And it seems that just a single post later, I'm again continuing a series I'd thought finished. Well, events just made it appropriate. I was actually planning for this to be a stand-alone post at first, but when I realized it worked perfectly as the third part to this series, I figured, "Why not?" (Yes, again.)
If you haven't, I highly recommend you read the first two posts in this series (particularly the second, in which I mathematically disprove faith. Seriously):
Part 1 - "The Dark Room"
Part 2 - "The Uncertainty Proof"
Part 3 - "The Method Behind the Lack of Madness"
Recently, Skeptico got into a debate with some anti-New-Agers who happened to believe in acupuncture. The basic chain of events you should check out is:
1. The original post by Cosmic Connie
2. Skeptico's complaint of censorship and reply
3. RevRon's critique of skeptics
4. Rockstar Ryan's big "Screw you, too!" to Ron
To sum it up: Cosmic Connie made a post criticizing Gregg Braden and his publicity for his new book, The Divine Matrix. Skeptico stepped in to compliment her for it. After a few rounds of polite discussion of subjects such as "Is it more appropriate to call them 'Newage' (rhymes with 'sewage') or 'New Wage'?" a commenter who had browsed Skeptico's blog took issue with his critique of acupuncture.
From there, it turned into a full-scale debate on the merits of and scientific basis for acupuncture, with Skeptico facing off against Connie, this commenter, and Connie's beau, Ron. Reading through the debate, it didn't seem to really be all that heated or rude, just Skeptico doing his thing. There was mounting frustration on both sides, though (and it seems to me that Ron was the first to get rude). And then after one post by Ron, the thread stopped.
The discussion then continued on Skeptico's blog. Skeptico explained that he had sent in another comment to the discussion which tore apart Ron's last comment, but Connie had refused to post it. She claimed that it was an attack on Ron and that the debate had turned into a "pissing contest" which she didn't want to have on her blog.
Now, I'll interject with my own opinion on the matter here: If you don't want to have heated debates on your blog, that's alright. But don't let it go on for a while and then cut it off after your side gets the last word; that's just poor form. If you do feel the need to cut it off at a certain point, then maybe you should point to some other place it would be appropriate to hold it (the JREF Forums are always a good choice for stuff like this), and leave a comment at the end that the debate continues there.
The debate then did continue over at Skeptico's blog, and there was now a debate about the debate (which reminds me of the US Congress's recent idiocy when they held a vote on whether or not to hold a vote, but I digress). Ron made not one, but two posts which said they would be his lasts words on the matter. And then after that, he made a big post on his blog criticizing skeptics. This particular post is the subject of this entry here, so I highly recommend you read it before continuing.
What is a skeptic?
Skeptics nowadays suffer from a poor public image, though it's not for lack of trying (and it is improving, we just haven't gotten the label to stick in the public's mind yet). When the average person thinks of a skeptic, it's generally what we call the "Hollywood Skeptic" they think about. This is the person you see in the average monster movie who denies the monster exists right up until he's eaten by it. From this, the public develops an image of the skeptic of being an irrational denier.
This is quite similar to Ron's view of skeptics. He sees us as being like intellectual cliques from high school. These were people he saw who "emerged from the Science or Philosophy Clubs" and would "gather to reaffirm their uniqueness in a culture which demanded a conformity and social finesse they somehow lacked." As he says:
These self-proclaimed intelligentsia were admittedly interesting to talk to, until they began their cerebral wagon-circling, bemoaning the inferiority of those outside their circle. At that point, they became pretty toxic and frankly, boring, and those of us who merely visited on their periphery would inevitably wander off in search of more positive interactions, leaving the kids (typically labeled losers or weirdos) to their cerebral circle jerk.
I’d frankly forgotten about these kids, having long ago discovered that actually living a life was more rewarding than sitting on the outside taking shots at it, and that a sense of wonder was more enriching than pessimistic disenchantment. The other day, however, I discovered that the kids are still around, and just as alienated as ever. Only now, they call themselves skeptics or critical or rational thinkers.
To sum up his beliefs about skeptics:
- We're clique-ish. That is, we won't let anyone in who doesn't conform to everything we do and believe.
- We're stuck-up and egotistical.
- We're rude to outsiders.
- We're boring.
- We're negative.
- We have no sense of wonder.
- We don't actually live life; we just take potshots at it.
But this isn't what a skeptic is at all. If you want to get an idea of what real skeptics are like, head on over to Google Videos and watch an episode of Mythbusters. Yes, they're skeptics. Other things to note:
- They aren't clique-ish.
- They aren't stuck-up or egotistical.
- They aren't rude.
- They aren't boring.
- They aren't negative.
- They have senses of wonder.
- They do indeed have - and enjoy - their own lives
This is what differentiates skepticism from most belief systems: We don't have beliefs, we have methods. We use methods such as the Scientific Method, logic, and Occam's Razor in order to determine what indeed is real. The reason skeptics tend to be uniformly against fields such as acupuncture is because these methods have revealed them to not actually work (or to work no better than a placebo).
The Scientific Method
I can anticipate the objections to this already: "But science doesn't know everything! Science was wrong in the past! Science doesn't apply to this! Now you're just being dogmatic about your method!" As you can see from the links, all of this has been said and addressed many times before. Nevertheless, I'll take some time to address it myself (I know there are a few trolls who refuse to click on links which may lead them to information or arguments they won't like).
The key point here is that science has proven itself to be the best method we have at discovering reality. A simple look at human history will reveal this to you: From the dawn of civilization until the early 17th century, humanity's understanding of the world remained in a rather stagnant state. There were advances here and there, but they were mostly through luck. The would-be-inquiring minds of the day were stuck in the old method of "Here's what we believe; how do we prove it?"
It was then that things turned around, thanks in large part to one relentlessly skeptical mind: Galileo Galilei (one of the few non-royal people to be so famous they're known by their first name). Galileo realized that reality was best determined by asking it questions. That is, he came up with an unknown about the universe, and then conducted an experiment. The experiment was designed so that its result would be self-evident from the data, and that either result would be theoretically possible. In retrospect, in seems obvious, but it was a critical step towards our understanding of the universe.
Galileo was shortly joined by the greats Francis Bacon and René Descartes, who supported and refined the scientific method. From there, things just exploded. Our knowledge of the world went into a hyper-exponential climb, and it was science that led to every great breakthrough. In that time, no other method led to a single significant breakthrough. It was science all the way. Is it any wonder we use it now to determine reality?
But even with all that, we aren't close-minded about it. If there's a method of determining reality better than science, I'd genuinely like to hear about it. But be warned, you're going to have a hard road ahead of you. You'll first have to describe it (something a lot of people actually fail to do), then you'll have to describe how it's better than science, and then you'll have to show that it's better than science. Frankly, I don't think anyone will be able to do it (refining the scientific method, on the other hand, is quite possible), but I'll admit it's a possibility.
Clearing the Skies
There's one last criticism of skeptics I'd like to address: That we only try to shoot things down and never try to expand our knowledge of the world. First of all, this simply isn't true for me. Personally, I'm actively engaged in trying to expand our understanding of the world, working on a research project that has to do with designing photonic crystal waveguides for use with quantum computing and quantum cryptography. I know most of you probably won't have any idea what I was talking about there, but I in fact wrote it to illustrate exactly that point: Modern science is hard, and is far beyond the understanding of most people. This is why you don't see every Average Joe on the street contributing to the expansion of human knowledge.
Skepticism, on the other hand, is a fair bit easier. In order to be a good skeptic, one really only needs a good understanding of logic, the scientific method, and common fallacies. With just this, you'd be surprised how much pseudoscience you can take down. A moderate or advanced understanding of science helps as well, but it's far from critical.
But just because skepticism is easier and involves shooting down ideas doesn't mean it's inherently bad or worthless. Take a look at the way the modern world works: We just don't have room for everything. When it comes to scientific pursuits, there's limited funding available. If money is spend researching claims that are obviously bogus, less of it is available to be spent on pursuits that would actually be beneficial. On the more human side, what happens when people choose a bogus medical treatment over a scientifically-established one? In the worst case, they can die from it (okay, the worst is actually when they take others with them. That's actually happened a few times). And when pseudoscience and mythology lead people into a religion, which leads them into a religious war, the value of realism becomes very apparent.