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 Skepticism, a definition please?
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New Member

30 Posts

Posted - 08/11/2001 :  19:13:08  Show Profile Send Jim a Private Message
I have been hanging out here a while, and it seems that, like any belief, there are different levels to which people take them. My question is this; What is skepticism?

Is it like Hume says, basically nothing can be known, for certain, thus we should be skeptical of everything. Shouldn't we then be skeptical of skepticism?

Or should there just be skepticism concerning supernatural things(concepts), religious ideas, UFO's, and not the natural?

Is there such a thing as 'healthy' skepticism? What about 'unhealthy' skepticism?

My question is really this; What is the common ground for skepticism?


Skeptic Friend

77 Posts

Posted - 08/11/2001 :  22:14:55   [Permalink]  Show Profile Send marvin a Private Message
“Skeptic - One who practices the method of suspended judgment, engages in rational and dispassionate reasoning as exemplified by the scientific method, shows willingness to consider alternative explanations without prejudice based on prior beliefs, and who seeks out evidence and carefully scrutinizes its validity.” ---ufoskeptic

This is the way it should be, but who has the patience necessary to be nice and ‘dispassionate' when arguing with a loon.

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Skeptic Friend

431 Posts

Posted - 08/11/2001 :  22:36:23   [Permalink]  Show Profile  Send Zandermann an AOL message Send Zandermann a Private Message
I like that definition, marvin, although I think that all too often it breaks down in 2 ways.
  1. "... shows willingness to consider alternative explanations without prejudice based on prior beliefs ..."
    I think that an outside observer perusing the Politics and Religion folders would have much to comment on regarding some posters' inability/unwillingness to do this.
  2. ... and who seeks out evidence ..."
    How often do we actively look for evidence supporting "the other side" of arguments we are engaged in?

All in all, though, I think this definition is a worthwhile ideal to strive for. I agree with your "This is the way it should be".

I think the "common ground" for skepticism can be achieved only in so far as we can get past those two problems.

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SFN Regular

1668 Posts

Posted - 08/13/2001 :  23:32:37   [Permalink]  Show Profile Send Slater a Private Message
Here is a piece by Carl Sagan about something he refers to as his "Baloney Detection Kit"
It's a true "basic" of modern skepticism.

What's in the kit? Tools for skeptical thinking.

What skeptical thinking boils down to is the means to construct, and to understand, a reasoned argument and -- especially important -- to recognize a fallacious or fraudulent argument. The question is not whether we like the conclusion that emerges out of a train of reasoning, but whether the conclusion follows from the premise or starting point and whether that premise is true.

Among the tools:

Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the "facts."
Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
Arguments from authority carry little weight -- "authorities" have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
Spin more than one hypothesis. If there's something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among "multiple working hypotheses," has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.*

* NOTE: This is a problem that affects jury trials. Retrospective studies show that some jurors make up their minds very early -- perhaps during opening arguments -- and then retain the evidence that seems to support their initial impressions and reject the contrary evidence. The method of alternative working hypotheses is not running in their heads.

Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours. It's only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don't, others will.
Quantify. If whatever it is you're explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you'll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
If there's a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) -- not just most of them.
Occam's Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle -- an electron, say -- in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out.
Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

The reliance on carefully designed and controlled experiments is key, as I tried to stress earlier. We will not learn much from mere contemplation. It is tempting to rest content with the first candidate explanation we can think of.
One is much better than none. But what happens if we can invent several? How do we decide among them? We don't. We let experiment do it. Francis Bacon provided the classic reason:

Argumentation cannot suffice for the discovery of new work, since the subtlety of Nature is greater many times than the subtlety of argument.

Control experiments are essential. If, for example, a new medicine is alleged to cure a disease 20 percent of the time, we must make sure that a control population, taking a dummy sugar pill which as far as the subjects know
might be the new drug, does not also experience spontaneous remission of the disease 20 percent of the time.

Variables must be separated. Suppose you're seasick, and given both an acupressure bracelet and 50 milligrams of meclizine. You find the unpleasantness vanishes. What did it -- the bracelet or the pill? You can tell only if you take the one without the other, next time you're seasick. Now imagine that you're not so dedicated to science as to be willing to be seasick. Then you won't separate the variables. You'll take both remedies again. You've achieved the desired practical result; further knowledge, you might say, is not worth the discomfort of attaining it.

Often the experiment must be done "double-blind," so that those hoping for a certain finding are not in the potentially compromising position of evaluating the results. In testing a new medicine, for example, you might
want the physicians who determine which patients' symptoms are relieved not to know which patients have been given the new drug. The knowledge might influence their decision, even if only unconsciously. Instead the list of
those who experienced remission of symptoms can be compared with the list of those who got the new drug, each independently ascertained. Then you can determine what correlation exists. Or in conducting a police lineup or
photo identification, the officer in charge should not know who the prime suspect is, so as not consciously or unconsciously to influence the witness.

In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do. It helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric.
Many good examples can be found in religion and politics, because their practitioners are so often obliged to justify two contradictory propositions. Among these fallacies are:

ad hominem -- Latin for "to the man," attacking the arguer and not the argument (e.g., The Reverend Dr. Smith is a known Biblical fundamentalist, so her objections to evolution need not be taken seriously); argument from authority (e.g., President Richard Nixon should be re- elected because he has a secret plan to end the war in Southeast Asia -- but because it was secret, there was no way for the electorate to evaluate it on its merits; the argument amounted to trusting him because he was President: a mistake, as it turned out); argument from adverse consequences (e.g., A God meting out punishment and reward must exist, because if He didn't, society would be much more lawless and dangerous -- perhaps even ungovernable.* Or: The
defendant in a widely publicized murder trial must be found guilty; otherwise, it will be an encouragement for other men to murder their wives);

* NOTE: A more cynical formulation by the Roman historian Polybius: "Since the masses of the people are inconstant, full of unruly desires, passionate, and reckless of consequences, they must be filled with fears to
keep them in order. The ancients did well, therefore, to invent gods, and the belief in punishment after death."

appeal to ignorance -- the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa (e.g.,There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore UFOs exist -- and there is
intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. Or: There may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so we're still central to the Universe.) This impatience
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Skeptic Friend

281 Posts

Posted - 08/14/2001 :  05:26:43   [Permalink]  Show Profile  Send Greg an AOL message Send Greg a Private Message
The most important thing to remember is to not to write frank, unflattering, and perhaps overly-vitriolic opinions (rants) about anyone except young-earth creationists, moon-hoaxers, phony spiritualists, and any of the other assorted straw men whose collective opinions and activities are infinitesmal in the grand scheme of the world or your own life.

But seriously Jim,

From your posts, you appear to be curious and willing to see others opinions. Go with that as a start. Take nothing for granted and ask questions - lots of questions. Don't fear the answers to the questions. This is what skepticism is about.


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Skeptic Friend

92 Posts

Posted - 08/24/2001 :  07:52:53   [Permalink]  Show Profile Send Orpheus a Private Message
Read Slater's reply...then, read it again.

If skepticism had a poster-boy, it would be Carl Sagan. In him you will not find a more ballanced, freethinking and eloquent proponent of the secular-scientific world view.

Cudos to Slater for keeping Sagan's name and vision alive.

Find your own damned answers!
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SFN Regular

842 Posts

Posted - 09/01/2001 :  19:14:11   [Permalink]  Show Profile Send ljbrs a Private Message

Thank you for your excellent post.

All of us true skeptics should read it thoughtfully and carefully before clobbering every true believer and other kinds of troglodytes that we infrequently meet in this forum. Then, having contemplated it all, we can hop to it and demolish every argument that they can make, throwing into the fray the finest ad hominems we can muster.

Or something like that...


Perfection Is a State of Growth...
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