Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Skeptical Inquiry

Skeptic is one of those words that is wholly misused these days. It has become tantamount to a naysayer instead of one who understands that knowledge can be uncertain and that suspending belief until such time as all the facts have been gathered is a wiser course of action than either denouncement or unbridled faith. Still, there are those who continue to perpetuate the image of a skeptic as someone who stands firmly on a base of accumulated knowledge and dares you with a look of smug satisfaction to attempt any tackle, like an intellectual game of king of the hill. In essence, a true skeptic is one who takes a wait-and-see approach. Instead of listening foolishly to the cries of Chicken Little, he would investigate for himself and weigh the evidence before coming to any conclusion on these sky falling claims.


Buck said...

I'm not sure I agree wholly with the definition you've given. I'd say that a skeptic is someone who uses facts rather than supposition and superstition to come to conclusions.

Logic is a tricky thing in this community which loves to take leaps. For example, we have both heard the statement made ad nauseum that "when you can't explain something naturally then the only thing left is the supernatural (or paranormal)." Yet, that is a very poor application of deductive reasoning. Simply put, there are many possible solutions to any given problem and discerning the true solution might take years or centuries. So, thinking that "paranormal" can be an immediate explanation just because you're tired of thinking (or are not equipped to study something) is ludicrous.

For my part, I look at the paranormal the same way I do religion. I see no evidence that religion or "God" exists just as I see none that the claims of the paranormal are correct. Therefore, I can say with some confidence that I am nearly certain the explanations and hypotheses put forth are incorrect.

Then again, maybe that is your point, because as a skeptic I know exactly what data would have to be shown to me to make me change my position. Whereas, all the evidence to the contrary in the universe cannot sway those who are "believers" from their surety that these things are not only real but extremely common. Very similar to religion, again.

Word Woman said...

I agree with your point Cullan. Too often the term is bandied about to support a decision or viewpoint predetermined by nothing as sustantial as the concept not being part of their accepted paradigm. I have seen in various interviews some of these skeptics refuse to even investigate through scientific means the theories they are denying, nay ridiculing, with such vigor. Their refusal to test the strength of their alleged superior science asks for us to have the same faith in their science claims as others ask in their faith claims.

Cullan Hudson said...

I would agree with your view. If, after addressing the available evidence, you feel confident in saying [fill in the blank] is bunk, then I would consider you a skeptic who has come to an opinion.

In the truest sense, however, a skeptic understands that we can't know everything or be certain of everything. There is always that margin of doubt. If anything, a skeptic is something of a fence-sitter. The very word means thoughtful in Greek and we use it as a synonym for uncertainty in English. And while at the onset, a skeptic may be doubtful, he is willing to appraise the facts. Perhaps by clarifying the terminology, we can better elucidate what is and isn't a skeptic in our modern age.

In "philisophical skepticism" or "Pyrrhonism" it was believed that the absolute truth could not be attained and therefore judgement must perpetually be withheld. Later, Academic skeptics would ammend this to include that there exists varying probabilities of factuality and, accordingly, one could "believe" something to the same extent. In "empirical skepticism" (such as the utilization of the scientific method), a systematic analysis is undertaken before arriving at any conclusion. It is the later, I feel, is most relevant in this modern age. While in a philisophical sense, prior iterations of skepticism may have been correct that we can't truly know anything (even that), we can progress upon the Academics by an increased knowledge of the natural world. The more you know, the more certain you can be. At some point, those percentages approach something the could be considered truth.

If, in your case, you say UFO's as extraterrestrial craft piloted by aliens is certainly an erroneous belief, you would have arrived at that based upon all available data. However, we must agree that we don't have all available data. We have a belief based upon the known evidence, which is a lack of supporting data. An empircal skeptic could then formulate a working hypothesis. If testable, this hypothesis could in time come to be viewed as a theory.

The minor difference between the skeptic and the scientist is that the scientist, while skeptical, often has to come to a practical, working solution and hasn't the luxury of fence-sitting. Skepticism (as an ideology) is often reserved for the philosophers who can debate the matter endlessly.

Autumnforest said...

I have to say in the ghost hunting world, there are those who are absolute believers; every place you go into is haunted by poor trapped souls and then there's those who absolutely will never ever believe in anything that isn't always in the science books. The problem with both sides is a religious zealotry that makes their very egos depend on "ghosts exist" or "ghosts can't exist." Neither has an open enough mind to allow for new knowledge. When someone is a skeptic and they mean it to say "there will never be proof of the unknown, all that is known is all that exists" then they're not a skeptic. They're ego is equally caught up in proving nothing exists beyond what we see and touch and to me they're just as whacked as the "everything is woo-woo" types. I'm a skeptic, but I'm willing to say that my skepticism is purely a starting point from which I approach things with no belief yet or disbelief, simply curiosity. That's the right state of mind. When you can't prove the paranormal, all you have is belief and that comes from having experienced it firsthand.

Cullan Hudson said...

And, Autumn, I think that's a good way to look at it: zealotry. You've got the right approach. We should look at everything with an open mind first and save our judgements and opinions for later.