The Three Faces of Skepticism


hedron1 copyRather 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.

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Extraordinary Claims: What makes them that way?


Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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:

[1] 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.

[2] 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

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A Lapse in Due Skepticism


Yesterday, on FB, I shared an item in my timeline, without reading it in detail, and without further thought

www.snopes.com

http://www.snopes.com (Photo credit: biggraham)

— 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.

A.

Fricking.

Chain email.

This item going around is a hoax, and I fell for it. I’ll admit being fooled before.

A.

Hoax.

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*

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[Review] Think: Why You Should Question Everything; by Guy P. Harrison


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.

(Last Update: 2013/12/10, 01:28 AM — Text Correction)

Why I get my science from scientists and not #FauxNews…


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.

Media Guide to Skepticism | Modern Skepticism Made Clear


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.

Skeptical Resources

Here are the best means to connect to the people and ideas of scientific skepticism.

SOTN

The directory for all things skeptical online

Organizations

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.

Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI)

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

James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF)

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

The Skeptics Society 

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

Publications

Famous Skeptics

  • 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.

References

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

Acknowledgements

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

The Letter and Spirit of the Rules (Updated)


Knowledge

Knowledge (Photo credit: Mister Norris)

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

La bildo estas kopiita de wikipedia:es. La ori...

La bildo estas kopiita de wikipedia:es. La originala priskribo estas: Dados típicos de 4, 6, 8, 10, 12 y 20 caras (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.