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What is a Skeptic and Why Bother Being One?
By David Glück
Posted on: 4/23/2002
Kil uses at least 11% of his brain in order to share the meaning and purpose of active skepticism in today's world.
What is a Skeptic?
How many times have you heard someone say that we humans only use ten percent of our brains? It’s a common myth. When I hear someone repeat that claim I make sure to ask the person, “What part of your brain would you be willing to do without? If ninety percent of your brain is doing nothing, surely you have some to spare.”
I like the ten percent myth because it often leads to a discussion on one of my favorite topics — skepticism. I get to expound on critical thinking, Occam’s Razor and a method for regarding various claims in a way that my victim may have never considered.
If I can pique someone’s interest in skepticism and critical thinking, and if I can show that person how an inquiring mind can serve them in many areas of their own life, I am one happy skeptic.
Why should I care? Does it really matter what a person believes if it’s not harming anyone? If that was all there was to the question, I would probably say no. But that’s not how I see it. Quack medicine is on the rise. Dangerous or useless drugs are being sold with legal protection under the Food Supplement Act because the ingredients are “natural.” Tossing out a few scientific phrases can sell almost any consumer product. When pseudo-science has become respectable to the point that there is a public debate over which “science” we will teach our children, I think we may be in some trouble. A psychic has a top-rated TV show without having to demonstrate, in any meaningful way, that he has the abilities he claims. A book sold in the non-fiction section of a prominent book store tells a “true” story of an alien abduction. Some children are being threatened by rubella and measles because mothers are being told that autism and SIDS are caused by inoculations, even though this notion is demonstrably false. There is a conspiracy theory around every corner. With all of this and much more, it makes me happy to introduce one more person to skepticism. One more voice for reason. One more person who will be aware of and question extraordinary claims.
So what is skepticism? The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “A doubting or questioning attitude or state of mind.” That is true to a point. Unfortunalty, this definition also implies a certain closed-mindedness. It stops well short of how we skeptics view our skepticism. I view skepticism as a method for finding out if a claim has any value by asking questions and considering the evidence for the claim. We become skeptical when a claim does not seem tenable. We approach such a claim with doubt. We want to know more about it. While our doubt may be justified, we must remain open to the idea that the claimant might be able to support that claim. Simply doubting a claim is not enough. We will learn nothing if we remain steeped in doubt. Doubt should serve as the motivator for skeptical inquiry.
A claim has been made and for one reason or another it seems less than plausible, so we ask the person making the claim for evidence that might validate the claim. Or, we might seek out evidence ourselves because we are curious. We look at whatever evidence we have and consider the following:
To us skeptics, a claim must be backed up by evidence, and the worth of that evidence must be equal to the claim if we are to regard it as proof. For example, say I make the claim that my hair grows at a rate of an inch every day. All it would take to test that claim is a ruler and two measurements of my hair — one measurement now and one in twenty-four hours. It would be easy to test that claim, and the test could be easily replicated.
Can the evidence be explained in another way?
Did a mind bend that spoon, or is it a simple magic trick
that most magicians know?
Where did the evidence come from?
Did the evidence come from a nutritionist backing up claims
made by Steve Garvey selling a diet product on an infomercial?
Was the evidence a testimonial? Or was the evidence a result
of a controlled double-blind study conducted by a major
university and then published and peer-reviewed?
Will scientific analysis support the evidence?
This goes for almost every claim.
Is the claim falsifiable?
Is the claim in a realm that can be tested and proven one way
or the other?
(Some claims are not falsifiable. Many supernatural claims
may be explained in ways that are more satisfying to a skeptic.
Does John Edwards play a game of twenty questions, thereby
getting those he is reading to supply him with his hits? Is a
ghost more likely the figment of an active imagination and
creaky boards? Speaking for myself, I doubt supernatural
claims on the grounds that I have seen no convincing evidence
that there is anything outside of nature. But I cannot prove
that. I cannot prove the non-existence of anything...)
Is the evidence strong enough to support the claim?
If the evidence was strong enough to withstand the above tests,
we can now regard the claim as valid -- at least provisionally.
Like a scientific theory, new evidence may support the claim or
throw it back into doubt.
But what if I claimed that I was abducted by aliens one night, taken to another world and returned by morning? Since I made the claim, it would now be up to me to provide the evidence. I would need to produce an alien, an alien craft or some artifact from the other world that simply could not have originated on planet Earth. It would be nice to have produced an alien, but alas, all I have is an artifact. The artifact will have to be verified by more than one investigator or scientist. It will have to pass test after test and be subjected to peer-review by scientists in order to confirm its authenticity. Then and only then will the artifact qualify as solid evidence in support of my claim. Now my problem is how to convince those investigating my claim that I brought it here personally. After all, I might have found it near a meteor-impact crater.
I could tell a scientist my story. My girlfriend might confirm that I was not at home during the hours in question. Maybe he would believe us, maybe not. That would only qualify as anecdotal evidence. Since some people have very active imaginations, that evidence would be considered weak. On the other hand, how did I get the artifact? I would have to somehow prove the existence of the alien vessel; some other alien transport system; or have some knowledge that I just couldn’t have, unless I had visited another world, in order to complete my proof. My claim is a big one. So the evidence for my claim must cover my whole story to make my whole story irrefutable.
Does this seem unfair? I don’t think so. The moment other explanations become possible, all or part of my claim is thrown back into doubt. Given the enormity of the announcement that would have to be made — “Man Abducted by Aliens, Verified” — it seems reasonable to ask that all the evidence support that claim. Of course, there are those who would give me the benefit of the doubt. They publish UFO magazines and have plenty of evidence to support their particular reality…
Why be a skeptic?
Skeptics are the first line of defense against pseudoscience, fraud, quackery and those who claim psychic ability. This makes us dangerous to a lot of people. We have been a thorn in the side of the alternative medicine industry. It’s usually skeptics who make the first demands for evidence to support the claims that these companies make for their products. It’s usually the skeptics who are the first to wonder if the psychic surgeon isn’t possibly doing some kind of sleight of hand. Skeptics asked if those crop circles might not have been produced by means other than a weird vortex or aliens. And we demonstrated how they might be done before the hoax was revealed.
Most skeptics are not in the business of investigating claims. If that were the case, only scientists, magicians and those with expertise in the field of the claim in question would be skeptics. We skeptics support the investigators. Frankly, we cheer them on. As a layperson, I am simply not qualified to claim the expert knowledge of a scientist.
What I can do as a skeptic is cultivate my ability to recognize claims of a dubious nature. I can learn how not to be had. There is so much information coming at us from books, the media and from friends and family, that it is no small thing to be able to recognize, in that cacophony of ideas, those of value and those ideas that need to be questioned before a value can be assigned to them.
I enjoy being a skeptic. I am not burdened with superstition. Although I suppose it could happen, I haven’t fallen for any cons lately. In fact, I can usually recognize a con a mile off and I take some pleasure in frustrating those who try me. I love learning, and when you ask as many questions as a skeptic does, you are bound to learn new things. Take the ten percent myth. I once believed that silliness. It’s much more fun to know the truth about it and to be able to turn it to my advantage. It makes me very happy to know that I may have taught someone a lesson in how to use all of their brain.
Thanks to my girlfriend, Michelle, for having the nerve to edit this essay. I can be extraordinarily stubborn.
Thanks to my son Tim (Boron10) for proof reading.
Thanks also to Dawn Huxley, for further fine tuning, and whose original “What is a Skeptic” report, published on this site, I freely plagiarized.