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.


  1. I find the Extra-terrestrial issue to be one that is often misunderstood. Especially by the people who feel strongly about it one way or the other. I think that 1. Alien abduction is a separate phenomenon from UFO sightings and 2. UFO sightings are just that- sightings of UNIDENTIFIED flying objects.

    In regards to the first, I suspect that the abduction experience is triggered in the inner brain by surges in the Earth's EM activity. I'm basing this on an experiement where some science guys stimulated a subject's brain and triggered a text-book abduction experience. Also, people who've been put under with sodium pentathol (sp?) often report the same hallucinations.

    As to the UFO's, not to get all conspiracy about it, but I believe it is likely that our own military are in posession of conventional aircraft with a saucer-like design extrapolated from WWII German aerospace experiments. In theory, they work well enough as spy planes (to spy on the baddies, not on us) that they are still classified. But that's just conjecture on my part.

    Is there any other life in the universe? I think it would be arrogant to suppose otherwise. I mean, if there is at least one Earthlike planet orbiting every other star, mathematically, there should be SOMETHING out there. And that's just based on the assumption that the life would be recognizable by our own experience.

    Sure, I Want To Believe, but I am well aware of what I cannot prove.

  2. You and I are pretty much in total agreement on this. I've already written something similar for my as-yet-unfinished next post.

    Thanks for the feedback!