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“You’re Not Being Open Minded”

This is an all too frequent criticism of skepticism. I find that in most people’s minds the word skeptic is steadfastly bound to another word such as cynic, naysayer, or contrarian. What makes being a skeptic different from these other terms? I offer my own definition:

A skeptic is a person who withholds judgment on beliefs, claims, and topics, until the relevant evidence is examined, regardless of previous beliefs etc. Only under a verification of said evidence will a claim etc. be considered valid.

What a skeptic is not, however, is a person who will refuse to change their mind in the face of overwhelming, and reliably contrary evidence. As a skeptic myself, I try to align myself with those who have a hard-line into the consensus opinions concerning science, medicine, etc. This, of course, places the burden of trust upon our scientists. This is where many people have their doubts. Largely the media’s fault, the portrayal of science and fact is purely sensationalist. And furthermore, most media outlets fall victim to falsely balancing opposing viewpoints. It is understandable that when a news story gives equal weight to the one “expert” who claims, for example, that the Earth is flat, in contrast to the majority of scientists who disagree with him, and lets the viewer decide, it is hard to not be confused as to what is fact and what is fiction.

This false balance then translates into mistrust of good science. People have been conditioned to give equal weight to these extremist viewpoints, and then, for example, disagree with 99% of climate scientists that global climate change is happening and is caused by human activity. Somehow hearing a lone proponent spout off about a little known viewpoint is enough to destabilize the entire debate.

Claims vs. Theories

Therefore, as a skeptic, placing trust is science is a prerequisite. If you can trust biology enough to allow an anesthesiologist to bring you to the brink of death for your surgery on infinitely delicate tissues that make your body function, why can’t you also agree with 99% of biology that knows evolution is a fact? Consensus opinion among those who have dedicated their lives to understanding the world is what we trust in everyday of our lives. But when it comes to more sensitive topics like evolution and climate change, why doesn’t that trust transfer over?

A true skeptic will completely change their mind on a subject if valid, tested, and agreed upon evidence presents itself. Biology would completely redo the whole theory of evolution if just one modern rabbit (for the sake of argument) was found in a geologic strata that belonged to the dinosaurs. The reason that the theory persists is because no valid evidence has been found to disprove it. The strength of a scientific claim is directly taken from how much it can defend itself from criticism. The theory of evolution, for example, is one of science’s most fleshed out explanations for natural (biological) phenomena because it has not been disproved in close to 200 years. And trust me, people have tried. Allow me to make a quick digression to explain a common misconception. The scientific meaning of a theory is as follows:

In scientific usage, the term “theory” is reserved for explanations of phenomena which meet basic requirements about the kinds of empirical observations made, the methods of classification used, and the consistency of the theory in its application among members of the class to which it pertains.

Simply put, a scientific theory is not an educated guess, as many laymen assume. A scientific theory is an overarching explanation of a spectrum of empirical phenomena that is consistent with all the evidence since discovered. I will use “theory” or “theories” to refer to the scientific definition of theory from now on. All accepted theories have gone through the skeptical wood chipper of doubt, criticism, and argument. That is why they are still around. The consensus opinion on these theories is as solid as the evidence they are built upon and, most importantly, theories evolve and adapt to changing evidence.

Skeptic Barometer

Forget about the weird stigma you place on the name, and try to un-associate the word with cynics. Being cautious of an amazing claim, especially when it deals with personal beliefs, should be something of a virtue. Being a skeptic means using critical thinking and rationality to make sense of the world. A great introduction to skepticism can be found in my Brian Brushwood post, where he explains some core modalities of the skeptic community.

I hope I have made clear what a true skeptic is, because…….pop quiz!.

You are walking down the sidewalk where ever you live and I approach you.

“How are you doing today fine sir?”, I say emphatically.

“I’m fine, what do you want?”, you reply cautiously.

“What if I told you that for only $5, I could teach you to move objects using only your mind?”

“I would say you’re full of shit”, you retort.

“How about this, if I can’t teach you to unleash you telekinetic powers, I will concede and give you $50”.

“Alright, try me”, you answer.

So I put in your hand a length of string that is attached to a large hex nut at one end. I instruct you to hold the string by the free end and to outstretch your arm in front of you.

“Now focus your mind. Imagine the power within welling up inside of you, from the core of your being through your arms, into your hands, and make the hex nut move in a circle!” Amazingly, the hex nut does, in fact, move in a circle [GO AHEAD TRY THIS AT HOME], seemingly without you moving any part of your body.

Quiz Time: What has happened here? Have I learned the secrets of unleashing your inner super-hero? Or am I taking advantage of you? The answer, with consultation from an infinite resource such as the internet, is easy and understandable. Go ahead and to find the answer yourself, it will be a good exercise in research. If you can’t figure it out I will reveal the answer at the end of this post.

A Few New Tools

How can we now apply our skepticism? There are a couple of key questions that you have to ask when you are evaluating a claim. As Carl Sagan said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

1. Does the claimant pitch his discovery directly to the media?

The integrity of science rests on the willingness of scientists to expose new ideas and findings to the scrutiny of other scientists. Thus, scientists expect their colleagues to reveal new findings to them initially. An attempt to bypass peer review by taking a new result directly to the media, and thence to the public, suggests that the work is unlikely to stand up to close examination by other scientists.

2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.

Many times a claimant will invoke some kind of grand conspiracy that won’t let them tell you about their amazing new discovery. The reality of the situation is that either their research is unverified or not supported by leading scientists, and they have to use special pleading in order to get some press. The story of corporate domination still sells papers in this country, so from the perspective of a fringe “scientist”, a huge conspiracy can equal huge money.

3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.

A blurry image of a UFO, a grainy shot of the Loch Ness monster, it’s always just at the edge of looking actually legitimate. However, no perfect shots could ever be obtained, it’s a “once in a lifetime thing”. The signals couldn’t be amplified, there was only one study, it’s all an indication that a real effect just isn’t there. Isn’t it more likely that the static noise you claim is alien communication is really just static noise?

4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal.

If modern science has learned anything in the past century, it is to distrust anecdotal evidence. Because anecdotes have a very strong emotional impact, they serve to keep superstitious beliefs alive in an age of science. The most important discovery of modern medicine is not vaccines or antibiotics, it is the randomized double-blind test, by means of which we know what works and what doesn’t. Contrary to the saying, “data” is not the plural of “anecdote.”

5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.

There is a persistent myth that hundreds or even thousands of years ago, long before anyone knew that blood circulates throughout the body, or that germs cause disease, our ancestors possessed miraculous remedies that modern science cannot understand. Much of what is termed “alternative medicine” is part of that myth. Ancient folk wisdom, rediscovered or repackaged, is unlikely to match the output of modern scientific laboratories.

6. The discoverer has worked in isolation.

The image of a lone genius who struggles in secrecy in an attic laboratory and ends up making a revolutionary breakthrough is a staple of Hollywood’s science-fiction films, but it is hard to find examples in real life. Scientific breakthroughs nowadays are almost always syntheses of the work of many scientists.

7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.

A new law of nature, invoked to explain some extraordinary result, must not conflict with what is already known. If we must change existing laws of nature or propose new laws to account for an observation, it is almost certainly wrong.

Of course there are many other questions you should ask, like who is funding a study, or whether or not the claimant stands to gain personally, but the above questions will tease out much of the nonsense from the good science.

Let’s Debunk Some Stuff!

Now that we know what a skeptic is, and how a skeptic can evaluate claims, try it for yourself sometime. Do not take my word for it, learning about new evidence and changing your mind on something you thought for certain to be true is intellectually refreshing. Everyone is fallible, and we can learn from that fallibility, harness it even, to make smarter decisions in the future. As I said in a previous post, skepticism is a hard sell. It challenges sometimes very personal beliefs and ideas, but it can also reduce the intellectual clutter that tends to accumulate in your brain’s “I don’t know if this is true but I’m going to tell people like it is true” region. The human condition is such that our brains are hardwired to see patterns and make connections that sometimes aren’t there. Skepticism is a way of re-teaching your brain how to accept and process information. When you lay down shield that defends your pride, and pick up the sword that cuts away at irrationality, learning becomes all the more refreshing and intellectually gratifying.

[QUIZ ANSWER]

By the way, the answer to the above skeptic pop quiz is this: I (the guy unleashing your powers) was taking advantage of what is called the ideomotor effect. The ideomotor effect refers to the influence of suggestion or expectation on involuntary and unconscious motor behavior. In other words, you can never keep you hand absolutely still. Small unconscious movements of your hand (which you aren’t aware of) are amplified through the length of string. The expectation that the hex nut will move in a circle unconsciously moves the hand in order to create the actual movement. This is also the effect that is occurring when people claim clairvoyance with Ouija boards.