Scipsy

Pseudoscience is a morphing monster of undue credulity; an “unsinkable rubber duck,” as some skeptics have called it. The reality is that we will always be burdened with the irrational and the unscientific. Believing in weird things isn’t unnatural; rather it is an extension of a highly adapted mind. But to move accurately through today’s world, a healthy scientific skepticism is warranted. With New Age beliefs making a resurgence, the anti-vaccination movement gaining strength, creationist bills passing US state legislatures, promises of personal genomics spawning new and dubious treatments, and health gurus sprinkling the word “quantum” on everything like an over-used spice, skepticism should be, now more than ever, a liberally applied tool. For the critical thinker, discovering and understanding our cognitive foundations is tantamount to a new beginning, a fresh way to look at the world. Learning how to think about thinking, learning how to navigate the perils of human cognition, is the way through.
Skepticism And The Second Enlightenment

Mystery, as such, is no bad thing. Pointing out mysteries can be a valuable exercise—firing up our curiosity and getting us to engage our intellects. Nor is there anything wrong with acknowledging that some things may forever remain a mystery, and might even be in principle unknowable.
Sometimes it’s also reasonable, when faced with a problem case for an otherwise well-established theory, to put it down as a mysterious anomaly. If on countless occasions an experiment has confirmed water boils at 100 degrees C, the fact that on one occasion it appeared not to may quite reasonably be put down to some unknown factor. If we can’t discover what went wrong, it can be reasonable to just shrug and move on—putting the freak result down to some mysterious problem with the set up (a faulty thermometer, perhaps).
It’s also often reasonable, when we have a theory that works but we don’t fully understand why it works, to say, “Why this happens remains, for the moment, a mystery. But we know it does.” We might have strong evidence that smoking causes cancer, say, long before we understand why it does so.
So the appeal to mystery has its proper place, even in science. What I object to is the way in which the appeal to mystery is increasingly relied on to deal with what would otherwise appear to be powerful evidence or arguments against certain beliefs, particularly beliefs in the supernatural. Whenever mystery is erected as a barrier to rational inquiry, a barrier that says, “You scientists and philosophers may come this far armed with the power of reason, but no further—turn back now!” we should be concerned, particularly if no good reason is given for supposing science and reason cannot, in fact, take us further. The more we appeal to mystery to get ourselves out of intellectual trouble—the more we use it as a carpet under which to sweep inconvenient facts or discoveries—the more vulnerable we become to deceit: deceit by both others and by ourselves.
↳ Stephen Law - Believing Bullshit

This is the dilemma we face: in order to counter nonsense, we are doomed to be ever seen as dismissive critics of people’s beliefs. In this view, to me it is not a coincidence that people have this conception of us. Because there is orders of magnitude more pseudoscience than science out there, we are always too busy shooting down the junk to do much else. It is imperative that we continue to do this, but if we want people to understand the full range of skepticism we have to also stress the affirmatives. We need to live up to the charge of promoting science and critical thinking. In my observations, this is accomplished primarily within the skeptical community, and any outside exposure that we choose to endorse or create is mainly “debunking.” Don’t misunderstand me, debunking is a worthy cause and someone has to do it, but I want this movement to be positive. We need to be actually thought of as positive by the public, no matter what we may tell ourselves. This is my call to the skeptical community: we need to get into the habit of promoting good science, critical thinking skills, and good causes in equal amounts with debunking (or at least more than we do now).
↳ Kyle Hill explains how as a skeptic he’s faced with the “Debunker’s Dilemma”: seen that there’s a lot more misinformation and pseudoscience than science, it could appear that skeptic positions are always negative. He says that because of this “to the public a skeptic equals a cynic”. He urges skeptics to do The Opposite of Debunking. Skeptics need to show their passion about science and rationality and to promote scientific inquiry and critical thinking skills.

For me I think the history of the World that is arrived to this point where I can speak and it can be watched by people in all kinds of ways and all kinds of devices and it can stay for eternity resting on servers who knows where the whole things, it all comes from inquiry, it all comes from open inquiry, and the word really is “empiricism” which is a strange word, but what it means is testing things. You don’t take anything on trust. You test it out. If a book says: “You shall have no foreskin,” or “You must not eat shellfish,” you can choose to say: “This is the Word of the Divine Being,” if you like. It doesn’t really get you very much forward, but it can connect you to the history and your people. I’m not here to disrespect that. […] But for the rest, I need to know why is that, why somebody’s telling me what is the case. I need to question it and to test it. Authority comes from the validity of information, being repeatable, being open, being free, and not coming with a threat, and not being just told: “This is the case, and you must believe it or you die.”
↳ Stephen Fry - What I wish I’d known when I was 18 [16:59 ->18:36]

Science is occasionally accused of being a closed- minded or stubborn enterprise. Often people make such accusations when they see scientists swiftly discount astrology, the paranormal, Sasquatch sightings, and other areas of human interest that routinely fail double-blind tests or that possess a dearth of reliable evidence. But don’t be offended. Scientists apply this same level of skepticism to ordinary claims in the professional research journals. The standards are identical. […]
With scientists exhibiting such strong levels of skepticism, some people may be surprised to learn that scientists heap their largest rewards and praises upon those who do, in fact, discover flaws in established paradigms. These same rewards also go to those who create new ways to understand the universe. Nearly all famous scientists, pick your favorite one, have been so praised in their own lifetimes. This path to success in one’s professional career is antithetical to almost every other human establishment

Neil deGrasse Tyson - Death by Black Hole and other cosmic quandaries.

In fact, the more what I’m reading is closer to my field of expertise, the more my skepticism grows.


Skepticism is a component of critical thinking, a practice and set of acquired skills important in maintaining proper mental and intellectual hygiene. It’s an evolving skill set that needs near-constant refinement, a continuing education necessary especially now that 1) the sources of information whose credibility we must gauge are orders of magnitude more numerous than they were twenty years ago and 2) those sources of information include far more numerous interests and perspectives with the potential to confound, or at least nuance, the usefulness of the information they convey.
Chris Clarke

From creationists who deny the veracity of evolution to climate deniers who hold global warming is a hoax, there is vocal minority out there who see scientific activity as buffet of ideas. They believe they are free to choose which parts of scientific endeavor to believe and which parts to reject. But, in truth, their actions belie their words. Living in a culture saturated with science, they routinely accept its authority on matters of life and death. Only when the consequences of science appear remote are they willing to take their politically charged stands against mountains of evidence and decades of effort. […]


“Corruption” they say, “It’s all corruption.”
In their worldview the scientists are in it for the money or the fame or the power. Scientists are overstating the case. They are ignoring other evidence. The science itself is not just wrong, it’s purposely wrong and designed only to fool the general public. How does that sentiment line up with their every day dependence on science for the miracles of modern life? […] science deniers talk one game and play another. […]

Science Deniers: Hand Over Your Cellphones!

Be skeptical. Ask questions. Demand proof. Demand evidence. Don’t take anything for granted
The danger of science denial.

Souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspirators, and all manner of invisible agents with power and intention are believed to haunt our world and control our lives. Why?

[…] “patternicity,” […] the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.
Consider the face on Mars, the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich, satanic messages in rock music. Of course, some patterns are real. Finding predictive patterns in changing weather, fruiting trees, migrating prey animals and hungry predators was central to the survival of Paleolithic hominids.

The problem is that we did not evolve a baloney-detection device in our brains to discriminate between true and false patterns. So we make two types of errors: a type I error, or false positive, is believing a pattern is real when it is not; a type II error, or false negative, is not believing a pattern is real when it is. If you believe that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is just the wind (a type I error), you are more likely to survive than if you believe that the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator (a type II error). Because the cost of making a type I error is less than the cost of making a type II error and because there is no time for careful deliberation between patternicities in the split-second world of predator-prey interactions, natural selection would have favored those animals most likely to assume that all patterns are real.

But we do something other animals do not do. As large-brained hominids with a developed cortex and a theory of mind—the capacity to be aware of such mental states as desires and intentions in both ourselves and others—we infer agency behind the patterns we observe in a practice I call “agent­icity”: the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents. We believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down (as opposed to bottom-up causal randomness). Together patternicity and agent­icity form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New Age spiritualisms.

Agenticity carries us far beyond the spirit world. The Intelligent Designer is said to be an invisible agent who created life from the top down. Aliens are often portrayed as powerful beings coming down from on high to warn us of our impending self-destruction. Conspiracy theories predictably include hidden agents at work behind the scenes, puppet masters pulling political and economic strings as we dance to the tune of the Bilderbergers, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers or the Illuminati. […]

Why People Believe Invisible Agents Control the World: Scientific American

I do not mean capitulating to misconceptions but rather finding a seductive way to demonstrate to people that these are indeed misconceptions. Let me give you one example. I have, on occasion, debated both creationists and alien abduction zealots. Both groups have similar misconceptions about the nature of explanation: they feel that unless you understand everything, you understand nothing. In debates, they pick some obscure claim, say, that in 1962 some set of people in Outer Mongolia all saw a flying saucer hovering above a church. Then they ask if I am familiar with this particular episode, and if I say no, they invariably say, “If you have not studied every such episode, then you cannot argue that alien abduction is unlikely to be happening.”
I have found that I can get each group to think about what they are saying by using the other group as a foil. Namely, of the creationists I ask, “Do you believe in flying saucers?” They inevitably say “no.” Then I ask, “Why? Have you studied all of the claims?” Similarly, to the alien abduction people I ask, “Do you be- lieve in Young Earth Creationism?” and they say “no,” wanting to appear scientific. Then I ask, “Why? Have you studied every single counterclaim?” The point I try to make for each group is that it is quite sensible to base theoretical expectations on a huge quantity of existing evidence, without having studied absolutely every single obscure counterclaim. This “teaching” technique has worked in most cases, except those rare times when it has turned out that I was debating an alien abduction believer who was also a creationist!
↳ Lawrence M. Krauss in ‘Should science speack to faith?’ by Lawrence M. Krauss & Richard Dawkins.