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What is science?

From the keynote address to the OSSCI Psychic UnFair and Symposium, October 27, 2001.

The other day, I was speaking to a group of academicians, scientists mainly. And I got into a rather strenuous exchange with one attendee over the merits of water memory, homeopathy and acupuncture. Now this individual was a scientist, though his area of expertise was not chemistry or medicine. He was unimpressed by the many studies and controlled clinical trials that largely discredit the things he was so forcefully defending. Pressed further, he admitted to many other fringe beliefs and claimed that the one-million-dollar Randi prize was phony.

Talk to many scientists and you find among them many kinds of beliefs. Some are deeply religious and other hold some pretty strange ideas as true.

And the question comes up, can you trust the science that is done by someone who holds some decidedly unscientific beliefs? Can they even call themselves scientists?

What is a scientist? Degrees are given out in various scientific disciplines but there is no one degree called “scientist”. Does holding one automatically make one a scientist? Is scientist a job description and is it anyone who is paid to do science? What is science for that matter?

What science mainly is, is a method. It is an orderly way of observing investigating and testing. In fact, anyone who utilizes this method is doing science whether they have any formal scientific degrees or not. And the beauty of the scientific method is that done properly, human factors that would tend to prejudice conclusions are minimized. It’s why we call such conclusions that we get from such a method scientific and not just personal opinions. A properly designed experiment or observation will lead to consistently replicable results whatever the personal beliefs and prejudices of the people conducting them.

A scientist then is anyone who is using the scientific method and they are being scientists at any time they are actually applying it. And it is the method we trust in and not the myriad of beliefs that we find among people.

So the fact that a someone would express support for some seemingly unscientific things on the one hand doesn’t disqualify them from being a scientist. That they can claim anytime they are practicing the method. And my staunch defender of homeopathy and acupuncture is likely an excellent scientist when working in his chosen discipline which was physics. In further conversation he told me that he was not a general believer in the paranormal and in fact thought that UFOs could not be alien space ships because of various problems with faster-than-light travel, etc.

Let’s see, believes in Homeopathy, but not UFOs. Does this qualify him to be a Skeptic? He certainly thought so because he proceeded to tell me that he was actually a much better skeptic than I was because he was skeptical of skeptics and that I obviously was not. (He doesn’t know me very well.)

He then went on to say that it was easy to be a skeptic. I hear this a lot. Those who say it don’t know skepticism or skeptics very well.

Socrates (at least according to Plato) was a skeptic. He doubted that he actually knew anything and the Oracle was so impressed that it declared him the wisest of men but when he voiced his doubts, his skepticism to the people of Athens, he was forced to drink hemlock for his efforts. It can be tough being a skeptic.

Pyrrho, the founder of ancient skepticism, was so skeptical of the senses’ ability to deliver the truth that he doubted that one could ever really know what the right action would be to take even if it involved the decision of whether or not to save a drowning man.

David Hume went even further, doubting that you could actually take any action because he doubted there was any way to establish rationally a necessary connection between what we observe as cause and effect.

Skepticism is very much a philosophical exercise and it is not an easy one. At its very essence, it is the expression of doubt, the rejection of absolute certainty.

Hume eventually saves us from Pyrrhoic paralysis by pointing out that one can’t sustain this state of “rationality” at all times. We cannot be in doubt constantly. Eventually we have to allow our experiences to govern our actions. And it is perhaps in our experiences that we find our beliefs, our certainties.

It is impossible to know that that next forkful of food you are about to put in your mouth is not poisoned or diseased. You can know that rationally and sustain it for a good while, but eventually, you must eat. And sooner or later some food will enter your mouth. And at that moment you will have acted on belief. There is no one who is all skeptic, all the time.

Skepticism then is something that takes place in those quiet moments, those non-hungry moments, when the rational doubt can be maintained.

Is one who is certain about say, the efficacy of acupuncture but doubts the existence of UFOs a skeptic? Surely there is room for such a person among a society of skeptics. For as the scientist is recognized by the method that they apply, the skeptic is identified by their expression of doubt. A skeptic is defined by their doubts, not their certainties.

And the truest Skeptic is one who can find it within themselves to doubt their own certainties.

In renaming ourselves as a society we, the Ontario Skeptics, are declaring ourselves to be an inclusive organization. While we have no academic requirements, we do recognize the academic model where expression of opinion must flow unobstructed by any adherence to any righteous certainty.

We are not a political organization (though we will have important things to say to politicians). We are not an anti-religion organization, though we will certainly comment on religious issues such as the teaching of creationism as science.

And our mission is not to ridicule people’s beliefs, but we will address our inquiries to specific claims that people make.

I invite you to come join with us, explore with us, question with us, doubt with us…..and be prepared to have all your certainties examined.

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