The Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism (CASS) at the Centre for Inquiry Canada, in an effort to educate the public about the roles of critical thinking and the philosophy of skepticism, has produced a series of articles we have entitled “What is Skepticism?” Over the next four weeks we will be presenting them on Skeptic North and welcome your comments and discussion.
This week’s article by me, Michael Kruse, discusses the popular misconceptions of the term “skeptic” and attempts to introduce skepticism through the utterings of some of the bastions of the modern skeptical movement.
What is Skepticism?
- Curmudgeon. Cynic. Skeptic. If you were to ask a person on the street what a skeptic is, they will often use these words synonymously. Skepticism is seen as a knee-jerk negativity; a reflexive disbelief in the assertions made by others. The modern skeptical movement is concerned with much more than this. It is based on a scientific view of the world and uses the tools of rational and critical thinking to follow the data wherever it may lead. Though it may start from a place of disbelief, it qualifies this disbelief with the demand that the assertion requires proof: data that is rigorously investigated and, if found to be valid, leads to a change in the thinking of the observer. The doubt of curmudgeons and cynics is precious and austere. Skeptics can change their minds.
Cynicism in the modern sense bears little relation to its historical version. The Cynics were a sect of philosophers in Greece during the Hellenistic era that choose to reject the unnecessary accouterments of life, like wealth, social conventions, even modern shelter, and live in a state closer to “nature”. Today, cynicism is considered a mistrust of the sincerity of others. The long history of anti-intellectualism in the US could be defined as cynical, for example. Curmudgeonly people are just largely negative and surly; a quality that may be ascribed to some skeptics, but only because it is also a trait of the general public.
Skepticism also has its roots in the Greek Skeptics, with Pyrrho at the fore. They asserted that not only could we not trust our senses, but even that the morals of one group could never be proved to be more correct than another, so therefore we were all on the same level playing ground and could accept any moral code. Bertrand Russell, the noted 20th century philosopher, described the ancient philosophical skeptics as espousing the theory that “nobody knows, and nobody ever can know.” (Russell, p224) This extreme and dogmatic approach to knowing the world is not embraced by the modern skeptical movement, and we should more aptly describe it, as Michael Shermer the founder of the Skeptics Society does, as rational skepticism. Shermer, in his Skeptical Manifesto, describes a rational skeptic as “one who questions the validity of particular claims of knowledge by employing or calling for statements of fact to prove or disprove claims, as a tool for understanding causality.” While cynicism is a mistrust of authority, rational skepticism is a mistrust of opinion or belief.
- The act of doubting is not an intuitive one. Shermer warns us in his 2000 book How We Believe that evolution has programmed humans to be pattern seeking animals. Shermer calls this the “belief engine” and describes it as an evolved mechanism in the brain whose purpose it is to “seek patterns and find causal relationships,” but “in the process makes mistakes in thinking,” (Shermer, p39). These mistakes are important, because they can be life saving. That noise in the bushes could be just the wind or it could be a predator ready to pounce. We have one of two options: to run or to stay put. If we stay put and it is just the wind, no problem, but if we stay put and it is predator, a so-called “false negative” error, then we are somebody’s dinner. Therefore it behooves us to assume that the noise is a predator, despite that we may make false-positive errors as well; run when it is just the wind. We rarely encounter predators in modern life but we still use these short-cuts to assign causality, think about attributing bumps in the night to ghosts, rather than bad plumbing. This is what rational skepticism is attempting to overcome.
- Skepticism demands that we blend doubt with inquiry and be prepared to relinquish our doubt when confronted with sufficient evidence. Once we change our minds, however, it is not over. Conclusions in science are always tentative. A fact is accepted with the caveat that any addition of better evidence could change our opinion. There are three simple ways that anyone can evaluate a novel claim: prior plausibility, logical arguments, and a review of data. Carl Sagan, in the pivotal TV series Cosmos, suggested famously that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” (Sagan, 1:24) If you are proposing a hypothesis that attempts to overturn everything we have known about a subject for the past 100 years, then your evidence must be pretty overwhelming. If it is not, then you have failed to suggest that your idea is plausible based on prior knowledge.
Logic is the way by which we deduce, from first principles, the probable cause of a certain phenomenon. There are a litany of logical fallacies that can be made when arguing a point and a comprehensive list of them can be found at http://www.logicalfallacies.info/. If a person uses a logical fallacy to make their point, the point may be invalidated. Ad hominem attacks are one such common fallacy. If you attack the person and not the argument, you are committing a logical fallacy and your argument fails. Once we have shown that an idea is plausible and present our hypothesis logically, our job is not done. We must present proof in the form of a well designed study. We require data.
Data acquisition is the nitty-gritty of scientific inquiry, and arguably the most important aspect of it. The processes by which investigations are made are myriad and very complex, so they are hard to encapsulate. The essential aspects are that a study must have a clear question, a sufficient number of participants, a control group to see what the normal circumstances are, statistical analysis to determine significance, and, most importantly, it must be repeatable. If the study is not repeatable by another independent researcher, then we cannot accept the conclusions of the study. Ray Hyman was a student of the great Martin Gardner, the author of the monthly Mathematical Games column in Scientific American for 25 years and the author of over 70 books, including Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science which is one of the first modern skeptical tomes. Hyman was one of the first skeptical researchers to take on the dubious field of parapsychology, specifically the Ganzfeld experiments which attempted to prove the existence of extra-sensory perception, or ESP. Hyman, in a talk in April 2010, insisted that his greatest mistake was to concentrate on the failings of the experiments themselves, like the testing conditions and the statistics. He ignored the fact that no one had reproduced the experiments and regarded this as the most important strike against the parapsychologists. Regarding reproducibility, Hyman insisted “it’s a necessary thing…that’s how you know there is something there” (Hyman, 0:31).
Skepticism is only the beginning of a rational approach to discovery. It is perhaps the most important step, because it demands that we search for the answer ourselves and continue to ask questions. It is easy to be a cynic and doubt others or their assertions because we don’t trust them. It is easy to screw up the forward face of a curmudgeon and dismiss an idea out of hand because it does not conform to our view of how the world should work. Constructive doubt is difficult, and the most difficult thing to doubt are our own assumptions about the world; to go against our mistakes in thinking when asking “what was that noise?” Contrary to the idea that skeptics don’t believe in anything, or are close-minded, rational skepticism describes a process of questioning and inquiry that is at the root of our understanding of the material world. Skeptics are essentially curious. They question not to be contrary, but because they are not satisfied with superficial or supernatural answers; something the cynic or curmudgeon could never claim.