We’re all skeptics. Everyone one of us… But only when it suits us.
Some are skeptics in the sense that they use critical thinking to evaluate all claims to truth. These are what I would call “true skeptics”, advocates of science and reason regardless of topic and their personal feelings about it.
If skepticism and blind acceptance (faith) were charted of a line they would be at opposite ends. And so it is with people. Some accept almost everything they hear/read/see without a moments critical thought. Others will critically analyse everything if they could. One takes little effort, the other requires discipline.
Dr Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine says it eloquently: “Critical thinking is a method, not a position”. As a method, critical thinking requires discipline. The default workings of human perception and brain function is inadequate to give us the most accurate representation of reality. Science and rationality to the rescue!
When it comes to salespeople, especially of the car variety, most people are skeptical from the outset. So the main argument for critical thinking is “how do you know when to accept a claim without needing evidence?”
For true skeptics, the answer is that every claim should be examined critically. After all, what makes one claim different from another? I admit that this ‘true, 100% skeptic’ doesn’t exist because at the core, we’re all human and subject to the same biases, anomalies in perception and distortions in thought.
Where a person lies on the critical thinking spectrum has a lot to do with culture and upbringing. Lack of education in critical thinking plays a part for many. Similarly, many people accept the idea that faith (belief without question) is a virtue and automatically privilege some ideas and beliefs over others. This emotional investment and prior bias towards a given idea or set of ideas is another way we humans can drift from the path of reason.
Astrology and other old chestnuts
Take a fairly innocuous claim like those made by astrologers – that somehow the stars influence and dictate human affairs. Let’s put aside the fact that this belief reveals an extreme vanity in that it appeals to our self-centredness. The first question should be where’s the evidence? Our skeptical alarm bells should be ringing furiously at the slightest mention that stars somehow have some influence in human affairs. Why? Plausibility. It sounds implausible and indeed it is implausible.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the claim isn’t true it just seems highly unplausible given what we have learned about physics and the origins of astrology. Extraoridinary claims require extraordinary evidence, so you would expect the evidence to be of a very high quality in order to justify a belief in astrology.
There isn’t a plausible mechanism that could even place astrology in the ballpark of reality. The more plausible explanation for the notion of astrology comes from how and when it arose – it is simply an ancient projection of human concepts, fears and desires onto the night sky. The star patterns that form constellations are random and the ancient descriptions of what the constellations represent requires some creative imagination (does cancer really look like a crab?)
Furthermore, the stars only appear where they are because of where we are in the galaxy. To further demolish astrology, you could also add that the stars of each constellation have nothing to do with each other, as the stars only appear in a pattern from Earth when in fact each stars are at varying, large distances from us and each other. They have no gravitational effect on us or, in most cases, the stars in the constellation.
Given all this, people still believe in astrology. Why?
Dr Steven Novella, host of the excellent podcast The Skeptics Guide To The Universe, points out that belief in ancient explanations and myths have a cultural inertia. Furthermore, once the mind becomes preoccupied with an idea and beliefs are formed, cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias virtually acts as a self-protection mechanism for the tangled web of ideas.
In many cases, beliefs will encase themselves in self-sustaining verification loops (filtering on the basis of data that verifies the pre-existing linguistic beliefs) so that new information is either disregarded or justified and woven into the existing belief framework. This is the nature of delusion and the starting point of much of the irrationality we find around us.
Hunting for red flags
Red flags that point to gross abuses of science and logic are easy to spot once you know what to look for. A basic understanding of science, the scientific method and logic delivers an illuminated path to reality, or at least as close as a human mind can get to reality.
Knowledge of science and logic can open up a whole new world that you would never now existed if you did not learn them. It is a sad fact that most people are not taught how to discriminate valid ideas from nonsense and it can only come back to bite us all on the arse.
The biggest red flag of them all
The biggest red flag, the one that represents the most abhorent and creative abuse of science is the appeal to Quantum Theory. Nowhere in the scientific canon is there a mention that quantum theory logically leads to ESP, astrology or any other paranormal phenomenon.
Quantum theory explains what we can observe at a minute level – the atomic and subatomic levels. At these minute, quantum levels, there are all kinds of strange phenemonen that take place. While these odd patterns of behaviour can be observed with small particles, large particles behave according to Newtonian mechanics. Large objects obey Newtons laws of gravity and motion.
Here’s where pseudoscientists – peddlers of nonsense – grant themselves free licence to abuse either their own lack of understanding or that of the lay public (usually consumers of their quack products). Because there is a weirdness that takes place at quantum levels, pseudoscientists jump on this opportunity to claim that’s the scientific basis of their own claims.
This is rather a cynical ploy… it is an exploitation of a beautiful theory and simultaneously sounding plausible and credible to people who don’t know any better.
The quantum theory card is only pulled when the claim is highly implausible and not supported by established science. Often, pseudoscientific claims that lack any scientific evidence are implausible because they violate well established physical laws and scientific theories. These include homeopathy, ESP and Psi claims, astrology, acupuncture, iridology, reflexology, healing touch, chiropractic, perpetual motion machines and zero energy machines… If any of these actually worked they would shatter very well established science.
In the case of perpetual motion and zero energy machines, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (which governs energy transfer in closed systems) prevents these devices from performing as claimed.
Homeopathy is at odds with physics – the more you dilute a homeopathic substance the more effective it is supposed to be. I don’t know about you but I don’t add water to my coke drinks ad infinitum because eventually I’ll dilute all the coke out of them. Water is all a homeopathic medicine could ever be if practitioners dilute to the degree they claim.
Science is only concerned with the real world
Science is the learning process and skepticism is built into the process. What better place to start learning… a null hypothesis, doubt before blind belief. We all adhere to this to a certain degree.
Science is really just a methodological way of the learning process we all use to understand reality. Those promoting systems of thought and belief that divert from the scientific method are guilty of willfully eroding the state of knowledge available to human kind.
Further, any anti-science or pseudoscience distracts our attention and finite resources away from inquiry into reality; relegating facts and evidence below fiction and fantasy.