"As far as I'm concerned, such a thing doesn't exist and I don't want to learn different." - Pete Crenshaw, 'The Three Investigators'
Sceptical not "Skeptics"
The goal of the Drilling for Truth project is to encourage people to be sceptical - to understand that even science can never give us a conclusive "proof" of what is true or false in the real world of our everday experience. When making real world decisions about our lives, we have to balance the available evidence, and eliminate as many fallacies in our thinking process as possible, almost always with a deadline. In these situations abstract "proofs" are almost always useless, and vague claims that "scientists have proven/ disproven" something are worse than useless; at best delusions, at worst manipulative lies. The words "prove" and "disprove" are meaningless outside of abstract systems like formal logic, and mathematics; self-consistent intellectual tools which ultimately rest on unprovable assumptions (like 1=1).
Who are the Skeptics?
Confusion about what it means to be sceptical arises because of a range of people and groups who call themselves "Skeptics". My view of the "skepticism" movement is summed a pretty well by an essay called 'Why I am No Longer a Skeptic', by Stephen Bond. Unlike the truly sceptical, many Skeptics come across as true believers in the infallibility of science, scientists, new technology, and industrial society in general. Despite these ideological blinders, some are probably genuine in their stated desire to bust myths and unmask fraudsters. Others are employed by corporations to seed the public with FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) around controversial issues, and erode the credibility of anyone whose free speech threatens their bosses, reputation, power and profits. They use rhetoric, smears, and SLAPP legal actions like the case by Quackwatch's Stephen Barrett, which tie people up in court for months or years. Their articles, podcasts, and videos are sprinkled with logical fallacies:
- ad hominem personal attacks: giving the impression that anyone who disagrees with them is either ignorant, deluded, anti-science, a lier, or a fraudster, often using arrogant and viscious language (see Peter Bowditch's comments about anti-vaccinationists), undermining people's confidence in their ability to be sceptical - to balance the evidence and come to a reasonable conclusion - if their conclusion differs from that of the Skeptic.
- confirmation bias: like the activists and campaigners they attack, they cherry-pick evidence that suits their political and ideological beliefs, while ignoring or glossing over counter-evidence by labeling any theory or research that conflicts with their beliefs as 'pseudoscience', 'denialism', or 'quackery'. Basically, any science that supports the "wrong" conclusions is pseudoscience, and anyone who expresses those conclusions in public debate is a denialist, or a quack.
- reductio ad absurdum: mocking people's beliefs or theories by stretching them into rediculous caricatures, then claiming the rediculousness of the caricature proves the belief or theory is useless. As an example, the mock religion of "Pastafarianism", and it's deity the "Flying Spaghetti Monster", are often held up by Skeptics as a 'proof' that belief in Intelligent Design (ID), or indeed any form of spirituality is crazy ( ID is as questionable as a branch of science as Global Warming Skepticism (GWS), but sci-fi author David Brin is kind enough to admit that such "blows do not land on-target", and that the idea of 'guided evolution' is perfectly compatible both with beliefs about a spiritual realm, and the incomplete evidence for evolution by random mutation and natural selection).
- argument from ignorance: they claim that the lack of evidence (that meets their standards) is "proof" that a given claim is false, even though there may be other reasons for the lack of evidence. For example, if all evidence not taken from peer-reviewed studies is rejected, then the Skeptic can claim a lack of evidence, even though there may be plenty of evidence that has yet to be included in a peer-reviewed study. One Skeptic even makes the rediculous claim that "absence of evidence is evidence of absence", on the basis that the probability of a claim being true decreases as time passes, as long as no admissible evidence for a claim is produced. On that basis, the people of Pompeii could have argued that the lack of eruptions of Mt Vesuvius was evidence it would never erupt. The flaw in such thinking when applied to real world decision-making is obvious.
Are all Skeptics Such Bad Apples?
There are people who use label 'Skeptic' who are not fundamentalist atheists, or corporate attack-dogs, such as the New Zealand Skeptics group. A quick skim of the NZ Skeptics submission on the regulation of "natural health" products (warning: submission is .doc file!) shows a balanced concern for the well-being of customers, and a willingness to accept that even though some "alternative" and "complementary" healing modalities may be misguided or even fraudulent, some are backed by sound evidence, and others may be in the future as more research is published.The NZ Skeptics do not demonstrate the vitriolic language and the black/white thinking of the self-described Skeptics described above; who for decades have been fighting an intellectual rearguard action against social justice and environmental movements, on behalf of entrenched interests (mainly corporate-state, but also more parochial ones). More balanced commentators are more likely to give you useful information rather than confusing or misleading propaganda. One way to tell them apart is to use (and contribute to) the the wikiwebs of Sourcewatch, PowerBase, and our own Who Said It (see Online Research Aids ), intended as useful guides to the background and biases of any people and organisations making or debunking controversial claims. As with every source, read them critically, cross-reference broadly, and come to your own conclusions.
When people use disinformation or "Troll" tactics like these, take everything they say with a grain of salt. Ask them for their sources, and check them out. Cross-reference every piece of evidence you can find. Come to your own conclusions. Share your assessments with others, along with your sources. Debate respectfully. Other than just burying your head in the sand, and believing whatever you see on the TV news, the only way to stay sane in a world full of self-interest liars is to question everything, and trust your own conclusions - *until someone can show you a flaw in your reasoning*, or present you with new evidence. Good luck!