Questions I’m frequently asked as a self-identified skeptic
Questioning is the very cornerstone of science, as it was curiosity and a need for understanding which drove the great men and women of science to explore, experiment and discover.
I welcome questions and criticisms, as these offer an opportunity to address misconceptions about science, scientific skepticism and what critical thinking is all about, whilst potentially offering a new, previously unconsidered perspective to the questioner’s firmly held beliefs which range from quirky, yet harmless, to potentially dangerous.
Since I’m forever providing references all over the p lace for people to learn more, I decided to make a list of the most common questions I’m asked, with the brief responses I offer as a starting point for conversation.
I should point out that these are my views, and aren’t necessarily representative of the skeptical ‘community’ at large, as within any such grouping of individuals there is inevitably a cross-section of society, and thus all that implies.
Q. So you’re a skeptic – that means you don’t believe anything, right?
A. No. Those who self-identify as a ‘skeptic’ in the scientific sense, are using the term to describe their default position of suspended judgement, until sufficient evidence either way has been presented. This is very different from ‘disbelief’, which would be technically incorrect where insufficient evidence is available either way.
This view is very much the default position of science, which first seeks to understand the world through observation, then set about explaining what is observed with an hypothesis, which is then tested under the scientific method to ascertain whether the hypothesis stands up to experiment and criticism. The ability of said hypothesis to withstand criticism, and be duplicated by other scientists with the same results, is what leads to scientific consensus, and thus general acceptance of said hypothesis and greater ‘theory’ as the explanation for what is observed.
Q. But what about ‘climate sceptics’? They don’t seem to agree with the scientific consensus?
A. I agree – those who describe themselves as ‘climate sceptics’ are using the term ‘sceptic’ (with a K or a C, it doesn’t matter), in a different context, which is simply ‘disbelief’.
I quite like the way the difference between the uses of this term is described at Wikipedia, which is as follows:
“Usually meaning those who follow the evidence, versus those who are skeptical of the evidence (see:Denier)” from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skepticism
A self-identified ‘skeptic’ will change their views once presented with compelling evidence to the contrary, however a climate sceptic, or any other type of ‘denier’, will cling to previously disproved arguments, continuing to use them in debate and dismissing all contradictory evidence as a ‘cover-up’ or similar.
‘Deniers’ are often believers in mass conspiracy theories, arguing that the lack of evidence for the cover-up is in itself evidence of a cover-up, because it ‘the government’ or whomever they claim is responsible was just that effective at suppressing the truth.
These people are not ‘skeptics’ in the sense used by people who subscribe to ‘scientific skepticism’ – they are in fact the very opposite.
Q. You mentioned the ‘scientific method’. What is that, and why do you think it matters?
A. The scientific method is a process by which modern science seeks to test hypotheses and greater theories, to ensure that they adequately explain what is observed.
Typically this process involves a question – what caused this to happen? – followed by an hypothesis – this happens when this other thing occurs, which means if we do this, then this other thing should happen – and then a carefully designed, controlled, and documented experiment, which accounts for and eliminates as many variables as possible to test whether the hypothesis is true.
There is a simple and adequate description of the scientific method aimed at kids here, or in more detail here.
Using this method, scientists will regularly and routinely disprove their own hypotheses, and typically the general public will never hear of the experiment or the null results. Only once a scientist is unable to disprove their own hypothesis, whether due to design, technological, financial or scale constraints, or simply because the hypothesis cannot be disproved, will the results be published, possibly as a part of a much larger study or even a theory, allowing other scientists to analyse the experiment – its design, the controls, the data, and the conclusions – and either point out flaws, or attempt to reproduce the experimental outcomes by conducting the same experiment themselves to confirm results, and eliminate change or bad data.
To this day there are theories, for example some predictions out of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, which have not yet been tested by science due to technological or monetary deficiencies. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a massive particle-smashing machine built by CERN, is an experiment which among other things, seeks to test some of these predictions. These predictions however, relate to specific hypotheses within the larger theory which has not been disproved, and thus it still stands as a theoretical model which explains the world of physics as we can observe it.
But why is it important?
This method applies to skepticism because it self-corrects and weak explanations fall under scrutiny and testing by others. Any evidence for anything must be reproducable (others must observe the same results under the same testing conditions), must adequately account for and eliminate variables (an aspect of experimental design often criticised in the peer-review process), and above all else, must explain observations. You can’t dismiss reality to make a bad theory fit – it either works or it doesn’t.
Therefore, the scientific method, combined with peer-review and constant self-correction, is a pathway to truth for explaining the world and the universe. There are subjects such as philosophy and religion which can’t really be tested by science, so the scientific method doesn’t get us any closer to truth in those areas.
Q. What about God? Do Skeptics have to be Atheists?
A. I once heard the late Perry De Angelis from ‘The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe’ state that the correct skeptical position on religion is agnosticism, which I partially agree with – only partially because on one hand one could argue that there simply isn’t any evidence proving the existence of God, which leads to questioning why these beliefs exist in the first place, but on the other hand the concept of whether a God exists isn’t really testable, so I’m not sure science even plays a role in this discussion.
I can certainly understand how the application of scientific skepticism would lead one down a path to atheism (the absence of belief in God – I don’t subscribe to the view that atheism itself is a religion). That’s really for the individual I suppose, and it does to some extent describe my own journey to atheism. But I don’t agree that Skepticism requires atheism, or even agnosticism, and therefore my own personal view is no, skeptics don’t have to be atheists, and whether someone holds a religious belief system or not is completely irrelevant to me so long as it doesn’t cause harm.
I will continue to add more of these FAQs and this will become a living post over time.
10 thoughts on “Skeptic FAQ”
That’s a great FAQ. I’m going to start passing people to this page when I get asked about whether I believe in anything because I’m a skeptic.
Thank you Ruth – I’m glad you found it useful. I will add more FAQ’s to this list as they occur to me.
Nice list, Lucas. Just one small (although, significant) point for consideration – while it’s commonly described as a method, philosophically speaking science is a methodology. It might be a quibble, but it’s one that trips up a lot of people when they get bogged down in discussions on all matter of science and non-science, as skeptics often do. As a methodology, it is the set of values that underpin science that become important in evaluating the merit by which a belief is formed.
Even still, the demarcation problem means it’s still not a clear boundary. But it is one that will serve far better than the text-book ‘scientific method’ response.
Nice FAQ, Lucas.
Definitely be sharing it around.
Hmmm! How do you explain heart-thumping insights? Feelings of Knowing something with no evidence in sight!