What is a skeptic? What isn’t a skeptic?

My husband had an interesting experience the other day. He was having a conversation with a friend and he mentioned that he was a skeptic. The friend responded something like “No way! I know another guy who believes in conspiracies and stuff too.” My husband: “Buh?”

My husband’s friend is confusing the conventional use of the word skeptic with the conspiracy theorist use of the word skeptic. Some conspiracy theorists call themselves skeptics because they are fighting the status quo, man. They’re not going to be fooled by the “official story”, especially if it came from the Government or Big . They don’t identify with the “skeptics movement”, but they genuinely consider themselves to be skeptical. The problem is, they pretty much aren’t.

The Nature of Skepticism
I know, right? I’m so unfair. No true skeptic would do X. But a defining characteristic of a skeptic is that they are skeptical (imagine that)…even of themselves. There’s always the possibility that someone is knuckle-bitingly, collar-tuggingly wrong. It feels terrible, but when it happens, the people who make use of skepticism just have to suck it up and say “I’m wrong”. Some are better at that than others and we’re only human (read: not perfect). Some people effectively use the tool of skepticism with certain topics, but are terrible with other topics. Ideally, we are aware of these issues and try to get better.

Skepticism is not the same thing as “not believing anything ever, especially from the government”. Last time I checked, no rational person was ignoring mountains of irrefutable proof that humans have been to the moon. That is not being skeptical; that is wearing blinders. It’s important to become aware of one’s blinders and remove them before jumping to conclusions if one is going to be making use of the scientific method and skepticism.

A fantastic example of this blindness is the conspiracy interpretation of 9/11 pictures — using certain angles that eliminate evidence that doesn’t jive with the belief that the Pentagon was bombed. A more objective approach, the one skeptics try to use, is to remain agnostic* to unverifiable claims and follow evidence on verifiable ones. In this case, the other angles that show plane wreckage, the air traffic control reports, the eye-witnesses, etc. In any area where there is simply no evidence, a conclusion can’t be concretely drawn but can be tentatively inferred based on likelihood and other circumstantial factors.

The truth is the truth no matter where it’s coming from and all analysis of evidence must be objective in order to avoid bias. The purpose of skepticism is to follow the truth, no matter how hard it can be to change one’s views.

The Nature of Conspiracies
To use a ridiculous analogy: The sun rises in the morning. It always has. So if the Government says the sun rises in the morning, that doesn’t all-of-a-sudden make it false. We have evidence that this concept is true and can reasonably expect it to continue to be true unless there is some catastrophe. So if humans landed on the moon and there’s plenty of evidence for that, NASA being a government agency doesn’t automatically make it a huge lie. The evidence is the evidence. There may be government conspiracies out there, but that’s not one of them. The evidence simply isn’t there.

Blindly hanging onto these ideas despite mountains of evidence to the contrary does not a skeptic make. Sufficient evidence should change a skeptic’s mind about anything – that is the nature of skepticism. Unfortunately the cynical conspiracy theorist will, apparently, not change their mind regardless of how much evidence to the contrary of their theories — to the point of concocting elaborate, escalating scenarios that accidentally prove that Skynet exists because no human-run agency could possibly be efficient enough to organize them.

Government conspiracy theories can be summed up in three words: ad hominem fallacy. “The government has done wrong things, therefore everything they do is tainted and every major tragic event is their fault.” Other conspiracies are rife with fallacious thinking as well – anyone in the mood to refine their skeptical Spidey sense should peruse through that list and match the fallacy to the conspiracy. They range from boring to dangerous: Elvis didn’t die, Shakespeare didn’t really exist, AIDS isn’t caused by HIV, vaccines cause autism, the DaVinci code is a thing, etc.

The main themes: There is not a shred of conclusive evidence to support that any of these things are true. There is most often a mountain of evidence supporting a view antithetical to their claims.

Conclusion
The next time someone calls themselves a skeptic, or says they are skeptical, right before launching into the great conspiracy to cover up crop circles and alien abductions ask them this simple question:

What evidence would it take for you to change your mind?

The answer will tell you everything you need to know.
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*Not to be confused with religious agnosticism, specifically. What I mean is, for example: When I pick apart a poor-quality picture/movie of an alleged ghost, that doesn’t negate the existence of all ghosts. But because the evidence is poor and the existence of ghosts would require more assumptions (some of which violate known mechanisms of the universe) to be true than not, I remain skeptical. The burden of proof is not on me to prove that ghosts don’t exist. The burden of proof is on whoever is making the claim.

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  • Kim Hebert

    Kim Hébert is an occupational therapist. She is interested in the promotion of science and reason, particularly regarding therapeutic health interventions. She blogs occasionally about occupational therapy and other health topics at Science-Based Therapy. Her hobbies are art and astronomy. **All views expressed by Kim are her personal views alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of current or former employers, associations, or other affiliations. All information is provided for discussion purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for consultation with a licensed and accredited health professional.