I’m often overheard explaining that skepticism is not a belief system. Skeptics do not believe in science and reasoning – they simply use it. A skeptical attitude is a mindset, and a method. And this method is truly rigorous, designed to evade the tricks that our senses and thoughts can play on us.
Yesterday I wrote about my favourite skeptic Carl Sagan, and today I return to his wisdom once again. There is a chapter in The Demon-Haunted World that explains both the scientific method and the method of skeptical inquiry – for they are very much alike.
Scientists work with data – experimental results, observations, measurements, facts. If you encounter a phenomenon and invent a possible explanation for it, that’s a hypothesis. But it’s not enough to come up with your own ‘facts’. A guess needs to be systematically confronted and tested, before it can be passed on as true.
As Sagan writes:
In the course of their training, scientists are equipped with a baloney detection kit. The kit is brought out as a matter of course whenever new ideas are offered for consideration.
That, right there, is the core of skeptical inquiry. When presented with an idea, one can bring out the tools in their skeptical thinking toolkit, and test this idea. Of course, you don’t have to. People cling to all kinds of beliefs and ideas, even when deep down they know them to be false, or nonsensical. It’s a matter of comfort, and we all do that, even skeptics.
Seeking for the truth is not always comfortable. But a good skeptic is always prepared to change her mind, to be proven wrong, and to accept the faults in her own reasoning. It’s a way of looking at the world that allows for seeing not only the facts, but also the road that one may take to get to them, and the pitfalls and dead ends that are inevitable along the way.
Tomorrow – some of my favourite pieces in the skeptical toolkit.
This is skeptical week. To find out why it’s skeptical week, please read Monday’s post.