What it means to be a Skeptic

I meant to post this on the 18th, in honor of Yoko Ono’s birthday, but I was unable to finish the post until now, so I apologize for being late (sorry Yoko).

To get us started on this short (well, we’ll see how short it ends up, I tend to ramble at times) journey, I’d like to first define what I mean by Skeptic.

Many people have an image in their head of an older white male (usually with a beard) who sits in an arm chair and dismisses anything that goes against their preconceived notions. While this image may or may not be of a “skeptic”, it seems to be the general understanding in society today. But as with many ideas held by the general public, it’s not really an accurate picture of what it means to be a skeptic.

So let’s define skeptic, with a bit of help from Wikipedia:

In ordinary usage, skepticism or scepticism refers to:

  • (a) an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object;
  • (b) the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain; or
  • (c) the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism that is characteristic of skeptics (Merriam–Webster).

In philosophy, skepticism refers more specifically to any one of several propositions. These include propositions about:

  • (a) an inquiry,
  • (b) a method of obtaining knowledge through systematic doubt and continual testing,
  • (c) the arbitrariness, relativity, or subjectivity of moral values,
  • (d) the limitations of knowledge,
  • (e) a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment.

The word skepticism can characterize a position on a single claim, but in scholastic circles more frequently describes a lasting mind-set and an approach to accepting or rejecting new information. Individuals who proclaim to have a skeptical outlook are frequently called skeptics, often without regard to whether it is philosophical skepticism or empirical skepticism that they profess.

These definitions are nice, and quite accurate, but they seem a bit unwieldy to me, let’s keep looking for a simple one line type of description if we can:

A scientific (or empirical) skeptic is one who questions the reliability of certain kinds of claims by subjecting them to a systematic investigation.

In my view if you replace the phrase “certain kinds of claims” with “virtually all claims“, you’d have what I consider a solid definition of what I mean when I use the term Skeptic.

As a skeptic myself (or at least somebody who attempts to be skeptical in their life) there are a number of philosophies or ideals I attempt to use to guide myself through life. Some of these are well known skeptical quotes or ideas, while some are more vague ideas.

Science Defined:

Before I get too far, I need to stress that we are referring to scientific skepticism in this discussion. Yes, it was mentioned in the definition we are going by, but I think it’s important to stress why science is so important.

I did a post a while back, Defining Science, which describes what science is, what science means, and how science is done. It essentially boils down to: science is knowledge and the search for knowledge, science is restricted to natural phenomena, and science is concerned with that which can be tested and is falsifiable.

Science is self-correcting, and continually changing:

The Skeptic’s Guide To The Universe 5×5 recently did an episode on the self correcting nature of science, and honestly I think they did a great job on this topic, so I won’t spend a lot of time (I’d recommend checking out their take if you want more information), but I want to make a few points about this idea.

One of the best things about science is that it is self-correcting. This is due at least in part to the fact that no part of science is off-limits to questioning. Even a small inconsistency could upset a huge theory, forcing everyone to reassess everything they know, and give the person who makes the discovery a Nobel Prize.

This also means that science is constantly changing. We are continually learning new things which upset the ideas we believed previously. Some people, particularly creationists, use this to attempt to denigrate science, when in fact it is one of science’s biggest strengths.

No subject is off limits to skepticism:

With a firm grasp of science, and why it’s so valuable, we should begin to focus on skepticism. In that vein, I’d like to start off by saying that in my opinion, skepticism should be applied to every area of life, whether that be alternative medicine, pharmaceutical medicines, big-foot, alien visitation / abductions, 9/11, religion, etc.

I know that there are a large number of skeptics who prefer to avoid some issues, particularly religion, saying that it is a personal thing for people; and unless the religion makes specific claims that contradict science (such as creationism, parents who allow their children to die, etc) that religion should be left alone. Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) is one example of this type of thinking.

On an individual level, perhaps this is a good idea. My father-in-law recently passed, after a very painful few months dealing with cancer. One of the things that helped him cope to some degree was his belief in an afterlife, and that a deity was looking after him. I would never presume to argue with a person is such a situation, since there was very little that could be be done, and even if all his belief provided was a placebo effect, it was at least something that made him feel a little better. In this particular situation, his beliefs did not limit his medical choices in any way, and was never used as a substitute for medical care, but was used in addition to the best care available.

But on a larger scale, I feel that this is the wrong approach. I feel that people should be inquiring into the evidence for or against religious claims. I feel that there should be a rational approach taken to the claims made by believers. I feel that no subject is taboo, and no line of questioning should be off limits.

Always be prepared to go where the evidence leads:

With the idea of questioning everything, you’re eventually going to come to a subject which you believe in. This subject could be anything, from alternative medicine to homeopathy, to alien life in the universe, to evolution, to the “New World Order”, or whatever it is that you believe in.

Of those examples I give, there are two which I personally believe, evolution and alien life in the universe.

I believe that the evidence (in biology, geology, chemistry, etc) prove beyond all reasonable doubt that evolution is a fact, and explains the diversity of life on the planet. However if evidence came forward that was confirmed and stood up to scrutiny I would be obliged to change my mind as to this believe I currently hold. For those creationists who may read this, I’ve seen the so-called “best” evidence that the Discovery Institute, Answers In Genesis, and other creationists groups use to push forward their idea, and in most cases have found it to be seriously lacking, totally refuted, or I have not found it to be compelling. If you feel that you have the evidence that may change my mind, please feel free to share it with me. If it turns lout to be correct, I’d love to be able to say that I debated with a Nobel Prize winner (and there is absolutely no doubt that anybody who could disprove evolution, and prove creationism would win a Nobel Prize).

The other of the examples I gave that I personally believe is the idea that life exists in the universe that is not from our planet. This is not to say that I believe this alien life is visiting us, abducting red-necks from trailer parks in Alabama, mutilating cattle, or any of the other contemporary ideas that you’ll see on the Sci-Fi Channel, etc. But I do believe that with roughly 70,000,000,000,000,000,000 (that is just a TON of zero’s) stars in the known universe that for life to have arisen only once seems like a highly unlikely prospect to me. I also know that creationists use a similar argument against the Theory of Evolution, and that it’s considered to be a logical fallacy in many situations, and I also understand that there is currently no evidence to support this belief (and lack of evidence is one of the reasons I cite as why I do not believe in a deity), and I understand that I am not being purely skeptical on this topic, but I also do not think one can will them self to change their beliefs. But as with evolution, if evidence came to light that made it seem that life arising was a hugely unlikely event, and that based on this evidence the math showed that life likely would only have arisen once in the universe, then I would be forced to throw away my belief in life elsewhere in the universe (but how sad that would be for the idea of exploration outside our solar system).

Be skeptical, don’t be a de-bunker:

For a “true” skeptic, every point of view deserves a chance to make it’s case, even if that point of view goes against your own preconceived notions. As Joe Nickell often says (and I am paraphrasing here), one should go into any investigation with an open mind, and go where the evidence leads them. He also goes on to say that in his experience, he’s never once encountered a situation where the evidence lead him to a supernatural or paranormal explanation, but that does not in and of itself mean that the next case could not be supernatural or paranormal.

As I mentioned previously, I believe that evolution is an established fact of nature (and I mean fact in as much as anything we know is a fact while still being subject to correction). I also mentioned that if evidence came to light (and was verified, etc) which disproved evolution, and lead one to another explanation (such as creationism, etc) then I would be forced to accept this evidence and accept the new theory which replaced Evolutionary Theory.

With that in mind, there does come a point when an idea has come forward and been refuted that one can take claims regarding that idea at less than face value. This can be said with a simple and familiar saying: be open minded, but not so open minded that your brains fall out.

Back to creationism as our example, it is my opinion that when the idea of irreducible complexity first came to light, it should have been (and it was) studied thoroughly (the eye, bacterial flagellum, etc). However once that has been discredited it is up to the proponent to do further research to push forward their view, and the scientific community can at least in part wait for the evidence to be presented, instead of wasting valuable time and resources continually discrediting the same ideas over and over, with precious little likelihood of validation.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence:

So now we have covered four general areas of importance for skepticism: why science is important, that everything is subject to skepticism, no matter how strongly we hold a belief, we should be willing to throw that belief away if the evidence comes to light to discredit that idea, and to be skeptical but not dismissive.

This leads us to a phrase made famous by Carl Sagan: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.  This means that based on the prior plausibility of a claim, a different level of evidence may be required before the claim can be accepted by the scientific community.Prior plausibility means simply, that some things are consistent with what is already known, while other things contradict well established ideas. Those things which overthrow established idea may be correct, but the level of evidence needs to be equal to the claim.

A simple example I like to give to explain this concept is based on me telling you what I did this morning. If I tell you that I had a bowl of cereal, toast, and a glass of juice for breakfast there is no reason to disbelieve this claim, and if you look in my sink and see a bowl with milk residue, a glass with orange pulp, and toasted bread crumbs, you’d have what most people would consider to be adequate evidence to accept my claim at face value. Since this claim has no potential negative consequences, and since nothing claimed would contradict expectations of what one might have for breakfast based on current understandings of breakfast habits, it’s prior plausibility is quite high.

Now let’s say I were to claim that this morning I floated out of my bed, was “beamed” up to an alien space craft, flown off to a distant location (another solar system, galaxy, dimension, etc), probed (I’m not sure what the obsession that “abducties” have with probing, but whatever), and then brought back to my bed, all within a matter of a few hours. Based on previous understandings of gravity, for me to float of out my bed would be highly unlikely. Based on current the understanding of high speed travel (the faster you move matter the more energy it takes to move it, and as you approach the speed of light the amount of energy becomes frankly unreasonable). Now just because these things contradict what we understand about physics does not by itself mean this claim is “impossible”, perhaps our knowledge is limited, and some alien civilization has a greater understand than we do. However based on what we do currently understand, such a claim would throw out so much of what we currently believe to be true about the nature of the universe, that the evidence to prove such a claim would need to be extraordinary (perhaps the alien craft itself, or some bit of knowledge that can be verified, but is currently unknown by mankind).

Carl Sagan put it quite eloquently:

What counts is not what sounds plausible, not what we would like to believe, not what one or two witnesses claim, but only what is supported by hard evidence rigorously and skeptically examined. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Occam’s Razor:

There are many examples of times when there have been two equally reasonable ideas to describe some phenomina have existed at the same time. One idea to keep in mind during this type of scenario is Occam’s Razor, which is often paraphrased as “all other things being equal, the simplest solution is generally the best”.

In my line of work, IT development, there is something known as the KISS method, or “Keep It Simple Stupid”. There are times when something can not be done simplely, or for various reasons a more complex solution is better, but whenever possible the simplest solution is the best solution.

A simple example of this is to imagine a man clutching his left side and falling to the ground. The first thing most people will think is that this man is suffereing from a heart attack. Another option is that this man was “shot” with an alient death ray from orbit which is designed to mimic the signs of a heart attack. Occam’s Razor tells us to assume it’s a heart attack and treat it as such until more evidence comes ot light to change that opinion.

Preponderance of Evidence and Consensus of Scientific Opinion:

The final two ideas that I want to cover in this article (although it is not necessarily the final concept to fully define skeptical thought) are quite closely related, and in some ways they are just two sides of the same coin. With the specialization that is needed today to understand most complex subjects, one must defer on many topics to others who have a fuller understanding of the topic.

These ideas, preponderance of evidence and consensus of scientific opinion, can in some situations be confused with a logical fallacy known as the Argument From Authority, but in reality are actually the best way in today’s society to understand most subjects. To avoid accidentally falling into this logical fallacy, you can not appeal to one expert, or even a group of experts. But this is not the same as accepting the consensus of scientific opinion.

The consensus of scientific opinion essentially means that an overwhelming majority of scientists in the particular field of study accept some body of knowledge as true. A few examples of this could be astronomers accepting the Big Bang model of the origins of the universe or biologists accepting the Theory of Evolution. In both cases an overwhelmingly large majority of scientists in the related field agree on the basic idea, and even if there are some differences over the details, the overall concept is not a point of contention.

The preponderance of evidence is a very similar idea, except it is referring to the actual physical evidence, and not the interpretation of that evidence by scientists. An example of this would be the fossil record shows certain animals living and dying out in the distant past, and being replaced by other animals. The preponderance of evidence shows these extinctions and new species, while the consensus of scientific opinion says that evolutions helped guide many of these older species dying off and being replaced by these new species.


Now roughly 3000 words deap, for those remaining, I’d like to finish up by saying, I have not covered every possible topic on this subject. What I have done is attempt to discuss a few ideas that I think are most important when looking at what it means to be a skeptic.


About Rodibidably

Jeff Randall is a frequent volunteer for free-thought organizations, including the Center For Inquiry – DC. Having been blogging since January 2008, he decided that a community of bloggers would be an interesting new experience (or at the very least a fun way to annoy his friends into reading his posts more frequently). Since finding out about about the existence of, and then joining, the atheist/skeptic community in 2007 he has been committed to community activism, critical thinking in all aspects of life, science, reason, and a fostering a secular society.
This entry was posted in Debate, Politics, Psychology, Religion, Science, Skepticism. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to What it means to be a Skeptic

  1. Pingback: What it means to be a Skeptic « Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

  2. 2serious says:

    Dang! Good post. I skimmed through it because I’m too tired for 300 words, but I’m going to revisit the blog.


    • 2serious says:

      Whoops. I meant I’m too tired for 3000 words.

    • Rodibidably says:

      Yeah, I do tend to ramble on at times, but I’d rather say too much, than not say enough to get my point across.

      Hopefully despite the immense length of the post, I was able to convey my thoughts in a somewhat coherent manner.

      • 2serious says:

        I revisited the blog after resting my eyes for a while. No, you didn’t ramble. You had content. And that is good.

        You are welcome to visit my blog at http://oneseeker.wordpress.com when you get a chance. My thoughts in the way of agnosticism/skepticism are new after being a Christian for 30 + years. Your feedback is welcome.


    • Rodibidably says:

      Glad ot hear you enjoyed the content… I know I probably missed at least a few “major” points, but those were the ones that came to mind as most important.

      I’ll check out your blog soon, always good to see another perspective, especially that of somebody who’s had three decades of a non-scientific approach.

  3. Pingback: Accepting My Atheism | Rodibidably

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