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Scientific skepticism or rational skepticism (UK spelling, scepticism) sometimes referred to as skeptical inquiry, is a scientific, or practical, epistemological position (or paradigm) in which one questions the veracity of claims unless they can be empirically tested. In practice, a scientific skeptic generally focuses on debunking theories which they believe to be far beyond the mainstream of science, as opposed to a professional scientist, who focuses on extending scientific knowledge.
Scientific skepticism is different from philosophical skepticism, which questions our right to claim knowledge about the nature of the world and how we perceive it. Scientific skepticism is the opposite of what is known as the true-believer syndrome.
Like a scientist, a scientific skeptic aims to decide claims based on verifiability and falsifiability rather than accepting claims on faith or relying on unfalsifiable categories. Claims that such skeptics focus on are generally those they personally consider to be seemingly outrageous, dubious and/or clearly contradictory to generally accepted science. This distinguishes the scientific skeptic from the professional scientist, who often concentrates her or his enquiry on verifying or falsifying hypotheses created by those within her or his field of science.
Popular targets of criticism among skeptics include dowsing, astrology, alien abductions, ESP and other psychic powers, which skeptics allege are pseudosciences. Skeptics such as James Randi have become famous for debunking claims related to some of these. Many self-professed skeptics are atheists or agnostics, and have a naturalistic worldview, but Martin Gardner is an example of a committed skeptic with a religious world-view.
The following is a definition of scientific skepticism from Skeptic magazine:
- What does it mean to be a skeptic? Some people believe that skepticism is 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. Skeptics are from Missouri, the "show me" state. When we hear a fantastic claim we say, "that's nice, prove it."...Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, that involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions. Some claims, such as dowsing, ESP, and creationism, have been tested (and failed the tests) often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are not valid. Other claims, such theories concerning the origins and dissemination of language, gravity waves, or the diet of Tyrannosaurus Rex have been tested but results are inconclusive, so we continue formulating and testing hypotheses and theories until we can reach a less provisional conclusion.
From a scientific point of view, theories are judged on many criteria, such as falsifiability, Occam's Razor, and explanatory power, as well as the degree to which their predictions match experimental results. A certain skepticism is part of the scientific method; for instance an experimental result is not regarded as established until it can be shown to be repeatable.
Perceived dangers of pseudoscienceEdit
Skepticism is an approach to strange or unusual claims where doubt is preferred to belief, given a lack of conclusive evidence. This is a personal principle -- it does not, on the surface, imply that skeptics should attempt to convert other people to their beliefs. The question is often asked: what is the danger of "magical thinking" and pseudoscience? It may be silly to believe in UFOs and psychic powers, but why not tolerate those beliefs? What harm do they do?
The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato believed that to release another person from ignorance despite their initial resistance is a great and noble thing. Modern skeptical writers address this question in a variety of ways.
James Randi, for instance, often writes on the issue of fraud. On a case by case basis, he attempts to show how some promoters of pseudoscience make money from their claims, while secretly knowing them to be false. This is generally known as a "profit motive". Critics of alternative medicine often point to bad advice given by unqualified practitioners, leading to serious injury or death. Richard Dawkins points to religion as a source of violence, and considers creationism a threat to biology.
By the principles of skepticism, the ideal case is that every individual should make their own mind up on the basis of the evidence, rather than appealing to some authority skeptical or otherwise.
Naturally, many targets of skeptical criticism are themselves critical of scientific skepticism. These and other critics may claim that scientific skeptics are biased and rigid in their analysis, use propaganda techniques like ridicule and mere assertion of fact, and do not actually use the scientific method to support their arguments.
According to critics, self-described skeptics almost always favor established, consensus science and normally would reject any claim to the status of skeptic by anyone indulging in paranormal or supernatural beliefs, though religious belief (eg as in the case of Martin Gardner) seems to be allowable, perhaps because they are often explicitly based on faith. A common criticism of skepticism therefore is that it is, in effect, not an epistemological position at all, but a belief system which rejects certain alleged phenomena as real possibilities.
Another criticism is that epistemological positions cannot themselves be scientifically verified; this line of thought can lead to robust forms of skepticism as exemplified by Hume, Quine, Descartes and other philosophical skeptics.
Critics of skepticism often point to cases where a scientific theory met a great deal of criticism before eventually being accepted. Commonly cited are:
- Galileo's belief in heliocentric theory.
- Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift. While continental drift was opposed by young-earth creationists who believe in a young earth in which there would not be enough time for continental drift to occur, the significant opposition came from scientists on the grounds that Wegener's proposed mechanism to explain continental drift clearly could not work, and that no alternative seemed to be at hand.
- Skepticism towards rocks falling down to Earth. Thomas Jefferson himself commented: "I would more easily believe that two Yankee professors would lie, than that stones would fall from heaven." While some have argued that meteorites were not accepted because the evidence for them was not good, opposition continued long after a number of reliable reports and even after Ernst Chladni showed that meteorites were geologically distinct from terrestrial rocks; what was apparently lacking was not evidence but a theoretical basis which made the evidence seem worthy of acceptance. These observations were not in agreement with the prevailing scientific thought. When the reasons why rocks falling from the sky was, later, proven not only logical but predictable, the question resolved itself. Critics of scientific skepticism assert that the skeptical mindset may cause difficulty harmonizing observation with established beliefs.
- Ignaz Semmelweis's innovations in hygiene in the 1840s were ridiculed by a skeptical medical establishment; however, Semmelweis did not help his case with his refusal to publish his own data on the matter until years later. Many thousands of women continued to die unnecessarily in childbirth until cross contamination was indisputably confirmed by others.
The arguments of critics are often coupled to the assertion that some particular present-day theory is being unduly criticised, and its proponents vilified. According to the sci.skeptic FAQ:
- People putting forward extraordinary claims often refer to Galileo as an example of a great genius being persecuted by the establishment for heretical theories. They claim that the scientific establishment is afraid of being proved wrong, and hence is trying to suppress the truth.
- This is a classic conspiracy theory. The Conspirators are all those scientists who have bothered to point out flaws in the claims put forward by the researchers.
- The usual rejoinder to someone who says "They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Galileo" is to say "But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."
In most cases however, skeptics do not see an occasional error as a flaw in skepticism -- they maintain that skepticism is a self-correcting system, and that with substantial evidence, any true skeptic would be more than happy to change his/her mind.
In history, this has not always been the case -- what is "substantial evidence" to one skeptic may be dismissed as trash by another. In science, the historian Thomas Kuhn attempted to create a model of how radical theory and worldview change occurred, what he called a "paradigm shift." Because of the often flexible nature of scientific observations, the illusive quality of nature, and the humanity of the actors involved, scientific change has rarely been a simple process of logical proofs and acceptances. The physicist Max Planck gestured towards the often personal aspect of scientific change:
- An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents [...] What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarised with the idea from the beginning.
Marcello Truzzi, (sociology professor at Eastern Michigan University) contends that some self-described "skeptics" are misusing the term (or even misrepresenting their opinions): "Since 'skepticism' properly refers to doubt rather than denial--nonbelief rather than belief--critics who take the negative rather than an agnostic position but still call themselves 'skeptics' are actually pseudo-skeptics and have, I believed, gained a false advantage by usurping that label."
The argument that many people who call themselves skeptics are not really skeptics, but rather "pseudo-skeptics", "cynics", or, by a sneering redefinition of the term, "debunkers", is not unique to Truzzi. Greg Taylor of Phenomena magazine sarcastically writes:
- The first step in becoming a debunker is to immediately relinquish that title and establish your credentials by calling yourself either a skeptic or a scientist. Never mind that you are actually trying to impose your personal viewpoint on others, rather than following the scientific process and applying critical thinking to all sides of the argument. Actually, the best debunkers are those that don't even know their true identity, having such poor critical thinking skills that they truly believe that that they are exhibiting all the open-mindedness and mental sharpness of the true skeptic or scientist.
Michael Shermer defends the term "debunker" in his January 2004 column in Scientific American:
- Those of us who practice skepticism for a living often find ourselves tiptoeing politely around the PC police, who think that all beliefs and opinions are equal. Thus, when asked, "Are you a debunker?" my initial instinct is to dissemble and mutter something about being an investigator, as if that will soften the blow. But what need, really, is there to assuage? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to debunk is to "remove the nonsense from; to expose false claims or pretensions." Bunk is slang for "humbug," and bunkum is "empty claptrap oratory."
For more criticism of scientific skepticism, see pseudoskeptic.
- Martin Gardner is a recreational mathematician and was the author of the long-running 'Mathematical Games' column in Scientific American.
- Douglas Hofstadter is a cognitive science and artificial intelligence researcher, computer scientist, and former physicist, most well known for his Pulitzer Prize winning book Gödel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid , as well as his stint writing the discontinued Scientific American column Metamagical Themas. (An anagram of the title of Martin Gardner's column Mathematical Games which it temporarily replaced during most of the first half of the 1980's.) Also a member of The Skeptics Society. He is currently a professor of cognitive science at Indiana University.
- Michael Shermer is a science writer, founder of The Skeptics Society, and editor of its magazine Skeptic Magazine. Also current writer for the Scientific American column Skeptic.
- Richard Dawkins is a British zoologist.He is most well known for his popularization of the gene-centric view in evolutionary biology with his seminal work The Selfish Gene, his coining of the term meme, and his outspoken opposition to the teaching of Intelligent Design and Creation Science in the publicly funded schools of the United Kingdom and United States.
- Carl Sagan is a late American astronomer who pioneered exobiology, promoted the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and popularized science--most notably with the popular book and television series Cosmos. He also founded the still extant Planetary Society, now headed by his widow, popular science writer Ann Druyan. Although most of his popular books expressed typical viewpoints of scientific skepticism, he wrote the book The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark primarily to promote scientific skepticism among what he viewed as a dangerously credulous public.
- Ann Druyan is a popular science writer and current head of the Planetary Society. Druyan is the the widow of the late astronomer Carl Sagan.
- Penn Jillette and Teller better known as the stage "magic" comedy duo Penn & Teller. Since 2002 they have been presenters of the TV show Bullshit!, investigating various claims and organizations with a skeptical attitude and much humor.
- James Randi is a stage magician and opponent of pseudoscience. He has also set up the "James Randi Educational Foundation". Randi is most famous for offering a million dollar cash reward for strong evidence of the existence of what he perceives to be pseudo-scientific, paranormal, or occult phenomena.
- Robert L. Park, a professor of physics, is a commentator on science in the mass media, and author of the book Voodoo Science.
- Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal
- The Skeptical Environmentalist
- Skeptic's Dictionary
- Global warming skepticism
- Scientific method
- Intellectual dishonesty
- Pathological science
- Scientific revolution
- Paradigm shift
- The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
- Thomas S. Kuhn, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1962. p. 169. ISBN 0-226-45808-3
- Carroll, Robert Todd, "The Skeptic's Dictionary". New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. 2003. ISBN 0471272426
- The Skeptic Society, Altadena, CA.
- Promoting science & critical thinking and the investigation of extraordinary claims and revolutionary ideas.
- Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, Amherst, NY. (csicop.org)
- Investigation of paranormal and pseudoscience claims.
- James Randi Educational Foundation]
- Million-dollar reward for proof of the paranormal
- Carroll, Robert Todd, "The Skeptic's Dictionary". New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. 2003.
- Collection of beliefs, deceptions, and delusions.
- "Skepticism". Creative Marketeam Canada Ltd. (Suite101.com)
- Philosophical systems and doctrines education.
- sci.skeptic FAQ
- Shermer, Michael, "A skeptical manifesto", Skeptic vol. 1, no. 1, 1992
- A philosophical analysis of scientific skepticism
- Boerner, Rochus, "Some notes on Skepticism". 2003.
- Delineating skeptics, disbelievers, nonbeliever, and pseudoskeptics.
- Hyman, Ray, "Proper Criticism". (csicop.org)
- Suggestions to upgrade the quality of Scientific skepticism
- Martin, Brian, "Strategies for dissenting scientists". Society for Scientific Exploration. Journal of Scientific Exploration, Volume 12 No 4. 1998. (PDF)
- Strategies available for dissenting scientists.
- Paine, Michael,, "Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit". Operation Clambake. 1998.
- Based on the book "The Demon Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark". (ISBN 0345409469)
- Sofka, Michael D., "The Myths of Skepticism". March 20, 2002.
- written by a skeptic; claims to debunk myths and views of skeptics.
- Milton, Richard, "Scientific skepticism".
- AlternativeScience.com (Main page)
- Essay over "scientific discovery". (Alternative Science.com)
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