Monday, November 2, 2009

Thoughts on "Dogmatic" Skepticism (Part 3)

So, what's wrong with dismissing all of this nonsense, and getting on with the science, already?

Well, first of all, the best way to fight ignorance is with knowledge. So these claims should be investigated.

Secondly, I think it would be intellectually dishonest for anyone claiming to believe that science is the best way to understand the world to dismiss anyone's beliefs without at least making the attempt to assess their claims scientifically.

Finally, what if some of the believers turn out to be right? Here's a little secret: science isn't always right! Or to state that more accurately, the body of scientific knowledge - what we think we know - is sometimes proven wrong. The scientific method might be the best way we know to get at the truth, but part of that method is to constantly re-evaluate what we think we know, to make sure that new data, new knowledge, new evidence hasn't shown our previously-held beliefs to be faulty. (That's what peer-review is all about, after all.)

I'm not going to directly address the existence of a god (for lack of a better word) here. Nor am I going to go into detail about why I believe that scientific inquiry is the best method for gaining knowledge about the world. These are deeper philosophical questions that fall outside the area of my topic.

I'm more concerned with what I see as a dogmatic take on some of the lesser "Commonly-Held Beliefs" of the so-called Modern Skeptical Movement. So let's take a look at those:

• The "Paranormal."

As a Rationalist, I don't believe there can be any such thing as the "paranormal." Anything that can be described and can be proven, by its very nature, must fall within the realm of the "normal." But that's just quibbling over semantics.

What about specific claims, such as ESP or telepathy? If these things are proven to exist, there must be some way to measure or test them. Attempts have been made, but with without any conclusive positive results. Such abilities could exist, and even have a scientific explanation. As much as we have learned about the brain in the last century, there is still so much more we do not understand. We should retain an open, if skeptical mind regarding these abilities. After all, before the work of people like Hertz and Marconi, the idea of invisible waves in the air that could be manipulated in order to communicate across great distances would have seemed ridiculous. What if some of us are developing an ability to use these or other invisible waves to transmit and read something like these within our own bodies, similar to the way our ears and eyes pick up the correct electromagnetic frequencies to allow us to see and hear?

Do I believe in such powers? No. Personally I think it's kind of a ridiculous claim. (Where are the organs that allow this? We need eyes to see, and ears to hear. Wouldn't we need some other organs to transmit and receive these other waves?) Still, just because I and most other skeptics don't believe this is possible, doesn't mean research shouldn't be done. We must retain our objective open-mindedness as best we can. (Just not so open that our brains fall out, as James "The Amazing" Randi has often said - though, I think he's probably quoting someone else.)

• Extra-Terrestrials.

As I stated before, I believe that the chances that there is probably some life out there, somewhere, are pretty good. How do I justify this claim? Pure mathematics. The more we explore the universe, the more it looks like the conditions for life to exist may not be as rare as we thought at one time. It looks like there are plenty of places where the basic building blocks for life (as we know it*) can be found. The real question is more one of how life begins, and what is required for that. It could be that through some accident of fate (or, perhaps the will of a god, or other outside force) that our planet just happened to be the lucky one-in-a-googolplex spot where all the conditions were just right for life to begin. I personally have a hard time believing that - it seems, on the surface, a ridiculous position to take. But, no matter how much sense it makes, we just can't know - at least not until we come into contact with actual extra-terrestrial life.

As far as aliens coming here from across the stars and abducting/probing/mutilating/buzzing us ... well, let's just say I'm Skeptical. First, there's the lack of any actual physical evidence (unless you believe the conspiracy theories ... which I'll deal with later). Next, there's the issue of astronomical distances.

As far as "UFO" sightings ... well, they're just what the term implies: unidentified. Many become identified, eventually, but even the ones that aren't have much more likely explanations than aliens. Our own Earth governments have always had plenty of things to hide - sometimes from one another, and sometimes from their own citizens. (That may sound like conspiracy theory ... again, we'll get to that later.)

Don't get me wrong ... I would love to believe that there is intelligent life out there with the technological ability to travel between the stars. My desire to believe, though, is precisely why I'm so cautious about believing. I'm more interested in truth. And that's why we can't simply dismiss sightings or claims of abduction. They should be investigated ... but very critically. Our search needs to continue as well, both in the form of physical exploration and programs such as SETI.

• Cryptozoology

I think many Skeptics are far too dismissive of Cryptozoology. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not a believer in Nessie or Bigfoot, but there probably are things out there that simply fall outside our common experience. It wasn't all that long ago that Architeuthis was considered a bit fantastical. The problem comes in lumping all study of unknown creatures under one category. Some of the bigfoot believers, for example, border on the fanatical and will believe any evidence in support of their pet theory, while others are quite rational, and have well-thought-out (even reasonable) hypotheses regarding the existence of sasquatch. We skeptics need to guard ourselves from taking a polar opposite view and dismissing all evidence out of hand. Of course there hasn't been any good, solid evidence yet, but that doesn't mean there never will be. We also need to guard against charging rational believers with "guilt by association" with the fanatical ones.

More topics to come in the next part. ...

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*By life "as we know it" I mean, life that we could recognize as life. There could be some form of "life" out there that we wouldn't readily recognize. That's a whole other topic, though ... one for the new field of Astrobiology (or Xenobiology), which, by the way, many probably consider, like cryptozoology, an illegitimate field of study.

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