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I am a new parent. My interests are secularism, learning, parenting, religion, career planning, and adult education.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What skepticism means to me...

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Recently, a commenter said that:

"The very definition of being a skeptic is questioning the majority, not questioning the skeptic with so called skepticism."

This is not what I am when I say I am a skeptic. So perhaps I should clarify.

While questioning is an incredibly important part of skepticism, I don't think that it only applies to questioning the majority - why shouldn't we also question the fringe? A wise person once said, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." The burden of proof or evidence lies with the person making the extraordinary claim. Who is to say what we can and can't be skeptical about? Why shouldn't I question "the skeptic"? I can question anything I want to - including skeptics who disagree with me.

Questioning is an important component of critical thinking but there are a couple of other key components to skepticism and critical thinking. For myself, the definition provided by the Skeptics Society works best and is what I mean when I say I am a skeptic:

Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas — no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position. Ideally, skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true. When we say we are “skeptical,” we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe.

Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, which involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions. Some claims, such as water dowsing, ESP, and creationism, have been tested (and failed the tests) often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are not valid. Other claims, such as hypnosis, the origins of language, and black holes, have been tested but results are inconclusive so we must continue formulating and testing hypotheses and theories until we can reach a provisional conclusion.
The key to skepticism is to continuously and vigorously apply the methods of science to navigate the treacherous straits between “know nothing” skepticism and “anything goes” credulity.

I am not saying that the mainstream shouldn't be questioned. There have been those in our history who have questioned the mainstream and by providing evidence and answering directly the criticism of naysayers have changed the way we view the world - therefore becoming mainstream.

One example would be Galileo who championed the theory of Copernicanism and through his observations of the solar systems came to promote the idea that the earth moves around the sun - not the other way around. Although he was forced by the Catholic Church to recant, other scientists continued to investigate the solar system and found that he was right - evidence supported his views and eventually it became mainstream to believe that the Sun is the center of our solar system and the planets, including earth, move around it. Science and skepticism is a method for learning about the world around us in a provisional, changing sense. I am open to new ideas - but before I provisionally accept them as true - I would like to see evidence.

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