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Do skeptics know nothing — or everything?

There are several misconceptions or accusations that confront skeptics constantly.

The top two in my experience are (1) “Skeptics don’t believe anything” and (2) “Skeptics think they know everything”. Strangely, these charges often come from the same sources.

The second charge, that we think we know everything, is often put in different words — that we are close-minded to other points of view. That we think our philosophy and methods have provided all the answers.

Well, let me make a tiny confession. We are close-minded at times. We do display blind faith in our methods at times. Sometimes we do think we know it all.

But when we act like this, we are not being very good skeptics. We are human and fallible and sometimes we get carried away. But our skepticism does not support this kind of mentality.

For there is a single answer to both misconceptions. Modern skepticism of the kind that Ontario Skeptics Society for Critical Inquiry (OSSCI) is based on is not about having a set of beliefs. There is no creed or platform or party line that one must swear allegiance to in order to be a skeptic. There is only a method. And that method is one of doubting and of evaluating evidence, of critically examining whatever are put forward as beliefs to believe or practices to practise.

Believers all

Many skeptics do indeed feel there is sufficient evidence and reason to justify believing in a wide variety of things. I doubt there is a single skeptic who does not believe in hundreds of things. You’ll find skeptics who believe in God while others are atheists. You’ll find skeptics who believe the universe is teeming with extraterrestrial life and you’ll find a few like me who are doubtful there is much other technologically advanced life in the universe. You’ll find a variety of political beliefs and diverse opinions on social issues held by individuals in OSSCI.

There are also many other mundane beliefs that people need to hold to get through every day. We believe gravity will continue to operate, our shoes are where we left them when we took them off last night, and our loved ones have not been replaced by ingeniously devised identical cyborgs. Some of us even hold such strange beliefs as that the Toronto Maple Leafs will win the Stanley Cup this year (as we have believed for many years past).

Now, it’s true you won’t find many skeptics who believe that aliens created crop circles, that Bigfoot exists, that tumours are cured by psychic surgery, or that John Edward really relays messages from the dead.

But the reason why you won’t find skeptics believing these is not that these beliefs are prohibited by some OSSCI central committee. Rather it is because there is a great deal of hard evidence and reason discrediting those beliefs, which skeptics have considered. If someone has some new evidence or reasons for supporting those beliefs or practices, then we would love to see it and, who knows, it might convince the skeptics.

You see, while modern skepticism does not entail any particular beliefs, it is an approach that can and does lead to beliefs. You might say there is this one requirement for membership in OSSCI, although “requirement” is perhaps too strong a word: what skeptics expect of each other is that they keep open minds and are prepared to consider evidence for and against.

The key words in our organization’s name are perhaps “Critical Inquiry”, which were added to take the emphasis away from “Skeptics” which has negative connotations to many people.

Skeptical of skeptics

This brings me to a third misconception or accusation I keep hearing. People ask, “Ah, but are you skeptical of skepticism?” Are we skeptical of the scientific method itself?

The answer is right in our Mission Statement. The second-last paragraph states baldly, that we are “committed to the constant evaluation of the scientific process as a method for establishing truth”.

How, you may ask, can we do this and then still support the use of the scientific method for evaluating claims of the paranormal or pseudoscience?

I think the solution to this seeming paradox is also in our Mission Statement. It is hinted at it in the quotation from Carl Sagan which accompanies the statement:

There is no other species on Earth that does science. It is, so far, entirely a human invention, evolved by natural selection in the cerebral cortex for one simple reason: it works. It is not perfect. It can be misused. It is only a tool. But it is by far the best tool we have, self-correcting, ongoing, applicable to everything.

The scientific method, the approach of open-minded skepticism, is the best, most powerful, most reliable tool available. Nothing else has been so effective. Nothing has brought humanity so much understanding of the world or helped us advance as far. However, if there is something defective about this approach, we want to know, so we may improve our work. Or, even better, if there is a more effective method, again we’d love to hear about it.

I might point out how difficult this would be however. For to prove another method is more effective than science and skepticism, one would have to present a comparison of results. One would have to open one’s mind to new hypotheses, set up tests, check and double-check the test for fairness, and determine which produces the best results.

And what do you call that process?

Right, it’s science. It’s the skeptical approach and the scientific method.

One response to “Do skeptics know nothing — or everything?”

  1. Salma says:

    Sigh. Can we trust nothing anoyrme? Along the lines of selective data, this was a fascinating TED talk I recently viewed by an epidemiologist about how drug companies can be selective in their FDA submitted studies: . He speaks fast, but I think you’ll enjoy the content!