Friday, December 25, 2009

Barking up the Right Tree #2: Cautious Optimism

Knowing what I know about the skeptical community, when you strip away our curmudgeonly exteriors, we're optimistic in our basic nature.

Yes, we criticize a lot, have a laundry list of complaints about our adversaries, and so on. Given our opposition, it's natural for us to act with frustration. But that conflict isn't the entirety of our being. We believe that the open-minded nature of science, with the collective teamwork of mankind can solve just about any problem. Scientists are heroic figures to us. They solve problems not with brute force, but by achieving a greater understanding of the world.

The caution comes with the open-mindedness: We are open to the idea that we could be wrong. That's why we need controls and blinding to minimize our biases on the data. It's natural to hope for the best and see what you want to see. As skeptics, we're aware of that, so we exercise caution when we see what appears to be an easy solution. High standards exist to prevent mistakes caused by wishful thinking.

With our underlying idealism, it's only natural that we recoil at the cynicism we so often find in those who don't trust science. "Woo" as we call it, so often feeds on fear of imagined dangers, distrust in the motives of anyone who disagrees, arrogance that leads one to believe he's immune to normal imperfections, and closed-mindedness towards the very idea of changing beliefs.

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