A Plea for Skepticism

July 28, 2009

Recently I had the honor and pleasure of speaking to the assembled Convocation of student leadership at the Center for Inquiry headquarters last month. I began my talk where it all begins: rational skepticism. I pointed out the merits of a filtered mind, a mind that might separate truth from fantasy. Skepticism is hardly just negativism or close-mindedness -- quite the opposite! Reasoned skepticism is at the heart of what we teach: gather lots of firm evidence; note patterns; tentatively propose many explanations; reject mysteries and contradictions; skeptically test any conclusions; and revise or reject bad hypotheses.

Science would be nothing without careful skepticism. There's too much loose talk about science proving theories. Actually, scientists spend most of their time trying to experimentally prove hypotheses false, especially their own hypotheses. Inability to prove one's hypotheses false after many kinds of trials against all available evidence, and getting confirmation of such trials by other researchers, is actually the path to reasonably establishing a hypothesis. Every established scientific theory is simply one that fits available evidence and no one has yet figured out how to empirically disprove it. Another prominent example of rational skepticism is criticism of claims of the paranormal, calling for the exemplary application of inquiry's skeptical methods. As a practical way to educate the public about reason and scientific method, skeptical investigation of paranormal claims has proven its steady value.

The naturalistic worldview would be nothing without skepticism. Besides its foundations on good science, naturalism follows from the skeptical rejection of the paranormal and supernaturalism. With rival definitions of atheism now flourishing, I regard skepticism as the simplest broad category for including all disbelievers. You may prefer the label of "agnostic" while others are content with "atheist", but we are all skeptics towards the supernatural and paranormal. Let's make our stand on what's important here. Criticizing religious belief is regarded by some as a failure of due respect and civility. I disagree. Trying to silence criticism of religious belief is disrespectful towards the free and open mind. 

Our political democracy would be nothing without skepticism. Unless citizens have the capacity and empowerment to critically judge policy and politicians, mere voting means nothing. A public sphere energized by careful argument and debating, so different from just a cacophany of frenetic shouting, is the thin line separating democracy from mob rule. Only citizens capable of skeptical evaluation of public issues deserve democracy.

We must defend and apply rational skepticism with all our strength. Nothing else we fight for makes sense without sound skepticism.


#1 Teamonger on Sunday August 09, 2009 at 4:38pm

Well said John.  Hey, I have an idea to promote rational skepticism, and this looks like a good place to post it…

As we’re all aware by now, the year 2012 is being pushed as the latest “doomsday” prediction, and is getting more attention than other recent years did.  One can only hope that, after 2013 is here, there will be an end to the silliness for awhile at least. 

My idea: I think rationalist groups ought to declare right now that 2013 will be “The Year of Rationalism”.  Seems to me like a good way to make some hay on the (hopefully) failed prediction


Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.