Monday, February 16, 2009

Skepticism, missunderstood

One thing skeptics exert a lot of effort doing is explaining exactly what a skeptic is, why we're skeptical, what we're skeptical of, and what a skeptical organization is all about.

Another part of this is all of the baggage people bring to the word 'skeptic.'

This usually causes skeptics to start out by saying what a skeptic is not. For example, skepticism is not cynicism, we are not a bunch of nay saying curmudgeons. Many think that skeptics are bitter defenders of the status quo, and that we are closed minded to anything new or strange. These accusations crop up especially when we're in the midst in of investigating something. The moment you begin to pick apart something that someone believes in dearly, they become offended. Believers in belief join them in their anger and protest our inquiry as well - I suppose we should not ask answers and dig around simply because it will offend someone.

Some don’t want their beliefs overlooked, but also don’t want their beliefs looked over too much. So, skeptics prod a little and ask questions attempting to get to the heart of a matter and we hit nerves along the way. This gets us names like bullies, party-crashers, pompous, etc...

It seems to me that this all stems from a fundamental peice of beliefs - and that is the personal attachment. Psychics and paranormal beliefs will tear up with excitement when you doubt them, Christians will be offended by the questioning of Jesus Christ and the existence of their god, Muslims shun apostates, conspiracy theorists will scream and rant and rave about we're all fooled by [whatever], and apologists will join them all in their dissatisfaction with non-believers and skeptics.

So, whats the deal?

Why is this case? Why is it not more appealing to challenge beliefs, superstitions, and ideas? Why stiffle intellectual curiosity? In the history of skeptics coming into the public eye to challenge liars, con artists, and even just beliefs in gerenal - I've yet to really see a person who is a part of the skeptical community do anything purposively offensive. If you are called out on something, and that call is true, and you get offended, well - thats on you. It is bizare that the response to the truth is never admittance, but special pleading and name calling (you're a bully, this only doesn't work because you're so skeptical).

Why is it the case that skeptical and critical thinking is not the norm? And rather, it is is seen as a negative way of thinking about the world.... any thoughts?


Sam Greene said...


Thanks for the post. Honestly, I think we someone should have talked about this way earlier. Anyway, I am just go do address each question with what I feel to be the best answer.

Why is it not more appealing to challenge beliefs, superstitions, and ideas?

I feel like the lack of enthusiasm here is due to the overwhelming amount of people who subscribe to certain beliefs or superstitions that cannot be proven. By challenging another equally unfalsifiable belief one opens one’s own sets of belief to scrutiny. In attacking a set of beliefs similar to one’s own, it is really difficult not to at least start thinking about one’s own beliefs. Some people simply cannot handle this. Challenging another weird belief or superstition requires that the challenger analyze the belief. Upon doing this that person must come to a conclusion about why they find a particular belief strange. If one avoids this process then one does not have to worry about applying the same to his or her beliefs. All in all I think a lot of the inactivity boils down to people’s fear of uncertainty. Strange beliefs such as religion can in the eyes of the beholder answer question that otherwise are not answerable(what happens after death? Etcetera). Questioning this simply leads to an amount of uncertainty that many people just cannot handle in their lives.

Why stifle intellectual curiosity?
I feel like a lot of beliefs and superstitions stifle intellectual curiosity on their own. If a certain belief explains everything about a situation than there is no reason to question it or expand your intellect. Religion for example, explains many things about the origin of the world, morals, and social structure. Because most religions claim to be the ultimate word of this or that creator then they cannot be questioned. Because of this, there is no encouragement to question one’s own belief. OF course there those who do begin to question their beliefs and many times those people end up shedding them. However this does not seem to be the norm. I really don’t feel like much can be done to get people to think for themselves when they subscribe beliefs that do not allow them to.

Andres said...

Great blog, something I always run into when trying to get people to come to the Skeptic's Society meeting, or just to generally get them interested in books by skeptics.

Firstly, I think this article by Carl Sagan called "The Burden of Skepticism" sums the skeptic's position best:

As Sam said, starting to challenge other people's beliefs, and critically analyze them will inevitably force you to turn your own skepticism and criticism on yourself and your own privately held beliefs. This is what happened to me. One day I suddenly realized that I was an ardent skeptic of ghosts, aliens, psychics, etc., but not of God. For some reason, skepticism was ok for those other beliefs, but not for my particular one. Once I admitted to myself that I wasn't being honest, I was able to finally admit that my belief in God was held for very bad reasons, and so I became an agnostic.

As James Randi says "I've stated many times that what makes skeptics special is not what they believe in, or what they DON'T believe in, but that they're always willing to change their opinions in the light of new evidence" At least ideally. I would hope that we are all honest enough with ourselves to recognize when our own biases are getting in the way of following the evidence wherever it may lead.

And that to me, is what skepticism is about, following the evidence wherever it may lead, not someone's word or testimony, but the evidence itself.

I would say what makes the job so hard for skeptics is the fact that we live in a culture that looks upon faith as a virtue, it looks upon belief as a good thing, and unbelief as a terrible thing that signifies the downfall of our society. We live in a culture that takes statements like "To those who don't believe, nothing is possible. To those who believe, everything is possible" as true, and as an ideal that we should aspire to live up to.

I've had some friends literally tell me "I'm not a skeptic" when I've invited them to the skeptic's society meetings as a reason for not coming. I usually simply ask them "What exactly do you mean by that". A good strategy that I've found to get people thinking is to tell them that they themselves are skeptical people. I don't know of anyone who would believe it right away when I told them that I just saw a ghost. Most people, I hope, are critical enough to know that there may be alternative explanations for what I claim to have seen, and that it is very unlikely that I actually saw anything resembling a ghost.
I try to get people to realize that we are all skeptics in some form or another, and that what makes us self proclaimed skeptics any different, is that we apply that skepticism consistently or at least we try to.

In the end, I always fall back to this:

"The skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches, as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found”

David Plumb said...

Andres, you definitely touched on something that I also hold as an important virtue of skeptical thinking: honesty. If I were to tell someone I just won the mega-millions lottery jackpot, they would require some sort of verification or evidence before they truly believed me. However, in some cases, that same person would not exert the same level of skepticism and need for proof on something else they heard, say - a ghost story, or a miracle. Remaining honest in an intellectually consistent way is by no means an easy task, yet it is something I strive for, and I think I can speak on behalf of other skeptics in saying it is also what the skeptical community strives for.

This is a tough concept to convey when describing skepticism, and I've recently been taken to task on it several times. I always find myself answering a question like "so you don't believe in X?" with "no, but I may be wrong and I'm willing to change my mind in light of the evidence."

Remaining open minded, consistent, honest, and skeptical is difficult sometimes, but in the end I think it betters not only those who work on it, but it betters the beliefs we all hold on the whole.


Eric G. said...

Two factors come to mind when I read this, laziness and arrogance.

With laziness, I do not mean to offend that people who hold such beliefs are in literal sense of just doing nothing, I mean that they have no desire to look into what they believe. It's a quick fix, the "answer" is right there already done for you. Accept it and move on with your life. Perhaps people do not share the same interests into science and critical thinking so they do not develop these ways to think. To be honest, researching, experimenting, reading, getting to the bottom of things can get tedious, hard, and a lot of thinking to follow where the evidence goes and make a rational opinion. When it comes to believing in things, things you may not have a passion for or necessarily care for, any answer is a good enough, accept it and move on.

Second, arrogance plays a role in how people perceive the world. Not many people are willing to change their minds or change their beliefs in light of evidence. People do not want to feel wrong. But when skeptics bring forth evidence that points otherwise and they change their mind, the arrogant person may twist their mind into thinking they are right and the those changing their minds are flip-floppers (Hmmm flip-flop.... where have I heard that before...Cough2004 electionCough). The ability to change your mind is similar to changing your hypothesis in science.

So basically, lack of interest in science, any answer is good enough, accept it and move on, and changing your mind is hard to do.

Adam Lane said...

I empathize with the points you all have made in attempting to sum up the confusion surrounding skepticism, in general . I've noticed that people often don't understand the idea of being a skeptic right away, that people feel threatened by skepticism in some way, and that some people simply have no desire to invest time into a skeptical way of thinking.

I'm almost sure that most people are taken aback when first presented with the idea of a skeptical group. I know that I was. It's a strange concept at first. You've all heard it before; "Skeptics. So that just means you sit around and talk about things you don't believe". or "Do you believe anything". Well the short answer is "no" but that probably won't pique someones interest, and besides, there are plenty of things that we can all be fairly confident in. I'm fairly positive the sun will rise tomorrow, and I'll bet any amount of money that when I step out of bed, gravity will be there to hold me to the floor. So all a good skeptic can really do is their best to acclimate the individual to the foreign concept.

When I say that people feel threatened by the idea of skepticism, like some of you mentioned before, i think many people hold beliefs that can't be justified rationally, whether they realize it or not. I'm sure we all do to some extent. No one is omniscient, that I know of, so the idea that you may be waging some sort of assault on something that they hold above the standard of rationality may not sit well with a believer. Similarly some people assume that skeptics are arrogant, or cynical. That's not going to change, so the best we can do is try to explain that we think questioning things that you hear, and thinking critically are simply ways of getting the facts straight, and not a form of arrogance. Most skeptics try to keep an open mind, even though they're often presented with the same wild beliefs. (e.g. alien abductions, big foot, moth man)

Also, like a few of you mentioned before, when people think of questioning everything they hear, many of them may think that idea of questioning all beliefs including their own, is too monumental of a task, and decide they have no interest. It's also possible that a person may think that questioning, and revising their own belief system may take too much of a cognitive toll on their "psyche". What I mean by that questioning your personal beliefs takes time, and energy (cognitive resources). And it's possible someone may feel that a chunk of their belief system as large as a deity may leave them feeling helpless and vulnerable. (Imagine a God-shaped chasm in someones metaphysical soul). But what we need to help them realize is that thinking more rationally may actually require less effort in the long-run. e.g. believing in luck in Vegas, and feeling guilty for breaking ancient law codes can't probably won't make one's life easier.

So Skeptics, just as in the story of Socrates' questioning of the ancient Greek's practices, we'll often play the role of the gadfly, constantly prodding at, and often annoying members of society. (I won't go as far to call society a dimwitted horse, although I'm often tempted.)