Skepticism is hard :(

So I came across something “interesting” in the Christian Science Monitor:

You might want to get the language right. Skeptics can be excessively negative, all arched eyebrows and begging to differ. But sometimes skeptics stop everyone from going off the deep end.

Hmm…how’s this going to go? I’m not sure of the message yet, so I’d better arch my eyebrows and read on.

When someone says Big Foot or space visitors, I think misperception or hoax. But the skeptic in me has to note that strange new species are discovered every year. It was only in 2006 that Japanese scientists got the first images of a giant squid (Architeuthis) in the wild.

New strange species are discovered every year in remote locations where we might not have been previously looking. Animals as large as Big Foot aren’t typically discovered in heavily populated areas in North America, where most sightings are reported. A giant squid lives in the depths of the oceans – Big Foot is supposed to live anywhere from Alaska to Florida and in between. So I may have to be “excessively negative” and call that a false analogy.

As for crop circles, I’m sure most are done by midnight pranksters, though I once interviewed William Levengood, a retired professor of physics at the University of Michigan. He had carefully studied samples of grain and soil from crop circles and thought something else – perhaps an ionospheric anomaly – was going on. We’ve had only a century of experience with weather balloons and rocketry. Do we know everything there is to know about the ionosphere?

Non sequitur. I’m sorry if I’m still all arched eyebrows here, but the ionosphere? Crop circles are done by pranksters. Explain otherwise in a coherent way how else they got there if not by human intervention – which, by the way, has been documented and publicly admitted.

As for ESP: People who claim they are clairvoyants or can bend spoons with their thought are charlatans in my opinion. But all of us have experienced coincidences too odd to explain. A person you were thinking about phones in the next second. A lost object reappears. Psychologists and physiologists think these are just mental hiccups. Perhaps. But are we certain we are always getting clean data through our senses when we observe something? Werner Heisenberg was uncertain.

Too odd to explain doesn’t mean unexplainable, so I don’t understand the “but” here. Just what is the point of this so far? Also the Heisenberg principle relates to quantum mechanics, not lost keys.

Most of what people call the paranormal is probably hogwash. But the word “probably” is where the skeptic earns his or her merit badge. The scientific process is the best and most rational way humans have of trying to understand the natural world they inhabit. It requires careful analysis and study. But it also requires continued doubt.

And that’s where we have a problem in rational discourse today. Writing in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Carlin Romano made a distinction between today’s “science warriors” and the real “philosophers of science.” The former take an absolutist approach to science, skewering everything from the Loch Ness monster to conventional religious beliefs as ignorance. Philosophers of science, however, understand science to be a set of beliefs and knowledge that at times can be turned on its head, a recurring process that Thomas Kuhn described in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.”

Well, they get the first paragraph right. Unfortunately the second paragraph argues a straw man. Though some people may draw a more concrete conclusion than others based on the same evidence (or lack thereof), generally the point of science is to change one’s mind when presented with appropriate evidence. Though a scientist might take a strong stance that there’s no such thing as Nessie, based on current knowledge, any reasonable scientist would happily change that opinion should they be presented with concrete evidence otherwise. Thus the apparent “approach” is irrelevant, if the end result is the same: appropriate acceptance of new data.

That night when I stood under the stars with Maddy, my dear departed friend and mother-in-law, I saw a light moving way up in the sky. It wasn’t on the smooth trajectory of a satellite. It was an object. It was flying. I could not identify it. That’s as far as I can go. Technically, Maddy was right. It was a UFO. There was probably a good explanation. Probably.

Yes! That’s all you know. Based on that “evidence”, many conclude that aliens are visiting us. However, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that there are no alien visitations. Such evidence is not concrete enough to conclude that there might be, because it’s absurd to assume that anything “might be” just because we can conceive of the possibility. That view doesn’t make me “excessively negative”. It makes me a skeptic. I’ll happily change my mind if presented with sufficient evidence. That’s the point. My conclusions may not appeal to all, but in the end I try very hard to change my mind when there is overwhelming evidence that I should. Therefore I don’t think it’s appropriate to evaluate someone’s skills as a skeptic based on how “negative” they may be or the arch of their eyebrows, as long as they are following the basic tenets of skepticism. How well they are getting across their message is another discussion, but that’s irrelevant to their personal ability to evaluate and discuss facts.


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