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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.

Characteristics[edit | edit source]

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 they say they are skeptical, they mean that they must see compelling evidence before they believe. 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 pseudoscience[edit | edit source]

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.

Criticism[edit | edit source]

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."[1]

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.

Famous skeptics[edit | edit source]

  • 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.

See also[edit | edit source]

Skeptics[edit | edit source]

Science[edit | edit source]

Other[edit | edit source]

Books[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

Organizations[edit | edit source]

Resources[edit | edit source]

Criticism[edit | edit source]

Other[edit | edit source]

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