Archive for January 22nd, 2009
The following post was submitted by Sam Ogden, an organizer of the Greater Houston Skeptic Society who also posts regularly at Skepchick.
At each gathering of the still fairly new Houston Area Skeptics, I meet folks just discovering their skeptical sides. Critical thinking skills may be somewhat innate in humans, and perhaps that is what has drawn these particular people to skeptic groups. They already seem predisposed to questioning things, just as any seasoned skeptic would, and they have no trouble following a line of reasoning for any given topic. But often the newer members are not yet familiar with what skepticism is exactly. Basically, they lack the language to describe it.
So I wrote this item specifically for those people who may be new to skepticism, and who may not yet have a firm grasp of what exactly it’s all about.
So . . .
What is skepticism?
The easy answer is, skepticism is doubt. Definitions from printed books and Internet dictionaries alike all say skepticism is something along the lines of:
“. . . an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object. . . .”
And I suppose for a quicky definition that’s as good as any. I mean, skeptics tend not to believe things just because. They’re usually the ones saying things like, “Hold on a minute. I don’t think that’s right.” There very well seems to be a high level of doubt among skeptics.
But the truth is, there is more to skepticism than having doubts about something. Doubt doesn’t imply any curiosity. It doesn’t address a desire to know, to be as certain as possible about a given idea or claim. It doesn’t hint at a process by which one can determine efficacy, accuracy, or even reality. At best, doubt can be said to be an element of skepticism, though if we say that, we must understand that doubt is not a necessary element of skepticism. One can certainly use skepticism without harboring any doubts.
So skepticism is not just doubt. But what is it?
Skeptic magazine defines skepticism as:
“. . . . a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas — no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position. . . . .”
And it’s the last part of that definition that I find most useful. Like science, skepticism is a method.
This is why science and skepticism are intrinsically tied together. This is why many people use the terms interchangeably. The two methods are like members of the same family. And they work pretty much the same way.
Let’s take a closer look at the scientific method.
The scientific method is a method of discovery that is based on gathering observable, empirical, and measurable evidence for a particular phenomenon. It is highly reliant on the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses. Scientific researchers propose hypotheses as explanations of the observed phenomenon, and design experimental studies to test those hypotheses.
These steps must be repeatable in order to dependably predict any future results. If they are not, they are discarded for another approach until the scientists can come to a conclusion about the particular phenomenon that is most probably true. It takes time and effort, but the rewards (and our level of understanding) are immeasurable.
Simply put, the scientific method is the single most valuable tool ever conceived for understanding the universe around us. Not only are we able to figure out how things work and why, but through science, we can even manipulate our environment to better our lives. The conclusions we draw from doing good science are as honest and as accurate as reason allows. Science is that powerful.
But the scientific method is problematic; at least where regular folks are concerned.
It’s just not practical to apply the scientific method to everyday claims and situations. I mean, there are phenomena we encounter on a daily basis that spark our curiosity, and our desire to discover. Perhaps strange things are happening in our neighbor’s house, and we want to know if it’s haunted. Perhaps the claims of homeopathic medicines pique our interests, and we want to know if they really work. Perhaps our co-workers insist the bright lights in the sky last night were alien space craft, and we want to know if that’s true. Unfortunately, the majority of us simply don’t have the means to set up lab experiments, test hypotheses, repeat the tests, have peer groups study our data and scrutinize our tests and repeat them, and have independent lines of inquiry from all over the world repeat the process. The scientific method is just too bulky and cumbersome for us.
That’s where skepticism comes in.
We can look at skepticism as an express version of the scientific method; sort of a travel or pocket version that we can apply to everyday claims, ideas, and situations. It is a tool that basically does the same thing as the scientific method — it relies on evidence and the analysis of that evidence to draw conclusions that are most probably true — but it’s more practical for regular folks to use.
If we observe phenomena, or encounter outrageous claims, or encounter seemingly amazing ideas in our everyday lives, we can examine any evidence that may be present. We can leave any biases we may have behind and rely on a critical analysis of the evidence to discover what is most probably true about the phenomena.
By the way, the good critical thinker will use the qualifier “most probably true” because he or she knows the strength of his or her conclusion is a function of the strength and proper analysis of the evidence. He or she also knows that new evidence can be introduced at any given time, and if warranted by the new evidence, the initial conclusion must be altered.
Good scientists and good skeptics go where the evidence leads them, but they do not deal in absolutes. They are always ALWAYS looking for stronger, possibly even subversive, evidence. This is precisely how we know the conclusions drawn through science and skepticism are so strong. Sound scientific principles and sound skeptical proposals must take all comers and stand up to the scrutiny. That is an integral part of the method. One cannot close the door to new evidence and call oneself a scientist or a skeptic. Even if it looks as though an idea is invincible, even if it looks as though there is nothing in the universe that can challenge a conclusion of science or skepticism, the method must remain open to new evidence. Always.
And so, the good scientist and the good skeptic leave absolutes out of the equation, but they can be confident their conclusions are most probably true, because they have looked at all of the evidence with a critical eye and without any biases.
Now, the beauty of all this is, we are not obligated to apply skepticism as anything other than curiosity and a personal desire to know and understand things. We are free to use it or not use it as we wish. And that brings me to the message I like to leave with people when talking about skepticism and what it is.
I regularly tell people, “I am not so much a skeptic as skepticism is what I do”. I have a skill set. I have a method of examination that I apply to things that are important to me, but I am free to be tied to an idea, a claim, or a situation by nothing but my emotions, if I so desire.
But I will say that for those important things, a bit of skepticism really does wonders.