Phil Plait hit on something I was thinking about today, as well. Visit his site, here.
Phil discusses deniers, and contrasts them from skeptics. He points out that there are deniers of the moon landing, of global warming, and so on. While they claim to be skeptical, if they deny facts, they are deniers, not skeptics. They need to accept facts across the board, and not just when it suits them. I agree. My thought was along these lines, and let me tell you where this started.
I tend to be conservative and skeptical when it comes to something outrageous. I think most good skeptics would be, also. I wasn’t around when many of the major physics breakthroughs of the early 1900s were happening, but when I was old enough to be rational about things, when someone claimed the ozone was thinning, greenhouse gasses were causing global warming, or that the moon was probably formed when a large Mars-sized planet slammed into the earth – I was reluctant to blindly accept their outrageous claims and predictions. For one thing, problems like that are very complex and computer models are only as reliable as the data and theory. However, as the evidence mounted, I joined other scientists in endorsing these findings.
Unless we have evidence to the contrary, we must accept the prevailing ‘best evidence-based theory’, and all skeptics should stand behind it. Being a skeptic does not mean you are just cynical, or contrary, it means you subscribe to the scientific method and you accept the best and simplest natural explanation for observations. It also means, if a young upstart like Einstein comes along and says that in some circumstances, Netwton’s theory of gravity is wrong, you listen and are open minded to his arguments and evidence. Scientists are not beholden to theories, dogmatically, they constantly reinterpret results and accept new facts. (Of course, what some people can’t accept is that you need remarkable and consistent evidence to replace a theory that already explains nature incredibly well!)
The moon hoax folks, the UFO believers, the 9-11 conspiracy theorists… they all fall into a group that has a bias. They dogmatically believe or deny certain things, and the facts be damned. They feel so sure about their choices, that they will cherry-pick facts to convince themselves that they are being rational skeptics. Outsiders can see that they are applying the scientific method or Occam’s Razor only when it suits them. They may feel they are skeptical and even be strongly atheistic/agnostic, but they are choosing to embrace dogma, nonetheless, just as strongly as creationists and young-earth believers. I have argued before, that in fact this is harmful for our country, when people choose to accept what makes the comfortable, rather than accepting our best scientific facts. Take the anti-vaxers, anti-nukers, homeopaths and Simon Singh’s British chiropractor friends as timely examples.
A skeptic is often confused with a cynic and is frequently called closed-minded. These terms may apply to certain individuals, but in general, skeptics should be scientific in their application of reason and more open-minded and reasonable than those who do cling to cherished dogma. Many skeptics don’t believe in religion. They don’t feel there is strong evidence that the supernatural exists. This is not a belief system, this is the application of Occam’s Razor, and the demand that extraordinary claims be backed up by extraordinary evidence.
Sometimes a person can be very skeptical about a certain thing, but not about others. For example, Bob might be critical of religion and strongly atheistic, however, he might have superstitions or believe in ghosts or UFOs. He feels that it is obvious that religion is wrong, but he chooses to believe other things that are not supported by evidence. This means while he is ‘critical’ of religion, he is not actually a skeptic. Of course, you won’t convince him of that, he will just counter by saying that it is you that is closed-minded. And, I agree with Phil, you can argue until you’re blue in the face and you just can’t convince some people they have a bias like that.
I think, in fact, a good skeptic does not strongly hold any beliefs. They do not dogmatically stand behind the Democrats or the Republicans. They do not hurl rhetoric at people or politicians they don’t agree with. They accept that they do not have facts on what an individual was thinking, when they acted a certain way. They don’t judge people unfairly. This is not to say at all that they lack principles or integrity. A skeptic deals with each situation uniquely, evaluating the facts as best they can, however they should have a strong moral basis, which comes from trained ethical and legal evaluation and a desire to treat people fairly and do the least harm possible. When a person attempts to identify and remove or at least be aware of their biases, they can be equitable and develop a personal credo that they live by.
To briefly digress, in this regard, we should not expect that all skeptics will define terms the same, set the same goals or want the same outcomes. We can all be good skeptics (and scientists) and still have differences of opinions, different tastes and preferences.
What does open-minded mean? Does it mean accepting weak arguments, just to try them on for size and see how they fit? “Oh, that astrology looks very good on you. It makes you look at least 15 pounds thinner!” When something has no scientific basis, you have to say that the facts aren’t in. Fundamentally, many people cannot live with some questions unanswered. They have to have belief in something. They will argue that the scientist “believes” in evolution. Or, carbon dating. Or, that the atheist “believes” there is no god. And, that is poor logic, my friend. The scientist accepts facts, and is willing to re-evaluate his theory when new, superior facts are presented. Science is a framework that can be used for exploring and explaining the natural world. It is a methodology that hasn’t failed us, so a skeptic trusts that it is the best approach for attempting to understand the universe. The skeptic trusts the preponderance of the facts, and trusts that the sun will rise in the morning and gravity will still work. This is not a belief system. If the skeptic is presented with a morning when the sun doesn’t rise, he will quickly call the whole thing into doubt!
A skeptic is scientific, rational, logical and open-minded to new evidence. A skeptic can also be compassionate, caring, patient, sympathetic, and fun! A skeptic can have a unique personal philosophy about life and the universe that satisfies them, and doesn’t deny facts. Skeptics need to fight the stereotype that they are deniers, debunkers, party-poopers, cynics and killjoys. I will have a conversation with anyone over anything, and I’ll be patient and open-minded, but I also have to draw a line and call someone when they are not acknowledging their own circular-reasoning, cherry-picking or bias.
As a skeptic, I also have to accept the facts that some people need to trust their gut instinct, even when it is not rational. A scientist should realize there are many situations where our gut instinct is plain wrong, and we need to be skeptical of our own instincts and motivations, always aware and questioning what we do, based on the situation. The fact is, very few people are comfortable behaving that way. I think we need to agree on the basics, amongst ourselves and do our best to lead by example, and educate the public. It may be several generations, but if trends continue I hold out hope that some day the average person will be a good skeptic, and the deniers and demon-haunted will be few and far between.