What is Skepticism?
Do you think skeptics are cynics, anti-religious bigots or just argumentative morons? You won't believe how often I hear these things and how many times I have to tell people about how these perceptions are just way off the mark. So I wrote a blog about it. Skeptics are actually quite open to new ideas. It’s simply an endeavour to think critically so we are less gullible. We are all skeptics in a way. If I tell you I can do 500 push-ups, you’d tell me you would have to see it to believe it…if you managed to stop laughing first. You need to see evidence because, sometimes, a claim is just too far-fetched to be plausible. That’s you being skeptical. If someone makes a claim, a skeptic will try and find evidence for it before accepting or rejecting it.
The Nature of Evidence
Unfortunately, your personal experience, as real as it may be to you, is not always good enough. Since we humans are quite fallible, biased and easily deceived (with something as simple as a magic trick or an optical illusion) anecdotal evidence just doesn’t carry much weight. Evidence should be widely accepted by people who specialise in the field of the claim, and is preferably scientific. Therefore evidence, at least for claims regarding nature, should come from the scientific community in the form of peer-reviewed papers, or better yet, a demonstration. Basically, I’d have to get on the floor and show you how many push-ups and I can actually do in order to convince you. And just to be sure, get an unbiased party to count independently.
I’m no scientist but I do try and find as much evidence as is adequate for me to accept or reject a claim. So I look for articles published in reputed skeptical and scientific websites and magazines. It’s the best I can do.
Acknowledge your Biases
We all have biases. They are hardwired into our brains to ensure we conform to social norms and hold on to what our families and friends tell us about the world.
Thats why there are so many things we hold so close to our hearts even if they aren’t plausible or even true. I used to think ancient civilisation probably had high levels of technology. I found out much later that there was no evidence to support it. I took it for granted that homeopathy worked because my family believed in it without question. Turns out I was wrong there too.
One of the most important keys to skeptical thinking is to accept that we have biases. We should continually challenge our beliefs and test them against evidence to break them down. It’s not a pleasant exercise but it’s very important to find new information that conflicts with your own.
These are some of the questions you should ask yourself whenever you’re faced with information that conflicts with your beliefs:
How reliable is the evidence to support this new information?
If that evidence is strong, what about the evidence that supports my beliefs?
Which one of them can be falsified?
What context and nuance are there to either side?
These are only the beginning. When the first few steps are taken, a torrent of questions will most probably follow that will take you deeper into the topic. So, be patient and follow the evidence.
But “science doesn’t know everything”, right? Of course, it doesn’t. But it is the best method we have to attempt to understand the real world and minimising the fallibilities of the human mind. And it works. Every TV and t-shirt, computer and Corvette, bottle of soda and box of chocolates, and even the internet are created using the scientific method. This has been the main engine of progress for our species. And that in itself is evidence enough for me to use that method when testing claims.
In its very essence, science is a way of thinking. It’s about thinking critically about the world around us and trying to understand it rationally and naturally while minimising biases and fallibilities. We must observe, test, experiment and question everything so that we can come to understand what is most true; what is most real.
That doesn’t stop people from claiming a phenomenon to be possibly true, and even if not scientifically proven yet, it may be some day. For instance, what if ghosts or spirits actually do exist but we just don’t have the technology to measure and observe them? In which case, how did you observe them? And if you have experienced such phenomena, is it more plausible or possible that you imagined or dreamed it? My response usually is, if you’ve had a personal experience, it could be a valid experience for you. But for me to believe it as well, you need to show me evidence that your experience was objectively real.
The absence of adequate skepticism and critical thinking has led to the rise of many scams, hoaxes, conspiracy theories and fake news. Many of these, like some alternative medicines, detox products and fad diets can have serious effects on people’s health and quality of life. Critical thinking can nip these ideas in the bud and literally save lives.
It is in this spirit that I write on this blog. Rationable is about critically thinking about how we perceive our everyday experiences, and trying to find a way to make this world a better place. Many such things can be exposed by using the scientific method and the evidence it provides.
I encourage you to be as skeptical about my claims as I am of yours. Provide the evidence for your claim and let’s discuss it. If I am proven wrong or inaccurate, I will amend whatever is required and change my mind. We are all allowed to do that, you know. In none of my articles do I plan to make any absolute claims. I only endeavour to provide the arguments which have the most evidence backing them so I have a high degree of certainty. And if I have holes in my argument, I welcome you to rip it apart…or help me fill the gaps.
As Matt Dillahunty once said, I want to know as many true things and as few false things as possible. And being sceptical and scientific is the only way I can do that.
So I can’t do 500 push-ups. No surprises there. But I may be able to some day. But the possibility of something happening doesn’t make it probable and I don’t suggest you hold your breath. What I do recommend is that you think critically of people’s claims, think rationally, logically and plausibly.
That is all that skeptics do. You’ve been doing it too on many things for most of your life. Just acknowledge it and try applying it to what you believe and what people try to make you believe. And you’ll end up being a far less gullible person than you are today.