Exposing PseudoAstronomy

November 7, 2014

The Myth that Skepticism is Easy


Introduction

There’s a lot of finger-wagging on both sides of the skeptics vs believers “debate.” To the point where people who believe in things like bigfoot and ghosts are already going to say from my terminology in the first sentence that I’m biasing this entire blog post. Well, get your own blog. Or be polite about it in the comments.

Anywho, there is the frequent claim that I hear on various shows and read in various places that “being a skeptic is the easiest thing in the world: All you have to do is say ‘no.’” Perhaps obviously, I disagree, and this post is about why.

Terminology

First, I must define my terms. I do not consider someone who just comes out and blurts “that’s not true” or “that’s not real” without evidence to be a skeptic. There is a difference between a skeptic and a denier. I consider:

Skeptic: Someone who approaches a question from a position of looking for evidence and making a conclusion based on the preponderance of the evidence, which can and should include all past evidence for plausibility of various explanations of that question.

Denier: Just says “no.”

Notice that there is a difference here. A skeptic can be someone who just says “no,” but it must be able to be backed up based on an examination of the evidence. For example, these days, I just say “no” automatically to most claims that the latest rock seen on Mars is a skull or a face or a fossil or a water valve. (The water valve ended up being the impression of a Phillips head screwdriver, but it’s much easier just to not do any research into the instrument and claim it’s a miniaturized water valve, because, ya know, it looks like one!) I can say that while still fitting my definition of “skeptic” because I actually have investigated this class of claims ad nauseam on this blog and on my podcast, and at a glance I can usually tell what class of misconception it fits into (usually either poor image analysis and/or pareidolia).

It’s Not Easy Being a Skeptic

It’s not.

No, really, it’s not.

Seriously.

For a completely selfish and capitalist reason, it’s not financially rewarding, which is very different from pseudoscience. I listen to people on Coast to Coast AM who publish a book every year – and those are the slow ones – about talking to dolphins, or searching for Atlantis, or making things up about archaeology or astronomy. It would be so easy, so cheap, and so much less time for me to write a book where I just make things up than to write a book that’s about real stuff that requires real research.

Now, I realize that I’ve painted with a very broad brushstroke here. I’m not saying that all people who many of us would classify as “pseudoscientists” publish quick and easy books where they just make things up and don’t do research. Some put a lot of time and energy into their books, and that is a separate category. But, next time you’re at a bookstore (they still have those, right?), take a look at the New Age or Spiritual sections. Count the number of books, amount of shelf space. Then go to the Skeptical section. Can’t find it? There’s a reason for that. You may be lucky to find Carl Sagan or Michael Shermer in the Science section. Or perhaps just in the broad Non-Fiction.

With that aside, being a skeptic – a real skeptic (with full knowledge of the No True Scotsman fallacy … see Terminology above) – takes a lot of work. It is trivially easy for someone to look at a rock in the latest image from Mars and claim that it’s a mechanical pump. Or a fossil of a sea star. And it will get posted on UFO Sightings Daily, and maybe even get picked up by a small online newspaper, and then maybe even by the Huffington Post. Yes, this has happened before.

Meanwhile, to do a proper skeptical investigation, we have to bring in information about how cameras work, how images from spacecraft are sent to Earth and processed, how color compositing works, how image resizing works, and what pareidolia is. It has taken me longer just to write that sentence listing the things you have to do than it would for me to look at a photo taken by an Apollo astronaut, see blooper, and send an e-mail to a UFO outlet online.

And then there’s actually doing the work. Fortunately, I’ve covered a lot of that material in podcasts #47, #48, #73, and #74. FYI, that’s nearly 3 hours of listening pleasure. All to investigate one single claim.

So, Is Skepticism Easy?

No.

Wrap Up

See what I did there? With the “No”? Anyway …

For those reasons, it really does bug me when I hear people say, or read when people write, that being a skeptic is easy. So much easier than being what they term a “true investigator.”

No, in fairness, just as there are some paranormalists who do write lengthy tomes that are full of real investigation (at which point I would mainly just argue with the conclusions), I do know that there are investigators who do do a lot of real investigation. Graham Hancock springs to mind. I fully disagree with practically everything the man has said. But, he has done a lot of real work, and I have to acknowledge and give him credit for that.

But, people like him, on the paranormal side, are very few and very far between. Most that you hear from are fully on the quick-’n’-dirty claim side, where it really is much, much easier to not be a skeptic.

6 Comments »

  1. So, what you are saying is that I’ve been doing it all wrong and should turn to the dark side? Okeydoke.🙂

    Comment by Bob — November 7, 2014 @ 6:10 am | Reply

    • Definitely. How much has Burzynski made selling his crap versus you debunking it?

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — November 7, 2014 @ 9:24 am | Reply

  2. “I don’t know.” Is often a very valid skeptical answer to a question. Unsatisfying, but often accurate.

    Comment by Howard Lewis — November 7, 2014 @ 6:27 am | Reply

  3. I will agree with Stuart, it’s much easier to claim the mantle of science than to actually do it. I can rember arguing with a 9/11 Truther and pointing out how the various films all contradicted one another on important details. Their response was that this proved how ‘scientific’ the Truth Movement was, the films represented the various theories and as the ‘evidence’ was uncovered they would be winnowed down until the ‘Truth’ would come out.

    Of course Judy Wood’s recent remarks about directed energy weapons, give the lie to that statement, as they show that particular ‘Truthers’ are still wedded to their pet theories despite evidence to the contrary.

    Now, onto the Facebook query, I’d love to see a series on fallacies as they relate to astronomical woo, as that has been ‘on the cards’ since episode 19 I think. As for ditching the Q & A and Feedback/New News segments. I’d prefer them to stay, especially the feedback.

    Comment by Graham — November 9, 2014 @ 6:37 pm | Reply

  4. Although the dedication to do research and look at things from different angles is by no means easy, I don’t see it as problematic because it’s so much fun. I enjoy the god question and evolution and so on. The bigger problem for me is the temptation to just be a denier when it comes to things that are just plain silly, like ancient aliens and tarot cards etc. that make me feel like an idiot for just thinking about them. That’s the hard part.

    Comment by madjarov42 — November 10, 2014 @ 12:21 am | Reply

  5. I think it’s much harder to be a skeptic. Recently, I had an impromptu disagreement with a friend, who insisted I was wrong about one of the main reasons why the American Civil War started. I didn’t have any evidence at hand, while her claim was backed up by a teacher she had many years ago, who insisted it was all about States’ rights. I probably should’ve called her on her argument from authority fallacy, but I wish I’d had some evidence to back me up right then and there.

    I ended up not following up on it, because I figured that if her view is built on faith (in her teacher), any evidence I produced would more likely make her even more entrenched in her opinion. It wasn’t worth risking our friendship to pursue it further.

    So I guess that’s another way it’s harder to be a skeptic: you have to sometimes weigh the pros and cons of actually arguing with a friend over something that may or may not be all that important anyway.

    Comment by Rick K. — November 10, 2014 @ 3:45 pm | Reply


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