Some first thoughts on skepticism

For several years now I’ve been doing things like reading Carl Sagan and watching Penn and Teller: Bullshit!, which I suppose made me a part-time skeptic.  However, I was initially disdainful of the idea of active skepticism and the skeptical movement, since my thought process was “Listen, I know Bigfoot and crop circles are garbage since they’ve been so thoroughly trashed, so I’d rather spend my time learning some actual science.”

However, over the past summer I was looking for some new podcasts other than Freakonomics Radio to listen to, and based on the suggestion of a friend I decided to give a skeptical podcast a try, so I started downloading the earliest episodes of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe.

In one of the early episodes, the host, Dr. Steve Novella, made a point that struck a chord with me: Training in science does not necessarily make a good skeptic, and vice versa.  There are various examples of professional scientists being waylaid by pseudoscientific garbage, like physicists who try to use quantum phenomenon to explain things like remote viewing and the abilities of Uri Geller.  Dr. Novella then went on to explain that the core of a skeptical education is learning and recognizing logical fallacies, since virtually all pseudosciences will commit one or many.  Listening to the podcasts in chronological order (I’m up to about episode 74 now), I’ve come around to the notion that scientific skepticism is really about defining and protecting scientific methodologies, and that the usual suspects like Bigfoot, crop circles, homeopathy, ESP, and dualism serve as good case studies in science gone wrong.  By studying the main offenders, one will in turn learn how to evict similar notions from rigorous scientific thought, so that proposed theories have an ironclad basis.

What separates a science from a pseudoscience?  Testability (the theory must make quantitative predictions that can be subject to observation or experiment; what possible experiments could a creationist conduct?), falsifiability (the theory must be open to cases where it could potential be shown to not work and if it succeeds in passing these tests we’ll have greater justification in supporting it; is it ever possible to prove that Bigfoot does not exist?  No, since there always might be one around the next corner), being free from logical fallacies (an illogical basis leads to a creaky structure; the rules of homeopathy are mutually contradictory).  The practitioners of science must avoid pseudoscience traps like relying on anecdotal evidence and falling victim to confirmation bias, which is why tools like double blind experiments and peer review were constructed.

Ultimately, it’s an issue of intellectual integrity and whether you have it or you don’t.  I want to have that kind of integrity, which is why I now regularly listen to the Skeptics’ Guide and am a supporter of scientific skepticism.

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