Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The Burden of Skepticism

Carl Sagan wrote about how open minded skeptics should be:

If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress.

On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.

Some people believe that skepticism is rejection of new ideas, or they think that skeptics are unwilling to accept any claim that challenges the status quo. This couldn't be more wrong. Skepticism is a approach to claims, in other words, skepticism is a method, not a position.

Ideally, skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a claim might be true or a phenomenon might be real. But when we say we are skeptical, we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe.

A skeptics answer to a fantastic claim, "that's nice, prove it" or "show me the evidence, and if it's good I'll change my mind, but right now, the phenomenon of which you speak has failed every test to which it has been subjected."

Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, that involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. All facts in science are subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to conclusions.

The key to skepticism is to continuously apply the methods of science to navigate between know nothing skepticism and anything goes credulity.

What about "psychic" phenomena: claims of psychic abilities and does the phenomena ESP excist?

ESP is most commonly called the "sixth sense." It is sensory information that an individual receives which comes beyond the ordinary five senses sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. It can provide the individual with information of the present, past, and future; as it seems to originate in a second, or alternate reality.

Some claims, such as ESP and creationism, have been tested (and failed the tests) often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are not valid. Other claims, such as hypnosis and black holes, have been tested but results are inconclusive so we must continue formulating and testing hypotheses and theories until we can reach a conclusion.

I am ready to reject things such as a flat Earth because there is evidence we live on a sphere. And the Loch Ness Monster: Lack of evidence, and the few potential pieces of evidence has been frauds. We can safely say there is no monster. We can also safely say there is no ESP. Every single scientific testing of ESP has to my knowledge failed to produce evidence of ESP. But I don't have enough evidence to reject the possibility of some kind of perception we have not yet discovered.

What is meant by: "All known data points towards the conclusion that it doesn't exist."

Is there unknown data? Yes, there always is, and always will be. Does this unknown data evidence for these claim? We must make our conclusions based on data that is known, not data that is unknown. As long as there is unknown data, all conclusions can change.

Being a skeptic just means that you must be ready to change your conclusions based on new evidence.

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