Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What "Skeptic" Really Means

I thought since tomorrow is Blasphemy Day, I'd post this before sharpening my tongue. This post is intended for the various types of believers new to the skeptical blogosphere. Please forgive my use of the term. I can't think of one that would cover the variety of people I want to address: Those who believe in things such as religion, alien visitations, alternative medicine, psychic powers, worldwide conspiracy theories, cryptozoology, ghosts, free energy devices, and so on. I know plenty of you don't like to be lumped with those others, but I do that because I tend to see similar methods used to reach those beliefs, and that they generally neglect the demands of logic and science. It's my hope to teach you about what skepticism really means and to counteract all the negative stereotypes spread in the mainstream and by other believers. It has a nasty habit of preventing communication and understanding. To this day, I still get trolls who cite stereotypes rather than answer questions.

The first point I really want to emphasize: Skepticism and science are not collections of beliefs. They are methods of using logic and evidence to reach tentative conclusions. We recognize these conclusions to be tentative, and can question and test them when new evidence arrives. This is what makes skepticism a self-correcting process, which is antithetical to dogma. Skeptics do not, as a matter of definition, disbelieve in, say psychic power. We are skeptics because we try to examine the evidence. To date, that process just happens to lead to our lack of belief in psychic powers. If a genuine psychic were to repeatedly demonstrate their powers under carefully controlled conditions designed to eliminate the possibility of trickery or self-deception, we would be convinced of that psychic's powers. Colloquially, you could say we're no longer skeptics, but I do not use that form of the word to describe myself. We're skeptics because we stick to the rigorous standards.

Science is full of new discoveries being made and tested. As skeptics, we know that the theories we use to explain the universe are always going to be wrong: We're just getting more accurate (less wrong) as we gather more evidence. We don't expect to achieve 100%. If Gödel is right, it's impossible. That won't stop us from trying our best, though. This leads into what I see as the inherent optimism and open-mindedness of skepticism: We can never allow ourselves the closed-mindedness of certainty. "Science knows it doesn't know everything otherwise it'd stop," as Dara O'Briain says in a comedy routine. We also know that people can make mistakes, and science is primarily a method of counteracting that.

As you probably gathered from the opening paragraph, I'm something of a firebrand skeptic. I have plenty to say for my own "deconversion," but I will try to summarize. These firebrand skeptics were harsh, but they were honest, determined, and passionate. I watched debates online between them and believers, looking beyond the simple insults to see the points being made. Ridicule, done right, can bring hidden logical fallacies to the surface. A consistent demand to a simple, honest question can be a powerful point if the adversary only evades, delays, and spits venom for an answer. The skeptics were the ones asking important questions, illustrating holes in their opponents' arguments, and so forth. They were worthy adversaries, and, when I displayed genuine curiosity and a willingness to learn, they gave me much to think about when they met my politeness with their own.

Most of all, they cared. People were being cheated out of their money, harmed by ill-evidenced quackery, and psychologically put down for innocent actions. Like them, I now blog out of a passion for helping people. Science gave us many great wonders we often take for granted. The hucksters and incurious wanted us to abandon the rigor that brought forth all that knowledge so that they could remain in an ivory tower where their ideas and only their ideas could be coddled. Such closed-mindedness was repulsive in the face of the hope science and skepticism presented.

Skeptics demand great rigor because everyone is capable of being biased or mistaken. Anecdotes cannot be taken at face value because the person who experienced it may have missed important details, be ignorant of alternative explanations, or connect events that might have just been a coincidence. These anecdotes aren't worthless. They can be used as a lead for something unusual to investigate, but they are never the end of the story. For a conclusion, we need objective evidence, some way to measure success or failure of the explanation, and a way to reduce or eliminate alternative explanations.

Skeptics such as myself tend to find the most frustration on these points. First, many believers dismiss alternative explanations for no rational reason. Many of us have a good grasp of science and how we can be deceived by others, and most importantly, ourselves. We're often brimming with ideas to explain various happenings, and we don't like getting slapped down when we speak up or ask questions to narrow down the possibilities.

Second, we've faced many believers who talk about events that actually aren't unusual at all. With enough people watching the world, "weird" coincidences happen all the time. One person's ghostly image is often a photographer's annoying dust reflection or passing insect. There are many people out there who know enough about certain fields to render various things mundane and readily explainable. Science is a team sport, and we try to apply the knowledge others have discovered to whatever the current discussion is. When we're presented with an interesting mystery, many of us will put in the effort to solve it. When someone new presents a nearly identical "mystery" that we've dealt with over and over, we can get frustrated and bored.

We're not Gloomy Gusses trying to rain on someone's parade. We're mystery solvers who want to find the truth, regardless of your sense of aesthetics. We don't dismiss all the magical things people believe in because we want the world to be dull and gray: We just want to know the truth, and when I look back at the history of science, the universe is always more interesting than what believers say. It's not without disappointment, but knowing the truth is the first step to solving problems. Self-deception and low standards are not the answer.

We need standards to evaluate the evidence for claims. Most people we argue with don't seem to realize that we can't lower our standards without opening up a quagmire of problems. Without controls against alternate explanations or verification to negate self-deception, the result can easily be eternal indecision: There are nearly an infinite number of possibilities. If we don't use our knowledge to favor the most probable answers, we can't know what to do or what to expect. Everyone practices critical thinking, but not everyone tries to be consistent. Usually, belief in the supernatural comes from making unwarranted exceptions for those beliefs.

Many of you are probably familiar with the phrase, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Though it is often a useful quote, many people don't appreciate that the mundane claims we live by already have extraordinary evidence behind them. It's not that we're raising the standard, it's that simpler claims tend to have more evidence already in their favor.

This post has gone on for a bit, but it will be subject to updates if I remember something to add or from suggestions.


Buford said...

To highlight the Dogs second paragraph, the announcement of Ardi, the fossil older than Loucy, has caused us to question some of the things we thought before. It has been generally accepted that pre-humans became bi-pedal after moving from the forest to the savannah. In Ardi, we see an early bi-pedal creature living in the forest and still capable fo climbing trees.

Ardi does not tell us that we DID NOT develop walking in the savannah, but it does raise questions. We don't know whether bi-pedalism was developed in the savannah and then Ardi's kin moved back to the forest. It might be that they lived in both the forest and savannah. Many possibilities and I'm not qualified to chose among them.

What Ardi does is make us wuestion our early ideas and help us reach better ones.

Bronze Dog said...

Link on Ardi. Don't see where the change is, but either way, it's an awesome find.