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 SkepticsÂ blog, specifically for those Houstonians who may be new to skepticism, and who may not yet have a firm grasp of what exactly itâ€™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 aÂ 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 thatâ€™s as good as any. I mean, it’s true skeptics tend not to believe things just because. Theyâ€™re usually the ones saying things like, â€œHold on a minute. I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s right.â€ 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 doesnâ€™t imply any curiosity. It doesnâ€™t address a desire to know, to be as certain as possible about a given idea or claim. It doesnâ€™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 â€” no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position. . . . .
And itâ€™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.
Letâ€™s take a closer look at the scientific method.
The scientific method is a method of discovery. Researchers observe a particular event or phenomenon, andÂ set to gathering observable, empirical, and measurable evidence that explains the particular phenomenon.Â They propose hypotheses as explanations for the observed phenomenon, and design experimental studies to test those hypotheses. Through this observation and experimentation,Â and through stringent analysis ofÂ theÂ data, theyÂ determineÂ what is most probably true aboutÂ the phenomenon.
Further, these steps must be repeatable in order to dependably predict any future results. If theÂ 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.
Itâ€™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 happeningÂ at the old lake house, and we want to know if itâ€™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 thatâ€™s true. Unfortunately, the majority of us simply donâ€™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.
Thatâ€™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 â€” it relies on evidence and the analysis of that evidence to draw conclusions that are most probably true â€” but itâ€™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 probablyÂ just theÂ Goodyear Blimp.
By the way, the good critical thinker will use the qualifier â€œmost probably trueâ€ 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, â€œI am not so much a skeptic as skepticism is what I doâ€. 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,Â for understanding those important things, I find skepticism to be the best option.