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Introduction to skepticism

April 6, 2012

A good place to start this blog conversation would be to identify what it means to be called a "skeptic". Perhaps the best way to start would be to say what a skeptic is not.

The first thing that many people assume is that scepticism is synonymous with cynicism – that skeptics don't believe anything unless it can be absolutely proved to be true, and are therefore close-minded to new ideas until irrefutable evidence has been produced. Many will be aware of Rene Descartes idea that the only thing we can be absolutely sure of is our own existence, but it would be hard to live your life that way. Skeptics are just people who like their facts to be correct.

As an aside, everyone must be familiar with the quote "It ain't so much the things we know that get us into trouble. It's the things we know that just ain't so". I once used it in something I was writing and being a pedant I went looking for the original author of the saying. Something in my mind said that it was Ralph Waldo Emerson, but something else said that it didn't really sound like Emerson. I knew it was an American, but it didn't sound like Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe or T. S. Elliot either, so I checked. I found many attributions, and what all these attributions had in common was that the writer was absolutely sure that it had been said by Mark Twain. Or Josh Billings. Or Artemus Ward. Or Will Rogers. Or ... .

Here was possibly the most famous saying in the world warning about being both sure and incorrect and the evidence was clear that at least some people talking about it were both sure and incorrect.

The other major thing that skeptics are often accused of is atheism, but what is really meant is antitheism. As scepticism asks for evidence it is quite consistent to doubt the existence of gods unless evidence of their existence can be shown. Unfortunately the meanings of the words have changed over time so that the correct skeptical position, agnosticism (from the Greek for "without knowledge", or colloquially "don't know"), now seems to indicate a sort of acceptance that there might be a god somewhere so we had better behave ourselves. The word "atheist" (from the Latin meaning "without a god") now seems to mean someone who denies the existence of gods. As existence of a god is a matter of faith, not evidence, claiming the ability to absolutely prove the non-existence of all gods steps outside scepticism. I prefer to be called an apatheist, in that I don't know, don't care and I wouldn't live my life any other way if I did know.

Skeptics object to the excesses of religion, as do many believers, but the real objection is when testable claims are made, such as that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. We treat these claims the same way we do those which challenge the orthodoxy of science and medicine. If someone makes a claim they should be able to back it up, and saying that someone said it or wrote it or it might be true just aren't good enough.

Scepticism is the forefather of science in that it is a method of arriving at the truth, not the truth itself. It is a philosophical position that allows the perceived truth to be provisional and to be rejected or modified as more evidence and facts become available. Yes, there are some ideas in science which have so much supporting evidence that it would seem either foolish or extremely optimistic to think that they might be overthrown any time now, but that doesn't stop creationists and perpetual motion machine inventors from trying. Far from being close-minded, skeptics have minds that are open to the possibility of being wrong, but we must always remember Carl Sagan's warning that our minds shouldn't be so open that our brains fall out.

Oh, and here's a note for those who want to complain that the spelling "skeptic" is an intrusion of Americanisation into our lives. It is an Americanisation of an Anglicisation of a Latinisation of the original Greek Σκεπτικός. You can spell it "skeptik" if you want to be pedantic.

To sum up the skeptics' state of mind I could quote Joe Friday and say "Just the facts", but then I could be accused of being old and curmudgeonly, a charge often brought against skeptics but a matter for another blog entry on another day.

(A version of this article was published on the Yahoo! 7 News Blog on August 24, 2009)

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