What is this “skeptic” movement, anyway?

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Suppose you’re about to dive head-first into a pond. The water’s a little cloudy so you can’t see the bottom. Someone told you it was deep enough for safe diving, but before you do that, you actually step into the water, swim down and see for yourself how deep it is.

That’s the skeptical outlook in a nutshell; taking a common sense approach to deciding what’s true and what isn’t. You could say it’s “scientific” or evidence-based, because science is a codified version of common sense; but it just means checking out the facts before you dive in.

I personally got interested in skepticism many years ago when I started reading Skeptical Inquirer in the library at the University of Washington. Did you know there is no rise in crime or hospital admissions during a full moon? I liked learning the truth about that. Did you know that it’s not true that we use only 10% of our mental capacity? We use it all.

I used to think that quantum physics provided support for the existence of paranormal phenomenon. I don’t any more, and I can tell you it’s more satisfying to know the truth than to be just plain wrong or deceived. Since there is just about zero evidence that paranormal phenomenon is real, let alone somehow connected to quantum physics, I can set that idea aside. I can move on to things that are both amazing and real. Such as:

  • The problem-solving intelligence of crows and octopuses.
  • The fact the universe is about 14 billion years old and the earth around 4.5 billion.
  • The strong evidence that whales and other marine mammals are descendants of land animals.

I love learning about these things, and learning what is supported by facts and what isn’t. Years after finding that magazine in the library, I ran across another one called Skeptic, which became my most eagerly awaited publication. Jump ahead a few more years and with the Web and then podcasts, the whole skeptic movement really blossomed. I feel funny calling it a “movement.” Common sense should be the default.

There are some skeptics who are cynical cranks and their only joy is in debunking, but most want to promote critical thinking. Distinguishing between reality and unreality is important. Yes? You check out a used car before buying it, so why just believe the people who say they can detect ghosts with EMF readers? This belief may not hurt you, but you don’t want to be ignorant, do you? Aren’t you curious about the real world? Lots of untested beliefs really do hurt, by the way. Believing in fake medicine instead of real medicine, for example.

Knowing real from unreal is trickier than you think because what we see and assume is often just plain wrong. Our senses and thinking processes are imperfect. Having evolved as good hunter-gatherers, we can be stymied when it comes to things like coincidence or grasping really large or very small numbers, sizes, or time intervals. We also are so good at finding patterns and regularities in our environment that we sometimes perceive things that aren’t really there (a face in the clouds, a voice amid random noise).

The method for getting around these biases and inadequacies is the same way we got through the “diving into the pond” scenario. Check out the evidence. Do the math. Critically think.

Civilization is a work in progress. Will you help with this project? (See you at TAM 8.)

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