The importance of skepticism

SkepticalTobyde omnibus dubitandum

That is my personal motto. Translated from the Latin in to English it means “everything must be doubted.” If I were going to get a tattoo, this would be on my short list, along with a soccer ball and perhaps an Eagle of Manwë from the Lord of the Rings (which may explain why I don’t get tattoos).  Being skeptical of claims is at the heart of what it means to be a good critical thinker.  It is that cognitive characteristic that tells us to do a bit more research, to ask a few more questions, to roll up our sleeves and do some deeper analysis.

The popular science writer and founder of  the Skeptics Society, Michael Shermer, wrote a fantastic piece in the Huffington Post a couple of years back called, What Is Skepticism, Anyway? In this piece, he explores what it means to doubt everything and to proudly wear this badge we call “skeptic,” a badge I’ve been wearing since I first pondered how it was physically possible for one slightly obese elf to deliver gifts via sleigh to every kid on the planet in a single night.

While the term “skeptic” sometimes accompanies the somewhat derogatory accusation of demonstrating an unwillingness to budge on a claim, as in, “What do you mean you don’t believe the Long Island Medium can communicate with the dead! You’re such a skeptic,” this is a slight misuse of the term.  One’s reluctance to accept claims which clearly conflict with the laws of nature, such as being able to talk to the dead, doesn’t really qualify them as a skeptic, inasmuch as it simply qualifies them as a rational person.

On the flip side of this coin, the positive connotation of term “skeptic” as a thoughtful realist, has been hijacked by those who want to shelter their scientific illiteracy from criticism.  Those who deny the reality of global warming for example, are quick to call themselves “skeptics.” They are not. They are contrarians. This is a vital and often misunderstood distinction.  Skepticism is not obstinate disagreement. A contrarian looks at a mountain of evidence, such as the evidence for global warming, and for reasons unrelated to the evidence, still refuses to budge. A skeptic looks at a mountain of evidence and after considering it for plausibility, accepts the claim. The former is willfully ignorant. The latter is intellectually honest.

Dr. Shermer says,

“Skepticism is not “seek and ye shall find,” but “seek and keep an open mind.” But what does it mean to have an open mind? It is to find the essential balance between orthodoxy and heresy, between a total commitment to the status quo and the blind pursuit of new ideas, between being open-minded enough to accept radical new ideas and so open-minded that your brains fall out. Skepticism is about finding that balance. Here is a definition of skepticism:

Skepticism is the rigorous application of science and reason to test the validity of any and all claims.

Skeptics question the validity of a particular claim by calling for evidence to prove or disprove it. In other words, skeptics are from Missouri — the “Show Me” state. When we skeptics hear a fantastic claim, we say, “That’s interesting, show me the evidence for it.”

Look at that final sentence. “That’s interesting, show me the evidence for it.” Those six words are powerful! As skeptics, this is how our critical thinking brains work. Just because we may like someone, and just because we may respect someone, does not mean we’re willing to simply take someone’s word for some truth claim, particularly if we happen to know that the truth claim is either demonstrably verifiable or conversely, if it’s unfalsifiable. We, in the spirit of intellectual honesty, demand that claimants own their burdens of proof.  We want to see the evidence, and oh by the way, by evidence we mean real, demonstrable, scientifically valid evidence.  One’s heartfelt feelings about a subject or one’s subjective experience about something do not meet the standard.

Why do we skeptics ask for evidence? Because we want to understand your claim. We want to learn about it for ourselves. We do not accept truth claims solely on authority. We eschew logical fallacies. We demand intellectual honesty from ourselves so we expect it from others.

Dr. Shermer lists a series of “I believe” statements that shouldn’t be a surprise to any scientifically or historically literate person:

• I believe in the germ theory of disease.

• I believe that vaccines are good for societal health.

• I believe that fluoridated water reduces cavities.

• I believe in the Big Bang theory of the universe.

• I believe that the theory of evolution best explains life.

• I believe that the theory of plate tectonics best explains the the continents.

• I believe that the periodic table of elements best explains chemistry.

• I believe that JFK was assassinated by a lone gunman named Lee Harvey Oswald.

• I believe aliens are probably out there somewhere but that they have not visited Earth.

All of Dr. Shermer’s “I believe” statements can also be reworded as “I understand how” statements. My piece, I believe in evolution because I understand why evolution is true, gets right to the heart of this way of phrasing a truth claim. In other words, when someone says, “I believe in vaccinations,” what they probably mean is, “I trust the medical community on the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing disease.”

On the other hand, when someone says, “I believe in ghosts,” they are resting that belief on an unfalsifiable claim to knowledge they don’t have, namely that ghosts are real. So while they might actually believe in ghosts, their belief has no basis in reality. Ghosts are the fictional creations of human imaginations. Never in the history of humanity has the existence of a ghost, any ghost, been verified, and neither Shakespeare’s Hamlet nor J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter count as evidence.

To further understand what it means to be a skeptic, I recommend reading Dr. Shermer’s book, “The Believing Brain” and I would add to your order, Carl Sagan’s “The Demon Haunted World.” Both of these books should be on every skeptic’s bookshelf. In fact, I argue both of these books should be required reading for every high school student in America.  Teenagers already mistrust what adults are telling them, so what a fantastic time to equip them with an even greater understanding of what their skeptical intuition is already telling them.

Remember, de omnibus dubitandum.