What is Skepticism?

Skeptics see evidence and plausibility as the best way to assure that ideas are reality-based, allowing one to come as close as possible to objective truth.

Skepticism, a form of evidence-based reasoning, is a way of knowing that weighs evidence and prior plausibility in determining if a claim is true. It doesn’t mean simply denying anything that goes against preconceived notions, as the popular usage suggests. A skeptic would happily change his/her mind on a subject if there is strong evidence to the contrary. Skeptics simply demand evidence for any claim, taking nothing at face value.

Learning how to foster a skeptical outlook can make it less likely that a person will be scammed by fraudsters or fall for unproven or non-evidence-based pseudoscience, scientific or historical denialism, and supernaturalism.

What Skepticism is and is Not

Skepticism is not a religion or life philosophy. It tells a person not what to think, but how to know. Skepticism provides time-tested tools used long in science and academia that give the best possibility of finding the truth. As humans live in a materialist world, one of causes and effects governed by known processes and laws, skepticism is using what people know factually about the material world for analysis in the attempt to make up for natural human sensory and interpretive faults.

Skepticism is often wrongly equated with cynicism, being defined as dismissive of new ideas due to arrogance that one knows everything or other ideas aren’t worth one’s time. A skeptic is not a cynic. It is a skeptic’s view that highly implausible claims deserves less time than the plausible, though. Skeptics require evidence for any claim, taking nothing at face value. Every claim needs to prove itself so that those analyzing the claim can make sure it is accurate and therefore a worthwhile idea to hold. Skeptics hold that evidence and plausibility are not too much to ask, and are the best ways to evaluate claims.

The Human Mind/Brain is Imperfect

Humans are by nature imperfect, and therefore have imperfect brains/minds. It is human nature to try to fit new information to preconceived notions, which can damage the ability to truthfully evaluate claims. “Memory focuses on the meaning and then alters the details to fit,” explains clinical academic neurologist Steven Novella in the April 5, 2007 NeuroLogica Blog post “The Foibles of Human Memory.” Skepticism gives tools anyone can use to know that one’s ideas, beliefs, worldviews, etc. are based on reality and not simply what one wants to believe. It is easy to fall into the trap of denying reality when it doesn’t fit prior beliefs or, as Dr. Novella explains, what a person’s memory thinks is important.

Prior Plausibility

Prior plausibility is known as the cliché, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” It requires the strength of evidence to be directly proportional to the evidence that already exists. To determine prior plausibility a skeptic looks at the best, strongest current evidence. Does the new claim fit in with such evidence? If it does, then it is plausible, and although this doesn’t by itself make the claim true, it has a greater possibility of being accurate. Since it fits with the current body of knowledge, evidence does not need to be as strong.

On the other hand, does the claim drastically disagree with the current body of evidence? If so, the prior plausibility is much lower. As it is in extraordinary disagreement with the majority of the current evidence, the claim requires extraordinary evidence. Many claims fall somewhere in between, and the strength of evidence needed goes up or down proportional to the plausibility.

Why Skepticism is Important

This is only a basic overview of a few important aspects of skepticism, but it gives a budding skeptic a place to start learning how to be a skeptical critical thinker. Human conceptual abilities are very good, but far from perfect. Skeptics believe that understanding the limitations and how to turn subjectivity into objectivity is the only and best way to come as close as possible to objective truth.

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