Pathways to Sketicism

A common story one tends to hear from Skeptics when asked “How did you ‘get into’ skepticism?” is that they probably always were skeptics, but didn’t know it. Typically they had some interest which caused them to research, or reach-out for others of similar mind, or in many cases, they were introduced to the community by someone who had a passion for critical thinking.

My own pathway to the skeptical community is a similar story, springing from my passion for astronomy, which ultimately led me to discover the AstronomyCast podcast featuring Fraser Cain, publisher of the Universe Today website, and Dr Pamela Gay, a professor of physics from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

I happily consumed this brilliant podcast every opportunity I had over the course of a year or so, becoming aware during this time of some other characters with whom I would later become very familiar, such as Dr Phil Plait from the BadAstronomy blog (who’s book Death from the Skies is a highly recommended read by the way), and the entire team from The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, which was ultimately my call-to-arms.

Once I had consumed every archived episode of AstronomyCast, I was left unsatisfied with the weekly schedule of this podcast (I seriously don’t know how Pamela manages to even do one show every week – if you follow her on Twitter or Face book you’ll have some idea of how busy this superhuman woman is!), so I reached out for other podcasts to satisfy my craving. I recalled an episode during a period of Fraser’s absence due to sickness when a guest host appeared in his place, Bob Novella from the SGU (mentioned above). Bob’s enthusiasm grabbed me, so I thought I’d give his regular podcast a try, and wham! I was hooked.

Bob’s brother Dr Steve Novella, is the host and workhorse behind this podcast, and if you haven’t heard it, do yourself a favour (I must be channelling Molly Meldrum), grab it from iTunes or the SGU website and find out why it’s one of the most popular Science and Education podcasts available (right along with AstronomyCast of course).

Through listening to Steve and the Rogues discuss various skeptical issues of the day, I became aware that my own assumptions about so many things were completely wrong. I didn’t know, for instance, that so many people completely dismiss the concept of man-made climate change – I assumed this was well supported, well accepted fact, and like so many other areas of science, we’re adding to the overall body of knowledge every day. Apparently a not-insignificant portion of the population don’t see it that way, and that’s a big problem, but I’ll write more about that later.

I also didn’t know that Creationism was gaining such significant ground in schools’ curriculum around the world, which at face value I have only a mild problem with, because after all, people are entitled to their beliefs aren’t they? Apparently not – there’s a strong push towards teaching Creationism and Intelligent Design in Science Classes, presented as ‘the alternate view, given that evolution is only a theory.’ What? Hang-on, as so many have also pointed out, gravity is also a theory, because that’s the way science works – it has to be testable, so you come up with a theory, then you come up with ways to test if it is false, then you set about trying to disprove it. If it stands in the face of these tests, then the theory is not disproved. As lines of evidence for a theory build, so to does its support, until it reaches a point that it becomes accepted as the best explanation for what we observe.

So there are people who don’t understand the concepts of the scientific method , that’s okay. You should be able to show them the evidence, let them weigh it up and come to the most reasonable conclusion, right? Wrong.

There are two issues here:

1. The ‘true believers’ of [insert ‘I know that the scientists and the government are lying to you because’… cause here] don’t listen to reason, or evaluate the evidence. Skeptics are all about suspending judgement until they’ve weighed the best evidence available, and you can change the view of a skeptic if you present reasoned evidence, but you can’t modify the views of these true believers with even the most blatant evidence disproving their assertion. Take the ‘MMR Vaccinations Cause Autism’ crowd, who for years said that the mercury in the form of thimerosal contained within the vaccination was causing autism in children. When thimerosal was subsequently removed from the vaccine, there was no corresponding drop in autism rates for the effected population, yet the Anti-Vax crowd just dropped that argument and moved on to others, including of course that studies disproving the link between the MMR vaccine and Autism were all a part of a government cover-up.

2. Most people don’t seem to apply any critical thinking skills to things they’re told are ‘fact’. Most people just differ to the media, because surely they have looked into these things.

And therein lies another problem. The media, in their perhaps misguided attempt to present ‘balanced reporting’, have misrepresented the level of dissent amongst climate change scientists for example, leaving the public with the view that the matter is highly controversial. This extents to many other issues too, such as the chilling trends in vaccination ‘doubt’ due to the efforts of the Anti-vax movement and the media’s ‘fair coverage’ of their unjustified rubbish, but the effect is the same – people don’t do their own investigation, don’t seek out the consensus of opinion, but instead believe there’s a big controversy.

So now I’m here. Now I’m becoming active through blogging, discussing issues with people, reading, educating myself and others if they’re interested. I can’t just sit around – now I’m a self-described skeptic, and that’s how it all happened!


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