Scientific Skepticism: A Tutorial
This post may sound condescending and perhaps it is. Self-righteousness is not my intention, but I am well aware that some may see it differently. The alternative is to keep my mouth shut and pretend that all is well.
All is not well.
I have been very disturbed by something that I have seen far too much of in the community recently. It is not new, but it was very salient right now and it broke my heart.
I feel that I must also acknowledge the fact that behavior in some arenas has left me angry, outraged, and even queasy. But this post is about skeptics and skepticism.
You see, it is obvious that an uncomfortably large portion of people calling themselves skeptics and skepticism activists and advocates are under the impression that the definition of “skepticism” is one or more of the following:
- a refuge for people who felt like outcasts in high school
Following are some quotes which led me to this conclusion. I will not provide the names (I’m sure Google will help you with that if you must know) because none of them are unique. Each has been stated by at least one other person, although perhaps not in the same words. And some of these go back a few months.
I was under the impression that Skepticism was about questioning norms and creating change.
It’s [skepticism] not an either/or scenario (social justice movement OR tool), it’s whatever you want it to be.
Skepticism means something different to all of us.
Then you are using Skepticism as a social movement.
I will say this again because it is important enough to repeat: this is heartbreaking.
This is heartbreaking because it means that the movement has succeeded in attracting people who are willing to identify themselves as skeptics, but it has failed miserably in its cause: promoting skepticism. A friend whose interaction with the community is minimal summed it up nicely: The price of widespread acceptance is widespread ignorance.
The scope of skepticism and the line between atheism and skepticism have been discussed at length by many people who clearly understand the issues. There are philosophical and historical arguments which, settled or not, tend to be central in rational discussions of the topic.
It is not these arguments that prompted me to write this entry. It is not the people making these arguments who worry me.
It is the people who have either forgotten or never knew that skepticism is about epistemology; it is about how we know. I would like to think that people devoting their time and energy to a cause want to understand what it is they are working toward.
First, let’s establish that I didn’t make this up.
Skepticism is an honest search for knowledge. It is an approach to claims akin to the scientific method. It is a powerful and positive methodology (a collection of methods of inquiry) that is used to evaluate claims and make decisions. It is used to search for the (provisional) truth in matters and to make decisions that are based on sound reasoning, logic, and evidence.
Skepticism, a form of evidence-based reasoning, is a way of knowing that weighs evidence and prior plausibility in determining if a claim is true… Skepticism is not a religion or life philosophy. It tells a person not what to think, but how to know. Skepticism provides time-tested tools used long in science and academia that give the best possibility of finding the truth.
Skepticism is about the search for knowledge. Its foundations are the scientific method and relying on empirical evidence. Skepticism is the process of applying critical thinking, reason, and reality to a given matter. A skeptic is someone who applies vigorous and systematic research to any claim, regardless of its political, religious, or social implications…
Skepticism is not a belief system. Skepticism is a methodology.
Skepticism is a method of examining claims about the world. The skeptical “toolbox” includes a reliance upon reason, critical thinking, and a desire for verifiable, testable evidence about particular claims (especially extraordinary ones). Usually, the “skeptical way of thinking” is embodied in the scientific method.
You may redefine the word if you like, but then you are just making stuff up.
Notice that all of these definitions describe a process, not a conclusion. They describe a search for truth, not a search for values. In fact, there is a clear and very scientific statement that values are irrelevant: “A skeptic is someone who applies vigorous and systematic research to any claim, regardless of its political, religious, or social implications.”
While it is certainly the case that a large portion of the community supports socially liberal ideals, the promotion of those values is not skepticism.
What’s more, the promotion of values cannot be included in this pursuit.
Why are values and morals outside the scope of skepticism or science? Because they make us biased.
The most influential factor in evaluating arguments is something called the belief bias. Look it up.
Bias is not always a bad thing when we are making decisions about actions to take, such as whether we should donate to a cause or take in an animal that needs a home, but bias is our worst enemy when we are looking for truth. Biases lead us to misinterpret, misattribute, and misunderstand. They lead to mistakes. They are the reason we need science in the first place.
So, let me summarize this:
Skeptics assert that the scientific method is the best means for both acquiring knowledge and for testing claims. By definition, the scientific method is one in which we minimize human error by removing human biases from the process. This drastically reduces the probability that we will draw the wrong conclusion.
The skepticism movement is an organized effort to apply scientific skepticism to claims, thereby reducing the harm that belief in those claims causes. We apply skepticism to determine what is true. We use that information to reduce the dissemination of untruths.
Truth is not value and facts are not morals.
Furthermore, if you refuse to set aside your values and morals when considering whether something is true, by definition, you are not rational.
In my opinion, if you do not understand the fundamental concept that personal values and opinions may be informed by scientific inquiry, but cannot be considered in the methods that are science and skepticism, then you are not a skeptic.