What it is and why it matters.
Of all the questions posed to
skeptics, there is one which seems to come up more than any other:
Just what is a skeptic and what is skepticism? This question
is not surprising, given the vagueness of the word "skeptic."
In reality, the word does not really do a very good job in
describing the philosophy and mindset, although I have yet to think
of a better one. In a nutshell, skeptics are those who
reject fantastic or illogical claims which are not backed up with
solid evidence and documentation. If there is one line
which can best sum up the attitude of a skeptic, it is the statement
by Carl Segan "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
In other words, claims which are
not consistent with our understanding of science, the workings of
the universe or just don’t seem to jive with reality are going to
require some very compelling evidence in order to be accepted.
Science recognizes the possibility that well accepted ideas can be
proven wrong, but many are so well established and tested that
refuting them would require some very very strong evidence.
For example, it would be entirely reasonable to accept that the idea
that the world is round (roughly spherical) and rotates on it’s axis
to be effectively and for all intents and purposes proven beyond a
shadow of a doubt. After all, we have pictures of the
earth from space, have put satellites in orbit, mapped the surface
and traveled around the globe. Therefore, if a researcher were
to propose a discovery which proved that earth was actually shaped
like a cube, it would require some very strong evidence and some
good explanations for why it has all the appearances of being round.
Failing to provide such evidence, it would not be unreasonable to
give little credence to their claims until such a time as better
evidence is forthcoming.
Although skeptics are individuals
and do not all have the same opinions, some of the notions which are
commonly rejected by skeptics include claims of the paranormal,
alien visitations, psychics, homeopathic medicine, ideas of
bioenergy fields, outlandish conspiracy theories and other claims
that go against the grain of established and tested science, history
and logic. Many of these beliefs can be traced to an
incomplete understanding of scientific principals or human
psychological tendencies. One of the most important
pillars of skepticism is that human observation and memory are very
fallible and anecdotal evidence doesn’t prove anything and often
doesn’t even qualify as "evidence."
Carl Segan embodied an uncommon enthusiasm for science and the beauty
of the universe. To those like Dr. Segan, the world is
beautiful for what it is and does not require
superstitions to make it
Nicola Tesla, a pioneer of electricity, conducted
experiments attempting to communicate with the dead or
extra-terrestrials by electronic means. This was
not entirely unreasonable at a time when
electricity and radio were not completely understood.
For three decades, the
"Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research" center
studied psychic and telepathic abilities. The center closed
in 2007, without ever being able to produce credible evidence that such phenomena exist.
an open mind"
One of the most
common criticisms of skeptics is that they fail to keep
an open mind about the possibility that they are wrong
or that paranormal effects may in fact exist and may be
observed. A common claim is that "Science
cannot disprove the existence of something." On
the surface, this may sound like a credible argument.
However, there are a few things to keep in mind, not the
least of which is that although there are many cases of
skeptics presuming a paranormal claim is untrue from the
beginning, there are none where they have been proven
At this point, most
skeptics would agree that it’s reasonable to
reject claims of the paranormal or classic
pseudoscientific claims. For all intents
and purposes, they have been disproved. It’s been
investigated so many times and so many opportunities for
proof, or even very credible evidence.
Another common argument is that “science cannot
deal with that which is not repeatable and since this
does not always work.” This is, of course, not at all
accurate, as many phenomena are accepted despite not
being reproducible on demand. Gamma
ray bursts, for example, cannot be predicted or
recreated, and yet science can document and study them.
Any phenomena which has an effect on
the world we live in can, by definition be detected and
examined by some means. If some sort of energy
field or effect did exist, and was capable of effecting
the human mind or natural world, then it would stand to
reason that it could be detected or measured directly.
If qi does flow around your house, and is blocked by
your couch or walls, then clearly it must interact with
matter, so why can’t it be detected with a Geiger
counter? or a magnetometer? or.. any kind of
an effect were somehow limited to life forms or even
humans, and could in no way be measured by an
instrument, this does not preclude it’s documentation.
Using simple surveys and statistics, it should be easy
to document that it has an effect on people’s attitude,
health, thoughts or feelings. And yet, thus
far, no actual evidence of energy fields, paranormal
entities or spirits has ever been presented. The
best that can be found are some grainy photographs which
contain what could easily be film defects.
If something has no observable effect, no influence then
why would one assume it even exists in reality?
There are also no shortage of
examples of claims which are based on a lack of
understanding of basic principals or a partial
understanding of scientific principals. For
example, many who believe claims of "dowsers" being able
to detect underground water supplies will mention that
water will have a tendency to change the geomagnetic
properties of the ground. While this is
true, they do not note that the changes are very subtle
and could easily be confused by mineral deposits or
buried structures. Furthermore, there’s no
creditable evidence that humans could detect magnetic
fields directly, much less such minor variations.
Those who claim to be "researchers" in this area may use
scientific jargon or even quote legitimate studies,
taken out of context. For example, studies
have shown humans affected by extremely powerful
pulsed magnetic fields may be referenced, even though
they do not apply to the minute variations which water
might cause. This is not science; it is pseudoscience and attempts to legitimize such
pursuits by using scientific terms.
Furthermore, there are many who use the term skeptic but
do not truly embody the mindset. A good
example of this is a certain reality-ish television show
about ghost investigations. This show claims
to be skeptical but always seems to find some sort of
"evidence" that a given place is haunted. Most of
the investigations end up being inconclusive, but have
interesting "evidence." Isn’t it strange
that with all that investigating there would never be
anything solid or conclusive? It might be a
bit more understandable, however, considering it is a
for-profit show which needs to deliver ratings.
One of the other
things to consider when evaluating extraordinary claims
is quite simply, do they make sense? Do they fit
within our understanding of science, nature and history?
Most (if not all) of these claims do not even
present a coherent or logical argument for how they
function or what their capabilities are. Psychic
powers, for example, just don’t jive with science in any
way shape or form. No possible reasonable mechanism has
been presented. No reason why they would be considered
logical to exist. No credible documentation of their
existence. I don’t even think “psychics” can agree on
what the limitations and possibilities are.
A common thread in
such claims can be found if one simply attempts to
construct an integrated and logical set of rules to
explain such phenomena. Do ghosts know
they are dead? Do some of them?
Are they recorded events from the past? Can
they effect people? Can ghosts "cross over" to
another world, and if so can they come back?
Can they have direct conversations with the living or
just "Show an M and something involving cold or the
color blue?" If you ask a numerous believers
you will get numerous answers. They cannot
all be right, but they can all be wrong.
Furthermore, if you
are to believe in alternative science, the paranormal
and other outlandish claims, you will find you have to
pick and choose which ones to discount and which to
believe. After all, the US could not
possibly have faked the moon landing AND discovered
alien civilizations on the moon. John F.
Kennedy was not shot from a Sewer drain, the Grassy
Knoll, the Dal Tex building, from inside the limousine,
from a bystander with an umbrella, from above the
overpass, from someone in a tree and all the other
places that conspiracy theorists will claim.
James Randi, founder of the James
Randi Educational Foundation, has offered a one million
dollar prize for proof of the paranormal for years.
It has not been claimed and thus far, nobody has even
been able to make it past the initial screenings or
present even slightly convincing evidence.
Jerry Andrus has
created some of the worlds best known optical and
spacial illusions. While his creations are fun,
they also have an important message: Don’t become
overly confident in your perception of reality
There is no
shortage of more logical explanations…
Yet another argument which is put
forward in support of unsupported beliefs is simply the
number of people who believe them. "Don’t
most societies believe in some sort of life after
death?" or "How can half the world’s population be
wrong?" These arguments, of course,
fail to consider that such beliefs and claims can easily
be explained by very logical and fundamental principals
of the human condition.
long known about the fallibilities of human memory and
how events can be twisted and confused by outside
influences or altered to fit a conclusion. It’s
easy to look at many beliefs and see how they would be
reassuring or seem to make sense on some sort of
emotional level. The idea of non-existence
after death is hard to grapple with and the ideas of
ghosts and spirits are a natural way to try to
understand such concepts. People are often prone
to see what they want to see or simply expect to see.
If a person is put in a "haunted house" and sees a
curtain flutter or has a vivid dream, their imagination
can run wild.
Claims which are only
supported by anecdotal evidence should always be taken
with a grain of salt. In any good clinical
trial of a drug, there is always a control group, given
a simulated treatment, which is not actually the drug
but an inactive stand-in. The reason is the
placebo effect, which although long understood, is
something many do not want to admit they could be
susceptible to. Similarly, subconscious
effects like the idiomotor effect may cause a person to
move a pendulum or Ouija board pointer while swearing
that they made no conscious effort to do so.
Failure to take into consideration these effects is a
hallmark of bad science.
It’s also important
to consider that the human mind often generalizes what
is perceived into an intangible sort of sense.
You may see someone who seems to be full of energy or
enter a room and feel as if things are dead, silent and
serious. This is, of course, not actually a
real energy field or "vibe" but is your mind simplifying
the perception of facial expressions, sound, non-verbal
cues. It may even seem physical, like being
rushed by a cold thread or feeling of warmth and
welcome. Living life by analyzing every tiny
detail would be very difficult, but it’s easy to see how
these intuitive feelings could be the root of a belief
in energies, spirits or other entities.
you want to be a skeptic?
If you find
yourself agreeing with what you are reading
here, then you already are. Being a skeptic does
not require you to be a professional scientist
or a member of any skeptical organizations.
It’s simply a logic-based view of science and
the world in general. Skeptics come in all
ages, shapes and sizes. Skeptics
have varying opinions on all manner of topics
and come from a wide spectrum of political
affiliations. Some who consider
themselves skeptics are athiests, but others do
believe in a higher power or are agnostic.
The requirement is critical thinking and a
desire to understand things for what they are.
My own conclusion:
Might the paranormal and
other fantastic claims be legitimate? I suppose they could be.
But there also might be a 7 extremely tall men in flannel
pajamas standing on toadstools and yodeling in my grandmother’s
basement. There’s no reason to believe it couldn’t happen. But….
I am willing to hazard a bet that there are not. Considering
there’s absolutely no reason to think there are and it seems a
safe assumption to think there aren’t. I see no reason to call
Nanna and have her check and I see no reason to investigate
psychics any further.
The world is interesting and elegant for what it is.
I would rather not have my view of reality obscured by beliefs
in things that simply are not there.