skepticism is a virtue and a weapon

Skepticism is not enough | Day 106

Over the course of the week, my intention to celebrate skepticism evolved more into a crash course on some of the scientific skepticism basics. To all my already-skeptical friends, I apologise for writing all this stuff you know so well.

To everyone else, I hope you found it interesting and perhaps even enlightening.

There is a lot more to the worldview and the method – for example, I didn’t even touch on critical thinking. But there is one important caveat I really want to address in the closing post of the week.

Skepticism is not about being smug and knowing better. Unfortunately, in the process of skeptical inquiry, it may become difficult to avoid a situation when the skeptic comes across as a superior, condescending, know-it-all git. Usually this happens because we just happen to be more rigorous in our argumentation, and more rigorous in questioning the beliefs of other people.

If you’ve ever met a skeptic like that, I’m sorry. I assure you that their method was probably still sound, but they just weren’t good at also being a nice person. It is easy to forget that if you are human, you can be fooled. Even if you are a skeptic, there is no need to be smug about it.

After all, we all cherish our beliefs, because they help define who we are. Skeptical inquiry may challenge those beliefs, and can thus come across as an attitude that lacks compassion and empathy. If someone takes comfort in a certain superstition, it may be cruel to question it , so you need to make sure you ‘pick your battles’ and be appropriate in your questioning. But we do also need to make sure we foster a society where skeptical inquiry is not considered rude.

In science there exists a fine balance between openness to new ideas and skeptical scrutiny – and we absolutely need both to drive the quest for knowledge forward. The majority of ideas do happen to be wrong, and without a process for sorting the wheat from the chaff, one will simply believe anything that comes along, which is not much better than being completely ignorant. So be rigorous, be skeptical, because that is the only way to find out the ideas which are better. But do take note:

“…every now and then a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too resolutely and uncompromisingly skeptical, you’re going to miss the transforming discoveries in science [..] Mere skepticism is not enough.”
Carl SaganThe Demon-Haunted World, ch. 17

This has been skeptical week. To find out why it was skeptical week, please read Monday’s post – and the rest of it!

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