A less formal post today, unstructured playtime if you like. This week I had not had a chance to write my usual contribution to my work newsletter. Instead I decided to search for a skeptical cartoon to use as a place holder until next week. I found two things, first that there aren’t very many good skeptically themed ‘toons around and second those I could find just seemed to portray skepticism as simple doubting. While this is a good place to start it certainly isn’t all there is to the skeptical outlook. While philosophical skepticism is concerned with whether there is any such thing as objective reality the modern Skeptical movement takes this for granted and seeks to supply a basis for rational inquiry and thought.
A skeptic attempts to examine claims objectively, trying to limit the effect of bias on their conclusion, both that of the person making the claim and their own. This is obviously not easy, we all view the world through a collection of filters that encompass all of our preconceptions, hopes, wants and needs as well as, for most of us, a desire to be part of a larger community. This can seriously affect how we interpret the events around us and hamper our ability to make sound judgments concerning the validity of claims that we make and that are presented to us a factual. As I have previously discussed personal experience as related through anecdote is extremely powerful in affecting the way people perceive the world. An emotion filled story about someone’s plight with an illness and subsequent miraculous recovery is often enough to convince most people of the efficacy of a treatment.
For a skeptic however, certain minimum standards of evidence must be met before we can evaluate the plausibility of a claim. The more unusual or outrageous the claim the higher that minimum standard becomes. This is because prior plausibility must be considered as part of the evaluation process. We all do this in our lives, when we consider how likely a friend is to keep that promise to arrive on time we think back to previous occasions when they were early or late and decide how likely it is that they will make it this time. We consider the prior probability to their claim of punctuality. A friend who is habitually late will score lower that one who has proven time and again that they can read a watch. In the same way a skeptic will consider the evidence that has come before when looking at the claims of Homeopathy, Chiropractic, Therapeutic Touch, psychics, mediums, cryptozoologists, etc.
So, if you meet a skeptic remember that they are not simply trying to ridicule paranormal experience but are attempting to apply reason to the world around them and are hoping that they are providing an example for others to do so as well. At least that’s the way I see it. Happy critical thinking.