This is going to serve as the base of the Skeptictionary, which is what I’m calling my personal minipedia of skeptical resources. The idea is to write a series of sporadic articles, addressing specific aspects of skepticism, science, and rationality, as thoroughly as I’m able and/or bothered. These will all be laid out together in some sort of catalogue in one of those little menu box things on the right. This is in no way associated with The Skeptic’s Dictionary, which is a similar thing that’s been around for much longer, and therefore has far more words and makes itself far more useful. There’ll be skeptical thinkings on God, psychic powers, alternative medicines, conspiracy theories, whatever – anything that could benefit from a little skeptical scrutiny. I also hope to look at the fallibility of human cognition – or, less pretentiously, ways people get stuff wrong – in more detail.
For this bit, I’m simply going to discuss the concept of skepticism itself, explain what I mean when I call myself “a skeptic”, lay out why I think this is a good thing for people to be, and try to dispel a few misconceptions about it. Even if it’s not something you’ve ever identified with, you might find something that you can relate to here.
To be skeptical of something is nothing more than to demand that a reasonable level of evidence be provided to support a claim, before you will “believe in” it, or accept it as true. Broadly speaking, if somebody tells them something, a skeptic says “Prove it”.
Skepticism isn’t, in itself, an opinion, or a position, or a belief; it describes an approach you can take in deciding what to believe. It’s a way not to be gullible, and to avoid being taken in by liars, frauds, or other people who are themselves honestly mistaken about something. It doesn’t necessarily entail a cynical distrust of everyone around you; it’s about expecting evidence before something that sounds unlikely will be accepted as true, and knowing how to spot unconvincing arguments. It’s also about knowing the ways that people can be fooled, and fool themselves.
One thing I’m skeptical about is the existence of God. I’m an atheist, and I’ll talk more about atheism specifically in a future essay. But even if you are religious – if you believe in some kind of god, or have some level of faith – you’re probably skeptical about a lot of other things.
Maybe you don’t believe in Bigfoot. Plenty of people claim he really exists, and they regularly show off various grainy photos and video clips, to try and convince the rest of us. But, it seems to me, all the evidence we’ve seen so far has been very flimsy, and it can all be easily explained without having to assume that a creature like Bigfoot actually exists. If you’re unconvinced for similar reasons, then you’re being skeptical about Bigfoot.
Or perhaps you think Bigfoot isn’t so unlikely, but the idea of aliens visiting this planet from light years away and abducting people is just silly. Maybe you reckon that some people just watch too much sci-fi on TV and get carried away in their own fantasies, and that there’s never been any real evidence to suggest that anything like that has happened. That’s you being skeptical about aliens.
Or maybe aliens are real, but those TV psychics just don’t convince you. After all, emotionally fragile people are likely to be eager to take whatever solace they can get, from someone willing to tell them nice, comforting things about how happy their grandparents are in the next world. You know some people can fake it, and who’s to say the whole thing isn’t one big con?
Or, if all of these are sounding like entirely valid propositions so far, maybe you don’t believe in Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, who would use his trident to cause shipwrecks and earthquakes when he was angered, and who impregnated the Gorgon Medusa to conceive Pegasus, the flying horse. At least, that’s what they say about him, but where’s the proof?
A more accessible example would be if you were to get an email from the Prince of Nigeria, who needs to move some of his father’s money, and is enlisting your help to cover some of the admin costs, with promises that he’ll share the booty with you and make you rich afterwards. There are few people left on the internet who won’t be naturally skeptical of a claim like this, and it’s not cynical or pessimistic or curmudgeonly for you not to immediately hand over your credit card details to anyone claiming to have your best interest at heart. Maybe it’s possible that you could make some easy money here, but based on this evidence, it’s a much more likely conclusion that someone’s trying an age-old scam again. Whenever you’ve rejected a claim in one of those emails supposedly from a rich foreign aristocrat who wants to give you millions of dollars, you were being skeptical, and avoided being dangerously wrong because of it.
Which is a neat point at which to explain why skepticism is important. If we don’t know how to avoid errors in thinking, and how to avoid being tricked, then we risk being taken in. We risk throwing away our savings on an internet scam, and ending up financially ruined, as hundreds of people have been – the scam may seem obviously bogus to us now, but it wasn’t always so to certain unfortunate, trusting people. We risk handing over the keys to our emotions to someone who does a few simple magic tricks, or makes a good guess, or who just catches us at a particularly vulnerable time in our lives. We risk dishing out our faith to quack healers, who’ll take all our money, promise us whatever cure we’re desperate for, and then let us or our loved ones die, because devoting our time to a charlatan has kept us away from real, proven medicine that could have been some help.
Opportunities to make damaging mistakes are undeniably out there. Con-men, incorrect choices, and inaccurate beliefs are never likely to be in short supply. And if we can’t think skeptically, and rationally, then we may never be able to tell when we’re wrong. I shouldn’t have to spell out why this skill – the ability to recognise when you might be wrong – is an unquestionably good and vitally important thing to possess.
That’s really all I wanted to say in this introduction. If I can keep it going and build up a useful collection of stuff, the hope is that somebody someday might find some of it useful when trying to decide what they think about a certain subject, or when arguing over something with a true believer. If that was you, do let me know.