by J. Lantern

The London Skeptics blog has sat idle and neglected for many months now; I hope to rectify that. To that end, this is my inaugural post, once removed. Though the London Skeptics group generally tackles issues important to the skeptic community (religion, pseudoscience, alternative medicine and other quackery, etc.), and I certainly plan to post many entries discussing these topics, I won’t necessarily hold to these constraints. Basically, I plan to talk about whatever is stuck in my craw on a weekly to biweekly basis.

Comments are welcome, but polemics and ad hominem are not. There’s a place for that: reddit. Although I don’t plan to set draconian standards for comments, I would like to keep it clean and free of insults. Criticism is fine, but I don’t suffer pedants kindly. Trolls will be ruthlessly slain, figuratively speaking. Finally, make sure your comments don’t look anything like spam, or they won’t survive review! You’ve been warned.

Finally, a word about the title: “A Lantern in the Dark”. I chose it specifically for its double meaning. Some may find my posts a dim candle in figuratively dark places. Others may think I am stumbling about blindly in a gloomy room, barking my shins on the furniture. Most will probably be somewhere in between. Either way, the title works.

So, let’s begin. I should point out that what follows is just my opinion. Feel free to disagree. You’ll just be wrong 😉

What is a skeptic (or sceptic)? Here’s what my Collins dictionary has to say:

sceptic n 1. a person who habitually doubts generally accepted beliefs.
n 2. a person who doubts the truth of a religion.

This captures an important feature of the kind of skepticism I’m talking about—doubt—but, it doesn’t tell the whole story. This is a little too close to cynic. Skeptics (i.e., capital-S skeptics) practice scientific skepticism. Belief is withheld until adequate evidence has been shown, prompting a change in belief—we may not accept your position at face value, but we’ll try to keep an open mind, and examine the evidence brought to the table. This is what separates Skeptics from conspiracy theorists. Conspiracy theorists and purveyors of pseudoscience frequently describe themselves as “skeptics”, but show them evidence that refutes their positions and they will find some way to justify discounting that evidence. Their minds tend to be closed to new evidence once they’ve bought into the narrative of the conspiracy. At their worst, they will stoop to name-calling (“you’re a shill for Big-X“, “you’ve been brainwashed”, or “you’re one of the sheeple”).

Skeptics, hopefully, counter pseudoscience and conspiracy theories with facts. Do we always succeed in staying on the argumentative high ground? No. Of course not. We’re human too. But, for myself, I strive to keep discussions civil and fact-based, and try to listen carefully to what my challenger is saying. I am skeptical, first and foremost, of my own knowledge. I am keenly aware of my own ignorance, becoming more so as I age. If, as Socrates said, knowing you know nothing is the beginning of wisdom, then I have become very wise indeed. I wish I was 20 again, when I knew everything 😉

So, to create my definition of a Skeptic, I would add to the definition above that while a Skeptic’s default position may be to doubt, they remain open minded to new evidence, regardless of what conclusion that evidence may lead to.

What constitutes good evidence? Hopefully, something we can all agree on. This is the largest rift that seems to exist between my opponents and me. My preference is for objective, scientific observations. Not everyone is so picky. One fraudulent and poorly done study by Andrew Wakefield launched the anti-vaccine movement, with the terrible consequences for those families whose children have contracted easily preventable illnesses.

How does one know good research from bad? That’s a difficult question to answer. Here are a few red flags:

  1. Press conferences before publication. Remember cold fusion? Pons and Fleischmann couldn’t wait to tell the whole world about their brilliantly flawed discovery.
  2. In medical trials, small sample sizes. Trials with a few dozen subjects just aren’t large enough to minimize the statistical chance of a fluke. Look for a low p value.
  3. Grandiose claims. Again, remember cold fusion? It was going to completely revolutionize how power was generated. Sometimes a breakthrough will produce a sea change in society, but, claims ahead of the fact should be met with considerable skepticism. Tim Berners Lee didn’t know what would unfold when he created the basic technology underlying the world wide web.
  4. The research violates established scientific laws. Breakthroughs and paradigm shifts do happen in science, but they tend to enhance established theories, rather than supplanting them. Einstein’s theory of special relativity reduces to Newtonian physics (the older model) under the right conditions. On the other hand, there is no scientific basis for homeopathy.
  5. The claim uses established scientific terminology in novel ways. Think Deepak Chopra and his gratuitous bastardization of the word “quantum”.
  6. It’s being promoted by a celebrity. Bill Maher promotes naturopathy and “skepticism” of vaccines. Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston believe “cupping” promotes health. I could go on…
  7. It was in that ridiculous movie ‘What the Bleep Do We Know’. The moon is still there, even when no one’s looking at it.

This is not an exhaustive list by any standards, and some people may disagree with some of these points. But it may be a helpful start for some people. I don’t claim to be perfectly skeptical in all aspects of my life, but I try to improve every day. No one wakes up one day, decides to be a skeptic, and promptly throws out all of their unsubstantiated beliefs and prejudices. Like most things in life, becoming a Skeptic is a journey, best taken with like-minded people who can help each other over the rough spots. I hope to meet you on my own trek to becoming a better Skeptic.