Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Proper Skeptical Attitude

I've fallen a little behind on my Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcasts. This morning I was listening to the Aug 26 episode with the Richard Saunders interview. This interview reminded me of something really important about being a skeptic. It is important to have the right attitude.

Skepticism is about a positive state of mind. It is about curiosity and open mindedness. It is about excitement and joy in the way the world works. I'd guess that most people don't see skeptics that way. I think that skeptics have a reputation for being fun wreckers. Boring, analytical, joyless and always contrary. I'm sure that some people that claim to be skeptics have earned this reputation. But my idea of skepticism is different. For me being skeptical means when you hear a claim that sounds fantastical, you obviously have doubts, but you don't stop there. You say, 'How cool would it be if that were true?' Then you ask for the data. You look at the evidence. Have your doubts, but don't have your mind made up. Be excited for the chance to learn something new and unexpected.

That said, I think one of the reasons that skeptics sometimes get a bad rap is that they often feel isolated and out-numbered. When you are the lone rational voice, it is important to be clear and unambiguous. People don't like to have their irrational beliefs questioned, so they label any well reasoned opposition as harsh. I'm not sure that reaction can be helped. So, be positive, curious, and open minded, but strongly defend the position that the evidence supports. That is being a skeptic.

17 comments:

Herb said...

Good words, Jeff. And oh how I adore the SGU podcast! I've been trying to get caught up on them, too--and by that I mean that I downloaded all the OLD ones that I hadn't ever listened to before. Once I finish with all of them (I'm well on my way) I will have to catch up with the more recent ones again.

skepticzonefan said...

You might like to check out Richard Saunders' latest show - with their own 'rogues' - www.skepticzone.tv? They just released their show TODAY!

Tim said...

Nice post.

It seems to me that adopting a label ("bright", "skeptic", whatever) may be a tactical error in the larger culture war. For one thing, there are a lot of people, myself included, who resist rallying to the flag, even if we are sympathetic to the goals of those who have hoisted it. It makes the war appear to be between two well-defined camps: the Skeptics and the Fundamentalists. Defined narrowly like that, the war seems distant to a lot of people who might be otherwise interested and less important than it probably really is. Also, adopting a label always prompts in-fighting about who is a True Skeptic/Bright/Adventist/etc. And as the label accumulates tradition and prestige, the fights get uglier and more wasteful. Finally (and less seriously), it bothers me to render less precise a term which mostly has meaning for me as the label for a specific philosophical tradition whose most characteristic members wore togas and took things way too far.

I actually like your description of what a skeptic is (and would doubtless enjoy those podcasts), but thoughts like the above keep me from wanting to adopt the label as a self-descriptor.

Iron Soul said...

Tim
I agree that applying labels can be counter productive. I was trying to express what being skeptical means to me. Ideally "skeptic" is a very open term that is mostly immune the hazards of in-fighting or the perception of homogeneity. But, when is the ideal the reality? I do like the label for the function of providing a sense of community and the benefits that come with that structure of support.

Herb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Herb said...

[oops...edit for grammar]

Tim, you're now labeled an antilabelist. Wear the label of antilabelism with pride. But seriously, you should listen to some of the SGU podcasts when you have bits of time. You'd find them interesting. (As an aside: I find myself in complete agreement with you about avoiding the temptation to get too eager about using an individual word as a branding/label for a group of people...the whole "Bright" thing really puts me off, for example...for a variety of reasons.)

Any new photo postings on Flickr? I'll have to look yours up again...

Oh, and hi, Jeff. Thanks for letting me converse with Tim on your blog.

Tim said...

I don't mind a good descriptive label so much, but I do mind when the label is a brand (thanks for making that connection, Herb) and is then carefully controlled. And labels used to define the sides of an active and acrimonious debate are nothing if not carefully controlled. To accept "skeptic" in a context like that really does seem to me to be like rallying round a flag, as I said earlier. Like acquiescing to an overly simplified description of the state of things (four legs good, two legs bad, etc). I don't see Ron Numbers, for instance, calling himself a skeptic (not that I've looked to see if this is so), largely because he has a much more nuanced views regarding creation/evolution, etc (which is what I most liked about his interview). "Skeptic" is such a loaded term right now. Perhaps something like "empiricist" would suite me more.

Iron Soul said...

I like empiricist. I also like rationalist, but that is close to emotionally charged as well. On the other hand there is something distasteful to me about letting someone else's emotions influence how I describe myself. And maybe I like the slightly confrontational tone of skeptic.

Tim said...

"Rationalist," from a philosophical perspective, is in some ways the opposite of "empiricist." The latter ask for evidence from the world while the former make a priori deductions.

Herb said...

Tim, did you get to look through that site from the link I emailed you?

Tim said...

Yeah, I did. Thanks. You know, I've always been a bit ambivalent about Route 66 because of its status in pop culture. I never could get into that retro aesthetic. Have you visited those places (Amboy, etc)? Were they interesting?

How's the weather over where you are? It is supposed to be getting a lot cooler here over the weekend, maybe even rain.

Herb said...

Ditto on the feelings of ambivalence regarding the whole "Route 66" pop culture thing. Never got into it, really. Yeah, I've been to Amboy several times. It's pretty cool around that area. The puny town of Cadiz is also nearby and the Marble Mountains are right there. Some Bighorn Sheep live there and there are some cool fossils nearby. Amboy Crater is quite fascinating as well.

Weather here is mild for Las Vegas (sunny and in the upper 80s lower 90s), although it's probably not nearly as pleasant as Loma Linda weather at this time of year. I rather enjoyed the fall and winter there for outdoor activities.

Can you believe they finally found Steve Fossett's plane?! I wonder if they'll find his body.

Tim said...

The fossils sound interesting.

We had what we thought was a mouse get into our house today. It was a major event. In the end he kind of accidentally set off a trap that broke his leg and maybe hit his head a glancing blow. Anyway, he suffered, and he also turned out to be a kangaroo rat. I felt kind of bad about that. I think he just wanted to get outside, to go back home and listen to some music, maybe watch a little TV, play with his kids . . . Now the ants are eating his eyeballs, and his widow doesn't know what she'll do.

How far from where they were looking before was Fossett's plane found? I haven't been following that story any more than just reading headlines occasionally.

Herb said...

Enjoyed the story, although too bad it was a kangaroo rat. Reminds me of some of the muskrat experiences we had in WW.

It seems some kind of remains have been found in Steve Fossett's plane wreckage, although nobody has determined if they are his or not. Will be interesting to see. I don't know how far the crash site was from where they were originally looking.

Tim said...

Yes, I remember you blasting the muskrats out of your pond in WW. I remember the bloody splashes and chunks that would float to shore. You were a great hunter.

I finally read one of those stories about Fossett, and it seems the mountain where the remains were found was within the earlier search pattern, but not considered a likely place.

I'm feeling a little bit sick today. My bowels are fine, though, and I've had two good movements so far today. Otherwise, I woke up with a fever and sore throat. How is your health?

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