ScienceSkepticism

What is Skepticism?

At each gathering of the local skeptics group here in Houston, I meet folks just discovering the world of skepticism. They are excited to be among people who seem to think like they do, but often the newer members are not yet familiar with what skepticism is exactly. Not having been immersed in it long, they may lack the language to describe it.

So I wrote this item, which is published on the Space City Skeptics blog, specifically for those Houstonians who may be new to skepticism, and who may not yet have a firm grasp of what exactly it’s all about. But as I was writing, I realized the possibility that not all Skepchick readers were old hats at this either. So I decided to cross-post the item here, just as a general reference for those who may be new to skepticism and new to Skepchick.

So . . .

What is skepticism?

The easy answer is, skepticism is doubt. Printed dictionaries and Internet dictionaries alike all define skepticism as 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, it’s true 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 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. This is why many people use the terms interchangeably. The two methods are 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. Researchers observe a particular event or phenomenon, and set to gathering observable, empirical, and measurable evidence that explains the particular phenomenon. They propose hypotheses as explanations for the observed phenomenon, and design experimental studies to test those hypotheses. Through this observation and experimentation, and through stringent analysis of the data, they determine what is most probably true about the phenomenon.

Further, these steps must be repeatable in order to dependably predict any future results. If the experiments are not repeatable, they are discarded for other hypotheses and tests 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 are great, and our level of understanding rises dramatically.

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 anything can be. 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 fully 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 at the old lake 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 in this regard.

That’s where skepticism comes in.

We can view 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 at any time, because it can be applied without the attendant “ceremony” of a scientific experiment. We basically become a one-person research team.

If we observe phenomena, or encounter outrageous claims, or hear seemingly amazing ideas in our everyday lives, we can deploy our pocket scientific method. Without the formality of a full-on scientific review, we can examine any related 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; the lake house is just old and creaky, homeopathic medicines are basically just water, and the lights in the sky were probably just the Goodyear Blimp.

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 by anything other than curiosity and a personal desire to know and understand things to apply skepticism. 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.

However, for understanding those important things, I find skepticism to be the best option.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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16 Comments

  1. We can view 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.

    I’ve never heard it put that way, but I love it!

  2. Sorry for the three-comments-in-a-row, everyone…

    But Sam, this is the best succinct descriptive and effective encapsulation of what skepticism is, and what those of us who call ourselves “skeptics” mean, that I have ever read. Kudos.

  3. I enjoyed this post, and it answered a question I have been silently asking of skepticism since recently discovering skeptic blogs, and that is, what is good skepticism? How do these folks think about how they think? So I’m pretty gratified to find this post. It’s the first one I’ve come across that does justice to the question.

    I love the idea of skepticism as a process of inquiry. That’s where I think it’s valuable, and good skeptics would investigate their own positions, questions, and such as much as anything else, and try to not simply end up tidily supporting their own conclusions.

    I like to flip the idea of “doubt” which is intrinsically negative in that it assumes something is untrue, jumping to a mental conclusion before anything has been tested, into the old flag of “open-mindedness” — looking at something to see what’s there before making any conclusion at all.

    A large number of those who would call themselves skeptics are what I think of more as “debunkers” but not even particularly good ones in that they simply assume everything they don’t personally believe in is bunk. I like that you emphasize being open even to possibilities that might subvert your own conclusion. I think that’s the key, really, to useful skepticism.

    Are we ever outside of bias? The best we can do is apply the same skeptical glance to our own thoughts, questions, processes, as you have done here.

    Thank you for sharing this.

    M

  4. I think this post should be permanently put on the “About Skepchick” tab as a skepticism 101.

    The only thing I would add, is in this general section:

    If we observe phenomena, or encounter outrageous claims, or hear seemingly amazing ideas in our everyday lives, we can deploy our pocket scientific method. Without the formality of a full-on scientific review, we can examine any related 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; the lake house is just old and creaky, homeopathic medicines are basically just water, and the lights in the sky were probably just the Goodyear Blimp.

    Even though we can’t all perform our own original, repeatable, peer-reviewed studies, we don’t just have to rely on our own critical analysis of claims (and shouldn’t, IMO). I think a big part of skepticism is consulting, and more importantly, knowing how to identify reliable source information. For example, if an article claims that a “study” shows that homeopathy cures cancer, skeptics should know how to locate and analyze the validity of the study methods employed (what sample size/cross section of the population was used, was it blind/double-blind, what were the criteria for “success”, how were the statistics calculated, etc.) In addition to knowing the basics about studies, skeptics should know how to identify credible sources (authorities, websites). But, like you said, even the most credible source isn’t infallible (no sacred cows), so a skeptic should continually implement his own critical appraisal of the claim/information, and be open to new information.

  5. Bravo! I will *add* that I have been doubtful about the inclusion of doubt in a definition of skepticism. But, in the interests of subverting my own worldview, I checked out some definitions of doubt and I will provisionally accept: “hesitant to believe” or being “undecided in opinion or belief” … maybe.

    Y_S_G

  6. You’re only telling part of the story. Let’s look at a real-life 19th century example. Following your steps, a doctor who discovered a way to lower delivery deaths from 600/month to 6/month would present the data to his colleagues and they would modify their current thinking. Only what really happened was that the doctor was ignored, fired and later sent to a mental hospital where he was beaten to death by guards (Dr. Semmelweis).

    You could add Alfred Wegener (continental drift, 1915), Vesalius (16th century surgeon who refuted Galen), Oliver Wendall Holmes, and many, many others.

    Any theory that contradicts and threatens those currently holding power in the scientific community will receive the same treatment. It is not without reason that the axiom, “Science progresses one funeral at a time,” is as valid today as ever.

  7. @god guns and grit:
    Oh no, here we go!

    Do egos sometimes get in the way of scientific advancement?

    Sure they do. Scientists are human. The case of Dr. Semmelweis is indeed a tragic and instructive one. However, the landscape of science in the 19th century was a totally different place. We now have mechanisms like replicability and peer review to help — help — keep egos out of the equation. That doesn’t mean it still doesn’t happen, but are you seriously telling me that if a physician today were able to reduce fatalities from, say, a surgical procedure, from 10 percent to 1 percent, that the medical science community wouldn’t sit up and and say, “Huh. We should take a look at what he’s doing!”

    Remember, most of what we know we have learned in the last hundred years. Wegner’s ideas were rejected by many (not all) at first because it ran contrary to the observations made thus far: no one had ever seen a continent move. But at the time, there wasn’t much evidence to look at because we didn’t know how to study the earth. Wegner, who was a respected scienitst in his day and won over many people to CD, was posthumously vindicated when lines of evidence started pouring in from numerous lines of study. Wegner’s tale is certainly a frustrating one filled with vain egos, but it’s ultimately one of the triumph of science and the scientific method.

  8. Great job Sam! It IS an awfully big chunk of information to digest though. I’m working on doing something similar but in smaller, more bite-sized pieces at

    http://www.fledgelingskeptic.wordpress.com

    My goal is to be a one stop shop for those who are, like myself, relatively new to skepticism or those who want to find out what it’s all about.

    Next month I’m going to start releasing a weekly Fledgeling Skeptic podcast so keep an eye out for that.

    And thanks for emailing me about this thread :-D

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