That sometimes gray area between skepticism and atheism revealed itself at our last monthly meeting, held this past Wednesday at the Irish Embassy. The meeting began with a question by Member Clayton about governmental involvement in child rearing- what do we consider acceptable or unacceptable and soon digressed into a discussion on childhood vaccinations and homeopathy, among other subjects.
Those two issues stuck in my mind and here’s why: There were some who seemed to be in the “anti-vaccines” camp. Additionally, a few vocalized support for homeopathy. At the risk of offending some of our members, I have to admit that this was a bit of a surprise for me. Yes, we are atheists but we are also skeptics. That encompasses the utilization of evidence-based beliefs, no?
But where does one get that evidence and what is good evidence versus bad evidence? I have no doubt that those, for example, who support homeopathy believe they have good evidence for doing so. I think it is at this junction, where we hold non-religious yet fallacious beliefs, where we begin to see just how powerfully persuasive our emotions and humanness can sometimes be.
I will use myself as an example: Before I considered myself a “skeptic”, I held an assortment of beliefs which could best be categorized under “new age”. I believed in the power of crystals, that reincarnation and auras existed, astrology and psychics were real.
Then I read a book by Carl Sagan entitled “The Demon-Haunted World“.
In the book, Mr Sagan attacked many of those new age beliefs that I held so dear. My fist reaction was defensiveness and anger and then dismissal of his words. Then, about a week later, I picked up the book again. I read about the lack of good evidence supporting these beliefs but more importantly, for the first time, I asked myself why I believed in these things. Sure, I wanted to believe them and stuff like reincarnation and healing stones sounded really cool! But what other reasons, besides anecdotal evidence and my own emotional desires for it to be true did I have? Ultimately, I concluded that I had no valid reasons for believing in these things. So, I let them go.
I think asking yourself “why do I believe X ?” is the first step in examining potentially erroneous beliefs. One’s own personal experience, though perhaps compelling, does not equate to substantive evidence. Not in god claims or any other claims as well. It is sometimes difficult to let go of beliefs we may be attached to on an emotional level. But as humans subject to a range of potential biases, it is important to continue questioning. I think Sharon Hill from Doubtful News puts it well:
“People routinely fool themselves and are fooled by others. This is most commonly seen in our over-reliance on our senses and memory – for example, “I know what I saw,” or “I remember it like it was yesterday.” Skeptics are wary of eyewitness testimony because observation is fallible and memory is malleable. Stories of events, even from trustworthy people, make for very poor evidence on their own. Even collectively, anecdotes don’t tell us much about the validity of the claim. Skeptics also understand that people tend to look for, remember and favor the evidence that supports their preferred conclusion.”
So, how else should we examine claims? James Lett, in a CSI blog entry, lays out the following criteria in reference to paranormal claims. I think it works for other claims as well:
- Falsifiability- what evidence would prove the claim as false?
- Logic- any argument offered as evidence in support of any claim must be sound.
- Comprehensiveness- evidence offered must be exhaustive- that is all available evidence must be considered.
- Honesty- evidence offered must be evaluated without self-deception ( this one was addressed above).
- Replicability- if the evidence is based on experimental results or if the evidence could be logically explained as coincidental, then it is necessary for the evidence to be repeated in subsequent experiments or trials.
- Sufficiency- the evidence offered must be adequate to establish the truth of that claim with the following stipulations: 1). the burden of proof rests on the claimant, 2). extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, 3). evidence based on authoritative and/or testimony is always inadequate for any (paranormal) claim.
I would also like to offer this link here for anyone interested in brushing up on their critical thinking skills-something I think we can all benefit from.
Suggestions, Comments? All are welcome to contribute to this discussion.