“Skepticism is science,” explains Dr. Steven Novella, host of the podcast The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe.
The official podcast of the New England Skeptical Society, Skeptics’ Guide is one of the top 10 science podcasts on iTunes and boasts 65,000 downloads of the latest episode each week. Clearly there’s some interest in science and skepticism, but despite it’s growing popularity there is still confusion about what skepticism means.
Novella says the notion that the term “skeptic” applies to someone who doesn’t believe in anything is “a marketing problem,” and that it’s important to understand the difference between scientific and philosophical skepticism.
“If you use the term skepticism to a philosopher, he may think that you’re talking about philosophical skepticism, which is very different. That’s more the notion that nothing is knowable, which is not what we mean by scientific skepticism.”
He says skeptics believe in things, but require evidence to support their beliefs.
“(It’s) the application of logic and scientific methodology, answering questions about the state of reality. Basically applying science, specifically with an emphasis on applying it to pop culture and filling the void in places that are left by mainstream science.”
As a result, skeptics aim to debunk common myths and challenge beliefs that go against scientific evidence.
Issues the Skeptics’ Guide podcast often deals with include the anti-vaccination claims made by celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, problems with alternative medicines like homeopathy and acupuncture, and the science behind current events like the recent controversies surrounding H1N1 and the flu vaccine.
“That’s a very practical application of scientific skepticism,” Novella said. “How do you wade through all the claims being made out there and come to some practical decision about what’s likely to be true? Which arguments are valid? Which are logical fallacies?”
Part of learning to be skeptical includes understanding the pitfalls of human thought. These logical fallacies are patterns of thought that all people have and must be avoided to understand something critically.
One mistake many people make is confusing association with causation. Taking the current vaccine controversy for example, some claim that since autism rates have climbed along with vaccination, vaccines must cause autism. This incorrectly assumes cause and effect when that might not be the case.
Other common fallacies include ad hominem, attacking the person rather than the argument; ad ignorantiam, arguing something is true because we don’t know it’s not true (see UFOs); and the argument from authority, arguing something is true because an authority figure said so, even if they don’t have the right credentials to back up the claim.
Understanding fallacies and the scientific method are key to skeptical thought, and both are taught in universities. Still, professors aren’t above making these mistakes themselves, and Novella says students should call them on it.Â Â Â
“Teachers definitely should feel some push-back from their students if they try to teach them absolute nonsense or dubious or questionable things. That doesn’t have to be pseudoscience; it could be pseudo-history or alternate views or conspiracy theories.”
He warns, though, that when charging someone with being wrong, you shouldn’t be confrontational. He suggests sticking to the evidence, facts and logic, and keeping it impersonal. Basically, don’t be a jerk.
“Do it in a way that is emphasizing rigorous scholarship and curiosity, which is what they should be teaching anyway. If you pull it off, if you do it right, there’s no room for your teacher to get mad or upset at you. They have to sort of reward you for your scholarship.
The religion debate
Novella says there is a lot of overlap in self-identified skeptics and atheists, and that there’s a bit of a controversy within the skeptical movement about the relationship between skepticism and atheism.
Skepticism falls squarely into science, or methodological naturalism, which means you’re operating within a system of rules. Atheism falls into the realm of philosophical naturalism, where you believe only things that can be studied by science exist.
“It’s necessarily true that that’s all that we can know about but it’s not necessarily true that that’s all that there is,” explained Novella. “There are 20 to 30 per cent (of skeptics) who still function within methodological naturalism but still hold outside of that some personal faith, and that’s perfectly fine. That doesn’t necessarily conflict as long as they’re not intruding within the realm of science.”
But George Williamson, advocacy officer for the Saskatoon Freethinkers, a group for science advocacy and secularism, came to skepticism through philosophy. For him atheism is an integral part of skepticism.
“Skepticism goes right back to the roots of philosophy. It seems like philosophy in the western hemisphere comes out of the ancient Greeks starting to question the precepts of religion.”
Still, he admits skepticism and religion are not necessarily at odds.
“There’s a good history, particularly in the Catholic church, of rationalism, so I don’t think it would be completely incompatible but the trouble with religion is that there is some core doctrine that just has to remain unquestioned or you don’t have religion anymore.”Â
The Saskatoon Skeptics are another local skeptical group. The two groups are similar in that they both promote science and rational thought, but main organizer Dale Boan said he tries to keep the Saskatoon Skeptics free of religious criticism. Boan says they host lectures about current issues happening in the city with topics like light pollution, the quality of pet food and a Halloween-themed discussion of ghost pictures.
As a group concerned about secularism, the Freethinkers tend to tackle more religion-based lectures, such as their screening of The God Who Wasn’t There about the possibility that there might not be a historical Jesus, and their celebration of Blasphemy Day, where they conducted de-baptisms.
Both the Freethinkers and the Saskatoon Skeptics have monthly meetings, arranged online through their websites and their respective Facebook groups.
As the host of a popular podcast, Novella can attest to the change new media has had on the skeptical movement.
“It’s turned what previously was a very marginal movement into a growing dynamic movement with a lot of impact,” he said, adding that 10 years ago, most meetings were composed of retired intellectuals. “Now when we do have face to face meetings… the average age has shifted more towards college age so we definitely are getting a much younger new generation of critical thinkers involved in the skeptical movement.”
Novella, who works as a professor and clinical neurologist at the Yale School of Medicine, says another interesting development of new media is that it allows working scientists like himself to “participate in the discussion and contribute their time and knowledge in ways they couldn’t before.”
With social networking websites, blogs and podcasts, it’s easier than ever for skeptics to connect, and Williamson believes community is important for skeptics.
“Find a group or start your own group because religion works on the basis of community and unless skeptics and atheists build up a community themselves, it’s going to be much harder to build up progress.”
The Saskatoon Freethinkers will be celebrating their one year anniversary on Dec. 20. Find the Saskatoon Freethinkers through Facebook and meetup.com. Find the Saskatoon Skeptics through Facebook, their website saskatoonskeptics.com and at their blog saskskeptics.com.