Skepticism

The Accidental Skeptic – How Internet Forums Changed My Life

by Tkingdoll AKA Teek
 This is an extract from an article I’m working on – perhaps if I’m very nice to her Rebecca will publish it on the main Skepchick site when it’s done. Let’s start a lobby group!

Like so many of my fellow skeptics, I had a flirtation with religion for several years. During this period, I became aware of the work of mediums and psychics, but rather than dismiss them or embrace them, I feared them. This was because my branch of Christianity taught that such abilities do exist, but they are the tools of the devil (who else?). There were definite ‘sides’, and the church was very quick to condemn anything that contradicted its own teachings as being firmly on the wrong one. This ‘the-devil-did-it’ attitude was not just limited to displays of paranormal powers either. When a mirror fell off my bedroom wall, the church elders arrived en masse to exorcise it – and me. Yes, Satan himself had taken an interest in a teenage girl from Birmingham and was displaying his almighty demonic powers by flinging decorative items across the room like a spoilt child.

Fast-forward a few years into young adulthood. I had left religion behind and was comfortable with my agnostic status (although relatively quiet about it). Instead, I had found the wretched paranoid world of conspiracy theory. I read everything that Graham Hancock et al churned out. I gasped at the wonder of the faces on Mars, rushed to tell my friends about the Pyramids built by aliens, soaked up the mysteries of Roswell. I had discovered pseudoscience and believed it to be the antidote to religious superstition. After all, these guys used long complicated mathematical formulas that I didn’t really understand. If they are smarter than me, then they must be speaking the truth, right?

And along I went, happily absorbing the grand-sounding theories that made so much more sense than God. Then in a second-hand bookshop, whilst looking for more phooey, I stumbled across Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

If a ‘EUREKA! moment’ can be said to stretch for the duration of a 500-page paperback, then that is what I had. What Sagan had written made more sense than anything I’d ever read before, and the reason was…I knew it already! The idea of critical thinking was already loitering at the very bottom of my mind, but it took someone spelling it out in basic terms to make me see it was there.

Armed with my new way of thinking, my baloney-detection toolkit and concepts like cherry-picking and how to spot it, I set out to challenge and investigate the world. What did I find? Nonsense on every corner! Utter garbage passing as ‘the truth!’, ‘the REAL truth!’, or ‘the truth the Government doesn’t want you to know!’. Gosh, there was a lot of ‘truth’ out there…but a strange absence of facts.

So if I was too smart for this flummery, why wasn’t everyone? I clearly understood the emotional and psychological need for comfort, but why couldn’t the general public apply a little basic common sense when it came to spending their hard-earned money? Isn’t that most people’s biggest motivating factor? Why then, are they not prepared to do a little research and a little thinking before they throw their cash away? Then I remembered how I myself had taken the step from superstition to pseudoscience to science, but did not get to this stage alone. I had needed a little push. Smarter people than I will work it out for themselves and write books about it, but your average Joe needs to have it spelled out. It wasn’t that I was too smart for the flummery, I was merely better informed.

I bought copies of Sagan’s book for everyone I knew (and just in time too, as it is now out of print in the UK). Some people read it, some people didn’t. I even carried a copy around with me for a while so I’d have a handy reference when debating. One of the arguments I came across time and time again was “well, if it’s fraud, the government wouldn’t allow it”. And it’s true, the government do allow it. State-sponsored nonsense, right under our noses. NHS funds diverted away from dialysis machines and cancer wards into homeopathic hospitals. Television licence funds paying for psychics to mislead the population via TV shows. The government act on the issues that interest the majority, and critical thinkers are most definitely a minority. In fact, at that point, in my world I was a minority of one.

Critical thinkers are sometimes accused of trying to abandon human emotion, to circumvent their hardwiring and be thinking machines, reducing the mysteries of the world to a series of theories and explanations. Whilst this is not really true, it can be a lonely business when everyone around you is so eagerly buying into whatever the media says is true that day, or whatever the latest fad diet is. You don’t feel less human, but you do feel less social. I’ve been labelled a ‘stick-in-the-mud’, a ‘naysayer’, have been accused of trying to ruin ‘harmless fun’ or simply called ‘boring’. Facts are dull, nonsense is fun and, as Hitchens so eloquently said, we can all sink giggling into a sea of stupidity. Except I didn’t want to stand by while everyone sinks, I wanted to do something about it. I needed resources for information, I needed support, but most importantly, I needed to find others like me.

What I found was the world of internet forums.

When I was a kid I had an anthology of a cartoon strip by Jim Davis called Orson’s Farm. One of my favourite scenes is when the intelligent pig, Orson, finds a trunk full of books. The pig is pictured hugging the books in a state of rapture with the caption “I’m not alone anymore!” That is exactly how I felt when I started reading skeptic forums. These folks are exactly like me! Except they call themselves ‘Skeptics’ – how funny!

The more I read, the more I learned. Forums are where I first discovered that homeopathy is not ‘herbs’, where I learned what chiropractors believe and why it’s dangerous, why Scientology isn’t a new religion to be tolerated, how people’s lives can be ruined by nonsense and yes, that people die –all the time- because of the deliberate lies and misinformation sold to them by businesses, churches and individuals. I learned more in my first six months as a forum member than in the entire 30 years preceding them. A forum is a discussion board, sure, but it’s also an encyclopaedia, not just of stored information but of live knowledge! Ask a question and ten minutes later a full discussion will be in flow, information and ideas exchanged in the split second it takes to press ‘send’.

It’s also a Cheers bar, a place where everybody knows my name and (most of the time) are glad I came. My opinions are valued, and I am made to feel welcome by people who I count amongst my very best friends, even though often the only thing we have in common is that we “don’t believe in a bunch of stuff”.

Organised skepticism is one of the most important tools we have to secure the future of critical thinking and to expose fraud, superstition and manipulation. Without forums, there would be no centre of organisation, no common place to swap information, no platform to meet like-minded yet regular Joes from across the globe, and nowhere for hundreds of people to simply feel like we are not alone.

 

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34 Comments

  1. You just described what happened to me! I read Carl Sagan's book too, and have been reading as much as I can here and on other blogs. I started out on Bad Astronomy which led me to the Skeptics Society, which led to many more books… my first steps towards skepticism.

    Thank you. Thank you all… and I don't feel alone anymore either.

  2. Teek, very well stated. Personally, I came to my senses with Penn & Teller's Humbug (well, they claimed they wanted to call it that).

    Anyway, I am curious. In the full article, do you intend to cover how you encourage critical thinking in people around you? Or is the focus going to be more on forums and/or your personal journey from religion to skepticism?

  3. Thanks for the kind words, everyone.

    Rassilon, a bit of both really. What I have written so far touches on my experiences as a Christian and why/how I moved away from religion, and also what other influences have shaped my skepticism so far. But I do plan to include some real-life examples of skeptic proselytizing that I've done :D

    The danger, for me, is in becoming too dogmatic or preachy about skepticism. That's why places like forums are important – the frustrations of everyday wooishness need to be vented, and if you do that too much in real life, you become a bit of a bore to non-skeptics. I don't ever want to be accused of religious-sounding zealotry, but I am sooooo enthusiastic about the subject, I need somewhere to express myself without feeling like I'm on a soapbox. It's all about balance. Vent your spleen to a sympathetic community, and keep your cool with your peers. I'm still practicing that last part ;)

    Whatever did people do before the internet?

  4. I went through the same sort of genesis. I too was very religus when I was younger and also dabled with the thought of ghosts and UFO's and the like during that time. Then I just started questioning every thing I use to believe in. I never read James Randi's book or Sagan's book but I just knew that there was something wrong with the way I was looking at the world. So I became an Atheist about two years ago. It is a refreshing way to look at life. That is after you get over the religus safty net. It's like shedding an addiction I think.

  5. Very good stuff. "The Demon Haunted World" is an amazing book, and one of my favorite works of non-fiction; Carl Sagan was a remarkable man.

    I still find comfort and strength in my religious life, though I haven't been to a church in years. I stopped going to my last one (where I also became a Christian) because of their outspoken views against evolution and gays, among other things.

    Teek, I admire you for your wariness at becoming too dogmatic in your views. Regardless of our approach to life, that's something we all need to guard against.

  6. I would love to hear from religious skeptics. I mean really dedicated skeptics who believe in God. I am not religious in the least, but I have never believed the two modes of thought are incompatible. I am surprised that the duality exists, but I can buy the Gouldian Dual Magisteria. I am interested in how a religious skeptic would frame the question of

    "preaching" skepticism, and if they ever have preached it, how it was received by a population of religious folks who couldn't disimiss him or her as a dogmatic atheist.

    Any insight would be great.

    msd

  7. Matt,

    It's a very interesting debate. I went from Christian to Agnostic to Atheist, and while I do think that religious beliefs are somewhat at odds with skepticism, so is atheism. The logical choice for a skeptic would seem to be agnosticism. My solid belief that there is no god is based as much on personal feelings as someone who believes there is such an entity, and I justify it thusly: When I was a Christian I 'knew' there was a god. I didn't merely believe it, or feel it, I knew it. At least, that's how I would have put it, and without getting into a semantics debate, I think it's a pretty accurate way of summarising my Christianity.

    Now I am an atheist, I 'know' there is no god. That 'knowledge' is no different to what I felt as a Christian, as there is no proof for either position. However, having experienced the 'knowledge' of god, and been personally and emotionally affected by it in a negative way, I feel like my atheism kind of corrects that on an emotional level. Is this making sense? I appreciate that this position is not a rational one, and therefore not strictly 'skeptic' of me, which is why, even though I don't think belief in god is particularly compatibile with skepticism, I understand why some skeptics are also believers. Atheism is also incompatible with skepticism, and yet plenty of skeptics call themselves atheists, so why not theists/deists too?

    If atheism or theism make someone not a true Skeptic, well, so what? Does that mean they are no longer allowed to practice critical thinking methods or apply them to other aspects of life? No. Does it mean they should have their forum memberships revoked? No. Should their opinions on issues be ignored? No.

    I'd rather meet a Christian Skeptic than a plain old Christian :)

  8. Tkingdoll

    I really enjoyed this article, it hits home, it was very similar to how I became a skeptic. I was raised a Christian (southern Baptist), was sent to Christian school as a child where I was forced to study the bible. There I realized how little sense it made and could never figure out just why I was the only one who noticed it. I went from believing in God (capitol G) as a kid, to believing in a god through my teen years till finally I stopped believing altogether as an adult. Throughout my teenage years I started looking at other things like ghosts, mediums, pretty much the whole metaphysical gauntlet. The critical spark was there, I always wanted proof, I just lacked the ability do distinguish what was proof from what was smoke and mirrors. There was a point in my life where I came to the realization that every thing I had ever been taught was suspect, I realized that I just tended to accept what was taught to me as a child. When I asked my parents why I was taught something, the answer was always “that’s just what I was taught”. I realized that entire stores of information in my head had never been questioned, and at that point I gave up all those beliefs and started looking for answers. Eventually I came across Shermers “Why people believe weird things” and that lead to an entire host of books by Shermer, Randi, Phil Plait and many more.

  9. It's funny, I was born in a small town and as it was socially mandated, I went to church with my family. No one in my family was particularly religious, and without any overt statements, I think I always knew that while my presence in church was mandatory, my belief in anything was not. I don't really have an idea how this was so well conveyed, but it was.

    I never went through a true-believer phase, but about when (intellectually) you were going through your credulous phase, I was probably in a place where I was clear that I didn't believe in some stuff, but I couldn't have told you why. I didn't know how to define porn (er, mysticism), but I knew it when I saw it.

    My skepticism lineage runs first through a good grounding from my parents teaching me that education and science were the way to learn, and then more formally through Sagan and Shermer and on through the blogs and podcasts.

    tkingdoll (can I call you Teek?), you stated that atheism is as incompatible with skeptcism as theism. I'm not sure I agree 100%. I do think that agnosticism is the most rational and honest we can be, but with the advent of science (and you can go all the way back to the days of discovery of fire, I suppose), I think we have continually reduced the gaps for God to fill until a rational person could conclude at this stage that there is no reason to assume we are ever going to reach the end of discovery with regard to rational, natural explanations. If that's the case, I think that can count as evidence (not conclusive, however), that the existance of God is not necessary to explain existance. If He isn't necessary, then let's refer to Occam. That you go out of your way to admit your areas of irrationalism is to be commended. We all have them and let's bless Whomever for them, because there's a lot of flavor in a world when hold on to our crazies.

    Again, I think theism is perfectly fine, and I can fully accept the viewpoint that while we can describe the way the world works, we can also imagine a God who set it all up and defined the rules. That doesn't leave me weirded out in the least.

    Hoagland, on the other hand, he weirds me out.

    msd

  10. Theism, atheism, agnosticism…. they are all belief modes. Atheists would argue agianst that but I would have to argue back that they lack proof of the non-existance of god. Same goes for theist – you cannot prove god exists. Agnostics aren't sure but lean towards theism. Maybe theres a god and he doens't actually intervene in the world and maybe theres a god who does – who am I to say?

    I've been all three. First a theist, then atheist and then agnostic. Now I've chosen a new 'ism'. Skepticism. I hold no opinion on god (sounds agnostic but it's not – agnostics generally accpet that there is a higher power they just don't know what it is or how it works). It has no bearing on my life. Exist, not exist – I couldn't care less. What I care about is fact in the form of reproduceable evidence. When someone finally designs a reproduceable, verifiable experiment that conclusivley points to a god or lack of one I'll care again.

    I do my darndest not to judge anybody by their chosen label as religious or atheist – there are fine critical thinkers and complete asses in both groups. I will admit that I tend to find more asses in the theist group though that may be from my personal biases based on my own experiences with that group when I was young. I will quesion all of them as to why they believe what they believe but will do so fully expecting a non-testable, non-critical, non-verifiable answer. In all cases it usually boils down to the "I know it to be true" with no supporting evidence answer.

    I guess I'm the ulitmate fence sitter when it comes to religion or the lack thereof. I'm still waiting for the evidence and suspect I will be until the day I die. That's OK by me.

  11. Stark, I don't think you are getting it right. Deists generally believe that existence of God is unknowable, and there is no direct intervention of God in our lives. Belief that there could be a God is possible within deism.

    Agnosticism is without leaning — by the definition of the word as coined by Thomas Huxley.

    From m-w.com:

    "1 : a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; broadly : one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god"

    msd

  12. I agree that that is the textbook definition… it is not the practical definition though. There are actually organized groups of agnostics out there and I 've talke to many of their members – most believe in a higher power of some sort – whether it is god or a less cogniscent nature figure. Perhaps they would be better called deists but they indetify themselves as agnostics. I'm of the opinion that the definition of a word and it's practical reality are often quite different.

    Your point is well taken though.

  13. Right until the Internet forums, I always thought myself being a rational, logical, even a bit skeptical individual. But apparently now I'm a magical fairly-tale uncritical nut just for being religious. At least based on my experience on internet forums. :)

  14. "I would love to hear from religious skeptics. I mean really dedicated skeptics who believe in God."

    Me, me! I was debating on the comments of a blog right now. Some guy just equated rational thought, logic and critical thinking with atheism. I, skeptic of this claim, asked for evidence. He told me that religion is the ultimate source of evil in the universe, and that, ideally, should be persecuted by law, but since those damn religious people breed so fast, it would be impractical, so it would be easier to let the religious people alone, but to force every children on Erath into being atheists. Frankly, it freaked me out a little bit. Ah, yes, no evidence.

    So, of course Organized Skepticism can be a good thing. But who whatches the watchers? Who is the skeptic about the skeptics?

    If I was an secular humanist/atheist/agnostic/internet skeptic, I would try to distance myself from this guy. But, for whatever reason, no one really cared to side up with me, the oddball religious guy posting on an atheist blog. Group mentality? Or do skeptics really believe in all that? Are the conspiracy theorists on Fox News right?

    If people can get all crazy about football teams, imagine what can happens about worldviews.

    I have a sizeble number of irreligious/atheists/agnostics as friends and family. They are really nothing like that guy. I never met someone like that in real life. I wonder if it’s one of those guys that exists solely as an internet persona.

  15. I went through a very similar experience, though like Majv it was the Bad Astronomer, and not Sagan, who helped me see the light. I attended church/Sunday school regularly as a kid, but I also loved science (dinos and space, mostly). My first wake-up call to religion was as a teenager when my dad left church due to some internal politics and took up with a "faith healer". Thankfully I was in high school and no time to go myself. Well, one day at work my boss, a family friend and the one who got my dad interested in the faith healer, tried the whole "hand-on-the-forehead-and-accept-Christ-into-you" routine. Of course I went down, and when I protested that I was pushed by the hand, I was immediately chastised with "No, that was the power of Christ filling you". I instantly became skeptical and swore off organized religion. When I got to college, X-Files hit the airwaves and I was hooked. For years I went on believing most of the nonsense, even latching onto Coast to Coast AM. That's where I first heard the BA, and his site opened many doors as I became very interested in the Intelligent Design scam, following the Dover trial intensely. At this point I consider myself a decent skeptic, though I still haven't resolved my thoughts about God. Sometimes I learn towards atheism/agnosticism, sometimes deism, and sometimes pantheism (which I understand to be somewhat like "The Force", where God is not a separate deity but the fabric of universe itself).

    I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who's gone through this process, and thank goodness for blogs and forums.

  16. I think the reason many skeptics are atheists, is for the simple reason that the two positions:

    a) there is a god

    b) there is no god

    simply aren't equal, despite always being made out to be so.

    Because the fact is there are many other "either/or" positions that are dismissed by everyone, so why is the idea of god any different?

    a) there is a tea-pot in orbit around Saturn.

    b) there is no tea-pot in orbit around saturn.

    a) there is an invisible pink unicorn in my basement.

    b) there is no invisible pink unicorn in my basement.

    No matter how much you want to be on the fence about any position that is unproven, it's always more sensible to go with the position that makes no particularly wild unproven claims. As such, those believing in god are claiming there is an intelligent entity, or at least a supernatural force, and that this entity/force created the universe or exerts some kind of control over it and/or its inhabitants. So I find it much more sensible to put that claim on the same shelf with those other absurd far out claims like the tea pot in orbit, or the notion that there's an invisible pink unicorn in my basement.

    I could even go so far as to say that the position of a skeptic should be position b to any claim a being made.

    a) I believe homeopathy cures people.

    b) I don't believe homeopathy cures people. Not until I've seen evidence proving it can cure anything.

    a) I believe the sun is the center of our solar system.

    b) I don't believe the sun is the center of our solar system. Not until I've seen evidence proving it is. I guess Keppler already did that. Case closed …

    That said, I don't intend to force anyone to stop believing in non-existing or mythical beings/items just because I don't believe in them. I'll just draw my own conclusions based on what they decide after having seen the same evidence I've seen or showed them and yet coming to a different conclusion. Their perceived intellectual capacity will be proportional to the silliness of the idea they still choose to believe in.

  17. That would be great if evidence, etc, had any weight in the issues of belief.

    Where I work, there's a secretary who is totally into the church thing. I have no intention to try to deconvert her or even deliberately debate the matter of how I think her beliefs are illogical and so on. I'd decided on that the moment that I found out she was so churchified, but a few weeks ago it was made obvious to me just how hopeless any rational attempt at debate would have been. During a conversation with someone else I overheard her say "I don't care what anyone says or what proof they have, I know that Jesus exists and he loves me."

    In other words, show her a million pieces of evidence against her belief and at the end of it? She'll still believe. And be proud about having that belief.

  18. The statement I made was not about convincing anyone else of the existence or non-existence of god. I was simply trying to counter the argument that a good skeptic should be an agnostic, because although every skeptic will probably change sides the moment good solid evidence is shown to them proving the existance/non-existance of god, it makes more sense to (if only temporarily) hold the non-existance position. From a strictly logical point of view, you have no reason to assume that a supernatural allpowerful being exists until proven otherwise, so it makes better sense to assume such an entity does not exist until proven otherwise as the starting position, just like it makes better sense that invisible pink unicorns don't exist until evidence says otherwise.

    Although some atheists may take their disbelief to religious proportions, I think most skeptics are of the opinion that believing god doesn't exist also tremendously simplifies everything too. I'd even say that atheism itself is much more of a fence-sitting position than believing christianity might be true, because then you'd be disregarding all those other religions and superstitions which are equally likely to be the one and only correct one, including invisible pink unicorns.

  19. For me, the conflict between non-believing skeptics and believing skeptics is something like this:

    B: "I'm a skeptic. That means I don't believe claims without evidence, and the more extraordinary the claim, the more evidence I require"

    NB: "Me too, that goes for ALL claims"

    B: "Well, all claims except God. I believe in God with no evidence"

    And that's fine, I can understand why some people don't want to let go of God or the afterlife, they are very comforting propositions to many. And that doesn't mean you can't practice skepticism in other areas of your life, but I do think it requires the admission that religion is not a skeptical standpoint. I guess it would be something like "I'm a skeptic in all areas but one". There's no difference between being a religious skeptic and being a psychic skeptic, for example. You can apply critical thinking to certain things and not others if you want to, but the question is whether skepticism is or should be an all-or-nothing thing. I'm not sure if there is harm in saying it's OK to appraise claims on their merit some of the time, but not if it upsets you emotionally or squashes your pet theory. Know what I mean?

  20. It seems to me that there is some harm in that position because it blinds you to the truth of the situation. Additionally, and I'm on treading a slippery slope here, how do you determine where it's ok to be skeptical and where it isn't?

    Furthermore, it seems to me that supernatural beliefs encourage a line beyond which you do not question and that's inherently dangerous.

    Though I must note that I don't want to discourage anyone from critically thinking—it is painfully obvious the world needs more people who do

  21. Well that's the trouble nsetzer, it's the skeptics who decide where it's ok to be skeptical (everywhere!) and where it's ok to not be (nowhere!), and that all-or-nothing position just doesn't appeal to most middle-ground folk. I would rather someone used some critical thinking than none at all, even if it's not consistent.

  22. This threads illustrates one problem with modern skepticism, i.e., that it requires an a priori acceptance of an entire epistemology system for which there is no proof. Even more interesting, Philosophical skepticism, Scientific skepticism and Empiricism are different schools of thought, often at odds with each other, and yet their arguments are used as if they were one and the same thing.

    "I’m a skeptic. That means I don’t believe claims without evidence, and the more extraordinary the claim, the more evidence I require”

    The first thing I notice is that things will be true or false regardless of evidence. It's entirely possible that something false has staggering evidence, and something true has no evidence. So this definition doesn't guarantee truthful results. Especially because the concepts of "evidence" and "extraordinary" are left undefined.

  23. "t’s entirely possible that something false has staggering evidence"

    Huh?

    Evidence of its truth, you mean? Then that's not evidence. That's a bunch of stuff that someone has wrongly labelled as "evidence".

    Evidence is not brought in by the sackload and accepted as is. Part of being skeptical is to look at whatever is presented and ask yourself "Is this valid as proof/evidence/whatever?" before asking "What does this tell me about the matter?"

    If I have three sacks of 'evidence' for a false claim, all of it telling me that the claim is true, then something has gone seriously wrong with my skepticism and critical thinking since I would hope that if the claim is actually false then somewhere in those three sackfuls of evidence there must be things that are incongruous or clues towards the truth. *That*, to me, is what being skeptical is about, the weighing up of all the evidence in front of me, not just refusing to believe something until a wheelbarrow of 'evidence' is brought in. The gathering of 'evidence' is just the start.

  24. I just fundamentally disagree with the statement that things can be true or false without evidence. If they are true, then there exists tangible evidence supporting them; if they are not, then there is tangible evidence indicating that. If the 'thing' in question can not be tested, then Occam tells me to throw it out.

  25. I'm a lawyer. There's tons of stuff that are true and can't be proved, and a lot of false things can be passed as true with a lot of evidence. Let me be the first one to argue that the legal way to prove things is not the best one, but it makes a good example.

    In theory, at least, you can go all CSI on a false claim and disprove it. That's relatively easy.

    On the other hand, you could have something that's true and there's no evidence of it. Occam doesn't tell you to throw it out, Occam was a Franciscan friar from the 11th Century making a case for simplicity, but even his razor isn't that sharp.

    Say, for example, that you are present when an event happens. You saw it, but the only evidence you can provide is your testimony. That's not very good evidence, is it? People might accept it or not. If it's an extraordinary event, testimony isn't extraordinary evidence. If you can't show up with anything else, do you say to yourself that it didn't happen? Just because you can't prove it, is it any less true?

  26. You're a lawyer, and that just makes your entire point of view crystal clear. there's a very distinct difference between the meaning of "evidence" the way it's used by scientists (and to some degree, skeptics) and evidence as it's used in the courtroom. Heck, just last week there was a blog post and ensuing discussion about the "legal expert" who apparently lied on the stand. What he said was essentially considered "evidence" I suppose, but what he said wasn't the truth, or at least merely his interpretation of some of the facts. Perhaps "facts" is the word you should think of when scientists use the word "evidence". Otherwise, this whole discussion could devolve into the creationist shtick that "evolution is only a theory".

    So to quote Homer Simpson: Facts. You could prove anything even remotely true with facts.

    So, just because I can't prove there's a teapot in orbit around Saturn, does it become any less true? No, it doesn't. Does it become less believable? You bet it does. And that's where Occham comes in. Despite possibly being true, I have no reason to believe there is a teapot in orbit around Saturn until Cassini manages to make a picture of one. The simplest explanation after all, says that teapots have no known means of getting to Saturn, and thus we have no reason to assume there's one in orbit there right now.

  27. And to clarify, a Cassini picture would be "evidence". As such, evidence isn't iron clad, but it would go a long way towards proving the teapot hypothesis.

  28. "There’s tons of stuff that are true and can’t be proved, and a lot of false things can be passed as true with a lot of evidence."

    If you start out with the assertion that things are true that can't be proven, then I'd expect you'd be able to 'show' that things are true that can't be proven. So, when you make the above statement, I must demand that you demonstrate how you know they are true if there is no evidence for them. See the above two posts on the definition of evidence if this is unclear.

  29. "If you start out with the assertion that things are true that can’t be proven, then I’d expect you’d be able to ’show’ that things are true that can’t be proven. So, when you make the above statement, I must demand that you demonstrate how you know they are true if there is no evidence for them. See the above two posts on the definition of evidence if this is unclear."

    In my example, you are the witness to an event. You have no evidence to show for it. You know it's true, because you saw it. But you can't prove it. For other skeptics, it's simple: it's not true because there's no evidence. But, what about you? Do you need evidence to persuade yourself?

    "there’s a very distinct difference between the meaning of “evidence” the way it’s used by scientists (and to some degree, skeptics) and evidence as it’s used in the courtroom."

    You're right. One thing is legal evidence. Scientific evidence is different, even thought both can overlap at times. They have their own systems of determining truth. Some of life's harder questions demand philosophical evidence. That some answers can't be proved by legal or scientific means doesn't mean they are false, but doesn't mean they are true either.

  30. What scientists do most often is observe. So in a way, all we have is first person testimony describing some event. What's evidence is not the fact that they saw it, but the fact that they describe in enough detail what they did and what happened so that other scientists can go out and replicate the experiment or observation. Evidence lies not in their observation, but in the independant confirmation of their observations by others.

    When you're talking about a witness to a crime, that's something completely different. The crime itself is not a reoccuring event, and as such, any witness account is simply anecdotal evidence to begin with. While anecdotal evidence may be sufficient to corroborate some of the other findings in a court case, it is not sufficient in science, because we know that people are fallible. Heck, even the court system knows people are fallible, and will therefore not put the entire weight of the verdict on one person's account of the event, or one person's interpretation of the facts, but work with a "reasonable doubt" treshold, whereby in those cases where truth/guilt can not be satisfactorily determined, the verdict is "not guilty". That doesn't necessarily mean the person isn't guilty, it simply means that the person could not be proven to be guilty with the evidence presented during the trial.

    Being a lawyer, you of all people should know that the courtroom is not about the truth, but about sticking to the rules.

  31. This event that I witnessed I don't know is true unless there is physical evidence backing up that assertion. If I go to a magic show sometime and witness the conjurer cut someone in half and then put them back together seemingly unharmed, I could claim that the person really was dismembered and then reassembled, but that is not true since physical evidence have demonstrated that slicing someone in half ends fatally.

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