People have a tendency towards believing extraordinary things. It’s a very common occurrence to find friends, family or co-workers talking about how their house is haunted, or advising that you should date a Scorpio because they match your star sign. These people often don’t take someone expressing doubts over their cherished beliefs too kindly. ‘Science can’t explain everything’ they say, or ‘you’re just being closed minded’. People like to have a little magic in their lives, and for that reason scepticism is a hard sell. Why on earth would you want to doubt all those things that make life magical? Hopefully this article will provide a convincing argument as to why we could all benefit from being a sceptic.
To begin with, it is important to quell any misconceptions that people have about what scepticism actually is. Firstly, scepticism is not the dogmatic denial of all propositions. A good sceptic doesn’t doubt the existence of ghosts because they just don’t want to believe it. A sceptic is someone who analyses the evidence in favour of a particular claim before making a judgement as to its validity. All claims have a burden of proof which is directly proportional to the extraordinariness of the claim. Philosopher David Hume once wrote ‘A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence’ which was later transformed into a memorable axiom of scepticism by the great astronomer Carl Sagan:
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence
The claim that ghosts exist falls into the category of a rather extraordinary claim. It requires that there is some aspect of a person that survives death, and that this aspect of that person can continue to interact with the world in different ways. Anecdotes of sightings and blurry photographs simply are not enough to prove that this is possible. Anecdotes could be made up, or the person relaying them could be mistaken or delusional, and photographs can be faked or simply misinterpreted. A sceptic hasn’t just arbitrarily decided that ghosts do not exist, and that’s that, a sceptic is saying; I need a bit more evidence than that before I accept what you’re saying. A lot of detractors like to equate scepticism with denialism, however, this simply is not the case, and hopefully that shall become more and more apparent as you read through this series of posts.
Another misrepresentation of scepticism, which I alluded to earlier, is the idea that it is closed minded – an accusation that is linked to the idea that scepticism is somehow dogmatic. In actual fact scepticism is the opposite of closed mindedness. To continue with the example of ghosts, a believer asserts that because they got a cold feeling when they walked into a particular room in a supposedly haunted house, and that they couldn’t explain why a book fell off the shelf, these things must be proof that ghosts exist. This is in actuality the closed minded position, because they have closed their mind off to any explanation of these things that does not involve ghosts. A sceptic on the other hand keeps their mind open to the possibility that the cold feeling might have been due to a draft in that particular room, or down to some other non-paranormal phenomena, and that the book might have been placed precariously on the shelf and fell coincidentally when you happened to be at the house, or that perhaps it was knocked loose by someone brushing past, and slipped off a little while later. You can’t call these explanations closed minded just because you don’t like them. A sceptic actually keeps their mind open to all possibilities, and assesses them based upon their likelihood and the amount of evidence in favour of them. If there is simply not enough evidence to make a judgement, then judgement is suspended until the evidence is in. Scepticism is the antithesis of closed mindedness, in truth it is those who seek to discredit all other possibilities by calling those who put them forth ‘closed minded’ who have the real barriers in their intellect.
So to summarize, a sceptic is a person who judges all claims based upon the evidence put forth in favour of them. If a particular claim has not got enough evidence in favour of it (remembering that the amount of evidence should be proportional to the extraordinariness of the claim) then there is no reason to accept it as being true. It’s worth clarifying that seeing no reason to accept something as being true is not the same as believing that something is not true. Believers and bullshit peddlers are eager to equivocate these two things so that they can retort to scepticism by saying ‘well you can’t prove that it doesn’t work’. However, a sceptic does not necessarily believe that it doesn’t, they just don’t believe that it does.
People tend to see things in black and white. Either a proposition is true, or it isn’t, either it works, or it doesn’t. Scepticism challenges a black and white view of the world, and often sits uneasily with people because of its habit of pointing out the grey areas. Doctor and writer Ben Goldacre provides another great sceptical axiom in his book Bad Science:
‘I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that’
Scepticism isn’t easy, because it requires us to do a lot of intellectual footwork, but there are a lot of rewards for doing so. Why should you abandon the simplistic black and white world and enter into the strange, uneasy world of scepticism? Why, in other words should you bother to read this series of posts?
Well, firstly it comes down to what you value as a person. We all value certain things; some of us for example might value their career, whilst others might value their family life etc. There are some values, however that I’d say are more or less universal. I think it would be difficult to find a person who does not value truth. Most people care whether or not something is true before they believe it. So, if you value truth, you should adopt scepticism as your ally. Why? Because scepticism is a mode of thinking that allows you to explore ideas and claims, and tries to evaluate whether or not there is any good reason to accept them as being true.
Of course there is no way anyone could ever align their beliefs perfectly with the truth. However sceptical inquiry provides a compass, it gives us the provisions to ensure that we head in the general direction of truth rather than going the opposite way. It’s not always easy. Sometimes we find that our scepticism might require us to take a U-turn, but if we value truth then we must not be afraid of letting go of cherished beliefs if it turns out that they might be false. It does take a certain degree of courage, but reward is being free from the shackles of false belief.
Another reason that we should be sceptical is because of what we invest in our beliefs. We invest our money, our time, and sometimes our health in beliefs. Wouldn’t you like to know whether or not something is a waste of time and money before it’s too late? Wouldn’t you like to know whether or not a particular treatment is effective before you make health decisions based upon it? In a world full of time consuming, expensive and potentially hazardous bullshit, wouldn’t you like to be able to spot it before some scammer has away with your time, your money and potentially your health?
So if you think that the truth is important, and you care about not wasting time and money on pointless and potentially harmful things then you should be a sceptic. In this series of posts I hope to put forth some ideas that you can incorporate into your sceptics toolkit.