Friday, October 30, 2009

Thoughts on "Dogmatic" Skepticism (Part 2)

Before I continue on, I'd like to note that these are all just my opinions as an individual. I'm just a person thinking about things and spewing my raw thoughts out on the internet for anyone to see. I haven't done any real research on this topic - this isn't meant to be a sociological study, just my own anecdotal observations. If someone wants to take any of the premises of this article and do an actual scientific study on this topic, I'd be interested to read their findings. Personally, I haven't the time nor the means. So, please, dear reader, like with any utterance of opinion, take my statements with a grain of salt. (Or a block, if necessary.)

OK, so if there ARE any "tenets" of the modern Skeptical Movement, what might they be? There are no official tenets, but it seems to me that there are two main unwritten rules:

The Big Two:

• There is No God. Or at least, there probably isn't. (Atheism or Agnosticism)

• Scientific Inquiry is the Best (perhaps only) Way to Understand the Universe.

The first is pretty self-explanatory. Skeptics tend not to buy into gods or creation mythology. Skeptics come from a place of disbelief. Where most religionists come from a place of belief. To boil the argument down to its simplest terms:

Skeptic: "I do not believe there is a god."
Believer: "You cannot prove that there isn't, so you should believe."
Skeptic: "You are the one making the unverified claim, so
you have to provide proof."

(Then they get angry at one another, holy/unholy war is declared, and no one's mind is changed, though a lot of people are worse off for the whole interaction.)

The second one is simply a belief that the best way to understand things is to examine the process of observation and experimentation. Further, statements or hypotheses must be rigorously tested before they can be accepted. For example, it's no good to just claim, say, "People become ill because of goblin curses ... or tiny little life-forms that live in our bodies." Those statements need to be proven. (Turns out the tiny little life forms have been proven to exist. Curse-happy Goblins, on the other hand ...)

Everything else sort of follows from these Main two tenets ...

Commonly-Held Beliefs:

• There is No Immortal Soul, or Afterlife of Any Kind.

• There is No Such Thing as the "Paranormal."

• We are Not Being Visited By Extra-Terrestrials.

• Cryptozoology is Not Science

• "Alternative" Medicine is Useless and Often Dangerous

• Proponents of "Conspiracy Theories" are Wrong (maybe even crazy)

I'm sure there are more, but I'm not going to wrack my brain or do a Google search, or take any measures that might fall under the category of research. Partly because I'm lazy, and partly because this is just me thinking. (See the disclaimer above.)

Now let's look at some of these Commonly-Held Beliefs from the Skeptical viewpoint ...

The immortal soul issue. Let's face it, there's no proof, outside unverified anecdotes to support the Immortal Soul concept. Of course, that doesn't prove there isn't one. However, the burden of proof (as with theism, above) should be on the believer. Those guys on Ghost Hunters are performing pure science fiction entertainment masquerading as pseudo-science (which is BS masquerading as science). People, there is a reason that show is on the Science Fiction channel, err ... SyFy. Whatever.

The "paranormal" thing is a fuzzy issue, because how does one define it? Any phenomenon that can somehow be proven scientifically is, by definition, no longer paranormal. So, I guess, as Skeptics, what we're saying is that everything in the universe is what it is, and that there cannot be anything "outside" what is. We're anti-meta, in other words. If, for example, there are ghosts, there must be some way to prove it. Of course, the Ghost Hunter guys (not to pick on them, but they're an easy, illustrative target) must think this, too, or they wouldn't be (mis)using all this scientific gear. And then there are the John Edward types who are simply cold-readers. (And he's not even a very good one ... he cheats.)

Extra-terrestrials are a tough issue. In a universe the size of the one we inhabit, what are the chances that life only arose on only one world? The chances are (pun intended) astronomical that there is life somewhere else out there. But , then, if life DOES spark somewhere else, what are the chances that it will develop the technology to travel between the stars? (Ok ... I'm firmly in Drake Equation territory now.) Ultimately, we just don't know, and there hasn't been enough solid scientific evidence to prove there is life anywhere else. Most UFO sightings or abduction stories have terrestrial explanations. And if not, well ... just because we aren't sure what the reason for something is doesn't mean we can jump to the conclusion that it must be caused by aliens ... or gods, or goblins, or whatever.

Cryptozoology is a similar field. Where is the solid evidence of these creatures? Where's all the sasquatch crap? Where are the washed-up bodies of lake monsters? Absence of proof doesn't mean none of these things could be real. But, again, there's no solid evidence, and so the natural skeptical view is to disbelieve until more evidence is gathered.

Medical nonsense tops the list in terms of potentially most dangerous beliefs. Everything from homeopathic remedies to avoiding vaccination can be perfectly harmless. But they can also have deadly consequences in the wrong circumstances.

Conspiracy theories are an interesting subject, because they're so diverse in nature. Many of them seem reasonable at first glance. But many of them seem downright crazy. And many of them involve the other topics on this list ... Ghosts, Psychics, Aliens, Bigfoot, Big Pharma and the Secret Liberal (or Conservative) Shadow Government are all working together to read your mind, and post all of your thoughts on the internets! Or force you to get shots that will make you want to buy products from Apple (or Microsoft)!! Or fatten you up to feed you to alien babies!!!11!! !!1!!!

What I find most fascinating about all of these is that most proponents of these beliefs seem to want to believe them so badly. As a result, their objectivity seems compromised. Not that anyone can ever be truly objective ... we all have our biases. That's exactly why the scientific method is so important. It at least attempts to marginalize these biases. (But, that's a topic for a whole other discussion!)

In the next part, I'll re-examine some of these same areas, and tell you where I think a Dogmatically Skeptical take on everything may be almost as bad ... maybe even as unscientific ... as the believers' outlook.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Thoughts on "Dogmatic" Skepticism (Part 1)

Something I often hear from "Believers" is that atheism is just like a religion. Usually, this argument is put forward in order to illustrate a claim that we non-believers or Skeptics (or whatever) are no more open-minded than they are.

These same people often accuse us non-believers of following some unstated agenda, and claim that our minds are made up in advance of our consideration of evidence. In other words, they're accusing us of dogmatic thinking. (Which is one of the hallmarks of organized religion.)

I've always been rather dismissive of this accusation - never really giving it much serious thought*. I personally don't belong to any group that tells me what to think. We skeptics are a pretty much unorganized bunch. I mean, sure there are a few organized groups out there, like the Center for Inquiry, or American Atheists - some more "out there" than others. Members of these groups tend to have similar modes of thought**, else they wouldn't have joined together. But that's much different from a religion, where most people are either born into it, or converted into it by friends or family - and where, once one is involved, the organization then tells one what their doctrines are, and which tenets of their faith are most important to believe.

Obviously, in order to be classified as an atheist, one must profess a disbelief in a god. By definition, an agnostic has doubts or reservations about the existence of such a being. But outside of that, anything goes? Right? There certainly aren't any dogmatic tenets of belief set forth for atheism or skepticism.

Or are there?

I've been wondering about that ... mulling the question over in my mind ...

I think for the categories of "atheist" and "agnostic," this is true. The definitions of these terms are relatively straightforward, though there's probably some grey area between them. But the term "skeptic" is a bit different from those.

The term "skeptic," as it's being used within the "Skeptical Movement†" seems, to me, to be a bit fuzzy - and that's where part of the problem lies. I mean, a lot of people have been skeptical about many things. Fundamentalist Christians are often skeptical about the Theory of Evolution. Some on the political Right are skeptical about the circumstances of President Obama's birth. There have been many who are skeptical about the Apollo landings, or whether the Earth is spherical in shape. ††

Those people are all lower-case "s" skeptics. But, I don't think any of those people fit in with what most of us consider to be (capital "S") Skeptics.

What we're currently calling the "Skeptical Movement", then, must have some notable features beyond the simple definition of skepticism. Else, why refer to it as a "Movement" at all, and not just refer to it as a simple stance as it relates to any particular topic or phenomenon?

It seems to me that there is a sort of loosely-affiliated group of beliefs, or maybe hypotheses that are beginning to to coalesce into a sort of "dogma" of Skepticism. This concerns me.

I'll relate why I think this, and what my concerns are in Part 2.

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* A reaction which cedes their point to some extent, I suppose. (Hence this post.)

** Even those groups, though, encompass people with many different beliefs. CfI, for example, includes people who are politically or socially conservative, liberal, libertarian, what have you. Members & supporters run the economic and philosophical gamut from socialist to laissez-faire capitalist. Some consider themselves agnostics or atheists, others prefer the term Humanist, or unchurched. Some may even believe in a nebulous "greater power" or "first principle" of some sort, but not in organized religion. There are even those who may identify themselves "culturally" with a particular religious tradition.

† It should be noted that while there are organized groups within what could be termed a "Skeptical Movement," there really is no organized movement, as such. What most people refer to as the modern Skeptical Movement is really just an organic growth in the number of people and organizations that are identifying themselves as "Skeptical" in a more public way than in the past.

†† It should also be noted that these particular skeptical views are held despite the overwhelming evidence, which leads to a whole other topic. There are plenty of other places where this subject is addressed - often by real experts in their fields - and there's probably not much I can add:

Lovely ... weird mobile blogging error ... I'll fix all those when I get home.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Avoiding Therapy

Therapy is Expensive.

So, rather than spend money I don't have for therapy that my insurance won't cover ... and rather than talking to someone who probably isn't really listening ... and will mostly answer my questions with even more inane questions (e.g. Why do you say that? How does that make you feel? What does this tell you about your relationship with your parents and their methods of toilet training?), I thought I'd talk to an empty blog page instead.

This is probably every bit as therapeutic, and won't cost me a dime.

So here's goes ... my experiment in self-therapy.