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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Welcome to Skepticism. (what it means to be a skeptic)

Greetings folks, hope that everything has been going well.  Things are hectic at the Skeptical Okie Headquarters partly due to the horrendous damage due to the tornado.  We didn't suffer directly, but friends of ours did.  Our thoughts are with the people affected by the tornado.

A lot of interesting things in the news lately including small flying robots, a guy demonstrating a gun made with a 3-D printer, Eugenie Scott retiring from the N.C.S.E., a possible cure for H.I.V., and in the interest of having an Oklahoma topic, pet owners turning to alternative medicine for their animals.

And now for the main issue.  I am relatively new to the skeptical movement.  In this, I mean as an active participant.  Most of my life I have doubted aliens, ghosts, bush doctors (Homeopaths and Naturopaths), psychics, faith healers, conspiracies, and the list goes on.  Unfortunately, I live in Oklahoma and expressing doubt on these is tantamount to kicking a baby.  I just kept my mouth shut, and tried to ignore the Woo that was being bantered about.  Then about 3 or 4 years ago, my wife mentioned a podcast called "The Skeptics Guide to the Universe".  I thought it was an extension to "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy"  I listened to a couple of episodes and thought "Damn, there are other people like me!"  This was also my introduction to podcasts in general, but that is merely an interesting side note.  To date, I probably listen to  2 dozen skeptic or science based podcasts, not including a couple of steampunk based and of course Scott Sigler (everything the man writes is golden.  Horror stories based on actual science,  and some excellent sports stuff also.  If you haven't heard him yet, go check him out on i-tunes or at and tell him I sent you.)  In that time, from skeptic fledgling to today, with a skeptic blog, working on starting a skeptics society, and trying to come up with a format for a podcast that hasn't been done to death, I have noticed a few things, especially in Oklahoma.  So I thought that I would try and write a short guide to help you on your path to becoming a full fledged, card carrying skeptic.

If you look in the Oxford English dictionary, "skeptic" is defined as
  • 1a person inclined to question or doubt all accepted opinions.
  •  a person who doubts the truth of Christianity and other religions; an atheist or agnostic.
  • 2 Philosophy an ancient or modern philosopher who denies the possibility of knowledge, or even rational belief, in some sphere.

This is pretty much what we are, and what we do.  Many people use cynic interchangeably, claiming that we don't trust anything that doesn't fit within our strictly defined, dogmatic views.  What a true skeptic actually does is keep an open mind, just not so open it falls out.  (I did paraphrase it, but I love that line, and if anyone can tell me who said it, 25 instant cool points)  We are actually more subject to changing our minds on a topic as more information becomes available.  We think in much the same manner that science works.  As more information comes to us, our ideas are modified, enhanced, or discarded.  Yes, we are human, so we are subject to the same biases that everyone else is, but a skeptic does try to account for their personal bias when making a decision.  Another term often lumped in with skeptics is "atheist".  For an example, look up any big time skeptic on Conservapedia and you will find atheist tied to their name.  An atheist is someone that doesn't believe in a god, and was a term I hadn't heard until I was in my late teens.  As Penn (of Penn and Teller fame) often says, and again, I'm paraphrasing, everyone is atheist to one god or another.  Christians don't believe in Vishnu, Muslims don't believe in Odin, and so on.  Granted, many skeptics are either atheist or agnostic, but there are some that are believers.  They feel that there is sufficient evidence, if not for "God", then some higher power.  Who is to say they're wrong?  You can't prove a negative, so it is impossible to prove God doesn't exist.  These people don't let their religious beliefs cloud their judgment when it comes to the facts, which I know sounds like a bit of a paradox.  In the end, a skeptic is someone that looks at all the evidence, and then uses the evidence to make a decision.  They are not a cynic, and atheist, or a "Star Wars, Star Trek, Science loving, God hating egotistical, elitist Know-it-all".

Something else that quickly becomes apparent if you listen to enough speakers or podcasts is the fact that the skeptical community loves to have a label for things.  Most of this I think stems from the fact that most of us are what used to be called "type A personalities".   This is also the reason that there aren't many very many rigidly structured groups.  You think herding cats is hard, try herding a room full of skeptics.  Some of the common labels you'll hear are : alt med, pseudoscience, logical fallacy, or just fallacy for short, fundie, skeptic, you kinda get the idea.  most of the labels are self explanatory, with the exception of the logical fallacies.  You may have heard the terms ad hominem, ad hoc,  and the like.  These are terms used to label logical fallacies in debates or arguments.  These also have an english translation, and these are used also.  There are so many permutations on these that without a solid background in philosophy or debate, it would take several posts just to go through the most common ones.  Wikipedia has a good list with definitions, as well as The Skeptics Dictionary.  The terms you will often hear in the skeptical movement are used to  group ideas or arguments into easily disseminated bites.  If you don't know what they mean, simply ask.  Skeptics promote education, and are more than happy, normally, to explain any term you don't understand.

Another thing you'll encounter as a newly minted skeptic is Woo.  This is a term that has been about for a few years to describe pseudoscience and myths.  There is a good rule of thumb when trying to determine if something is bullshit based or plausible.  If it's some form of Woo, at some point , you will probably see or here one of the following phrases or words:
Big _____ (insert any business group or government here), Conspiracy, Wellness, Holistic, They don't want you to know, sheeple, Cancer cure, Detox, Natural cure, Ancient techniques, Ancient knowledge, Metaphysical, Quantum, Deepak Chopra, Secret knowledge....yeah, you kinda see where this going.  Normally, if you see or hear any of these terms, you should take care with any of the information that's being presented.  When people are trying to sell a product or service that has no evidence to back their claims, they will normally resort to using claims like these that can not be proven.   When they are tested and fail, the proponents will either use the fallacy known as "moving the goal post" which means that they change their requirements for proof, or they will use the very popular "special pleading" which they basically say that some aspect of their issue can't be tested by any known science.

Coming into the skeptical movement today is sort of like jumping off of the high dive into 2 feet of water, before learning how to dive.  It can be overwhelming, confusing, and a little stressful.  Don't be discouraged, ask questions, and feel free to be yourself.  The skeptical movement is for everyone.  So look for a group near you, and see what they're up to.  If there isn't a group and you don't want to try and start one, contact Center for Inquiry, James Randi Educational Foundation, or The Skeptics Society.  there is a place for everyone, and they do provide a sense of community for many of us.

I know this post is a little more rambling than usual, and I will admit I was rushing it to try an get it out.  Please forgive me on the meandering writings of a mildly sleep deprived skeptic.  Until next time, Be good, Be Skeptical, and have fun.

The Skeptical Okie

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