Michael Shermer asks, What Is Skepticism, Anyway?

de omnibus dubitandum

That is my motto, which translates to English as “everything must be doubted!” If was going to get a tattoo, this would be on my short list (along with either a soccer ball or something from Lord of the Rings…which may help explain why I don’t get tattoos.)

Dr. Shermer’s essay in today’s Huffington Post, What Is Skepticism, Anyway?, speaks to what it means to doubt everything, to wear the proud badge of skepticism – a badge I’ve been wearing since I first pondered how it was physically possible for one man to deliver gifts to so many kids in one night.

Skepticism is in my DNA (or is it?). In fact, and this happens frequently if the Long Island Medium is on TV, I often get the eye-rolling dismissal, “oh come on Dad, you’re such a skeptic.”  Fiction has its place; but fiction masquerading as fact does not. And fiction masquerading as fact which then plays on the real emotions of people grieving for the sake of ratings, absolutely does not!

So how does being a skeptic turn in to an eye-rolling accusation? Shouldn’t we all aspire to be better skeptics? Yes we should. And Dr. Shermer’s piece helps dispel some of the misconceptions around what it means and what it doesn’t mean to be a skeptic. It’s not obstinate disagreement, it’s not blissful acceptance, it’s actually more like thoughtful analysis.

Dr. Shermer says,

“Skepticism is not “seek and ye shall find,” but “seek and keep an open mind.” But what does it mean to have an open mind? It is to find the essential balance between orthodoxy and heresy, between a total commitment to the status quo and the blind pursuit of new ideas, between being open-minded enough to accept radical new ideas and so open-minded that your brains fall out. Skepticism is about finding that balance. Here is a definition of skepticism:

Skepticism is the rigorous application of science and reason to test the validity of any and all claims.

Skeptics question the validity of a particular claim by calling for evidence to prove or disprove it. In other words, skeptics are from Missouri — the “Show Me” state. When we skeptics hear a fantastic claim, we say, “That’s interesting, show me the evidence for it.”

“That’s interesting, show me the evidence for it.” Those last six tiny little words are combustible! Show me the evidence for it. Why do we ask for it? Because we want to understand your claim, we want to learn for ourselves, we do not accept truth claims solely on authority, we eschew logical fallacies, and we demand intellectual honesty from  ourselves so we expect it from others.

Dr. Shermer lists a series of “I believe” statements that shouldn’t be a surprise to any scientifically or historically literate person:

• I believe in the germ theory of disease.

• I believe that vaccines are good for societal health.

• I believe that fluoridated water reduces cavities.

• I believe in the germ theory of disease.

• I believe that vaccines are good for societal health.

• I believe that fluoridated water reduces cavities.

• I believe in the Big Bang theory of the universe.

• I believe that the theory of evolution best explains life.

• I believe that the theory of plate tectonics best explains the the continents.

• I believe that the periodic table of elements best explains chemistry.

• I believe that JFK was assassinated by a lone gunman named Lee Harvey Oswald.

• I believe aliens are probably out there somewhere but that they have not visited Earth.

All of Dr. Shermer’s “I believe” statements can also be reworded as “I understand how” or “I understand why” statements. My piece of a few days ago, I believe in evolution because I understand why evolution is true, gets right to the heart of the distinction. For example, when someone says, “I believe in vaccinations,” they probably mean is, “I trust the medical community on the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing disease.” I agree that is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s more accurate.

On the other hand, when someone says, “I believe in ghosts,” they are asserting an unfalsifiable claim to knowledge they don’t have. They might actually believe in ghosts, but skeptics have no interest in the subject. Never, in the history of humanity, has the existence of a ghost, any ghost, been verified. (Sorry fellow Shakespeare fans, Hamlet doesn’t count as evidence.)

To further understand what it means to be a skeptic, I recommend reading Dr. Shermer’s book, “The Believing Brain” and I would add to your Amazon.com order, Carl Sagan’s “The Demon Haunted World.” Both of these books should be on every skeptic’s bookshelf (see my blog’s cover photo above if you still doubt me).

In fact, I would argue both of these books should be required reading for every high school student in America!  Teenagers already mistrust what adults are telling them, so what a fantastic time to equip them with an even greater understanding of what their skeptical intuition is already telling them.

Everything must be doubted!

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About R.L. Bays

R.L. Bays is a freelance writer and speaker based in Atlanta, Georgia. He is currently working on his first book, “There Are No Such Things As Ghosts: Why Critical Thinkers Already Know This,” due out in late 2014.
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2 Responses to Michael Shermer asks, What Is Skepticism, Anyway?

  1. Some people believe that skepticism is the rejection of new ideas, or worse, they confuse “skeptic” with “cynic” and think that skeptics are a bunch of grumpy curmudgeons unwilling to accept any claim that challenges the status quo. This is wrong. Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas — no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position. Ideally, skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true. When we say we are “skeptical,” we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe.

  2. Hi there, I log on to your blogs on a regular basis. Your writing style is witty, keep it up!

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