In my first post I tried to give a very brief notion of what science is in my eyes.  I’ve also said that science and skepticism are really the same process just applied in a different context.  In this post I want to take a moment and justify that comment and say what skepticism is and how it is applied in daily life.  I warn you though I am writing this at nearly 2:30 in the morning while continuing to observe a white screen in 5 nanometer increments…not the most riveting observing that I have done!  Then again I’d observe a dust mote and still love this trip!

I put a disclaimer on my “Nature of Science” post and I do the same here.  I do not mean to give a total and definite definition of skepticism but rather my view of it.  This topic has also been covered far more throughly and elegantly than I can hope to do.  There are many great resources out there but I highly recommend “The Demon Haunted World” by Carl Sagan for a great introduction to the subject.

Just as science is, skepticism is a way of looking at the world.  It involves not simply accepting everything that comes one’s way but considering it in the context of what we know about the world.  Some have said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  “Extraordinary” might be a little strong but before you expect to rewrite the physics/biology/etc textbooks you better be able to give evidence stronger than the evidence that currently supports the accepted knowledge.  Many use this to describe skeptics as people that are unwilling to listen to ideas not their own.  This is not the case at all and it is nothing short of what science itself requires.  You can’t rewrite centuries of knowledge using nothing more than your word, the word of a friend, or even the word of an expert.  Pictures and video are too easily manipulated to be counted as strong evidence.  Again these are not excuses as some people try to imply but rather the way that skepticism and science work.

A good skeptic will not accept something just because they are told it is true.  They will expect you to be able to support that belief or idea.  A good skeptic will also not dismiss things off the cuff either though.  Skepticism is a process of critical thinking.  To be a good skeptic you must listen to and weigh all the evidence even if the idea in question is not one you support.  Just as a good scientist must, a good skeptic must be willing to change their views and admit that they don’t know.

Many people will listen to skeptical podcasts or read skeptical blogs and think that the tone does not support my last comments.  The people producing and writing these forms of media are not bad skeptics.  In fact they are often some of the best.  The problem is that the same poor arguments are presented over and over without anything new.  This allows the apparent knee-jerk reaction of rejection to the claim without the appearance of reviewing the evidence.  The fact is they did review the evidence…five years ago when it was first presented and shown to be wrong or poorly conducted.  As skeptics it is our responsibility to do a better job of not seeming dismissive.  On the other hand, people supporting a claim need to do their own research and not simply repeat what has already been presented and found lacking.

This is the problem.  Most people are not capable of reviewing the evidence and the different sides of an argument in a critical way.  Scientific literacy in this country (and in most of the world) is very low.  People simply do not have to skills needed to review evidence and come to a conclusion based on that evidence.  Our opinions are formed solely on what we want or believe.  When we don’t already have an opinion or no belief one way or the other we just accept what we are told.  This puts everyone at a huge disadvantage.  I strongly believe that in order for society to continue to be successful indefinitely into the future we must change this trend.  We must train our children to be able to ask a question of their world and come to a reasonable conclusion.  We must show them how to weigh the deluge of information that they will inevitably face.  In order to do that we must first learn how to do these things ourselves.

We live in a world where we no longer have to search for information; it will find its way to us.  It is our task to learn how to handle all the claims that threaten to overwhelm us all.  If we cannot separate fact from fiction, honest offers from scams, the charlatans from the rest then we risk much more than we can afford to lose.


2 Responses to “Skepticism”

  1. 1 Kelly Metting
    2011/08/10 at 10:02 am

    Good book choice

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