Monday, August 17, 2009

Why do I write this blog?

What is skepticism?
Firstly, it is not cynicism. It has been greatly frustrating to me, and to all the other skeptics I follow in the media, to have skepticism constantly confused with cynicism. Some people use the interchangeably and some people claim they are the same, some people just haven't heard anything about the two. Except for those who blatantly ignore the differences between the two I hope I can help the others (but mainly skeptics) by showing some differences.

Cynicism, at least in my eyes (I'm sure there's a cynic out there who will be disappointed with my definition, but then again... you would be. Just kidding, write me in one and I'll put it in over mine) centers around the general distrusting or disparaging of motives and the contempt for some accepted standards. I find that often alternative medicine followers, as well as other like minded people, will often dismiss scientific studies, dismiss skepticism, and place a great amount of distrust in the government and pharmaceutical companies to allow them to both feel more passionate about what they believe in, as well as sometimes to justify their beliefs. This is cynicism, the very same thing that they often accuse and confuse skeptics as having. To listen to scientific studies posted in peer review journals, ones done empirically with defences against the folly of human nature and psychology, while dismissing quackery and conspiracies that CAN NOT produce evidence for their claims is not close minded and it it not clinical. It is logic.

Skepticism, once again to me, lies in questioning and critical analysis. Sagan once said that "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" this is something I cannot agree with more. If someone makes a claim of something, I will ask why their claim is true. What is the basis for the claim, where is the evidence. Also, what is the quality of this evidence. To me anecdotes are not evidence and I think that this is where I and skeptics differ from a lot of people. I think that they can be good indication of where research can be done. If 1000 people think there are ghosts in a building this is not evidence that there ghosts, or ghosts in this building. However, why not look into the ghosts and see if there indeed ghosts , or if not give these 1000 people an answer to why they thought there was, tell them whats happening don't just let them. If anecdotes were true then there would be an explosion of truth, conspiracy theories would come to life and a whole lot of editing would have to be done to the majority of science textbooks.

I think it is also important, as a skeptic, not to go into anything with a preconceived conclusion. I went into my Spot Reduction Myth post with uncertainty in my mind and I did a great deal of research before I posted it. It is also important to be able to change your mind. People may assume I am stubborn merely because I am passionate and I will argue my points. I find the accusations upon me and others that they "always think they are right" as outright ridiculous. Who is ever thinking that what they are thinking is wrong. I believe what I think and if there is uncertainty I leave it at thinking I'm uncertain, as does everyone. I only argue the points that i really believe in and that is why it often seems I wont back down about my opinions. As for things I've changed my mind on, I changed my mind on area specific toning, on vitamins and the immune system, on acupuncture, on placebo and on a variety of things. It is going around the skeptics in the media, and I agree, to sit down and think about what you have changed your mind on. When someone says you are stubborn, single minded, or another of these generic insults, bust out your short list and put a stop to it.

My mother is an alternative medicine advocate, I grew up without immunisations, believing in a lot of things I have come to disagree with. I grew up with a great trust in the world but as I aged I no longer took peoples word for it and wished to do my own research. There is a great deal of information out there and that's why I wished to write this Blog and bring some attention to the information that I think is not heard enough. People are wrong and wrong people will often do wrong things, furthermore these things often catch on. Sometimes people are deliberately misleading, I hope that this is not the majority of what we see. Alternatively, there are things that come to be proven and believed. If alternative medicine actually did what it was supposed to, it would be quickly absorbed into mainstream medicine. Instead there is, instead of a medical or scientific push, a push in public demand in alternative medicine to be inducted, a push because of misunderstanding and the spreading of misinformation by its proponents. I however do not believe in the many 'big pharma' conspiracies and those who do may find fault in that statement. I think though that this all shaped me to have a good starting point to research into a lot of alternative medicines.

Skepticism has been negatively branded by those who have not wished to understand it. To seek out evidence and to doubt claims that are backed by nothing but anecdotes is not close minded, it is logical. It might be counterintuitive to believe scientific studies that were conducted by people that we do not know are more trustworthy then even the closest of friends, but it is something that I have come to think and strongly support. To rather trust someones personal opinion is to fall folly to the many faults that exist within the human psyche. People make mistakes and the brain plays tricks. There a number of reasons that even I can name to show why we cannot trust ourselves. The majority of people do not have a great level of understanding for the placebo effect, or the natural history of a disease, nor the ideom motor effect or the other plethora of factors that contribute to humans often believing in things that are wrong. This is why a test done with defences against these factors, or done with these in direct consideration are far better sources of information then someones personal experience with something.

"Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, which involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions. Some claims, such as water dowsing, ESP, and creationism, have been tested (and failed the tests) often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are not valid. Other claims, such as hypnosis, the origins of language, and black holes, have been tested but results are inconclusive so we must continue formulating and testing hypotheses and theories until we can reach a provisional conclusion."

Why do I want to question? I think that whereas accepting something may allow you to experience one wonder of the world, you can think that someone can call down spaceships or that homeopathy can cure you, doing research and realising the ever growing and amazing science is an option full of much more wonder and prestige. Science that corrects itself, science that admits its faults. This is why I will always remain, above all, a skeptic.


  1. very interesting sam, very clear

    don't forget

    google 'agnihotra'

  2. It is an important clarification that you make.
    Have you heard of the 'ladder or inference'? It's a concept that's been hijacked by new-age corporate motivational speaker types; but it's also an interesting model of decision making that in a way explains the way in which people can choose to ignore certain sources of information to favour others.

  3. Ah, I know it as confirmation bias Dan. I'm glad to see my commenting request met with full enthusiasm.
    There is an excellent podcast, site and book that i link to occasionaly. Google
    'Hunting Humbug'
    then have a look at their free ebook edition, you will enjoy it i'm sure.