
  • …a link to the Bigfoot Field Researcher’s Organization site, at claiming exclusive scientific legitimacy for itself…

Accepting “I Don’t Know” As An Answer

There is something that all of us do if we aren’t careful, mostly stemming from a deep discomfort of not having an immediate explanation or answer to something we want to know, but don’t–the argument from ignorance–a fallacy of thought by which we draw a conclusion not from data, but from a lack of data, from what we don’t know, a conclusion which more often than not turns out to be false when properly investigated.

One of the first things I had to learn as a skeptic was a tolerance for ambiguity, habits of thought by which I could say to myself “It’s okay to not have an answer for such-and-such a question right now.” It’s perfectly fine to say, “I don’t know…yet.”

There’s a great many people who are just terrified by the thought of not knowing everything with conclusive surety, even when that conclusiveness is wrong. So many people go to great lengths to convince themselves that they do, in fact, know what that strange light in the sky is, or what that creaking noise in the house late at night is, when they really don’t.

This is particularly true of those with a tendency to claim a event as being impossible to explain by natural or normal causes, and thus dismissing such causes prematurely, especially that dual bugaboo of paranormal and fringe-science advocates, coincidence and statistical noise.

A common argument is stated something like “X is so unlikely as to not possibly be due to the laws of chance(or nature)!”(read; the claimant’s understanding of those laws). In fact, it would be even more improbable that unusual coincidences don’t occur as often as they do, in accordance with the Law of Truly Large Numbers. For example, in a city of say, ten million people, one should by chance alone expect ten 1-in-1,000,000 coincidences to happen each day.

This and other seemingly counterintuitive results of statistics are well within the bounds of the laws of chance, with no need to invoke anything paranormal. Not yet.

Statistical correlation does not by necessity imply causation, nor scientific importance. For example, if I wanted to and was willing to juggle the numbers, I could draw a correlation between someone’s eye color and their IQ, but there would be no causative or scientific significance to it.

Yes, it’s tempting to think you have all the answers at your fingertips, but the I think that the best knowledge anybody can have is an awareness of their own ignorance and the admission that they, like anyone else, can be mistaken in their conclusions when shown evidence to that effect.

In my experience, I haven’t noticed any tendency to jump to conclusions in lieu of evidence in the more seasoned and better-known skeptics, though I have found it among some novice skeptics and many of the paranormalists I’ve met.

It’s the same whether we try to definitively explain a strange light in the moors as either a ghost or as swamp-gas without enough information–we are committing the same error either way.

Probabilistic, uncertain thinking and a tolerance for it can be difficult at first, but it gets easier with time and practice, becoming second nature. One can only learn when no longer convinced that one already knows without sound reason to think so. It’s how good science is done.

A wise man knows his own ignorance, while a fool knows everything.