Skepticism hasn't traditionally been merely a stance against something, it has been a matter of supporting the honest means at arriving at an answer.
It can be hard being a skeptic sometimes. It seems like everywhere you turn there is more and more nonsense. Television shows like “Psychic Detective” pass off anecdotal stories as fact. Even so called informative channels, such as the History Channel and Discovery Channel have more than their fair share of nonsense. Shows about UFOs, bigfoot, and the supernatural seem to overshadow the good programing. These kinds of shows on such legitimate channels give an air of respectability to these claims that are often backed up by poor evidence.
And the public’s knowledge about science, history, geography, and just about every subject seems to be getting worse. A Gallop Poll from 1991 shows the level of belief in nonsense in the US, and it isn’t pretty. Even though it is a somewhat old poll, I suspect that the numbers haven’t changed much.
41% think dinosaurs and humans lived simultaneously
65% Noah’s flood
None of these have any solid evidence to back them.
I think Michael Shermer put it best when he asked “What is a Skeptic?”
“What does it mean to be a skeptic? Some people believe that skepticism is rejection of new ideas, or worse, they confuse “skeptic” with “cynic” and think that skeptics are a bunch of grumpy curmudgeons unwilling to accept any claim that challenges the status quo. This is wrong. Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas—no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position. Ideally, skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true. When we say we are “skeptical,” we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe. Skeptics are from Missouri—the “show me” state. When we hear a fantastic claim we say, “that’s nice, prove it.”
Skepticism has a long historical tradition dating back to ancient Greece when Socrates observed: “All I know is that I know nothing.” But this pure position is sterile and unproductive and held by virtually no one. If you are skeptical about everything, you would have to be skeptical of your own skepticism. Like the decaying subatomic particle, pure skepticism uncoils and spins off the viewing screen of our intellectual cloud chamber”.
Skeptics should not be too closed minded, but instead base our knowledge on evidence. As Carl Sagan said “Extraordinary claims deserve extraordinary evidence.” Skeptics should use the scientific method of observation, description, prediction, control, and falsifiability to evaluate claims. Sagan also came up with the Baloney Detection Kit, which skeptics should utilize.
Skeptics should also be able to tell a bad scientific argument from a good one.
In Shermer’s book Why People Believe Weird Things he lists some tactics of pseudoscience. Even though he is talking about the holocaust denial movement, he describes the tactics as “eerily similar” to other groups.
1. They concentrate on their opponents weak points, while rarely saying anything definitive about their own position.
2. They exploit errors made by scholars and imply since some of their conclusions may have been wrong, they all are.
3. They make use of out of context quotes. One example is the Darwin and the eye quote often used by anti evolutionists.
4. They mistake honest debate over the details in a particular field as a sign of weakness of the entire field.
5. They focus on the unknown and ignore what is known.
I also recently read about some research into Chiropractors who reject germ theory and vaccinations. The tactics are similar to what Shermer noted, but they deserve mention.
1. They doubt the science. Basically they claim the science to support what goes against their personal beliefs isn’t good enough, no matter what the amount of evidence is.
2. Question the motives and integrity of scientists. This is common in pseudoscience as many people believe there is a huge conspiracy among scientists to further some secret goal. For instance, the claim that climatologists who study global warming are in it for the money and are trying to bring socialism to the US is a serious claim, backed up by poor evidence, usually quotes taken out of context.
3. Magnify disagreements and cite gadflies as authorities. This is similar to Shermer’s number four tactic. The citing of Gadflies is where someone ignores 99% of all scientists in one field but accept the one that supports their personal beliefs.
4. Exaggerate potential harm. This is like when creationists claim that teaching evolution in schools will lead to violence, which once again, is not supported by any good evidence.
5. Appeal to personal freedom. To use creationists as an example again, this is similar to when they want the schools to teach religion in science class and “let the students decide.” Of course they usually only want their religion taught and no others.
6. Acceptance repudiates key philosophy. This is when someone refuses to accept something, no matter how much evidence there is, because it will destroy their personal beliefs. For instance, germ theory deniers will not accept the fact that disease is caused by germs because it goes against their belief that disease is caused by other factors. The amount of evidence is irrelevant to these people. They are True Believers.