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.
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.