I have been doing a little light reading recently, mostly online. I don’t want to discuss the content of what I have been reading, though. Instead I would like to discuss the reactions to the reading I have been doing. The nature of true scepticism is to have an open mind: to say that I do not believe the claim made but if sufficient proof can be found I will change my view on the matter. True scepticism applies to everything: crime reports, whether your partner is/isn’t having an affair, the daily news, whether the fish caught really was “that big” and so on. It is healthy to be sceptical, otherwise we would all walk around looking like idiots as we believed without question absolutely everything we were told.
The opposite end of scepticism is not, I think, belief but instead it is cynicism. The dictionary ( :pseudo: ) defines a cynic as believing that everything is done through self interest, but this has pretty much expanded to also mean a disbelief in things; the assmption that everyone is a liar. This latter extreme bars one in gaining any extra knowledge in the same way that believing everything does – one just makes you disbelieve everything and the other gives you no filter against any new knowledge and so it all becomes meaningless. True scepticism sits neatly between the two extremes. It means that one will listen to the information, weigh it up, test it and then come to a conclusion. If that sounds familiar then you are probably a scientist! :drugnerd: This is something we should all do and usually fail to do – hence the spate of news stories about ghosts, psychics and other stuff. All of this is presented as absolute truth and is usually not even slightly looked into – in an ideal world, none of these stories would ever appear on the news (unless in a “funny old world” way) because they are easily disprovable.
In terms of my personal bête noire psychics and homeopaths, there is a famous saying “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence“. So what does this actually mean? In the link, the site there discusses the resurrection of Jesus. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go off on an atheist rant here 🙂 This does, though, illustrate the point. A Christian, generally speaking, will accept that the man Jesus died (was murdered, killed, etc) and after 3 days rose from the dead and walked around and spoke to people prior to ascending to heaven. This is a very powerful image and constitutes proof of his divinity. A sceptic, however, would point to the fact that the only real testimony of this is from the Bible which is, as we all know, a hodge-podge of anecdotal and second hand information filtered through the early Church to make it politically acceptable. Since then there have been no reliable testimonies of people rising from true death and the miracle is something that we know now can be falsified with various drugs. So, bearing in mind that this is not possible to be proved true or false, where does the sceptic go with this? The sceptic is left where s/he started – it can’t be proven, it can be falsified and there is no proof either way. I can happily live with that.
However, my light reading has shown me something very interesting. Let’s look at what Merriam-Webster have to say about skepticism (US dictionary, US spelling I’m afraid):
- Function: noun
- Date: 1646
synonyms see uncertainty
1 : an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object
2 a : the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain b : the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics
3 : doubt concerning basic religious principles (as immortality, providence, and revelation)
As we can see, it is a means of suspending judgement and the unsaid bit there is “until proof one way or another arrives”. Fun stuff, eh? In practical terms, I can say that I can fly. I can also present you with several people who “definitely, really saw me fly the other day and it was awesome”. I can also put together a batch of seemingly scientific papers to show that unaided flight is not only possible but has been reported on for many years. Do you believe me? Of course not because I have failed to actually show you that I can fly. Ah, I may say, but you live many miles away and it is not practical for either of us to meet so you can see proof of my flying. So you’ll just have to believe me, right? Nope again. Maybe you would suggest that I create a video with eye witnesses or present myself to your nearby friend/relative to show them that I can fly so they can tell you. Or maybe submit myself to, ooh, I don’t know the Million Dollar Challenge, perhaps? And so on. We are all naturally sceptical and this is a very healthy thing. Personal beliefs will make you suspend this – religion, belief in the paranormal, etc – but broadly we are all sceptical.
All this is a long winded way to bring me to my next point. I have read several sites with both a pro- and anti- paranormal stance. The responses to both the main story and the comments are strangely similar. If your blog is atheistic or anti-paranormal, the commenters will form into two camps, both with their own prejudices and their own set of respected scholars. The difference is that the pro- side will generally derail the argument and often present responses to arguments that haven’t been made. This is a common tactic, by the way. Many will simply offer to pray for the poster or commenter as if this will make them change their mind. On both sides, however, 2 things shine through: educated people have their own beliefs and will take one side over the other accordingly and both sides will be absolutely sure that they are right and the other side is wrong. This is not scepticism but, unfortunately, it is human. As humans we are predisposed to pick a side and, as humans, we are predisposed to defend that side. As internet humans (!) we are predisposed to be less polite than we would be in a face to face setting!
So is there a fix for the lack of calmness and rationality on both sides? I don’t think so. We are human after all and as such we will display the same traits no matter what the subject or our personal backgrounds and beliefs. Academics are no less prone to outbursts of irrationality than street sweepers or anyone else. All I can suggest is that we all recognise when we are becoming too heated and to try to see the argument from the other side – a good exercise would be to pick a position and then to defend the other side. Also, we need to know that being open minded does not mean that you should believe in everything you are told, an open mind will understand that your position may not always be the correct one.
Oh, and if you are making an extraordinary claim, get some extraordinary evidence to back it up or you will be called a kook.
For examples of extraordinary claims, follow this link to the Challenge Applications listing on the JREF site. These are descriptions of the claims made by applicants and the evolving protocols designed for them to prove the claims.
Posted on 9 August, 2009, in Skeptical Stories and tagged debunk, evidence, james randi, paranormal, scepticism, Scientific skepticism, skepticism, uri gellar, woo. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.