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Open Your Mind to Skepticism

Many of you are probably aware of the seemingly prevailing attitude that skeptics are closed-minded cynics. Some of you have no doubt experienced this accusation first-hand. But is it true?

Let’s consider two well-known phenomena that skeptics are often faced with: UFOs and talking to the dead. I’ll briefly examine the approaches taken by skeptics and by our detractors.

Scenario number one: You are faced with a story regarding a UFO sighting, maybe with photographs or videos. Someone breathlessly claims that this is really weird and possibly proof of an alien spacecraft. As a skeptic you list the possible explanations for it:

  1. Someone is lying, making up a story for amusement or perhaps even with a view to attaining fame and money.
  2. Someone has perpetrated a hoax and the claimant fell for it. Hoaxers will fake photographs, or fly lit-up kites at night, perhaps with foil strips to show up on radar.
  3. Misinterpretation of a natural phenomenon. Meteorites, bird formations at high altitude in failing light, or lenticular clouds can all be misinterpreted as UFOs.
  4. Misidentification of aircraft, weather balloons, or other mechanical items.
  5. Camera artefacts showing up on film — lens flare, dust, bad optics, etc.
  6. Alien spacecraft that have traversed many light years to skulk around in our skies without ever landing at the U.N. building and saying, ’Want to trade us some wheat for fifty snargs of praxlebidgit?’

Of all those possible explanations, and more, what is the least likely explanation?

Scenario number two: A friend reveals that they have received some wonderful news about recently deceased Uncle Bert — he is happy in heaven, surrounded by streets of gold and trees full of fruit, and his old buddies are telling him that he really was a good golfer despite all the ribbing they gave him. Possibilities?

  1. The person giving your friend the revelations is a huckster after money.
  2. The person giving your friend the revelations genuinely believes in their ability to see into the mind of the deceased and likes to make people feel better by revealing what they believe they can see.
  3. The person really can talk to the dead, despite zero evidence of souls or life after death.

Again, what is the least likely of these possible explanations?

But a proper skeptic doesn’t stop there. In many cases Occam’s razor may tell us which is least likely, but it does not tell us which is the most likely. Therefore we are required to examine all of the possible explanations, giving equal weight to the evidence for all and eliminating, provisionally, explanations for which there is a lack of evidence.

Many of us know of the famous exposé of evangelist and faith healer Peter Popoff by skeptic James Randi. Despite the fact that Popoff was proven with evidence to be a fraud, many people stood by him, claiming that Randi was an agent of satan or simply had a vendetta against religion. Their minds were closed to any possibility other than the miraculous.

In 1976 the Viking mission to Mars took photographs of the planet’s surface. Among these photos were those of a rock formation that bore a remarkable resemblance to a human face. Immediately many people jumped to one conclusion: this was an artificial structure built by an intelligent civilization. Examination with a skeptical eye revealed many problems with that hypothesis (calling it such probably gives it more credit than it deserves, but I digress).

Pareidolia notwithstanding, higher-resolution photos taken by recent probes have shown it to be nothing unnatural at all. But this has not dissuaded the thousands who still hold fast to their belief that NASA and all the people working for it are engaged in a vast cover-up. They scoff at the skeptics and deride us for being — yes — closed-minded.

In each of these cases the skeptics are closed-minded for looking at many possibilities and the deriders are open-minded for allowing only one? One for which there is less or no evidence?

A skeptic is required by scientific curiosity, investigative rigor, and intellectual honesty to consider all eventualities before reaching a provisional conclusion — provisional because one must always be open to new evidence.

No, skeptics are not closed-minded, and we must stand up to those who claim otherwise. Skeptics are in fact more open-minded than others because we are willing to consider and investigate all possible explanations and evidence.

Open your mind with a healthy dose of skepticism.

One response to “Open Your Mind to Skepticism”

  1. This Randi Stuff is old….See what Rev. Popoff is doing now….Recently Rev. Peter Popoff launched a free medical outpatient children’s hospital staffed by doctors who are believers and powerful witnesses for Christ. This was a major sign to unbelievers that the love and compassion of Jesus Christ is real and working in the earth today!

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