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Archive for April, 2010

On “Becoming” A Skeptic – Must I Lose My Empathy?

When I was asked to contribute to Woo Fighters, I accepted with enthusiasm but was also quite nervous about what such a position exactly entailed. As a budding clinical psychologist I have studied the importance of empathy and genuineness in establishing a growth-promoting, therapeutic relationship with others. I have honed these skills through my daily interactions and found that discussing perspectives openly (no matter how irrational they appear to be) is generally beneficial to my understanding of others and facilitative to communication and understanding. My layman, stereotyping understanding of skeptics – as those who staunchly refute all claims without a clear scientific grounding, closed-minded to ways of knowing outside their scientism – proved to be a source of anxiety in the days following my agreement to be a Woo Fighters contributor. I felt that becoming a skeptic could threaten my genuine self: the ability to participate as a promoter of critical thinking and reasoning appealed to me, but I didn’t want to become a pessimistic, oft-to-criticize, belief-bashing tyrant in order to take part.

In hopes to slow the descent of my slippery-slope reasoning, I sought information from skeptic community advocates about what being a skeptic meant. As anticipated, I found a number of different definitions (see Barbara Drescher’s recent post for more), two of which struck a chord with me:

The true meaning of the word skepticism has nothing to do with doubt, disbelief, or negativity. Skepticism is the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. It’s the process of finding a supported conclusion, not the justification of a preconceived conclusion. (Brian Dunning, Skeptoid)

Skepticism is an honest search for knowledge. It is an approach to claims akin to the scientific method. It is a powerful and positive methodology (a collection of methods of inquiry) that is used to evaluate claims and make decisions. It is used to search for the (provisional) truth in matters and to make decisions that are based on sound reasoning, logic, and evidence. Skepticism is based on a simple method: doubt and inquiry. The idea is to neither initially accept claims nor dismiss them; it’s about questioning them and testing them for validity. Only after inquiry does a skeptic take a stance on an issue. (John Jackson, UK Skeptics)

To my relief, I found the contemporary definitions of skepticism are much in line with the empathetic, open perspectives I hold in high regard. More astoundingly, I found skepticism was very complimentary to my preexisting methodology of evaluating claims in academia, daily life, and other avenues. I realized that my genuineness is not threatened by being skeptical; on the contrary, the usage of critical thinking and reason that I have utilized most of my life is skepticism – I was just unaware of it by this name.

An integral aspect of skepticism is doubting or withholding judgment, which should not be done negatively (or positively for that matter) since such a stance would bias the pursuit of truth. The fact is that one can be skeptical while simultaneously being open to the views of others. In fact, in order to arrive at objective truth one must evaluate all angles of a concept without filtering arguments based on preexisting beliefs, underlying motives, and defensive self biases. I believe the most effective way to gain this position is through empathy, striving to understand the perspective of another to comprehend their supporting evidence for their beliefs. If one can accurately view an issue from the opposition’s side along with their own on a level field, then the grounding for evaluation of claims is better informed and the skeptic can more efficiently pursue truth.

It is unfortunate that skeptics are generalized as being harsh, cold dissenters in the way I categorized them before doing some research on the topic. As in other fields no single member is representative of the whole and this is obvious through a shallow search into the internet skeptic community. My experience of “becoming” a skeptic exemplifies why skepticism is a vital process for those who seek truth in actuality – only through gathering evidence about skepticism and its community did I realize how wrong my preconceptions were, which motivated me to change my perspective. Those who are apprehensive of adopting skepticism for fear of losing their empathy and openness are most likely misinformed about the foundations and focus of the process, which can easily be alleviated through a little research from an open and empathetic viewpoint.

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A Brief Introduction to Youth Perception of the Skeptic Community: Something’s not quite right.

What does science mean to skepticism? A large portion of the individuals involved in spreading information and awareness about skepticism come from academia and possess advanced degrees. Even our organization, The Woo Fighters, defines its members as “defenders of science”. The terms “scientist” and “skeptic” can be used almost interchangeably, with scientists seeking to make conclusions based on evidence as freely as possible from human biases, and skeptics seeking to emulate that same thought process.

The advent of the popularity of online blogging has given skeptic organizations a large amount of flexibility when it comes to teaching the fundamentals of skepticism. From these articles, some individuals from the growing audience of readers are recruited to the scientific school of thought. But what are they really being recruited to, what do they believe they’re a part of, and how does this affect the public’s overall perception of skepticism?

As affirmed by several reputable sources, skepticism is a methodology for gaining knowledge through critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning. And that’s it. The definition of this word can never go beyond that point, and if you try to add any qualifiers you’ve already gone against what you hold most dear. Even if languages are living, breathing things, the process of skepticism is in the method, not the word. If this is supposed to be what skepticism means, what are new skeptics being exposed to?

One important thing to note is that online skeptic communities draw a younger crowd than they did before the popularity of the internet. The Woo Fighters are currently a group of twenty-something students, and I wasn’t even alive before the fall of the Berlin Wall. We’re talking young, young people who may not even be aware of Carl Sagan’s first use of the term “scientific skepticism”, or early groups such as the James Randi Educational Foundation. What we start with is what we believe science to be, and what we learn about skepticism is what we find available on the internet.

So what is the information we start with? Pop science! 3-2-1 Contact was a bit before my time, but Bill Nye the Science Guy was just perfect. It even has “science” in its title, so you know it must be legit. Stephen Hawking and his Brief History of Time is practically the face of what it means to be a brilliant thinker in the eyes of the public (although there are of course others who are idolized in rather amazing ways). As I alluded to before, promoters of skeptic thought tend to be people who highly value the pursuit of knowledge. And this is where we’re coming from as children. A new, younger generation, who may or may not try to define skepticism in the image of what they believe it to be.

And what are we finding? If you type “Science Blogs” into Google, your first hit is going to be P.Z. Myers’ Pharyngula, and while it’s only a personal blog, it’s still one of most admired and linked to blogs by many skeptics. If you search for “Skeptic Blogs”, you’ll find yourself at Skepticblog, a collaboration of many different authors such as Brian Dunning, Phil Plait, Daniel Loxton, and countless others. There are even skeptical blogs written almost entirely by women, such as SheThought and Skepchick. These blogs are all directly related to one another in the material and events they choose to cover. There are of course hundreds of more blogs relating to skepticism not mentioned here. I need only to focus on a small number involved in skeptical “current events” to illustrate my point:

The definition of skepticism is elegantly simple, yet there are so many organizations in conflict. Why are some skeptics angry about P.Z. Myers’ recent leaps of logic? Why does the previous blog even exist? Why did the Skepchick community recently fragment, aren’t they all fighting to promote the same skepticism? Not all, but many skeptic organizations have become exclusive communities, all fighting for their very own version of critical thought, their own version of the singular definition of skepticism.

The young, burgeoning skeptic grew up with an idea of what it meant to be a scientist, learns what it means to be a skeptic, and finds that something isn’t quite right. The skeptic community is in conflict with itself, completely obscuring even the most basic idea of why many came together in the first place. Separate skeptic organizations exist not as mutually beneficial groups (as they should), but as factions. And this is what we see, and this is what we’re taught skepticism to be, and this is what we become. Everyone can’t be right, so who is?

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Skepticism: Making the Distinction

There appears to be a lingering confusion between philosophical skepticism and scientific skepticism. Here, an attempt will be made to elucidate this issue further and draw a clear distinction between the two.

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In general, philosophical skepticism holds that no definitive knowledge can ever be obtained through the senses, mainly due to the senses being flawed and thereby unreliable; the same arguments can be applied to logic and reasoning. Scientific skepticism, on the other hand, posits that though the senses and logic may in fact have their limitations and as such, never truly allow us to hold any definitive knowledge, the senses and logic are the best tools we have for any hopes of obtaining knowledge. Thus, it is apparent that each form of skepticism is distinct and operates under a different set of underlying assumptions.

Certainly, philosophical skepticism supplies adequate reason to question that which we believe to know and can logically justify. One need only turn to findings on the belief bias or narrative fallacy to find evidence for the short comings of human reasoning. However, the arguments of philosophical skepticism only put forth reason to doubt and remain skeptical of the tools (the senses and logic) which we have to make sense of reality. They fail to provide sufficient reason to not make use of these tools. Indeed, scientific skepticism acknowledges that they can often lead us astray, hence the precept behind a core scientific principle of skepticism: open-mindedness. Consequently, scientific skepticism assumes that there exists an approximate one-to-one correspondence between the senses and reality, such that the senses can give us some degree of reliably accurate knowledge about the universe. Philosophical skepticism refuses to make such an assumption and we are left with no trustable conclusions. For this reason, there is a need to recognize the distinction between the two.

Philosophical skepticism provides an invaluable principle to science: that we always have reason to continue to doubt. Because of this principle, science can never prove or disprove any phenomena, but rather provide inductive evidence for or against a given hypotheses along with a measure of certainty. From this we infer knowledge. Scientific skepticism takes a more pragmatic approach than philosophical skepticism by not allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good and making use of the best tools we have (our senses) in this search.

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Science? Only when it’s practical, please.

When the idea of “science” is brought up, most people agree that this so-called science is a good thing. In fact, in a somewhat recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 84% of Americans surveyed believed the science in their lives to have a positive influence on society, with only 6% indicating the opposite. 70% said they believed scientists to have a positive influence on society, which is even more than doctors!

While the magical idea of “what science is to me and not to you thank you very much” sounds preferable to your average consumer of science, the reality behind belief in American scientific progress is a bit more bleak. From the same poll, only 17% of those surveyed believed America to among the “best in the world” when it comes to scientific research, with 49% believing America to have the best scientists in the world. It’s a lot easier to deny an intangible idea, isn’t it?

Three separate Gallup Polls taken between 1990 and 2001 measured public beliefs in various paranormal phenomena. Notably, and in spite of the 84% of Americans putting their faith in science, a large portion in all three time periods (50%) said they believed in Extrasensory Perception (ESP) , with only 21% definitively certain about its nonexistence.

How do Americans, who are so sure of science’s contributions to society, have such a poor misunderstanding of such basic concepts? Principal researcher Heather Ridolfo’s recently published paper entitled “Social Influences on Paranormal Belief: Popular Versus Scientific Support” examined differences in perception of ESP based on both public and scientific opinion. What was found is that while people tend to evaluate the validity of claims based on how many other people support said claims (a cognitive bias known as the Bandwagon Effect), the support of the scientific community (or lack thereof) has no impact on evaluating the validity of claims made about ESP.

From this, the researchers concluded that their finding “may reflect decreasing trust in the institution of science”. Whatever the reason, the romantic idea of science and the reality behind science have a long way to go before they meet.

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Waltke Resigns at Seminary Over Evolution

I came across this story on The Huffington Post the other day and I was surprised for two reasons: 1) A religious scholar endorsing evolution, and 2) that he had to resign from his position at a seminary to “save face”.

Admittedly, I’m not overly surprised by Bruce Waltke’s affirmation that biblical scripture and evolution can coexist, so I’m obviously more surprised by the latter. Unfortunately, for many who hold this belief who also serve at schools of theology, they face this “closet” experience.

I do hold his statement regarding Christianity’s likeness to a cult if it continues down the path of evolution-bashing. It takes one in deep denial about the way the world works to refute the claims of evolution, but to most Christians, it seems relatively easy. However, if you compare evolution to other situations not mentioned in the Bible, there are many things that we have evidence for that shouldn’t be correct, but doesn’t create such a heated debate (e.g., dinosaurs living with humans).

I applaud Waltke for his willingness to break the mold… even though the immense pressure of the establishment forced his hand. We all know that it wouldn’t do the budging.

As a side note on evolution, Discovery Channel’s Life miniseries that has recently aired mentions evolution quite a bit. After doing a brief search, I cannot find any controversy surrounding the use of this word and its application to the animals and plants filmed for this series from sources outside the Discovery organization.

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My Inspiration for Woo Fighters

In what is now considered “the golden days” of skepticism, I experienced first-hand the power of grass roots activism. I will never know if or how my view of the world would differ if I had never taken that psychology class in my junior year of high school, but I am very, very glad that I did.

Some Background

When people ask “When did you become a skeptic?”, I have to answer that I have always been one. I never blindly accepted claims and I always looked for evidence. I held my beliefs tentatively. Where I went wrong was in the assumption that the “default” conclusion should be to consider a claim true unless the evidence refutes it. I thought that a lack of evidence meant that I could not draw a conclusion. I was naïve and ignorant.

From a very young age, I was fascinated with psychic phenomena. I thought that ghosts were silly; Houdini made that clear. I had seen The Amazing Randi on The Tonight Show, so I knew that Uri Geller was a fraud and I never really bought into the typical magic tricks, anyway. But I was obsessed with ESP (extrasensory perception) and numerology. I had many obsessions, but these were different because I was never satisfied. I read about “cosmic twins” and the predictions of Nostradamus. I studied palm lines. I tried to move things with my mind. I made a set of Zener cards and did my best to test myself and my friends. Nothing ever panned out. Yet it did not occur to me to seek alternative explanations.

A more appropriate question than “When did you become a skeptic?”, I think, is “When did you stop believing?” And my answer to that is in October of 1982.

My high school in the greater Sacramento area did not offer Latin, but it did have an introductory psychology course and Mr. Tamblyn (now Dr., I see) managed to cover more than I see in most college-level courses. We recreated Asch’s conformity trials with students from other classes. We learned about the Stroop Effect. But what he and a grass roots skeptic taught us about critical thinking was the most valuable of gifts.

In early October, we had a guest speaker. She was a psychic. She gave several cold readings, including one of me. She said that she saw me sitting at a piano. Now, I didn’t play piano at the time, but I had wanted to since I got my first organ (they were very popular in the 60s and 70s) at the age of four and my parents hinted that we might finally have space for piano (they gave me an electronic keyboard that year). I was convinced that she was tapping into some unseen energy. She read several other people and we were all suitably amazed.

About a week later, another psychic visited us. He surveyed the class, asking how many of us believed in psychic phenomena, and about 3/4th of the students raised their hands.

He did several cold readings, some amazing mind-reading card tricks, and a few other feats. He entertained us us for about an hour. Then he polled the class again. Only a few did not raise their hands this time.

At this point he stopped cold and said, “I am not psychic. I am a magician. Everything I have done today has been a trick.”

He showed us how he did a few of the tricks. He explained the method of cold readings. We discussed the way the psychic the week prior may have accomplished what she did. At one point, I looked down at the books sitting on my desk and noticed that I had doodled on one the paper covers – a piano keyboard. I also carried a key ring with a note-shaped fob. I don’t know if either was visible when she was there, but it was not inconceivable. Together, we produced an explanation just about everything that we’d been amazed by the week before.

What he had to say next had a much greater impact, though. In fact, it was the end for me. It was the information I needed to finally let go of the nagging question about whether supernatural abilities were real.

He told us that he and a few others had founded a group called Bay Area Skeptics.

He told us about the challenge.

Bay Area Skeptics was founded in June and operated, at that time, as a local chapter of The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), now known as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI). Bay Area Skeptics offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could demonstrate supernatural powers. Although this group and challenge was new, James Randi had been offering a reward (which by that time was $10,000) since 1964. The fact that nobody had claimed this money after nearly two decades told me everything I needed to know. The money was there. All they had to do was show their powers.

This seemed utterly ridiculous to me and still does to this day. I concluded that the odds that psychic abilities existed were very, very low.

So I let go.

Some students were pretty angry about the ruse and the final poll revealed that a few (I think there were 2 or 3 out of about 45) remained believers, but many of us were amazed. Amazed at our own willingness to see what we wanted to see. Amazed at how skilled both the psychic and the skeptic were. Amazed at how little we knew about the evidence (or lack thereof).

It was not until well into college that I fully understood that the appropriate “default” conclusion was the null hypothesis, but what happened on that fall day in 1982 was a foundation for that concept. It also taught me that what we do not see can be just as important as what we see.

Although I remained an ardent skeptic, over the years my participation in skepticism as a movement varied. At times I diligently maintained memberships in various organizations. I tried Mensa for a while, but was very disappointed to discover that their special interest groups for nonsense like astrology and outnumbered the groups with a rational focus by about 5 to 1. Most other groups were either religious or game-focused. At times I paid little attention to issues of skeptical activism. Eventually, I kind of forgot about that day.

Then one day I kind of woke up and smelled the woo. I did not like it. Not one bit. I decided that I wanted to make a difference. That day came in April of 2000, when I attended the annual convention of the Western Psychological Association in Portland, Oregon. It was my first academic conference after returning to school in 1997. I found that it was not all that different from other types of conventions and conferences, but the talks were so much more interesting. I was thrilled to see Michael Shermer and Ray Hyman on the schedule and attended both of their talks. Shermer described the findings of his survey on religion (something I found particularly interesting since I had responded to that survey myself) and discussed his book How We Believe. Hyman’s talk was titled Science and Pseudoscience. As Dr. Hyman wowed the crowd with rope tricks and mind reading, all of the memories of that day came flooding back, but I could not recall the skeptic’s name. Dr. Shermer and Dr. Hyman speculated that it was Bob Steiner and James Randi offered the same guess later in an email. However, the internet eventually provided enough clues and I now know that it was Terence Sandbek, a clinical psychologist and professor at American River College.

The list of people who have helped to shape my philosophy is not short. I feel especially grateful to Dr. Donald Butler, who taught me the basics of statistics and epistemology (and always had copies of the Skeptical Inquirer to thumb through) and to Dr. Brennis Lucero-Wagoner, whose insights and inspirations on teaching are second only to her friendship.

I also have a few heroes – people whose successes I might mistake for miracles if I did not know better. It is not possible to measure the effects of Dr. Eugenie Scott’s work at the National Center for Science Education, but the thought of a world in which religion passes for science in public schools is disturbing. Dr. Rachael Dunlop has been instrumental in the fight against anti-vaccination propaganda in Australia, driving the ill-named Australian Vaccination Network to close its doors recently. These are huge wins and they clearly demonstrate that activism works.

But I do not know if I would have come to appreciate these people if it were not for the work of a skeptic and a high school teacher.

So, thank you Dr. Sandbek, for showing me that what appears to be an extraordinary feat is usually simply a practiced one and to Dr. Tamblyn, for showing me how easily we accept extraordinary claims without evidence. Oh, and for teaching me to drive! (Yes, he taught driver’s ed, too.)

I can think of no pursuit as rewarding and valuable as the study, promotion, and teaching of critical thinking, science, and skepticism.

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