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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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)

Thoughts on this blog’s future…


Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time offline, studying, reading, watching lectures of my digital media courses, and next month, taking an online course for the first time. Yay me.

…and there was much rejoicing…*huzzah*

This means less time for social media, little regular time for posting on this blog and it’s sister sites, and less posting of what have been regular features here, well, at least not regularly. Plus, there’s occasional blogger’s block.

I’d blog more often, and regularly, but I’m far too distractible, and learning is really, really important. There’s a lot that didn’t get covered in my early years that needs catching up on and surpassing now, general and more specialized topics, matters of things that require study to learn and master.

Blogging is still enjoyable, mostly, though I’ve been sorely tempted toward burnout at times. There was the deletion in March of 2011 of the blog =^Skeptic Cat^=, and this year, the shutdown of the Left Hemispheres blog and podcast, and current blogging hiatus on Krissthesexyatheist.

The skeptical and atheist communities have for some time had quite a bit of drama, and I refuse to get involved. I know people on all sides, and the bickering back-and-forth just makes me angry. It’s something I’ve so far managed to evade and is a diversion I want nothing to do with. Angry doesn’t suit me. Just read what I’ve posted when angry. This is not my fight. I’m not qualified to get involved.

So far, this blog’s subtitle is Fractals, Skepticism & Things that Interest Me, though I’m thinking about the future direction of this blog and what I’d like to do with it. In the meantime, here’s a bit of something worth a ‘Squee!’ or two.

To close this out,

No, I’m not worried about organized skepticism: Even with the drama going on, it’s doing just fine. It’ll be around for longer than many people think — this isn’t the first, last or only internal conflict for organized rationalism. Even in a world hell-bent on lunacy, it’s rationalism that’s making headway, with setbacks, yes, but also with victories, and I’ve been silent witness to a few, even as a relative no-name in the community.

This blog will continue for the time being, and I’ll post whenever there’s cool stuff that makes me go ‘ding.’ The support that you all have offered over these nearly five years has been a tremendous boon.

So thank you all, and…

Talotaa frang. (Be strong, be well.)

I am NOT disappoint.


Well, I finally got around to signing up for class in the fall, the course lasting the beginning until the end of September and taking place online. I’ve also picked out new DVD courses to take on various subjects as well, including communications skills and conflict management, to help with my horrid people skills.

I’m making progress on my revisiting of an older course on argumentation, as I’ve written on here, and coming along nicely on drafting and finalizing my study notes on that and others. A lot of what I’m taking are college level introductory courses and a lot of remedial ones as well.

I’m reading a book by Tom Gilovich — How We Know What Isn’t So: the fallibility of human reason in everyday life — which is proving quite a good discussion of errors in reasoning so as to more easily note and correct them when they occur; not so much irrationality, but flawed rationality that even the most skeptical of us can fall prey to.

*raises hand*

The family and cats are doing well and I’ve lately been fooling around with making audio tracks, intro music for a possible future podcast series or segment.

I’ve no reason at all to complain or berate myself. Coming up later this evening will be part 4 of my current ongoing fiction serial. May you all have a fantastic Friday and a weekend with much awesomositude.

Talotaa frang.

Aye, Skeptic


Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa...

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Seriously.

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.

Skeptic (U.S. magazine)

Skeptic (U.S. magazine) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Post Hoc Reasoning, Special Pleading, and Ad Hoc Hypotheses


The powers of the paranormal, if they exist, cannot be very great if they are so easily thwarted by mere doubt. It seems as though, in the world of supernatural claims, doubt is the strongest magic of all. It can cancel anything, except science, which actually needs it to work. At least, this is the impression I get from the claims of paranormal believers when attempts to replicate initially successful parapsychology studies fail. And fail they have once the controls of the initial study are improved, reducing statistical significance closer to chance levels and shrinking effect-size to zero.

It seems to me that even with perfect methodology there would still be a chance for false-positive results, and that what these studies show is not what they are claimed to — only that something other than chance may be at work, and giving no indication of what that may actually be. It could be due to poor experimental design, inappropriate use of statistics, errors in reasoning, bad data collection, and rarely, but often enough to taint the entire field of study, fraud.

One thing never fails, though, and that’s the rationalizations offered for this failure to replicate. This post deals with a species of error in reasoning: Special Pleading, the Post Hoc [after this, or “after the fact”]fallacy, or Ad Hoc [for this (only)]hypothesis, and sometimes just “covering your ass by making shit up.” I also aim to show that it is not always a fallacy under the right circumstances.

This fallacy, regardless of its name, is an attempt to rescue a claim from disproof by inventing special reasons why it should be exempt from the usual standards of evidence, to deflect criticism without demonstrating that these alleged reasons are in fact true or actually exist apart from the claim they attempt to defend. Every attempt has been made to boil the following examples of its use down to their essence and to avoid committing straw-persons:

Psi phenomena are shy, or jealous. They do not work in the presence of skeptics. Skeptical doubt cancels them.

What about this one?

Successful replications do occur, but the doubt of skeptics reading the journals they are published in reaches back through time, retroactively changing the experiment and causing it to fail.

Or…

Psi is elusive and a delicate phenomenon. Imposing excessively strict controls (read: adequate ones) in a study impedes Psi’s natural functioning in a sterile laboratory setting.

What I find interesting about this sort of reasoning in its fallacious form is that it is considered acceptable in some circles.

Never mind that many of the replications are attempted by other believers and by those without an apparent bias against the paranormal, and another such rationalization goes something like:

They (believers or neutral parties who don’t get results) are burdened with a repressed skepticism that causes their replication attempts to fail, no matter what belief or neutrality they claim to have. These hidden attitudes unconsciously sabotage their efforts.

Never mind the fact that this argument is made on the basis of mere supposition and absent the use of a valid psychological test. Those who reason thus are essentially claiming to be able to read minds, the very thing that some of these replication attempts have failed to demonstrate.

This phenomenon, the success of some to get positive results in their studies and others to get negative results based on their belief systems, is in parapsychology known variously as the Shyness Effect, the Wiseman Effect, or, in a form broadly applying to any field of science where attitudes may unconsciously influence results, the Experimenter Effect, or Observer-expectancy effect, and this is one of the reasons for double-blinding studies and other forms of experimental controls.

A good example was a series of medical studies for a procedure known as the portacaval shunt, and in the analysis of these studies, it was discovered that those who were more enthusiastic about the procedure tended to get false-positive results more often than those not so inclined. And this was from a study assessing an experimental surgical method, not magic mind-powers.

Above were some examples of this form of argument used as a fallacy, but are Ad Hoc hypotheses always and everywhere bad reasoning?

Fortunately, no.

This can be a perfectly good way of reasoning, as long as at least one of the following conditions is met:

  • The reason for failure to demonstrate something has already been shown, or can be, to exist independently of the hypothesis it is used to support. There must be valid evidence that it is true and relevant as a viable supporting reason.
  • The Ad Hoc hypothesis is both interesting and fruitful in predicting new phenomena that could in principle be tested even without being true or existing itself. The key point is that it must be testable, whether by verification or falsification if a general or a particular claim.
  • The Post Hoc reasoning is used to invent new and creative ways to test a claim, and as long as it is used to further inquiry and not merely to thwart the goal of critical reasoning by making up silly excuses as needed.

A good example of an Ad Hoc hypothesis that was both interesting and fruitful was Einstein’s addition to General relativity of the Cosmological Constant, which though he later rejected it and called it his “greatest blunder” has shown to be useful today in the concept of Dark Energy to explain the accelerating expansion of the universe. Another would be the the Lorentz contraction offered to explain the failure of the  Michelson-Morley experiment to detect the Earth’s motion through the Ether, later incorporated into Einstein’s Special relativity.

One thing to note about many forms of argument used as fallacies:

Philosophers and communications specialists may differ on this, but informal fallacies are not so much violations of argument form as they are violations of argument procedure, as attempts to subvert the rules and goals of constructive argument and critical discussion. In this sense, they are abused, often out of ignorance but sometimes out of intellectual dishonesty, as rhetorical devices masking themselves as cogent arguments when they are not. For ethical, productive argumentation, try to keep this in mind and avoid this yourself whenever possible. Happy debating.