How to be a good skeptic

What is the goal of a good skeptic?

What’s the aim of being a skeptic? Is it to a priori reject every source of knowledge in the world? Or just everything that you don’t like? Or something different altogether? Broadly speaking the ultimate goal is to accept as many true beliefs and reject as many false beliefs as possible. My aim as a skeptic is not to “be skeptical” for the sake of rejecting ideas, but rather to filter out every manner of falsehood, error, and distortion in order to arrive at the truth.

If the goal is truth, the road there is a careful and honest skepticism that rejects all the falsehoods to arrive at that which stands under scrutiny. 

What is the definition of a skeptic?

Where it gets really tricky is that while looking in assorted dictionaries you will find the word defined in a plethora of ways. We can find “skeptic” being used to refer to someone who strongly disagrees with religious claims, or habitually doubts all generally accepted conclusions, or even a member of the philosophical school of Pyrrho who doubts the ability to acquire any real knowledge at all! All of these definitions seem very negative! In fact there is a very undesirable association with the word skeptic, it’s as though these  definitions were written by proponents of some of these “generally accepted conclusions” who suffered the frustration of dealing with criticism from skeptics!

As Michael Shermer, the author of Skeptic magazine says: “I often hear, “Oh, you’re a skeptic, so you don’t believe anything?” to which he commonly replies “No, I believe lots of things, as long as there is reason and evidence to believe.” But if this is not the case, what is?

A skeptic is not one who rejects everything, but rather carefully rejects falsehoods, errors, mistakes, biases, and distortions of truth.

Ordinary claims vs Extra-ordinary claims

One thing that must be clear is that a good skeptic will not generally be skeptical of all ordinary claims, but will be skeptical of extraordinary claims.

Ordinary claims include things that we know frequently happen, like being pulled over by the police, recovering from an infection with the use of antibiotics, or even rarer things like seeing a “shooting star.” These things are all ordinary claims, because we already have definitive evidence that such things are possible. For example there are undoctored videos of people being pulled over by the police, in which we can see with a high degree of certainty that this is exactly whats happening, therefore we have the evidence. Certainly people can lie about ordinary claims, but unless there is a reason we should be skeptical (for example, knowing that someone is a pathological liar, or their ordinary story doesn’t make sense) we can accept ordinary claims on testimony, because we already have evidence that this is certainly possible.

Extraordinary claims include things that we don’t yet have evidence for, for example the existence of ghosts, the genuine magical abilities of shamans in Africa, the gift of faith healers to cure diseases using supernatural powers, and the capability of psychics to really talk to the dead. These are all extraordinary claims, meaning people have certainly asserted these are true, but careful scrutiny has never provided definitive evidence that this is exactly what happened in these cases. For example, we don’t have even one video of an amputated leg growing out at the beckon of a shaman or faith healer. We may have many testimonies and assertions that “I was healed” regarding diseases that are not visible or can resolve on their own (like some cancers), but later on, many of these people die from those same diseases they claimed to be healed of, so clearly the claim alone is not evidence. We need real evidence, not merely a testimony before we accept an extraordinary claim.

Lets test this: if I tell you my car broke down, do you have any alarm bells? Probably not. Now if I tell you that I saw a real fire-breathing-dragon in the woods? For such an outlandish claim, it seems rather easy to be skeptical. This is something we already do, however, we are prone to different biases, for example if we lived in the middle of a superstitious medieval culture that burned witches, the dragon thing may have not have been so obvious.  This is why we must be very careful to avoid being a bad skeptic.

What makes a bad skeptic?

1. Rejecting things simply because you don’t like them

If you are “skeptical” of something simply because you disagree with the conclusion of that thing, this is not genuine skepticism. For example, a Christian that is “skeptical “of mainstream academic biblical studies because he is frightened by their dire implications to his doctrine of inspiration/inerrancy or an atheist who is “skeptical” of the existence of Jesus simply because he doesn’t want this to be the case are born letting bias cloud their “skepticism.”

2. Rejecting things even if there is evidence to accept them

If you are reject some idea even while there is good evidence to accept it, you are not being a skeptic. For example, when you are “skeptical” about the fluoridation of water, and reject it as a vast conspiracy, even while there are mountains of solid evidence  to support it.

3. Rejecting things on the basis of bad arguments

If you are “skeptical” of something by using logical fallacies and bad arguments, you are not a good skeptic. This happens, for example, when you reject claims made by another person because of an attack on the person herself, by saying she is “a heathen” or a “zealot” instead of actually reviewing the claims she makes. Another example can be: “I’m not listening to the evidence for evolution, because it’s stupid.”

What makes a good skeptic?

1. Be severely skeptical of an extraordinary claim that has evidence against it

There are many things that have been conclusively disproven, and yet millions of people still think these things are true. Take for example astrology, there are wide-scale studies of twins born “under the same sign,” who have a very diverse range of personalities that don’t fit most astrological charts. Or take for example the topic of cancer, which is frequently rife with myths and beliefs that have been thoroughly debunked by solid evidence, it’s fine to be severely skeptical of these claims, because there exists strong evidence against them.

2. Be cautiously skeptical of an extraordinary claim that has no evidence for it

Some claims and assertions simply don’t have any evidence for or against them, in these cases its prudent to be cautiously open towards the claim, but still remain skeptical. Lets take, for example, that your friend reports he saw the Buddha in a vision. We don’t have definitive evidence that the being called Buddha cannot appear in a vision, but we also don’t have any evidence that it was indeed Buddha or that he can. It might seem like a stalemate, and that we should be agnostic on the issue, but this is not the case. Our options are (a) the extraordinary explanation that Buddha did sincerely visit our friend, or (b) ordinary explanation that our friend is mistaken by a  dream, has abnormal brain activity, or is deceiving us. All of these ordinary explanations are 100% possible, we have the definitive evidence, we know this for a fact. On the other hand the extraordinary claim of a genuine Buddha visitation is an unknown, it has no definitive evidence.

As originally shown by the philosopher Hume, unless we have strong evidence to the contrary,  it is always more likely that the ordinary natural explanation is the true one, rather than the extraordinary supernatural one. Whenever we review a testimony, we always have these two options, and because we already know the ordinary is possible, but don’t know if the extraordinary is possible, its always prudent to pick the ordinary explanation and be skeptical of the extraordinary.

3. Be skeptical of mere-testimony because of cognitive biases, including your own

It’s very intuitive to want to believe the testimony of friends and acquaintances if they seem very sincere about their claims. However, there have been numerous lines of evidence that show our brains are prone to a significant amount of cognitive biases, in fact, the list on Wikipedia contains over 160 biases and deficiencies that normal brains can be affected by. Some of the most important things to consider are (a) memory is very unreliable and we can often invent false memories, (b) we are prone to confirmation bias where we “see” things that we expect to be true, and (c) we often use motivated reasoning to defend something we have an emotional connection to, which we would never argue for without this relationship. Everyone is prone to these, including myself, and the best way to be skeptical is to be aware of these biases in yourself and others.

7 responses

  1. An interesting read. The conclusion screams of post-enlightenment thinking, sort of an either or, one or another. Either ordinary or extraordinary. Ordinary versus extraordinary. Polarizing the two and telling people it isn’t logical to believe in both. Interestingly enough, according to NT Wrights study on the subject, and other scholars I have read, prior to the enlightenment, people could (and did) grasp and embrace both sides of the spectrum. A person could both recognize science and all of its “ordinary explanations” while simultaneously recognizing and embracing the extraordinary. For hundreds of years great thinkers advanced math, science and philosophy, while simultaneously believing in and practicing religion. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. Many religious people are at war with the ordinary, and most scientists are at war with the extraordinary. My position: recognize the validity of both and live life accordingly.

  2. 1. The genetic fallacy is when one assumes something is discredited merely by noting its origins. Your act of labeling the conclusion screams of the genetic fallacy. See here for an intro http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_fallacy

    2. Certainly, the prescientific world did indeed accept all manner of claims on lackluster evidence, although such a differentiation of ordinary and extraordinary wasn’t yet clear. For example it was quite normal for an Irish “scientist” (see Sir Arthur Doyle the physician and fairy believer) to accept the pre-enlightenment belief in faeries without requiring extraordinary evidence for such a claim, however, with the advent of the scientific method, more data, and critical examination of this, the reality that fairies have never been documented has now won over. This is not because pre-enlightenment people were not biased, but because they were living in a darker age where people believed a variety of superstition because evidence contra these was lacking.

    For example Isaac Newton greatly advanced physics, but concurrently was involved in all manner of strange occult studies from alchemy to atlantis. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Newton's_occult_studies) While his contributions to ordinary claims have been documented and are widely accepted, his extraordinary claims are widely rejected, for there is no evidence for them. Surely you don’t imply that we accept both categories of ideas from Newton?

    3. It is befuddling the point to say we must “recognize the validity of both” before finding evidence for both, for the very point of difference is the level of evidence we have (good evidence vs bad/missing evidence). Once an “extraordinary” claim has been supported with “extraordinary” evidence, it then becomes an ordinary claim. Once there is evidence that ghosts exist, it would no longer be an unproven extraordinary claim, but a genuine description of truth – though strange and with significant philosophical implications.

    For example, if there were solid documented cases where faith healers/shamans pray over an amputated leg, and the leg grows back, then this would become an ordinary claim. We could argue as to *why* it happens (telepathic mind powers, divine beings/force, or etc) but we would all accept that it genuinely happens. Before that point however, we should not recognize the validity of such a claim no more than we can recognize the validity of fairies, before there is evidence they exist.

  3. I love the way you think, Yuriy, and the clarity of your writing. I continually find that your posts clearly express ideas that I have been mulling over, but have never put down in words. Keep up the great work!

  4. Hey Yuriy,

    Love your site and your own faith crisis parallels many of my own recently, even down to some of the issues you mention. I confess, though, that I’m finding things like the probability of the existence of a deity of some kind, human personhood (i.e. not every thought is reducible to atoms colliding), the existence of objective logic, etc. tough to shake, which makes me at least a deist. And Thomas Nagel’s amazing book Mind and Cosmos firmed this up for me even more. Is deism still on your plate? Hume, Kant, Voltaire, and Rousseau were deists (at least as I read Hume’s comments to D’Holbach). Just curious. Really, really appreciate your honesty on your site and wish you all the best.

    Ben

    • Hi Ben,

      Nice to interact with someone all the way from Germany. I’m glad others can appreciate this journey with me, its a strange place to be in.

      Quite fascinating that you are in a similar place and yet get published at the Gospel Coalition, I daresay they would quickly remove you if they find out :)

      I’m certainly open towards deism, though I find that the same classical arguments for deism/theism can equally apply towards other noncontingent entities or forces that are not minds. I would imagine that when it gets down to it, the inherent coldness of the cosmos appears to be better explained by the absence of any divine beings, deistic or not, but I certainly can’t say that I know. I like to keep an open mind.

  5. This was a good article. I’m curious, are you skeptical of the scientific method? Here’s why I am:

    1. Science begs the question apart from reference to a theistic/deistic God. As Hume showed, to assume the future is going to be like the past because it’s always been that way in the past is to beg the question; which means that all appeals to natural law as a means to predict what will occur in the future with a high probability is to beg the question.

    2. The entire scientific method is built on the fallacy of affirming the consequent:

    P > Q

    Q

    :.P

    For example:

    If evolution is probably true, then we’d expect to observe homology.

    We observe homology.

    Therefore, evolution is probably true.

    This is no different than:

    If it probably rained, then we’d expect the grass to be wet.

    The grass it wet.

    Therefore it probably rained.

    The entire scientific method is built upon the fallacy of P > Q, Q, :. P.

    (P > Q) Hypothesis & Prediction (“If evolution is probably true, then we’d expect to observe homology”)

    (Q) Observe and experiment (“We observe homology”)

    Conclusion & Evaluation (Therefore, evolution is probably true).

    I’m sure you can see the problem per the brief examples above. Even Einstein recognized this problem:

    “Contemplation of first principles progressively occupied Einstein’s attention. One visitor, Dr. Chaim Tschernowitz, has given a vivid account of a summer trip with him on the Havelsee during which their discussions were often metaphysical. ‘The conversation drifted back and forth from profundities about the nature of God, the universe, and man to questions of a lighter and more vivacious nature…,’ he has written. ‘Suddenly [Einstein] lifted his head, looked upward at the clear skies, and said: ‘We know nothing about it at all. All our knowledge is but the knowledge of schoolchildren.’ ‘Do you think,’ I asked, ‘that we shall ever probe the secret?’ ‘ Possibly,’ he said with a movement of his shoulders, ‘we shall know a little more than we do now. But the real nature of things, that we shall never know, never,’” [Einstein: The Life and Times, Avon Books, 1971, 504].

    Consider what atheist mathematician and logician Bertrand Russell said in his “Limitations of Scientific Method”,

    “All inductive arguments in the last resort reduce themselves to the following form: ‘If this is true, that is true: now that is true, therefore this is true.’ This argument is, of course, formally fallacious. Suppose I were to say: ‘If bread is a stone and stones are nourishing, then this bread will nourish me; now this bread does nourish me; therefore it is a stone, and stones are nourishing.’ If I were to advance such an argument, I should certainly be thought foolish, yet it would not be fundamentally different from the argument upon which all scientific laws are based. In science, we always argue that since the observed facts obey certain laws, therefore other facts in the same region will obey the same laws. We may verify this subsequently over a greater or smaller region, but its practical importance is always in regard to those regions where it has not yet been verified. We have verified the laws of statics, for example, in countless cases, and we employ them in building a bridge; in regard to the bridge, they are not verified until we find that the bridge stays up, but their importance lies in enabling us to predict beforehand that the bridge will stay up. It is easy to see why we think it will; this is merely an example of Pavlov’s conditioned reflexes, which cause us to expect whatever combinations we have frequently experienced in the past. But if you have to cross a bridge in a train, it is no comfort to you to know why the engineer thought it was a good bridge: the important thing is that it should be a good bridge, and this requires that his induction from the laws of statics in observed cases to the same laws in unobserved cases should be a valid one.

    Now, unfortunately, no one has hitherto shown any good reason for supposing that this sort of inference is sound. Hume, nearly two hundred years ago, threw doubt upon induction, as, indeed, upon most other things. The philosophers were indignant, and invented refutations of Hume which passed muster on account of their extreme obscurity. Indeed, for a long time philosophers took care to be unintelligible, since otherwise everybody would have perceived that they had been unsuccessful in answering Hume. It is easy to invent a metaphysic which will have as a consequence that induction is valid, and many men have done so; but they have not shown any reason to believe in their metaphysic except that it was pleasant. The metaphysic of Bergson, for example, is undoubtedly pleasant: like cocktails, it enables us to see the world as a unity without sharp distinctions, and all of it vaguely agreeable, but it has no better claim than cocktails have to be included in the technique for the pursuit of knowledge. There may be valid grounds for believing in induction, and, in fact, none of us can help believing in it, but it must be admitted that, in theory, induction remains an unsolved problem of logic. As this doubt, however, affects practically the whole of our knowledge, we may pass it by, and assume pragmatically that inductive procedure, with proper safeguards, is admissible.” [Russell, Bertrand, The Scientific Outlook http://books.google.com/%5D%5D

    Thus, I too, as a good skeptic, don’t even think we can say that science gives us truth. The deliverances of it may be true, but epistemologically, we really have no way of ever knowing. Thus, I’d encourage you to consider the above lest you fall into a scientism common among many internet skeptics these days.

    • A lot of people wrongly assume that the goal of science is truth. While many scientists might desire truth in some form or another, science itself seeks to develop a better understanding of natural phenomena. If scientific results are to be seriously considered, they must meet the following criteria: they must be testable, falsifiable, replicable, stable, and consistent. I wouldn’t say that science is synonymous with truth, but its methods have heretofore given us the most predictive models for understanding reality.

      Science that meets the criteria listed above attempts to refute a null hypothesis, which is quite literally the opposite of begging the question.

      Science does not commit the fallacy of affirming the consequent because the most robust scientific models (i.e. theories) hold up under consistent replication and don’t require a priori deductions. There are not yet any scientific models that can explain how life began (abiogenesis), and evolution neither requires there to be a God, nor requires there not to be a God as the origin of life for the model to explain the diversity of life.

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