At some point in everyone's life, a person should ask themselves, why do I believe what I believe? There are many answers to that question, and everyone the has right to have their own opinion. For myself, I have chosen to try to adhere to the principles of skeptical inquiry.
What does that mean? A skeptic is one who requires evidence before they believe in something. Further, they use the techniques of science to judge the quality of evidence. As a good skeptic realizes that new evidence can be produced at any time, thus beliefs are generally held with some level of confidence. Instead of ideas being simply true or false, there is a continuum from likely true (global warming) to likely false (9/11 was in inside job). As the evidence changes, so to will the confidence in the belief. Over time, some ideas are so well established that they are generally accepted to be true (evolution). It would require a significant amount of new evidence to change these ideas.
When I am presented with a new idea, I try to apply following the following steps
- Initial disbelief. Ideas need to be proven true, I don't accept new ideas without some level of evidence.
- Prior plausibility. Given my understanding of the scientific explanation of reality, does this new idea make sense? It if seems to violate the standard scientific world view, it will require significantly more evidence to gain credibility. If it does seem to conform to the scientific explanation, then it will require less.
- Evaluate the evidence. Find as much evidence as is reasonable for both sides of the idea. See if there is a consenus opinion on the idea. Usually when presented with a new idea, there will also be a new evidence. How does the new evidence fit into the existing body of evidence? How reliable is the new evidence? A hunter claiming to see a hairy creature in the woods is not going to convince me that Bigfoot exists. A corpse that has been analysed by multiple independant experts and has unique DNA probably would.
- Given the results of 3 assign the idea a value somewhere between 0 (untrue) and 1 (true). Ideas with low values are generally believed to be unlikely, high values are generally considered to be likely and ideas near 0.5 are a big old maybe. Be ok with the uncertainty.
- Over time new evidence will come out. Re-evaulate the idea and change its value. Maybe it is a little more likely, maybe a little less. However always consider the new evidence as an element in the whole body of evidence. Rarely will a single study signifcantly change my opinion.
Why would I want to go through all this? Basically, life is too short to believe in bullshit. Why would I want to go around believing in things without some confidence that those ideas are correct? How much time (and money) are people wasting on homeopaths? Psychics and mediums? Hunting for Bigfoot or fishing for Nessie? The only reliable way to evaluate these ideas is by applying the lessons of science and skepticism.
In future posts I plan on discussing in more depth the details of the the skeptical approach to life.
In the mean time here are my current favourite skeptic blogs:
- Science Based Medicine: A skeptical look at medicine, mostly focusing on alternative therpies
- Skepchick: General skepticism with female focus.
- Skepticblog: General skepticism from some super star skeptics.
- NeuroLogica: General skepticism with a focus on the brain.
- Skeptic North: An Canadian skeptic collective.
- Pharyngula: Mostly religious and science skepticism