Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Skepticism 101

I’ll be presenting a workshop at The Amaz!ng Meeting in Vegas this Thursday, entitled Skepticism 101.

I’ll be talking with Jeff Wagg, and we’ll treat some principles such as Ockam’s Razor, and phenomena such as pareidolia.

What concepts do you see as fundamental to new skeptics?

Related Articles


  1. That skepticism is a way of thinking, and not a set of beliefs.

    Skepticism is not liberal, or libertarian politics. It is possible to be a skeptic And be a democrat and a republican. If someone has vastly different politics from you, that does not make them deluded and unskeptical.

    Skepticism is not atheism. Although many Skeptics are atheists, this is not required. Radical and aggressive atheist activism is not automatically part of skepticism.

    You do not need to be highly educated to be a skeptic. It is alright if you specifically do not have all the answers, or do not understand the answers given. Not everyone is a podcaster, a scientist, or a writer.

  2. My theory of skepticism (which I was specifically banned from asking as a “question” at our last local SitP): There are two kinds of woo: where you believe stuff for which there is absolutely no evidence, and where you refuse to believe stuff for which there is loads of evidence. The 1st category includes ghosts, bigfoot, UFOs are alien space ships, Nessie, gods, astrology, aliens built the pyramids, etc. and are usually fun and amusing, if a waste of time. The 2nd category includes evolution deniers, global warming deniers, the germ theory of disease deniers (homeopathy, chiropractic, acupuncture, etc.), Holocaust deniers (and other history deniers), and often have disastrous social and political consequences, or would if enough people believed them.

    The problem with this theory is that lots of woo can be cast in either category. Do antivaxxers believe vaccines cause autism (cat 1) or do they disbelieve in the germ theory of disease and how the immune system functions (cat 2)? Same applies to other medical craziness.

    Oh, well, it’s a start…

  3. I think one of the basic skills a skeptic needs is statistics. As my old prof used to say, “Study statistics and you get a critical thinking course for free.”

    You get the basics on hypothesis testing, avoiding bias, how to interpret studies, how to laugh and point at online polls etc. It’s great.

    The other essential tool in the skeptics’ kit, is knowledge of cognitive biases. It’s much harder to avoid them if you don’t know what they are. Confirmation bias is probably the first one I’d talk about.

  4. Nothing is ever proved; one can only disprove. After that, it’s Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanation is the best (as long as it fits the evidence, of course).

    On the psychological end, I feel strongly that it’s important to remember that, while critical thinking is important, the human mind is a mass of contradiction and paradox. Engineers will still believe in dowsing, and biologists will participate in church services. In other words, I suppose, avoid the ad hominem fallacy like the plague!

  5. Understanding Confirmation Bias. In a nutshell, it’s remembering the things that support your beliefs and forgetting those that don’t. It’s absolutely everywhere (or maybe I just have Confirmation Bias about my belief that it’s everywhere), and it explains so much of why people persist in believing so many weird things.

  6. @Advocatus Diaboli: Agreed! And it doesn’t need to be a full-on statistics course (although that is great, too), just a few evenings reading “How to Lie With Statistics” will set the groundwork.

    The budding skeptic also should understand the scientific method, including the need for a control, double-blind, and repeatability.

  7. One thing I always find helpful in an “intro” class on skepticism is a broader perspective of the skeptic vs non-skeptic divide. In other words, a reminder that skepticism exists on a continuum and we each begin and exist at different points. As people interact with others, its helpful to realize that the extent to which they incorporate skepticism into their lives will be different from our own. Allow people to grow and move along the skeptical spectrum at their own pace. They may not “be” where we are, but a healthy dose of both challenge and support will help them progress.

    Of course, I’m personally a big advocate for also providing the basics of communication skills needed in order to effectively promote critical thinking and a skeptical lifestyle. We hear a lot about how we “should” treat non-skeptics but rarely “how” to accomplish that. But skeptical communication skills is probably too broad a topic for your purposes. Probably deserves a workshop of its own. (I’ll look into that ;>)

    I’ll be at the workshop! I’m looking forward to it.

  8. @ cag: That is a question a lot of conspiracy theorists ask, too. They just don’t require proof for their answer.

    In line with pareidolia, you could discuss idiomotor effect. For me, learning about hypnogogic and hypnopompic hallucinations was huge (since I am prone to them).
    You could also discuss burden of proof: the burden is on the person making the affirmative claim.

  9. So many well stated concepts. Excellent!

    How ’bout discussing the tendency for the human brain to connect the dots, to see patterns in whatever information is presented to us, even if no pattern exists.

    Also, in Michael Shermer’s THE SCIENCE OF GOOD AND EVIL, the world as shades of gray, as opposed to 100% absolute truths, is discussed in detail. It’s worthwhile discussing as well.

  10. What Necrosynth said. Skepticism should be politically agnostic, and does not equate to atheism. The important thing is to be honest with yourself regarding your reasons for believing what you believe. This is just part of the introspection that all good critical thinkers should have.

  11. Correlation does not equal causation. Once you get that, a lot of otherwise sensible sounding woo claims immediately start looking a bit dodgy.

    The evidence of your own eyes may very well fool you. Just because you’re sure you saw something doesn’t necessarily mean it was there. (Although, I suppose, there’s often some correlation ;))

    That something has a long history and tradition doesn’t mean it’s real or works. Much of what “everyone knows” is actually wrong.

  12. 1) Believe in magic.

    In the same way that Randi believes in magic. It’s a complicated series of manipulations of expectations, sight-lines and behaviour intended to make you believe something that isn’t true – occasionally for someone else’s benefit.

    Now go and apply that to religion, politics and commerce.

    2) Understand that you’re wrong, and (outside of logic and mathematics) probably always will be.

    It’s wrong to say the earth is flat. It’s also wrong to say the earth is a sphere. It’s even wrong to say it’s an oblate spheroid. But the point is, you’re getting less wrong at each step.

    Compare and contrast with organisations and creeds that profess certainty.

    3) A grab-bag of interesting ‘skeptical’ phenomena – “regression to the mean”, “correllation vs causation”, “confirmation bias”. Train yourself to always ask “cui bono?”. Follow the money/sex/power/oil/grudge and you can explain most stuff.

    4) It would be nice for skeptics to have mastered a few lying-with-statistics techniques, to allow these to be spotted when they’re used (with depressing regularity) in the media. “Bad Science” has this fairly well covered…

  13. 5) Also, there should be some kind of skeptical merit badge (Amy?), earned by demonstrating the falsehood of at least seven commonly-held beliefs before a qualified panel of judges. Perhaps while blindfolded, or while wearing a suitably heroic false moustache.

  14. @halincoh:

    I have to second this… When I discovered skepticism as a “movement”, it took a long time before I stumbled upon how important it is to know WHY people believe the things they do. To understand they aren’t all morons and/or charlatans.

  15. I think that the most important thing that new skeptics need to hear is a story. Don’t let them think that everyone in this new group they are interested in is dull and fact oriented. Further, help them differentiate between the four types of skeptics. If you don’t know what the four types are, as a skeptical leader you can make them up.

    Tell them that poor grammar and spelling makes them look like nut jobs no matter what they are saying.

    Tell them it’s okay for them to have their belief is ghosts or Jesus or FSM. Being a skeptic is like listening to music. You don’t always have to be blaring to be a fan of ::band name::. But the consequences of being a fan of ::band name:: tend to follow a certian progression: first you hear a song on the radio/at a party and like it, then you discover what that song/artist is, then you explore more music, then you share that music with others and they think you’re a dork – even if they like it -, then you go to a concert, then you…. then you learn guitar and become a cover band. Not all music listeners become a cover band, but that doesn’t make them any less of a fan.

    I have way exceed my content to words ratio. Good morning!

  16. New skeptics need to understand precisely what skepticism is and what it is not. They also need to learn how skepticism differs from cynicism and why skepticism has nothing to do with belief and everything to do with learning to differentiate fact from fallacy.

  17. Never assume that you are right; support yourself with evidence and build a good case.

    Arrogance =/= having the facts

    This is something that makes me absolutely crazy about new skeptics (and also new atheists); a lot of them are very enthused about their new cause and go looking for fights because they feel like they’ve got the truth on their side. That may be the case, but unless you know all of that truth and evidence, and can argue it cogently (and where applicable, know the BS the other side likes to whip out), you just end up looking like an idiot.

  18. Be willing to admit and see where your own emotions, beliefs and personal history influence your perceptions and ideas; and then be willing to take the next step and set aside or dismiss ideas you’ve held when the facts and evidence demonstrate you were wrong or at least in no position to be as confidence about the opinions you’ve held.

  19. @Owl Translator: Occam’s razor isn’t perfect. Sometimes the more ‘complex’ explanation is the correct one for the time being. And this reminds me about ‘Reason, an Asimov short story about ‘Cutie’, a robot that can reason. It refuses to accept the fact that human beings had created him: it’s not a simple enough explanation for him. Hmm. Gotta reread it.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button
%d bloggers like this: