Guest post by GregGorey
Over evolutionary history, man evolved a belief engine. This engine helped us survive by recognizing meaningful patterns. The problem is, this engine also “connects the dots” when there is no connection to be made. Since this mostly leads to positions that will not get us killed, it persists. There is even evidence for this behavior having some short term benefits, such as lower stress (Shermer, XXIV).
You may be thinking, “so what’s the harm?” The harm is that superstition not only takes your money, but it produces dangerous beliefs. Anti-vaccination hysteria and faith based medicine are not only stupid, they are lethal and cause deep societal harm.
Even worse, our society is filled with such excrement. As Harry Frankfurt said, “one of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it (Frankfurt, 1).”
So are we hopelessly superstitious and doomed to bad beliefs? I, like other skeptics, do not think so. It seems that our our belief engine can be fine-tuned to think skeptically. There is plenty of evidence that suggests critical thinking is learnable (Shermer, XXV). This skepticism is just the thing we need to spot bullshit from a mile away.
But what is skepticism?
Skepticism is the idea that we should construct a toolbox of methods that generate reliable beliefs to overcome the limitations of our ape brains. Once we collect these tools, we should use them to guide our decisions. Not only will this consistently lead us to reliable beliefs, but it will help us avoid being taken in by bullshit. Since “science is the best tool ever devised for understanding how the world works”, skepticism employs science and scientific thinking as its primary tool (Shermer, BTK)
Like science, skepticism is about seeking evidence before accepting a claim. We look for “lovely explanations” that have certain features, such as (1) providing a mechanism, (2) parsimony, (3) predictability, (4) an explanatory scope, (5) testability, and (6) being well corroborated (Lipton, 143). If a claim meets these requirements, then we accept it. Unfortunately, there are people who do not accept certain strongly supported claims, such as global warming and the holocaust, for ideological reasons. These people are known as deniers.
Several theories, such as the big bang and evolution, have so much supporting evidence and are such good explanations they are on the “almost certainly true” part of the spectrum. Others, such as ESP and dousing rods, are awful explanations and have failed test so often that they are in the “almost certainly wrong” part of the spectrum.
However, in skepticism, truth is provisional and we are always open to the idea that new evidence could come along and disprove a position. Even the rules of deductive logic are fallible. If we find empirical evidence that shows them to be incorrect, then they should be revised. As you can imagine, skepticism is fundamentally incompatible with a religious view of the world. This incompatibility stems from two major reasons.
The first reason is that several important theistic predictions, such as the power of prayer and creationism, fall towards the “almost certainly wrong” part of the truth scale. This is a consequent of the success of evolution and recent prayer studies (Mayo, 1198). The second (and more important) reason is that skepticism is a fundamentally different way of looking at the world . In skepticism “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (Sagan, ep, 12).” The religious view generally demands no extraordinary evidence and dogmatically embraces that such ideas are impossible to prove false.
Unlike religion, skepticism is not about an end belief, but a way of looking at the world. It is a rejection of fallacious reasoning and the adoption of reliable methods. Most importantly, it is about critical thinking and having good reasons for your beliefs. This may leave you wondering: if we are supposed to be skeptical, then “‘Why should we believe anything you say?’ My response: ‘You shouldn’t.’ Cogita tute— think for yourself (Shermer, XXVI)”