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Skepticism 101: What is Skepticism?

Skepticism 101 is a series of posts intended to help people who are new to the concept of skepticism and critical thinking.

What is skepticism?

Skepticism, while often confused with the word cynicism or cynic, is not actually intended to be a negative when examined as a world view. Skepticism in its noblest form is meant to be a way of evaluating all claims from a neutral standpoint by using only the best available science-based information to base any judgements upon. One can be skeptical of any and all claims but conclusions must be based in logic and reason using the best available fact-based information. Like science, skepticism is a fluid viewpoint that is open to change when new, verifiable information presents itself. An example:

Bob says, “There is a dinosaur in the backyard.”

Janie is skeptical of this claim so she does her best to gather evidence.

Janie looks out in the backyard and observes only her grandfather, a few birds and the family dog. She knows from undisputed scientific research on fossil records that dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago. She also knows that recent scientific discoveries of feathered fossils have shown that birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs. She also knows that her grandfather is very old. The family dog, evolutionarily related to the gray wolf, and age four is eliminated from her equation. Janie analyzes this data and comes to the conclusion that Bob is either incorrect about his claim of a dinosaur in the yard or he is making a joke about either a bird or Janie’s grandfather. Janie realizes Bob is bad at jokes and later divorces him.

All joking aside, skepticism is meant to help us evaluate the legitimacy of claims starting from a neutral standpoint. Here is a diagram I made to explain the fluid process of skepticism that is somewhat based on the scientific method.

skeptical method

One of the most important parts of using skepticism as a way of viewing the world is to start from a point of neutrality. This is very difficult to do for many people because you must set aside all preconceived notions and biases.

You may have been raised your entire life to believe that the Earth is fixed in the sky and that the sun and all the other planets revolve around it. All of your daily observations of the sun rising and setting and the stars moving across the night sky could easily confirm this notion thus convincing you of its truth. You are therefor biased to believe this. When someone comes to you and says, no, you are incorrect, the Earth and all the planets revolve around the sun and even the sun is moving through space, your instincts would tell you this can’t be so. Using skepticism to evaluate this claim of you, your home planet and everything else moving through the cosmos means you would have to approach this new information by discarding all of what you know observationally and what you believe to be true, thus allowing you to evaluate the new claims presented to you. This is very, very difficult to do and often rooted in a concept called cognitive dissonance which I will explain in my next installment. Approaching claims from a neutral position is very important when first understanding the concept of both skepticism and critical thinking.

Amy Roth

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is the founder and president of the Los Angeles Women's Atheist and Agnostic Group: LAWAAG. She is also the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab and cohost of Mad Art Cast. Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+.

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2 Comments

  1. September 15, 2015 at 11:18 am —

    Unfortunately for many ideologues, which these days usually but not always means the right, skepticism means demanding unreasonable evidence for any idea that challenges my beliefs.

    Many self styled Libertarians have convinced themselves that they are skeptical but there is absolutely no amount of evidence that would cause them to change their mind on climate change or gun control or the idea that reducing taxes magically increases revenues.

    On the face of it, the idea that anyone is going to dramatically change their work habits in response to a 1% change in their take home pay is utter nonsense. But plenty of Conservatives argue that a reduction in state income tax from 5% to 4.5% will magically pay for themselves through additional economic activity. Simple math shows that the state is going to lose 10% of its income tax revenue. The idea that a 0.5% pay rise would grow the state economy by 10% is utter nonsense. Yet plenty of people who call themselves skeptical believe that this theory is an absolute and unchallengeable truth.

  2. September 24, 2015 at 1:18 pm —

    A skeptic can only argue from a position of facts and logic. If you don’t have a chain of facts and logic, the skeptic must default to “I don’t know”.

    This is true for everyone who claims to be a skeptic. Unless you have quite good data (aka facts) and valid logic to tie them together, you must default to “I don’t know”.

    Those who do otherwise are not skeptics, they are ignorant ideologues.

    The idea that skeptics can “agree to disagree” is not correct. If two people have the same priors (the same facts), and communicate honestly, they must end up with the same conclusions.

    One or both of them must be starting out with different “facts”, invalid logic, or dishonest bias.

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