What is Scientific Skepticism?

I’ve been a scientific skeptic for over nine months now, and I’ve discovered that most people don’t really know what this means. So, I’m going to attempt to explain it.

You can boil down the concept of scientific skepticism down to one single concept: we know things based on empirical evidence. But what does that mean? It means that the only evidence acceptable in support of something is that evidence that is available to everyone and can be verified by anyone.

When looking at the phrase ’scientific skepticism’ it’s important to focus on the first word. A scientific skeptic uses science and the scientific method to verify or discover new evidence.

There are many famous scientific skeptics you probably already know about. Here is a short list: Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, James Randi, Penn & Teller, and even the Mythbusters crew.

Using the scientific method, there are several things already know. We understand the effects of gravity (but are still working on how it works), the concepts of thermal-dynamics, the workings of the atom, evolutionary biology.

The things that there isn’t empirical evidence for are the things that the skeptic rejects. Examples of these things include: homeopathy, psychic readings, telepathy, and faith healing.

Sometimes the question arises about things everyone feels that they know, but we don’t really have evidence for. There is a scene in the movie, Contact, that illustrates this. The main character is asked to ‘prove’ that she loved her father. The point is that this was something she knew was true, but couldn’t really prove.

But is this a proper application of the skeptic epistemology?

There are several ways I’ve approached this problem. The first goes something like this. Personally, she has a lot of evidence for the fact that she loves her father. She has no problem knowing beyond all doubt that it is a simple fact. However, getting proof to this fact demonstrable and verifiable to a third person would be a bit more difficult. Some say that it would be possible for her to be hooked up to an MRI or EEG machine and readings of her brain to be taken. Or perhaps measurements of her body chemistry and how it reacts to thoughts of her father. In the end, however, there is an important thing to note that makes all of this rather pointless. She’s not trying to get other people to believe that she loved her father. It doesn’t really matter what anyone else believes. If she were to take on the task of trying to get other people to believe, perhaps then it would be necessary to provide such evidence.

When approaching a new idea, a skeptic will take a neutral stance and then look at the evidence. If the evidence contradicts the idea, then the idea is wrong, or incomplete. If the evidence is not enough to render a judgement either way, the skeptic will withhold judgement. This is an extremely important point. Skeptics are more tied to the method of knowledge discovery than to the knowledge itself. If contradictory evidence appears, the original idea is discarded and the search for a new one begins, one that fits with the evidence. Sometimes such new ideas are easily located, others may forever be out of our reach.