Vlog 23: Have We Forgotten What Skepticism Is? | The Body of Evidence

Vlog 23: Have We Forgotten What Skepticism Is?


In light of recent events, self-identified skeptics may need to look back and remember why they call themselves "skeptics" in the first place. What is skepticism? Why do we do it? What are we trying to accomplish?



Hey, this is Jonathan from The Body of Evidence.

Recent drama I witnessed on YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet has led me to ask myself very basic questions. A community of people may sometimes drift away from its mission until its members have forgotten what it was, and their actions have become antithetical to their founding principles. That's why I believe in regularly asking ourselves, "What are we trying to accomplish? What do we believe in and why?" Through self-reflection, we should observe our recent actions and see if they align with our principles.

The type of work that Chris and I do on The Body of Evidence is in keeping with the principles of skepticism, even though one of us does not necessarily self-identify as a skeptic. We think that these guiding principles are essential to separate sense from nonsense, to determine what is likely to be true within biomedical news and to toss away unsubstantiated health claims. And we're not the only ones. There are self-identified skeptics all over the world. There are skeptical organizations, as well as loose communities that exist both in real life and on specific Internet platforms.

Referring to yourself as a skeptic, however, is not sufficient. Actions speak louder than words. Anyone can call themselves a skeptic, but do they behave like one?

I want to remind *myself* of what it means to be a skeptic, because I may otherwise forget, and I hope that this exercise can also benefit anyone who watches it.

Scientific skepticism is about proportioning your belief-how hard you believe that something is true-to the strength of the evidence you are presented. This means that a small claim-like that I ate chicken for dinner-requires little evidence to be believed, but that an extraordinary claim-that my cancer was cured by chanting an old Persian incantation-requires extraordinary evidence to be accepted. And it's also about recognizing that some forms of evidence are better than others, with scientific evidence trumping feelings, instincts, authority, tradition, and anecdotes.

While skeptics are often accused of being close-minded, true skepticism demands an open-mindedness. It means that, instead of being tightly wedded to an ideology, you are truly open to changing your mind in light of better evidence. Not weak evidence, but strong evidence. Extremist thinking is easy: the world is going to hell or everything is awesome. By contrast, skepticism teaches us to navigate the spectrum between credulity and denialism, all the while avoiding cynicism. 

To quote physicist Richard Feynman, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself... and you are the easiest person to fool." Skeptics sometimes forget that. Our brain deceives us every day. Magical illusions confound us, but subtler deceptions distort our reality as well. Cognitive biases, heuristics.... We are drawn to evidence that confirms our pre-conceptions and more easily reject that which goes against our thinking. We notice flaws in others more easily than we notice our own. We suck at estimating probabilities, and our memories are nowhere near as accurate as we think they are.

Moreover, people try to manipulate our thinking with bad arguments: logical fallacies, sophistry, arguments that, at first glance, look solid but really make little sense when analyzed. And we easily make the same bad arguments ourselves when trying to defend our own beliefs.

The very tools that we use to gather information about our health, about politics, about world events, they end up creating a cozy echo chamber around us. YouTube has an autoplay feature that is fed by so-called "Recommended Videos". If I watch one video featuring a famous homeopath, soon I will be watching many more videos featuring this homeopath. Facebook has a similar algorithm that tailors my feed to what I like, not necessarily what I need to see. On Twitter, whom do I follow? People who agree with me? That can turn into another echo chamber. And I don't need to tell you about news channels that are biased one way or another.

All this leads to confirmation bias.  

If I manage to burst out of the inside of this comforting mirror ball and search for information to answer a question I have, I need to avoid cherry picking the info I like and dismissing the one I don't. I need to look at the body of evidence. And I need to ask for primary sources, not second-hand reports. I ask myself, "how do they know what they claim to know?" Epistemology, or how we know what we know, is so important to belief formation, it should always be questioned.

We should be critical of ideas that disagree with us; we should be more critical of ideas that agree with our pre-conceptions. We should not be dishonest. Ask questions, doubt everything.

These principles are not impossible to adopt for yourself, but where the rubber meets the road is in applying them when interacting with people who disagree with you. And when we stop acting like good skeptics-who are open-minded, who want to look at evidence-we start attacking people instead of criticizing ideas, and drama occurs, and thirty-nine different reaction videos are made. Issues become polarized, lines are drawn, tribes assemble, and we are right back to that "us versus them" mentality from which skepticism, when practiced rigorously, should move us away.

There is a core principle to critical thinking that, like regular exercise and proper nutrition, is difficult to enact consistently, and that's the principle of charity. It's tempting to build a weaker version of someone's argument and attack it. That's straw-manning our opponent, but we should steel-man them. We should reinforce their argument when it is poorly worded or shoddily constructed. We should help them make the best argument possible, and then criticize that version of it. It's being charitable. It's not about winning. It's about the two of us trying to find the truth.

And this is only possible if we regularly engage in dialogue with the other side. I have spoken to alternative healers and will continue to do so, even though the scientific evidence disproves their claims. I want to represent them accurately. The more time we spend away from the people we disagree with, the more they'll turn into caricatures in our minds. And at some point, they will simply become dehumanized.

We should strive to be nuanced in our arguments and to avoid being too eagerly dismissive. Reality is usually a lot more complicated than first imagined. That being said, there are instances where skeptics can dismiss arguments out of hand, because they have been heard many times before and have been thoroughly countered.

And while the tone of our opponents can be criticized, we should focus on the core of their arguments. A good refutation is of an argument not of the anger in someone's voice.

Being a good skeptic is a lifestyle. You can't diet your way to critical thinking. It's an aspiration toward which you move every day in big and small ways. And it's extremely hard.

But it's the best way to reliably reach accurate conclusions.

If you identify as a skeptic, is this how you have been behaving as of late?

Self-reflection is how we can correct our course. In the meantime, I will remind myself these principles regularly so that I can continue to tease apart science from pseudoscience, both for myself and for whoever is watching.

I will fail and I will fall. But hopefully, before picking myself up, I will remind myself of the principles I was using to climb higher and why I slipped. And if I don't remember, I'm hoping one of you will show me the way.