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Why Skepticism?

Feature

Steven Novella

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 40.5, September/October 2016

Twenty years ago, I became actively involved in the skeptical movement when I and several others founded a humble local skeptical group. We were inspired by CSICOP (now CSI) and Skeptical Inquirer to add what we could to efforts to make the world a more skeptical place.

Over the past two decades, the skeptical landscape has changed quite a bit, but one constant has been the endless question: What is skepticism? What exactly do we do and why? As the movement has grown and diversified, the question has become only more complex.

What Is the Mission of the 
Skeptical Movement?

I have come to understand that scientific skepticism is a weird beast that is often difficult to understand, especially from the outside. We are not exactly scientists or journalists or lobbyists or educators, and yet we are all of those things to some extent.

I think the best way to explain scientific skepticism is that it is expertise in everything that can go wrong with science and belief, and it includes execution, communication, education, and regulation. It combines knowledge of science, philosophy, and critical thinking with special expertise in flawed reasoning and deception.

To understand this better, here is a list of what scientific skeptics promote and do.

Respect for Knowledge and Truth: Skep­tics value reality and what is true. We therefore endeavor to be as reality-based as possible in our beliefs and opinions. This means subjecting all claims to a valid process of evaluation.

Methodological Naturalism: Skeptics believe that the world is knowable because it follows certain rules or laws of nature. The only legitimate methods for knowing anything empirical about the universe follows this naturalistic assumption. In other words, within the realm of the empirical you don’t get to invoke magic or the supernatural.

Promotion of Science: Science is the only set of methods for investigating and understanding the natural world. Science is therefore a powerful tool and one of the best developments of human civilization. We therefore endeavor to promote the role of science in our society, public understanding of the findings and methods of science, and high-quality science education. This includes protecting the integrity of science and education from ideological intrusion or antiscientific attacks. This also includes promoting high-quality science, which requires examining the process, culture, and institutions of science for flaws, biases, weaknesses, conflicts of interest, and fraud.

Promotion of Reason and Critical Think­ing: Science works hand-in-hand with logic and philosophy, and therefore skeptics also promote understanding of these fields and the promotion of critical thinking skills.

Science vs. Pseudoscience: Skeptics seek to identify and elucidate the borders between legitimate science and pseudoscience, to expose pseudoscience for what it is, and to promote knowledge of how to tell the difference.

Ideological Freedom/Free Inquiry: Science and reason can flourish only in a secular society in which no ideology (religious or otherwise) is imposed upon individuals or the process of science or free inquiry.

Neuropsychological Humility: Being a functional skeptic requires knowledge of all the various ways in which we deceive ourselves, the limits and flaws in human perception and memory, the inherent biases and fallacies in cognition, and the methods that can help mitigate all these flaws and biases.

Consumer Protection: Skeptics endeavor to protect themselves and others from fraud and deception by exposing fraud and educating the public and policy-makers to recognize deceptive or misleading claims or practices.

Addressing Specific Claims: Skeptics combine all of the above to address specific claims that are flawed, biased, or pseudoscientific and to engage in the public discussion of these claims.

Cultural Memory: Skeptics as a whole act as the cultural memory for pseudosciences and scams of the past. Such beliefs tend to repeat themselves, and remembering the past can be very useful in quickly putting such beliefs into their proper perspective.

Science Journalism: Many skeptics spend a large portion of their time doing straight science communication and journalism, which is important because science is so central to our mission. This is also an important skill to explore and develop because it is so rarely done well. Correcting and criticizing bad science news reporting, especially in the Internet age, has become a large part of what skeptics do.

What Topics Do We Cover?

Traditional skepticism addresses a very broad range of topics: all of alternative medicine, parapsychology, cryptozoology, conspiracy theories, scams, postmodernism, self-help, education, science and the media, neuroscience and self-deception, fringe science, and a long list of topics that have political, religious, or social implications: genetically modified foods, organic farming, free energy and other energy issues, climate change, creationism, miracle claims, faith-healing, prophesy, channeling—the list is massive.

There has been frequent discussion about which topics skeptics “should” cover. My approach has always been that everyone, of course, should feel free to cover whatever topics suit their interests, motivations, and talents. There are no right or wrong topics to cover.

There are, however, many considerations worth discussing. Skepticism is a method of applying science and critical thinking to all areas. It is worth thinking about how those methods relate to any particular topic of interest.

Here are some of the factors I consider when deciding what topics to address as part of my skeptical activism.

Teachable Moment: One very important criterion is this: Would addressing a claim or topic provide a useful teachable moment? Since one (if not the) primary goal of skepticism is education, this is a crucial criterion, and in fact it is often sufficient reason to address a topic.

This is the primary reason I have never addressed issues such as ghosts, Bigfoot, astrology, or the Bermuda Triangle (classic skeptical topics all). I honestly don’t care at all about ghosts, and I agree that this has extremely low priority as an issue. However, ghost hunters engage in a variety of pseudo­scientific activities and defend their claims with numerous logical fallacies.

There are many generic lessons about science and critical thinking that can be learned by examining any pseudoscience, and often the most obvious ones are the best examples.

I have also found that by examining the full spectrum of pseudoscience, I have been able to see recurring patterns that enable me to understand pseudoscience much more thoroughly and then apply those lessons to more important areas such as medicine.

Interest: Related to the teachable moment criterion is public interest. The whole point is to engage the public, and one technique for doing so is to go to where the people already are. The public is interested in ghosts, cryptids, and UFOs, and in fact they often learn pathological science from popular treatments of these topics.

If we leave these popular subjects to the charlatans, they will happily spread scientific illiteracy unopposed. This is, however, a great opportunity to teach the public about how science actually operates, mechanisms of self-deception, how to tell if a claim is valid, and how to detect pseudoscience.

Addressing pseudoscience and the paranormal is a way to popularize science, such as writing about the physics of Star Trek or the philosophy of The Simpsons. Ghosts and UFOs are the hook; the payoff is scientific literacy and the ability to think a bit more critically.

Impact: The relative impact or importance of an issue is definitely important, and nothing I write here should be interpreted as dismissing or minimizing that point. In fact, as the skeptical movement has matured over the past few decades I have noticed a definite shift to issues of greater social importance.

My primary issue is alternative medicine, the abject infiltration of fraud and pseudoscience into the institutions of healthcare. This results in the wasting of billions of dollars and diverting of research funds, and it causes direct harm to the health of individuals.

Other important issues we tackle regularly are vaccine refusal, global climate change, genetically modified foods, our energy infrastructure, future technology, teaching creationism and other pseudoscience in science classes, issues surrounding mental illness, the self-help industry, scams, racial or gender pseudoscience, and other issues that have a direct impact on people’s lives and our civilization. We also may consider how much of an effect we can have. Some issues are more amenable to scientific information than others.

Expertise: The world needs all kinds of experts, and scientific skepticism is a legitimate area of expertise. It involves a deep knowledge of pseudoscience, the philosophy of science, mechanisms of deception, neuropsychological humility, scams, logic, and other aspects of critical thinking. This includes knowledge of the history of pseudoscience.

Within skepticism, individuals also tend to focus their writing and speaking on their area of scientific expertise. So, skeptical doctors focus on medicine, astronomers on astronomy, biologists on issues such as evolution and creation, physicists on free energy, and so on.

If we have a bias, it is toward the areas of expertise that also tend to attract people to the skeptical movement itself, but this is hard to avoid. It is also not simple to correct, and straying outside of our areas of expertise is not a good solution. At the very least, it takes a lot more work to address an issue about which I am not already fairly expert.

Filling a Need: Very relevant to the question of what targets skeptics choose is who else, if anyone, is already addressing those problems. For example, reviewing evidence and establishing a standard of care for a particular issue within mainstream medicine is very important, but there are already professional societies that do that. All physicians and scientists should be skeptical, but in areas where mainstream scientists are already doing just fine at addressing misperceptions, physicians who have an expertise in skepticism are not needed and have nothing particular to add.

We tend to focus our efforts where there is the most need, meaning where there is a current lack of attention. Fringe ideas tend not to get attention from scientists, who don’t want to waste their time. Whether or not this is a reasonable position is debatable, but meanwhile skeptics are happy to fill the void. As a skeptical neurologist, for example, I am not going to spend my time delving into and engaging in debate over the possible mechanisms of Parkinson’s disease. There are scientists who are doing that. But I will engage with those claiming that near-death experiences are evidence for an afterlife because most scientists don’t bother to do that.

Journalistic Integrity: This last criterion is a bit of a personal choice. Some journalists and outlets unapologetically advocate for a political ideology. Everyone knows the Huffington Post is a liberal news source, for example. Some journalists, however, try to be as politically neutral as possible so that they will be viewed as a fair arbiter of factual information and analysis.

Similarly, some skeptics combine their skeptical activism with ideological activism. I have no problem with this, and most are upfront about it. Some skeptics, however, choose to be political or ideologically neutral in their activism, except for a defense of science and reason. I think this can be helpful.

While I certainly do have political opinions, I try to keep them separate from questions of science and evidence. If, for example, I am discussing global warming, I want to focus on the science and not be dismissed as liberal. Or if I am writing about GMOs, I do not want to be dismissed as conservative or libertarian. That can still happen, sometimes simultaneously, because people make unwarranted self-serving assumptions, but it helps when it is untrue. My opinions on these and similar topics are informed by the science, not my politics. This becomes a harder sell when you are also advocating for a political position. I also think it is helpful to have a movement that is based upon evidence and logic and is agnostic toward ideological positions or values, which are tangential.

Finally, it is more challenging to be neutral and unbiased when dealing with an issue about which you have a passionate ideological belief. You can make a reasonable argument for steering clear of such issues when trying to communicate objective science, or at least proceeding especially carefully. Otherwise you risk damaging your reputation as a science communicator.

What about Religion?

More often than not, the question of what skeptics do and what topics we address comes to the topic of religion. While I believe I have addressed all the relevant issues above, this is a common enough question that it is worth special mention.

No skeptical activist I know treats religious claims differently from any other type of claims. Any claim to empirical truth or scientific knowledge, whether based ultimately in religious ideology or social or political ideology, is fair game. The criteria I outlined above apply. Philosophical arguments are also fair game, as the tools of logic and critical thinking apply.

However, it is important to recognize that faith statements are simply different from scientific or philosophical statements. This does not mean they are exempt from critical thinking; it just means you need to be aware of the context and address them properly. This distinction, however, is often misinterpreted as avoiding religious claims, which is patently not true.

When a believer states that they believe something to be true based upon their own personal faith, there are a number of valid approaches. It is important to point out that the principles of freedom of religion and separation of church and state require that their personal faith not be imposed upon others. They don’t have a right to make other people follow their faith, to deprive their children of the basic necessities of life, or expect government to legislate their faith.

It is also useful to point out that beliefs based purely on faith are not subject to scientific analysis, and therefore they do not belong in the arena of science. They therefore cannot mix faith and science. Either the science stands on its own or it doesn’t. You cannot legitimately use faith to rescue bad science from refutation or to render it immune to falsification.

This applies to faith-based beliefs that are not overtly religious. It is not uncommon for believers in alien visitation or extrasensory perception (ESP) to retreat to faith-based claims when the evidence does not support their position. They are effectively refuted by simply stating that they have left the arena of science and therefore have ceded this territory. If they wish to have a religion of ESP, then so be it, but they cannot simultaneously claim to be backed by science.

In other words, skeptics can address faith claims epistemologically without making the same epistemological error as the believer in order to falsely claim that empirical methods can disprove beliefs that are not empirically based.

Conclusion

Being part of the skeptical movement for most of my adult life has been extremely fulfilling and tremendously educational. After two decades, I still find it among the most rewarding work that I do. There is also a continued great need for the expertise and work of activist skeptics. We are engaged in work that will never be completed. Our goals are generational, to slowly move our species in the direction of science and reason.

Count me in until entropy prevails over my temporary biological processes.

Steven Novella

Steven Novella's photo

Steven Novella, MD, is an assistant professor of neurology at Yale University School of Medicine. He is the host of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, author of the NeuroLogica blog, executive editor of the Science-Based Medicine blog, and president of The New England Skeptical Society.