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Wikipedia: Scientific skepticism
Scientific skepticism
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Scientific skepticism (UK spelling, scepticism) sometimes referred to as Skeptical Inquiry is a scientific, or practical, epistemological position (or paradigm) in which one does not accept the veracity of claims until solid evidence is produced.

Characteristics

Skeptics ideally do not rely on faith, but tend instead to look for evidence to support claims, drawing conclusions based on available evidence. Popular topics of criticism among skeptics include dowsing, astrology, ESP or psychic powers, alien abductions, among other alleged pseudosciences. Famous people described as skeptics include James Randi, noted for debunking claims related to what many consider to be pseudoscience. Many self-professed skeptics are atheists or agnostics, and have a naturalistic worldview, but Martin Gardener stands as an example of a committed debunker 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 of 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, Ockham's Razor, and explanatory power, as well as the degree to which their predictions match experimental results. A certain skepticism is part of scientific methodology; for instance an experimental result is not regarded as established until it can be shown to be repeatable.

Famous Skeptics

Danger of pseudoscience

Fundamentally, skepticism is an approach to new 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. 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.

Hence, prominent skeptics, convinced not only of the provisional nature of a given theory but also of its danger, will attack certain beliefs with more fervor than would be expected on the basis of skeptical principles. They may campaign to prevent the dissemination of material supporting the theory. They may publicly ridicule, or attempt to find evidence of fraud or other law breaking.

This practice brings skeptics into conflict with those who support the theories in question. Richard Milton of AlternativeScience.com writes:

But in recent decades, 'skeptic' has come to mean something else. It has come to mean the adoption of an attitude of scorn and derision towards any kind of anomalous data that contradicts current scientific beliefs, and the adoption of an air of condescension and superiority towards those who venture to investigate or write about anomalous phenomena. [1]

The "anomalous phenomena" Milton refers to are cold fusion, parapsychology, Jacques Benveniste's widely ridiculed homeopathy theories and creationism. He also throws in an indefensible but isolated case of "scientific censorship" (Warwick Collins).

In each of these cases (except Collins), the evidence is clearly in favour of the skeptics -- see the articles on each subject for more information. The skeptics in question make their minds up on the basis of the evidence (or lack thereof), and then proceed to address the perceived danger of the spread of these ideas.

Related to this is the argument that many people who call themselves skeptics are not really skeptics, but rather "pseudo-skeptics" or, by a sneering redefinition of the term, "debunkers". 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. [1]

The wiki process being what it is, you may find elements of this point of view scattered throughout this article. 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." [1]

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. Practically, however, many skeptics feel obliged to be more aggressive in pushing their point of view, especially on claims related to pseudoscience and quackery.

Criticism of valid theories

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 heliocentric theory; the myth that Christopher Columbus' contemporaries thought the Earth was flat; Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift, and 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.

However, skeptics point out that resistance to Galileo's theories was due to the Catholic church's teachings and not due to scientific skepticism. 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 the scientific establishment 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.

Another example of this is the oft-cited case of meteorites; while some have argued that they were not accepted because the evidence for them was not good, opposition continued long after a number of reliable reports and even after Ernst Chaldni 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. Once we knew why rocks falling from the sky was not only logical but predictable, the question resolved itself.

James Randi wrote As we know, the fact that stones do fall from the sky is now well recognized and understood. If Jefferson had been in possession of the facts we now enjoy, he'd have had no problem embracing the phenomenon. However what Jefferson primarily lacked may have been not so much facts (he knew, after all, about the Yankee professors; he simply did not believe them) but theory. In other words, it is well recognized in part because it is understood.

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".1

By skeptical principles, skeptics hold that it is better to disbelieve a correct assertion than to believe an incorrect one. Though, sometimes, this can be dangerous. Ignaz Semmelweis's innovations in hygiene in the 1840s were ridiculed by the skeptical medical establishment (although Semmelweis certainly didn't help his case much with his refusal to publish his own data on the matter until years later). Many thousands of women continued to die unnecessarily in child-birth until cross contamination was unavoidably demonstrated by others.

Skeptics do not see an occasional error as a flaw in skepticism. In the historical cases where this has happened, the evidence generally gains eventual acceptance (often when the technology and associated experimental advances are made so that the falsifiability of the theory is possible). Max Planck made the following observation on how valid theories gain acceptance:

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.

See Also

Skeptics: Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, The Skeptical Environmentalist, Skeptic's Dictionary, Global warming skepticism

'Science: Pseudoscience, Protoscience, Pathological science, Scientific Revolution, Paradigm shift, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Other Magical thinking

Books

External Links

Organizations

Resources
  • 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
  • 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 file format)
    • 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)

Criticism

References

  1. "They also laughed at Bozo the Clown" comes from Carl Sagan's book, Broca's Brain, Coronet 1980, p79, ISBN 0340253487. Reprinted as ISBN 0345313127 (1983), ISBN 0345336895 (1986) by Ballantine.

  

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 
Modified by Geona