Skepticism
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."

The late 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 wondrous.

 


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.


"Keeping 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 wrong.

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 device?

Even if 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.

What makes more sense?

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.
More at:   www.randi.org

 

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
More here:  www.jerryandrus.org

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.

Psychologists have 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.


So 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.