Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Skeptical About Skepticism

I’ve started to become increasingly skeptical about the people who refer to themselves as skeptics. I consider myself a skeptic because I try not to take anything at face value and always want to analyze any available data to support assertions. Isn’t that skeptical of me? The problem is that I’ve been looking at skeptics’ websites and they seem to define the word differently. The site owners seem to have decided that some things don’t exist or work and no proof of their assertions are necessary.
I know that it’s advisable not to open your mind so much that your brain falls out, but I think it’s also advisable not to close your mind so much that no facts get in. For instance, I’ve mentioned before that I know ghosts exist because I’ve seen them under circumstances that leave no other rational explanation, but many of the internet skeptics say simply that ghosts don’t exist because they’ve never seen one. Of course they’ve never gone looking for one; they’ve never spent time in a haunted house or battlefield or any place else that ghosts frequent and they’ve never done any research on the subject. It’s sort of like only believing in the existence of animals if they can be seen from the skeptic’s front window. They are equally dismissive of any evidence collected by ghost hunters; everything’s a fake, a flaw, or a misinterpretation of data. How do they know? Well, they figure ghosts don’t exist, so supporting evidence can’t exist either.
Although you might never notice by reading this blog, my life goal is to collect knowledge and in so doing, separate facts from general assumptions. That is why I consider myself a skeptic; because I don’t automatically accept statements as fact just because I read them in a book or see them on TV, but instead reserve judgment until I see some credible corroboration. Accepting information on faith or dismissing out of hand information that doesn’t fit my perception only limit my efforts to become more knowledgeable and increase understanding. Suppression of knowledge and bending information to coincide with preconceptions are the job of religions. I try to remember that the correct answer to the question is frequently “I don’t know.”


Anonymous said...

Sorry, bud, can't agree with you wholeheartedly on this one--the ghost thing, specifically. If full-on science is the epitome of rational/skeptical thinking, you have to ask yourself why anecdotes are considered by scientists to be such a weak form of "evidence" that they really don't qualify as evidence at all. Anecdotes might point to a direction of study, but they don't have the weight of empirical evidence. Why? Because our brains are unreliable in so many ways, our personal experiences (however vivid) really do have to be supported by external evidence before they should be taken seriously...even by the person experiencing them.

Can I explain your various ghostly experiences in non-spiritual/metaphysical terms? No; here I agree completely that the best answer is often "I don't know." However, that doesn't mean I can or should default to accepting your assertion that you saw a ghost. If I step back and look at the evidence for the survival of human consciousness/personality that has accumulated in over a hundred years of serious scientific inquiry, I see...nothing much. Actually, nothing at all. Given the trillions of dead people on or around the earthly plane and the millions of "contacts" that have been claimed, why is verifiable evidence so scanty?

I don't really see much difference between your acceptance of your personal experiences, however compelling they might be, as "evidence" in favor of the existence of ghosts and the fervid insistence of Christian fundamentalists that they've been touched by Jesus Christ. In both cases it's all about the intensity of a personal feeling, an emotional experience. Mysticism.

I've had pretty creepy paranormal-ish experiences in my life, too, and part of me wants to believe that they represented "real" encounters with the supernatural. But given the horrendously lopsided ratio of personal experiences to actual evidence from the world at large, I have to be skeptical of my own desire not to be skeptical.

empirical Infidel said...

I don't really expect, to convince anyone that they should believe in ghosts based on my anticdotes but I present that as an example of the kind of potential area of further investigation that some skeptics flatly assert do not exist and similtaniously refuse to research. It's true that there is very little empirical evidence for this and a lot of other fringe beliefs, but it's almost impossible to get respected research institutions to even fund an empirical study.
One good reason for the lack of studies is that there's only so much grant money, so most folks would rather fund a possible cancer cure than a study of ghosts, but there's also the attitude that woo studies are beneath the dignity of real researchers. I heard an interview recently with a man who was willing to fund a study on (I think it was) near death experience, but when he contacted a cognative psychologist he thought would be interested, the psychologist didn't just decline to do the study, he got really angry that the interview guy would even suggest associating such a project with him.
What keeps happening is that many skeptics refuse to even consider the possibily that some things exist because they see no empirical evidence, but they also obstuct any attempt to gather empirical evidence. I suspect that some of this is not just healthy skeptcism; they are really trying to avoid the cognitive dissonance of evidince that might conflict with their beliefs.