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.