Thursday, June 16, 2005

What IS Skepticism, anyway?

` Over the years, various people have tried to tell me that skepticism is a form of closed-mindedness or even cynicism, so imagine my surprise years ago when I discovered that I was a skeptic!
` I told Phil; "Hey, you know what skeptics are?"
` He said; "Yeah."
` I said; "I'm a skeptic now, too."
` He seemed really miserable about it for a week or so until I asked him what was so bad about that. He complained; "Now you won't believe anything, which is just as irrational as believing everything!"
` I explained to him what skepticism means, and he was quite taken aback.
` He said; "Hey, that means I'm a skeptic, too!"
` I shouldn't have been as surprised as I was, but it was then that I realized that, probably, most people don't understand what skepticism really is.

` They tend to mistake this statement:
` I don't believe that is true.

` For this one:
` I believe that is not true.

` What's the difference? It's not subtle, it's not semantics - it's a big deal!
` Which brings the question; What is skepticism?

` There are two distinct definitions, though I usually refer to the second:

Skeptical Philosophy:

` Roughly the opposite of all things faith-based, the philosophy of skepticism states that no objective knowledge can be absolute... well... probably.
` The irony.
` The very idea of uncertainty is at its center. Science is based on this principle: You don't start with knowing something; you start by asking a question with an open mind. And while knowledge can be fairly objective - meaning that many people can independently find the same result - you can't know for sure if it's completely true or not.
` Humans aren't the ultimate authority on reality, but we manage.
` That is why, to be safe, it is assumed in science that the very best theories and facts (and factual theories) are only 99.999% true. This is just in case they turn out not to conform to reality well enough, which means that they can be changed or even discarded. This is why scientists really don't like know-it-alls and self-righteous individuals who pretend to be all-scientific.

Skeptical Inquiry or Scientific Skepticism:

` When a skeptic says; 'I'm skeptical' it literally means; 'I am perfectly willing to accept that, but you have to show me first.' In other words; 'I need to make sure.' To the skeptic, when evidence for something is not conclusive, it is better to not know than to believe foolishly.
No, not because of insecurity or paranoia - it's actually very practical for anyone who's curious about stuff that... well, probably ought to be questioned. Also, you can make a career out of it
` Skeptical Inquiry, as its name suggests, is actually a method of inquiry, rather than a standpoint, and it is what most people mean when they say 'I'm a skeptic.' It's a practical application where you question how truthful a claim is and seek to falsify it via the scientific method. The more times you fail to do so, the more it would appear that the claim is true.
` In other words, you can't know if something is true, but you can still work it out through a process of elimination.
` Since science does not by principle claim to have absolute knowledge - as knowledge is ever-growing and ideas are ever-changing - subjecting something to scientific tests and accepting the results (assuming no one screws up) is how the method goes. It does not matter what the person who practices this method intuits or wants to believe - as they say, there are no 'sacred cows' allowed.

` This means that the approach of skepticism is provisional - things can turn out differently than you may expect, and that's okay. You accept whatever you find, and the way you find something fit to accept is by making sure everything is accurate: gathering as much data as possible, not leaving anything out, and testing every known explanation for some type of phenomenon you are presented with.
` You can be fairly sure that something can be considered a fact once you confirm it to such an extent that it is reasonable to agree. Still, facts are provisional, meaning they are still subject to challenge.
` Skepticism is all about working to get to a conclusion which is, in all likelihood, true, even though it is still considered possible to be falsified. This is why skeptics and scientists sometimes use words like 'probably' and 'maybe' and 'most likely' even when talking about the most well-established facts and theories.

` But then, why would anyone think that skeptics just won't accept anything? Eh, they just don't get it - so here's a good way to remember:
` If someone tells you that some kind of odd thing were true and you really don't know if it is or not, what do you think to yourself?

` When it is your personal opinion that X is true, you do believe. That's called a positive belief.

` When it is your personal opinion that X is not true, still, you do believe. That's called a negative belief.

` When you are applying skepticism to X, you are seeing to it that you don't believe.
` Instead, you adopt a neutral position and accept what studying the something tells you. If you have any opinions beforehand, critical experiments really help to keep them from getting in the way.

` Put another way:

` 'I don't believe X': This is a neutral statement, central to skepticism. It indicates that there is no belief.
` 'I believe X is not true': This statement indicates a negative belief, that the opposite of X is true.

` Being as neutral as Switzerland is very important here, as skeptical inquiry is largely like a process of elimination. It works by disproving hypotheses and claims, like this: 'Does this idea work? No?... Really?... Nope! I guess not. Oh well, back to the drawing board.'
` Even if you're deterred, at least you've been deterred from the right thing. Which is good, because this is what happens most of the time.
` However, every once in a while something like this happens: 'Does this idea work? Hmmm... it does? What about now? It does? What about now? It still does!? Hey, everyone! It looks like we've found something!'

` That way, things that don't work in practice are weeded out. ...And if you don't catch it, someone will notice and catch it for you, hopefully before it becomes a problem.

` Now, in science, theories are judged not only on how easy they are to falsify, how simple they are, and how many predictions they make that are consistent with experimental results: They are also judged by their repeatability - you can't establish an experimental result until it is shown that someone else can demonstrate your discovery, and that's where skepticism comes in.

` Sure, skepticism is not perfect, but keep in mind, anything is not perfect. Skepticism is at least very effective in weeding out duds and building viable possibilities with what is left. It's how humans can manipulate genes and get into space. You can't say this weeding-out isn't productive.

` I guess someone might ask a question like; 'But what if people's lives are hanging in the balance? Like that Ignaz Semmelweis guy who was ridiculed by the establishment for his new innovations in hygeine in the 1840s. He didn't publish his own findings until years later, and it took lots of time to confirm them - after thousands of women had died unneccesarily in childbirth due to not-good-enough cleanliness. Isn't that tragic?'
` Well, I know that scientists are not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but frankly, how were they supposed to know? More importantly, thanks to 'the way of the scientist', Semmelweis was still able to show them a thing or two. I can't say that skepticism doesn't have its downsides, though in most cases, demonstrating a point over long periods of time is usually not quite that serious.
` Even so, there is always the same kind of triumph, even in tragedy, in that the right ideas do come through, no matter how long it takes. Skeptical inquiry is a self-correcting system, so at least mistaken scientists eventually find out that they are wrong rather than permanently squandering a new idea in dogma.
` After all, scientists are trained in skepticism; they're open-minded - though some individuals are moreso than others, and this variation is needed for any progress to be made.

` Frankly, when scientists don't use their careful analysis and all that - which happens occasionally - much bigger disasters occur. Quite honestly, though skeptical inquiry is far from perfect - especially where time limits are concerned - the human race honestly has nothing better to count on for finding out information.
` Can you imagine medical scientists not being objective, not making sure, or weeding out bad ideas? It does happen, especially with crackpots who are eager to trick laymen into believing in their shady medical practices, and that's what's truly scary.

` I suppose this entry will have to suffice as an intro to skepticism. Why? Because I gotta get to bed. Perhaps next here, I'll write about defining what science is, as well as what it isn't. That's another fun subject.
` Well, g'night!

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