Wednesday, August 7, 2013

What is a skeptic?

Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about why I'm a skeptic. I originally was going to write about why I was an atheist, as I wanted a single, be-all, end-all post explaining why that was. However, the more I spun it around in my head, the more I felt that I couldn't address my atheism without getting to what led me to it, which was the fact that I am a skeptic.

Without repeating what I wrote in that, I'd like to follow-up on exactly what I think that means. I think that there is a danger in relying too much on labels to identify one's particular beliefs. I often hear Christians refer to theirs as "the Truth", even though from what I can tell, there's little that's actually true about it. But a lot of atheists run this same danger when they call themselves "free thinkers", for instance. Are you really a free thinker when all you're doing is repeating what all your friends say? I have no doubt that there are some atheists out there who meet that description, and there could very well be other areas in their life where all they do is parrot what their parents/friends/community/etc. says. The word "skeptic" faces the same problems as well.
I have heard people say the phrase "I'm a skeptic" and then tell me about all kinds of fantastical claims that they believe, from miracles to psychics. I even remember an interview with Montel Williams, who propped up the career of that horrific sham of a "psychic", Sylvia Browne. In it, he claimed that he considered himself a skeptic, but the amazing powers of that carny swayed him into believing that she had powers beyond what was understood in the natural world.

Why is believing in Sylvia Browne and claiming to be a skeptic two mutually exclusive ideas? This one's easy, as the lady has an embarassing track record of failed predictions, Not only that, but her whole schtick is indistinguishable from cold reading, a technique that can be duplicated by guys like Mark Edward, who admits that he has no psychic abilities. Aside from that, most of the predictions and "talking to ghosts" crap she does is difficult to verify one way or another, and that alone should make a person maintain their reservations as to whether she can really do what she claims.

Still, being a skeptic is not as easy as just saying, "I don't believe in psychics." Skepticism isn't about what you believe and what you accept, it's about how you approach what's real and what isn't. I'm a skeptic, yet I can think of a situation where I could believe in a psychic and remain one. How's that? Well, what if you had a psychic who could make accurate, specific predictions at a rate that's greater than chance? What about one who can always guess the winning lotto numbers (or at least get them most of the time)? I'd even be convinced if a psychic could talk to the dead and reveal stuff that's specific without having to do the cold-reading game of "I see a J. Maybe it's a Q. There's some red. Could be green." You know, something like, "Your son is the one who has a scar on his left leg from the time he fell of his bike when he was three." Something specific like that would have to be the first thing out of the psychic's mouth - no playing games by asking a bunch of questions first. And they'd have to do this consistently.

In that scenario, I would have no choice but to, at the very least, say that there seems to be something to that particular psychic. He or she would have met Carl Sagan's standard of "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof". If all this happened, and I continued to not even give it any credibility, then I would not be a skeptic, I'd be a denier - something else entirely.

When I think of deniers, I think of the so-called global warming "skeptics". I don't want to get too deep into this issue right now, but let's just say from what I've read, the "skeptics" usually say things that are either 1) a misrepresentation of what the issue even is, 2) an argument that has long-since been debunked (see the whole "There was a global cooling hysteria in the 1970s!" load of malarky), or 3) a statement that simply is not true. Obviously, this could be an entire post unto itself, but in my experience, that's where the "skeptics" are at.

From what I understand, skepticism is a dedication to the truth (small "t"). It means that you have to completely set aside your ego and what you WANT to be true or what FEELS true. It also means that it's okay for you to say "You know what? I just don't know enough about that to comment." (This is where I currently am with the whole issue over frakking.) When you become a skeptic, you don't get a checklist of what you believe and what you don't believe. You follow the evidence, and you are willing to change your mind.

It doesn't mean that you can't settle in with some conclusions. I used to be skeptical of evolution, but I've done so much reading of it that being a skeptic of it seems pretty illogical, and those who don't believe it meet the definition of "deniers" better than they do skeptics. I'm at a point where I'm not really going to bother playing the false middle and say, "Maybe it didn't happen!"

Still, if something spectacular comes along and evolution simply cannot match up with the facts of life on this planet, then I must be willing to let it go, whether I like it or not. That, to me, is what being a true skeptic is.

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