Exposing PseudoAstronomy

September 26, 2012

What’s a Skeptic?


This short post is meant to be a bit interactive, at least through the comments. The subject is, what is a skeptic?

I use the term to describe myself: I’m a skeptic. Or, perhaps just like the PC term being that someone “has schizophrenia” versus “are schizophrenic,” I am skeptical. I would put forward that a good scientist is skeptical, and that anyone who is a critical thinker is skeptical.

But people like Alex Tsakiris, George Noory, Mike Bara, and others whom scientists would generally term “pseudoscientists” also say that they themselves are skeptical, and that people like me are “close-minded skeptics/debunkers.” Meanwhile, people like Michael Horn claim that “skepticism” is a religion.

I could go through lengthy etymology and modern usage that might make an English major or a language scholar swoon, but no one else, really. Instead, this is how I define the term, and why I think that people such as those whom I term “pseudoscientists” are anything but skeptical:

To be skeptical means to reserve judgement on the veracity of a new claim that is different from what has been previously established. The established idea is effectively the null hypothesis — the idea that will stand if the new one is shown to not have enough supporting evidence. The evidence for the new claim must be evaluated on its own merits, and if valid, it must be weighed against the evidence for the established idea. To be accepted, the new idea must have at least as much evidence for it as the old claim, and it should also explain why the evidence in support of the old claim is faulty and/or be evidence for the new claim just as well. Any idea that’s rejected is always subject to re-analysis upon submission of additional data.

So, for example, if someone makes a claim that — oh, I dunno — there’s a kilometer-sized ziggurat on the Moon, that’s the new claim. The null hypothesis is that there is no ziggurat on the Moon. There are many different lines of argument that support the null hypothesis (no one to build it, no astronaut talking about it, no other photographs showing it), while there is one photo circulating the internet that is the evidence for it. When examining that individual photograph, many anomalies come up that indicate it is more likely than not that the ziggurat in that one image is fake. With doubts as to the authenticity of the single image with the ziggurat, the evidence for it is very small, and it is completely overshadowed by the evidence for the null hypothesis.

Ergo, as someone who is skeptical, I adopt the position that there is no ziggurat, though that position is always subject to revision based on new data.

As another example, one could take astrology. The null hypothesis is that astrology does not work, and there is no known physical mechanism that would allow it to work. Evidence that people have put forward for astrology working is, in sum and substance, anecdotal (“I got a reading and it was accurate!”). In fact, I saw an astrologer recently argue that because more people believe in astrology than any one religion, and since Americans spend $hundreds of millions of dollars on astrology per year, that it’s real. Meanwhile, every large, controlled experiment that has tried to test the validity of astrological predictions has shown a negative result.

Ergo, as someone who is skeptical, I adopt the position that astrology does not make accurate, specific predictions, though that position is always subject to revision based on new data.

As a scientist, I operate the same way. When I write a paper, I have to provide evidence to support my conclusions. If my conclusions contradict previous work, I have to go through the evidence that others have used to support their conclusions and show that it was wrong, wrongly interpreted, and/or can support my conclusions just as well. If I can’t do this, then no one is going to believe me over the established results that do have evidence.

Anyway, these are my musings on the subject. The idea for this post came while listening to yet another pseudoscientist (who shall remain nameless …) claim to a large audience, “Hey, I’m a true skeptic – not like those debunkers – and that’s why I can openly look at the evidence for [paranormal claim] and accept it!”

What are your thoughts? Do you agree, disagree, and why?

32 Comments »

  1. If you want to use the convention that’s been adopted for mental illness and learning disabilities, you would still not use an adjective form; you’d describe yourself as “having skepticism” or “living with skepticism.” You would be called a “person with skepticism” rather than “a skeptic.” But, personally, I’m just a skeptic.

    Comment by skepticalschoolteacher — September 27, 2012 @ 6:14 am | Reply

  2. That accusation of “close-mindedness” is self-evidently ridiculous. The pseudo-scientists (and their disciples) who use it are just as reluctant to concede that their ideas are bunk as the scientists are. More so, I would claim.

    Comment by Expat — September 27, 2012 @ 7:33 am | Reply

  3. I suppose in this context, defining skeptic is similar to defining atheist: there is the dictionary definition, the general public definition, the definition of those who have had negative experiences with atheists, and the definition of the choir. I think a further interesting question, and one which might promote more constructive discussion between all the camps, is not “What is a Skeptic”, but “Why is a Skeptic”.

    Comment by Rick — September 27, 2012 @ 7:43 am | Reply

  4. There is nothing remotely scientific about George Noory & Mike Bara. Noory is a paranormal radio talk show host,with an IQ 10 degrees below whale shit. Bara is a New Age Mumbo Jumbo incubator. When Bara asserts there are miles wide artificial structures & robot head on the Moon, I cannot pretend to be “skeptical”. Let`s just call a cat a cat, Bara`s claims are dysfunctional garbage

    Comment by Tara Jordan — September 27, 2012 @ 3:44 pm | Reply

    • Don’t be shy Tara, you are among friends here – tell us what you really think 🙂

      Comment by Kurious — September 27, 2012 @ 5:02 pm | Reply

      • On Facebook I tried to engage Bara in a respectful,rational & non-emotional manner,but eventually Bara insulted me.At first I thought Bara was just a kook,I was wrong, he is a crooked Guru & a neoplasm of childish inanities

        Comment by Tara Jordan — September 28, 2012 @ 4:36 am

  5. I would advise everyone to use more circumspect language in a blog, to prevent threats of lawsuits being used to intimidate folks into silence. I guess saying a person has skepticism isn’t a bad way to describe one’s position, but then again, as mentioned, some of those who seem to swallow every fable whole are beginning to claim they are skeptical, too (see last paragraph of Dr. Robbins, above).

    Scientists have specific rules how they must present their hypotheses to other scientists, and those rules are very strict. Perhaps we each need to define what we consider the essential points of skepticism, and then present those points at the beginning of any discussion where skeptical tools will likely be used.

    For example, I would have liked to have heard Mike Bara and George Noory present their definitions of what is required to be a skeptic, but neither one did during the interview on C2C. Dr. Robbins was only on the air for a minute or so, so he never really got a chance to fully present his definition, even though he tried to do so.

    By the way, has Coast to Coast been in touch with Dr. Robbins about doing an interview/rebuttal of Mr. Bara’s most recent claims?

    Comment by Rick K. — September 27, 2012 @ 7:31 pm | Reply

    • They have not. I figure I’ll give them a week and then send a follow-up e-mail.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — September 27, 2012 @ 7:36 pm | Reply

      • Stuart,

        I sincerely hope Noory allows you some airtime. Bara was clearly knocked back on his heels when you got through to C2C on the openline. Bara however told Noory (when Noory suggested getting you on) that he wouldn’t listen to the interview should it happen. So don’t hold your breath mate. I cannot see any way that Bara would go 1v1 with you live. And that’s a bloody shame.

        Cheers
        Derek.

        Comment by Derek James Eunson — September 28, 2012 @ 10:48 am

  6. hi All,
    i have to agree with Rick K’s point about defining skepticism (or even scepticism). unlike most of the scientifically minded people that enjoy Stuart’s show, i am merely a philosopher. from my understanding, skepticism (i prefer the K form) in its purest form came from a long, long time ago in a country far, far away (unless you live in or near Greece). Pyrrho is the first person to really put forward, at least to the west, that we have no reason to believe that we can trust our senses to reliably determine truth. in fact, his followers repeatedly had to pull him out of the way of oncoming carts and such, lest he be run over. since then, skepticism has seen a few revisions and refinements.
    in the modern day, skepticism as a way of approaching life has been corrupted. a TRUE skeptic would never forward a theory, idea, or anything. also, no skeptic would say that any claim is true or false.
    if anyone wants to take a look at some of the most hardcore old-school skeptics, look up Sextus Empiricus. if not, wikipedia does a good job.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyrrhonism

    thanks,
    stu

    Comment by Stu Sotozaki-Leech — September 28, 2012 @ 1:32 am | Reply

  7. The most closed minded people I see are believers; I don’t think Youtube is quite the bottom of the barrel socially speaking as some people say, and if you watch a video about UFOs, for example- people can’t seem to grasp the concept of lying, or delusions. They take every crazy claim immediately at face value.

    Comment by DC — September 28, 2012 @ 5:10 am | Reply

  8. I agree and, since i’m in a psycho-analytical mode, are you getting pissed off by being called and dismissed as a de-bunker, therefore not worth listening to ? It’s frustating and bloody annoying. Still keep up the good work.

    Comment by Jan Schipper — September 28, 2012 @ 5:33 am | Reply

  9. For me, the most important points about skepticism (sorry, I’m a stupid American–I spell things weird) are found in Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, along with the essential addendum of willingness to change my mind, should better evidence turn up for a different hypothesis. I was kind of late picking up critical thinking basics, and never was able to codify what little I understood of the process until Dr. Sagan wrote his “Demon Haunted World” book. Since then, I’ve tried following his advice. So far, I haven’t found anyone who wrote it in a better way, so until I see an improved version, I’ll stick with that one. And the adage that Dr. Steven Novella mentioned (probably quoting somebody else), “Keep and open mind, but not so open your brains fall out!”

    Comment by Rick K. — September 28, 2012 @ 2:05 pm | Reply

  10. getting too far into the weeds , semantics is not the point . its like the guy I met at the liquor store that was buying two of the biggest cans of beer, he said his wife only let him drink two beers each night . lets argue about how much the guys drinks not how many containers the quantity he consumed inhabited . metaphorically you know what im saying?

    Comment by Walter Walkie — September 28, 2012 @ 11:31 pm | Reply

  11. Basically, Stuarts definition of a skeptic begins from a so-called ‘established’ reference point. And who establishes what is established? That depends on ones background and whether one questions that background or not. Someone from a religious background may accept the ‘established’ fact that god exists & goes from there. Perhaps a scientist, if they aren’t infected by religious upbringings, begins from the point that god doesn’t exist & he demands proof, of which the religious person says is in abundance, if only he’d open his mind, heart, ears, etc. The scientist says it must show up through these instruments known to modern day science that measure this, that & the other.

    One can therefore deduce that the religious person must use all their senses, logic, reasoning, intelligence, experience to prove to themselves and themselves only that there is a god. Whereas the scientist relies purely on measuring instruments that he’s created and he does not accept any inner reasoning, logic, life experience as reasonable and acceptable proof of a god.

    Perhaps a true skeptic accepts nothing until he/she proves it to themselves through all available means, including logical deduction, reasoning, experience, knowledge, all of ones senses, scientific instruments … and one must accept that there are limits to ones current understanding, and therefore ones senses and scientific measuring instruments which are based on current knowledge/wisdom; besides the physical senses, touch, hearing , seeing, taste, smell … there are finer senses that are limited by the software running, as knowledge, experience, which together become wisdom, which continuously expands if one doesn’t limit oneself and stunt oneself through false notions and false establishments, which yield false deductions, aka rotten fruits, illogic, failure, unsuccesses, etc.

    Comment by Bruce — September 29, 2012 @ 5:42 am | Reply

  12. What is a skeptic ? Or personally, what makes one become a skeptic ? Let’s rewind the clock some 48 years, to a time when I was being taught to read by my Grandfather. I was three. He was older. Much older. The book he taught me to read from was “The Ladybird Book of The Night Sky.” Chosen not at random, but because it was the book my Grandfather had watched me pour over ever since it was handed to me. I remember it well. I was fascinated by the images. Pictures of the internal workings of the sun, pictures of comets, meteors, planets, stars, and nebulae. Pictures were the “in thing” for me back in 1964. Being unable to read, but being fascinated by adults being engrossed in newspapers or books I had to know the secret. The secret to this grown up ability that I was unable to replicate. The secret of the written word. “Papa, can you teach me to hear writing ?, ” I asked. He obliged, and so an engineer was born. Or was he. Are we born engineers, or do we learn to be engineers.

    Then I saw something. Summertime 1965. Standing at the road end. The “”road end” being exactly what it was described as. My Grandparents lived in the countryside and the road end was where the bus stopped. Standing there with my Grandmother I watched fascinated as a bright orange elongated tube shaped object crossed the sky. I watched diligently, even then realising the importance of astute observation. Then, whatever it was, changed direction and accelerated at an unimaginable speed upwards and out of view at an angle of around 30 degrees. My Grandmother told me it was probably a rocket fired into space by the Americans. However, at this time (having been given the gift of hearing writing) disagreed. Although, having been taught manners I did not refute the ideas of an adult. Not in public anyway. But in my head, oh, that was a different matter.

    What was it ? I don’t know. I still don’t know. I’d like to think it was an extraterrestrial craft. I really would. But how can I say that with any confidence. Fast forward some 40 years. I’m now an established and well respected engineer. A scattering of letters after my name and children to boot. Curious as ever I watch a presentation at the United Nations by a man called Richard C. Hoagland. He’s a fantastic orator, a man who oozes self confidence and seems to me to be completely confident in his assertions and conclusions.Interesting ? A face on Mars. Hell yeah.

    I then began the process of analysing the data presented. It didn’t hold up. The mathematics were wrong, badly wrong. What could be going on here ? Was this man simply trying to make a few quid from the great unwashed. It turned out that he was. Examining in minute detail his mathematics, his ideas, and his selective data I became convinced that the man was an egotistical buffoon. A charlatan of the highest order. A downright liar. I then started looking closely at the claims of other fabulists, such as Mike Bara, David Wilcock, Jordan Maxwell and Alex Collier to name a few. They all exhibited the same non falsifiable bullshit, based on “insider sources” and other non verifiable sources.

    The bottom line. Skeptics are created by the bullshitters such as Hoagland and Bara. They are not born. As such the aforementioned are actually doing a real service to science by being such obvious liars and money scamming egotistical braggarts, that they are breeding skeptics by the score. Keep it up. We need more skeptics and much less woo woo in the public domain.

    DJE

    Comment by Derek James Eunson — September 29, 2012 @ 9:16 am | Reply

  13. I think, Herr Doktor, that to be skeptic today and hier is to not accept the so many fantastic things people claim, publish and put on internet, no matter how beautiful and seductive they are, without checking them objectively, with rationality, science and the common sense.
    To be a skeptic is also to distinguish between reality and fantasy and to be very aware, that fantasy and imagination have no logic, no rules and no limits, but that science and the reality have.
    Thank you for the useful work.

    Comment by Jennifer — September 30, 2012 @ 3:41 am | Reply

  14. Given the stigma against skepticism that labels skeptics as “close-minded”, I made up a word. I say I am “scrutinist”. At least then, I have the chance to explain what that means minus the pre-suppositions people have against the word “skeptic”

    Comment by Meganne — October 2, 2012 @ 3:06 am | Reply

  15. I suspect that the skeptics come from years of listening to scientists say a few things that are proved by scientific methods together in the same breath with a load of assertions which are (even in the scientific community) still open to debate. It is almost as though they use science as a cover for their own opinions. I.e. science is great it is just that no-one uses it ALL the time. So we end up with a soup of this is fact (fact) and this is fact aswell (opinion) from scientists. People get confused and start to mistrust science. If 80% of what a ‘scientist’ says is a proven fact and 20% is his/her opinion (but hidden in the facts), people just think “well I can do that” so I am a scientist too.

    They say that scientists who disagree with new theories which are supported by evidence don’t change their mind, they just eventually die.

    Comment by Mick — October 10, 2012 @ 5:20 am | Reply

  16. Hi Mick,

    Regarding your post about skeptics and scientists. You make some very valid points. I’ve often heard old people (funny me saying that being 51 myself) in the past saying things like, “well what do scientists know, how many times have they been wrong in the past ?”
    A valid opinion, from a certain viewpoint. Although that point is rarely backed up with evidence. Evidence which is readily available thanks to Mr Google these days. But not to be sidetracked…..

    There are people who pose as scientists. People who run from conference to conference. Fleecing the intellectually weak and the gullible. People like Richard C. Hoagland and Mike Bara.

    I guess that’s libel Dr Stu’, so I also guess I won’t apologise, and will accept full responsibility for my words.
    Because I can prove what I say is true.

    Give me a blackboard, some chalk and 3 minutes with Hoagland.
    Under 15 seconds with Bara.
    I guess they won’t be taking me or you to court.

    Cheers
    DJE.

    Comment by Derek James Eunson — October 10, 2012 @ 1:13 pm | Reply

  17. DJE.

    It is true what you say about the named but try listening to ALL scientists VERY carefully. You may be surprised (you may not).

    Comment by Mick — October 11, 2012 @ 4:39 am | Reply

  18. for example… is this a professor or a nut? and what ‘scientists’ is he talking about?

    Comment by Mick — October 11, 2012 @ 6:38 am | Reply

  19. Are you admitting, in essence, that skeptics must always be in favor of the status quo, no matter how much suffering it is predicated on? If not, then what exactly are you saying?

    Comment by Francois Tremblay — October 21, 2012 @ 11:59 pm | Reply

    • I’m not really “admitting” anything, and your linking what I said to a moral or consequential judgement is not appropriate given what I said — I refer you to my “If Darwin Is Responsible for the Holocaust, Newton Is Responsible for Bombs” blogpost for more on that.

      What I am saying is what I said in the post — for me, a skeptical mindset for various claims is to accept the null hypothesis unless there is convincing evidence to the contrary. The null hypothesis is generally the “status quo,” yes. For example, I someone came up to me and said they can drink a cup saturated with arsenic and survive, the null hypothesis is that this claim is false because arsenic is a known poison to humans. The evidence to the contrary would be if that person drank it and survived, provided that there was adequate testing that it actually was arsenic in more than sufficient quantities that have been established to kill a normal human.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — October 22, 2012 @ 12:40 am | Reply

      • So you are drawing a sharp distinction between matters of science and matters of moral or consequential judgment? Is it your position that matters of science (including social sciences) can have no bearing on moral or consequential issues, and vice-versa?

        Comment by Francois Tremblay — October 22, 2012 @ 12:48 am

      • Generally “yes” to your first question. With that said, it seems as though you might be trying to get me to say something that I’m not going to be comfortable saying after you go to a specific situation. If you’re thinking of something specifically, then ask that. I generally don’t go into social sciences because I know next to nothing about them.

        Comment by Stuart Robbins — October 22, 2012 @ 8:31 am

      • I’m just curious as to why skeptics address relatively irrelevant ontological issues but refuse to address social issues. I think you’ve provided an answer. As you probably realized, not a very good answer, but an answer.

        Comment by Francois Tremblay — October 22, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

  20. Francois. You seem to be confusing Science with Scientists. Science is a methodology which IS amoral. Scientists each have their own morality like everyone else. That is why Stuarts statements of the form ‘scientists do this or that’ tend to be untrue and are an extension of himself.

    Comment by Mick — October 23, 2012 @ 3:32 am | Reply

    • I am not saying anything about “scientists.” I am talking about “skeptics.”

      Comment by Francois Tremblay — October 23, 2012 @ 1:46 pm | Reply

  21. “So you are drawing a sharp distinction between matters of science and matters of moral or consequential judgment? Is it your position that matters of science (including social sciences) can have no bearing on moral or consequential issues, and vice-versa?”

    I don’t think you know what you are talking about to be honest. Try reading the article again.

    Comment by Mick — October 24, 2012 @ 3:08 am | Reply

    • Actually, that was a question in response to our discussion above, contingent to his previous answer, not to the article. And it’s for him to answer, not you.

      Comment by Francois Tremblay — October 24, 2012 @ 1:20 pm | Reply

      • SR “What I am saying is what I said in the post”

        Is English your second language FT?

        Comment by Mick — October 25, 2012 @ 2:56 am


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: