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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.

image source: http://www.skepticfriends.org

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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