It’s a good question, that, “What is skepticism?” A lot of folks hear the word “skeptic” and seem to equate it with party-pooper, cynic, or knee-jerk contrarian. If your party includes belief in woo, then we’ll cop to the first. But skepticism isn’t about being a dour old cynic, or doubt for the sake of doubt.
It’s not a belief system. There’s no master list of positions you must hold in order to be a skeptic.
Being a skeptic isn’t something you are so much as do. Because, you see, skepticism is a tool. It’s a way of detecting bullshit. It’s a set of methods applied to assess the truth of a claim. It saves you from falling for Nigerian princes and people who claim there’s a curse upon you which can only be lifted by silly rituals and the application of generous funds to the fortune teller.
And that’s what we tried to impress upon the audience at GeekGirlCon: skepticism is a tool, or rather a tool kit. I’ll show you mine.
I’ve got doubt in there. I add a healthy pinch of it when people proclaim things. But doubt by itself is rather useless. It’s no good going round doubting absolutely everything forever. That doesn’t make you a skeptic, it makes you a particular brand of philosopher or a fool. So I rummage about in the box a bit and come up with reason. Does the claim sound reasonable? Is it logical? Even then, it’s not always right. Perfectly reasonable and logical things can end up being absolutely untrue. So I’ll grab my evidence hand lens and take a really close look. Has the claim got evidence backing it, good, strong empirical evidence? Is the source it’s coming from someone who’s proved themselves correct in the past? Do others with a track record for good critical thinking and experience in the field that claim touches on find it credible? Is the mechanism claimed one that fits with what’s currently known about the way the world works? Are there conflicts of interest? Does the person making the claim have ulterior motives that might make them shuffle contrary evidence under the rug? Are there other ways of interpreting things that lead to a better answer?
There’s a lot of questioning involved. I don’t always do that questioning methodically. And I’m not always right. But I’ll tell you, I get taken in a lot less these days than I was before I started using this tool kit. And the longer you use it, the easier it is.
Now it’s confession time, because Case asked us if there was anything we used to believe in before skepticism changed our minds? And I have to tell you, although some of you already know: I used to be woo-girl. UFOs? Believed in ‘em. Magic? Couldn’t do it worth a crap, but totally believed there had to be some functioning magic somewhere in this big wide world. Ghosts? Absolutely. Gods? Had an entire pantheon. Life after death? Yup. Super spiffy cures for various diseases the medical establishment was keeping us from? You betcha. In fact, I’d believe about any pseudoscientific argument someone put in front of me, because I wanted to believe the world was full of supernatural numminess. And, cherry on top, I belonged to a half-assed doomsday cult with pagan overtones and Christian roots back in high school. Oh, yes. That was me: trying to save the world from demons. Totally.
But there was one particular bit of woo I believed in that was probably the first to fall to skeptical inquiry: crystal magic. I’ve done you up a nice video that illustrates how I was taken in and how I got taken out:
I love that little piece of rutilated quartz. It doesn’t have to have magic powers. The truth of it is far more amazing to me now.
You may ask how I was taken in by something so bloody stupid as the idea that a bit of quartz with titanium in could predict the future. Look, I was in middle school. I hadn’t any critical thinking skills to speak of. I wasn’t quite ready to believe all that was claimed of it, mind – even living in Sedona, surrounded by New Age woo and crystal shops, I hadn’t really come to believe that rocks had any special powers. But a friend of mine believed, and she “proved” to me that the stone worked as advertised by having it predict which house my parents would buy. Mind you, it at first predicted we’d buy every house we saw. But once she recalibrated it (claiming “yes” and “no” must have become mixed up during the trip), and it steadfastly said no to every house until the one my parents eventually bought, I became a believer. After all, we hated that house. How could it possibly be chance that the stone had picked that very one?!
I didn’t know then about the very tiny hand motions that could make the stone swing at the end of a string, or confirmation bias, or how it could end up being right purely by random chance. I bought my own bit of rutilated quartz and went to town. And then spent a devastated afternoon weeping on a hillside because it had predicted I’d die in July of 2008. I’d be so young! It was tragic! Totally unfair!
And, obviously, completely wrong, because they pronounced me alive when I went to our on-site medical clinic last week.
Eventually, I started testing it to see if the stone would move without human contact. It did! It really did! It would swing when tied to the end of a stick (that I was holding), and it would sometimes even swing weakly if I stuck the stick it was tied to into a piece of furniture. But it wasn’t as strong as when I was holding it directly. This, my darlings, is why you have to be careful when experimenting: an experiment is only as good as its design, and my design was teh suck. It allowed too much random movement and subtle human influence. If I’d just tied the damned thing to a lamp in the first place, I might have been a skeptic much sooner.
But I eventually got there. The misses piled up; the hits were too few. I learned that no matter how stable your hand seems, it’s still making tiny movements that translate into a rather dramatic bit of motion when you’re dangling an object on a string. I learned that if you tied the string to something more stable than a stick stuck in furniture, the stone stayed stone still. I learned about science, and the scientific method, and how to ask questions, and how easily people can be deceived, and how the brain puts patterns together, and a plethora of other things that added up to what I am now: a skeptic and an atheist.
I ran from those things for too long because I didn’t think I could bear to live in a world without magic. But I’ll tell you something: the world has still got magic in it. Just not the supernatural kind. Is it any less wonderful? No: it’s more full of wonder now than it ever was back in the Days of Woo.
But that’s another story, one we shall be coming to very soon.
I’ll turn the floor over to you now, my darlings. If you’ve any stories of skepticism rescuing you from woo that you wish to share, by all means do so.