Essay:A to Z for the Modern Skeptic

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Oh the folly of trying to make a list based on the alphabet. 26 letters, yet their use isn't evenly distributed throughout the English language. Multiple options for P, no obvious candidates for X. Folly indeed! Nevertheless, I shall endeavour to complete this list regardless of the idiosyncrasies that such poorly designed language has lumbered me with.

A - Atheism[edit]

Atheism is one of the most often discussed topics within the modern skeptical movement. Often the two go completely hand-in-hand with each other: most skeptics are out-of-the-closet atheists, and atheists often identify with skeptics. This isn't too surprising as atheism it is, to a degree, a specific form of skepticism that is concerned with religious ideas - namely the existence of gods. Most atheists (at least the ones who aren't just implicit about it) would say that they disbelieve in God due to a lack of evidence but would change their mind if appropriate evidence appeared. This is just skepticism - and disbelief in these circumstances isn't the faith position it's often made out as, but at the same time it's not quite agnosticism. While the existence of God is lumped in with every other supernatural claim when it comes to skepticism, it also includes the teachings of religions and their hold on what is right and what is wrong.

It's not without some subtleties and controversies amongst skeptics, though, and people united only by the method they choose to assess what they believe won't necessarily end up believing and thinking the same thing - well, they should but let's not expect too much. Everyone is an atheist with respect to at least one god or more, as no one can believe in all gods simultaneously - given an infinite space of potential beliefs, you simply can't be aware of all of them. Yet "atheism" is used as a word even though we don't develop highly specific terminology for people who don't watch Star Trek, or people who don't collect Magic: The Gathering cards. We simply don't generate labels for that sort of person, and don't usually label a "lack" of activity as particularly special.

While atheism comes from "a" meaning "no" and "theism" meaning "belief in god" (basically) "atheism" is clustered as a term and an identity outright. So while it's etymology is similar to the idea of "non-driver" or "non-drinker" or "non-smoker", it's used as if it's a positive belief system as opposed to a lack of one. Why this is the case two-fold. Firstly, for many parts of the world religion is the norm. To be an atheist is like being gay, or being a vegetarian, or not liking chocolate (those weird people). It's being part of a minority that is just not normative - contrast with the fact that "teetotal" exists as a word to describe non-drinkers. People are brought up with religion, and stay with that religion. We, as a culture, ascribe so many special protections and so much respect to religion that to not be part of that great big believing club is a questionable oddity. It makes sense that such an act attracts a label just as much as asexuality does. Secondly, religion has been dominant for so many centuries that it's a hold-over that people who are non-religious aren't just weird, they're actively dangerous. This makes atheists one of the most distrusted and hated minorities anywhere on the planet. Atheism is important to skeptics because it's highly important that nothing is off limits to free inquiry.

B - Bullshit[edit]

The term "bullshit" has slowly become quite acceptable amongst skeptics to refer to the, well, bullshit that they don't believe - or more accurately, the bullshit that hasn't presented enough convincing evidence yet. But bullshit isn't just wrong as isn't just lies. Harry Frankfurt - showing how acceptable the term has really become - wrote, in all seriousness, a philosophical definition of "bullshit". Even if you consider such trendy philosophy, where you can write pages upon pages literally on bullshit, to be bullshit itself, this is a good definition to know. Frankfurt describes bullshit as being worse than lies, for the subtle yet genius reason that a liar must, by virtue of lying, have some respect for the truth - the bullshitter, on the other hand, holds no such respect for the truth. Indeed, the definition becomes slightly more subtle in the fact that bullshit does not need to be untrue, merely a self-serving entity for the bullshitter to use. Truth or lies, bullshit is one of those things that needs to be defended against.

C - Chewbacca Defence[edit]

Ever been thoroughly confused by an argument? Ever left wondering just what the fuck are they on about now? Ever concluded that they must be right because of this? Then you have been hit by the Chewbacca Defence.

The Chewbacca Defence comes in many forms and is related to applying as many logical fallacies as possible, confusing or merely boring your opponent into submission. It derives from the idea that if you can cause your opponent to quit the debate, or not have an answer your logic is automatically much better than theirs. This, of course, is a bullshit non sequitur. Catching someone off guard with a gallop of badly formed arguments no more proves that your opponent doesn't know what they're talking about than it prove you are the height of wit. In fact, much of the time it's evidence for the opposite, as someone employing the Chewbacca Defence has only stumped their opponent because they're not even wrong. The Chewbacca Defence is something to watch out for and is difficult to counter as it can take an age to merely decipher what someone is saying. There is some hope, however, by simply bringing your opponent back onto one individual aspect and forcing them to elaborate on it more fully - refusing to give in until they've explained themselves properly - you can cut through the bullshit very happily. It may well be likely that your opponent can't actually do this, in which case it becomes obvious that they don't know what they're talking about, stand firm and relentlessly correct them and watch the Chewbacca Defence crumble.

D - Dunning-Kruger effect[edit]

The world can be split into two types of people; those who are aware of their own ignorance and those who aren't. This seems like an odd distinction, but becomes very important in skeptical discussions. We are all defined by our expertise, but more importantly we're defined by our lack of expertise and where our knowledge stops. This is a strong metacognitive - that is, thinking about thinking - ability that we need to be able to grasp.

However, there is one problem. Our ability to recognise the limits of our knowledge requires knowledge in the first place. To understand that you might not know how to apply certain advanced things in mathematics requires a firm and tight hold on both the basics and intermediates of mathematics. People who don't have this simply don't have the ability to know where their knowledge can fail them because they don't have enough knowledge or experience on which to judge themselves! This can sometimes be summed up in the phrase "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing", as it implies that a little knowledge about a fact makes you an Just-Add-Water Instant Expert. This is what the Dunning-Kruger effect is. It was experimentally shown that people who get low scores in tests consistently over-estimated their ability, predicting that they would get high results when, in fact, they didn't. Someone knowing the basics of atmospheric chemistry will think they know enough to discredit global warming, they don't. Someone knowing a little bit about astrophysics thinks that a few badly formed equations prove that we could never get to the moon, they don't. All these people are united under the illusion that they know more than they actually do, precisely because they don't have enough information, knowledge and experience to judge themselves properly.

In short, if you're in a skeptical discussion be very, very weary of anyone who seems convinced they know everything. Occasionally someone very knowledgeable does come along, but these people tend to be aware of their own limits. It's far more likely, then, that they're not as smart as they think they are.

On the other hand, the Dunning-Kruger effect often has me curled up in a corner, a complete paranoid wreck, wondering whether, in actual fact, I'm an idiot and just don't realise it. But in principle, such thinking proves otherwise as anyone suffering the Dunning-Kruger effect would never have such reservations!

E - Evidence[edit]

Evidence is the key to skepticism; never accept something without evidence. But what do we mean by evidence, and how do we go about collecting it when, let's face it here, probably the best we have is an internet connection?

Evidence is something associated with a proposition. The proposition can be something as simple (and almost banal) as "the sky is blue" or something like "I believe ghosts are real". Evidence comes in two flavours and it's important to remember the difference between the two and search for them appropriately. 1) It is something you would expect to see if your proposition was true. 2) It is something you wouldn't expect to see if your proposition was true. The corollaries to these are to look for what you'd expect to see, or not, if the proposition was false. It may seem like an odd set of distinctions this way, and you might think that evidence is exclusively supporting evidence, but the aim of science is to test propositions and hypotheses. The single most effective way to do that is not to (exclusively) look for the supporting evidence but to look for things that would outright disprove your statement. This is because you can't really gain knowledge by assuming something is true and then "look, it's still true" - you have to expose the hypothesis to tests that will show it to be untrue. Only by doing this can you push ahead and adapt your statements to best represent reality.

Deciding what counts as evidence or not can be tricky. Specifics governing what we consider good evidence could span pages upon pages, but essentially it is this: what do you expect to happen? For example, if you were to assert "homeopathy works" then what would you expect from this? How do you define works? How do we differentiate between "homeopathy works" and "homeopathy doesn't work"? This forms the basis for the type of evidence you would need to collect. Controls, randomisation, trial design, and so on are all just formalities to ensure the effect we observe in an experiment is the effect we're actually looking for - but the basics of how we look for evidence via experiment doesn't change.

In the modern age, battling out online, skeptics might not be first-hand researchers. We might not have the funds, or time, to do these studies ourselves - and why should we if they've already been done? It's important to trace evidence that someone presents (or you wish to present) back to its most basic and fundamental source. Want to prove that a medical treatment works? Don't cite the Daily Mail article on it, cite the original research paper - and read the original research paper. The terminology and speciality is totally beyond this mere entry to explain, but it's the job of the skeptic to learn it and get familiar with it; because you need it to answer that fundamental question of evidence; what do you expect to happen?.

F - Fundies[edit]

To the uninitiated, this seems like some kind of really crap brand of lingerie - but to those who have spent any time on the internet, "fundies" can only mean one thing; Fundamentalists. Fundamentalism has a fairly technical meaning, it means a believer in a cause who is both adamant, fervent and unyielding in their adherence to their belief, and has no desire at all to tolerate any variations or alternative interpretations. Their way is not just the best way, but The Way, and The Only Way. It's simple as that.

biblical literalist - fundamentalists. Islamic terrorists - fundamentalists. Atheist fundamentalists... well, that's an interesting question indeed. Do non-believers even have a doctrine to fundamentally believe in? Probably not.

Fundamentalism is a problem precisely because it suggests strict and inflexible adherence to a set rule, or dogma. Skeptics should be well aware that as new evidence is presented, they can be shown to be wrong - so fundamentalism is very much, absolutely, entirely, 100%, without-a-doubt incompatible with skepticism, or even just normal levels of critical thinking. To be a fundamentalist, you have to not just think, or believe but know beyond doubt that you're right; and that means you'll continue to be right even in the face of evidence that says otherwise. Even as new evidence comes along, or social attitudes change, or people's opinions begin to broaden and alter, the average fundamentalist will be steadfast in their refusal to change. Despite what they might claim, this isn't a good thing.

But the term does run the risk of being nothing more than a catch-all term for anyone that a fledgling skeptic disagrees with. The average religious believer isn't really a fundamentalist - if we pick too broad a fundie brush, the term and the category it represents ceases to have any use! So we must always be careful when using it. Westboro Baptist Church is pretty fundamentalist, David Cameron saying the United Kingdom has a Christian heritage really isn't. Any modern skeptic will be familiar with "fundies", but they need to make sure not to be too loose in calling people that.

G - Gish Gallop[edit]

If evolution is true, why are there still monkeys? Why are there no transitional forms? Genetic mutations aren't strong enough. There's no proof for macroevolution. The flood explains fossil sorting just as well as evolution. Evolution leads to social darwinism. When did you stop beating your wife?

Follow that? Good. Regardless of the lack of merit a point or question may have, it still takes time to address. Often more time than it takes to ask. This is the key behind the great rhetorical device of the Gish Gallop. If you, as a bullshitter, wants to win an argument but know that you have no valid points, you may as well make as many of them as possible. At least one will hit home and knock your opponent off guard, or at least their lack of ability to keep up will show you emerging victorious. The Gish Gallop appears so frequently that the modern skeptic needs to be able to see it coming and stop it in its tracks. Bring your opponent back to one point, have them explain it more thoroughly, don't let them guide the debate at their pace.



J - JAQing off[edit]

Ever seen this before? Why did the twin towers collapse when the melting point of steel is so high? Why was the response to two hijacked planes so slow? Why did George Bush react the way he did? What is so suspicious about the man behind the curtain? Why won't Obama show us his birth certificate? Why were the climategate emails so important? Why is creationism silenced in the classroom? How come crocoduck's have never been found? And how come there are still monkeys? Why does the mainstream media not report on this? Did Glenn Beck rape and murder a young girl in 1990?

JAQing off, or "just asking questions" is really more a rhetorical defence than anything else. A lot can be insinuated from a question, as context can often tell you what the asker's opinion actually is. Yet, because it's simply a question, someone can turn and say "hey, I'm just asking questions!" Of course, this isn't the only form, and someone can equally hide behind phrases like "I just want to start a debate!" or "we should be open minded. Either way, apart from thinly disguising bullshit assertions, someone who is JAQing off rarely manages to say anything of actual value.






P - Perpetual motion[edit]

You'd think this had gone the way of alchemy by now, but now, free energy is as alive and well today as ever. The only difference is that modern free energy nuts have begun to shy away from such physical entities as the overbalanced wheel and towards more "magic" seeming devices. Where more mysterious forces can be suspected, then people's lack of knowledge of science can be exploited; magnets have replaced gravity and magic catalysts turn water into fuel.

Yet even though the trappings and superfluous details have moved on, the basic founding principle of perpetual motion and free energy remains the same; it violates the conservation of energy, and simple examination of the system shows it not to work. It doesn't matter if your magic motor is powered by gravity or by magnets, the forces produced end up balancing and no net motion is made and no energy extracted. You can put as much catalyst as you like in a reaction, you won't change the fact you need to put energy into the H2O molecule to break it into hydrogen gas. YouTube is full of apparent examples, though all seem more like magic tricks in style. PESWiki lists numerous designs and devices, and to be fair, for a crank site it does a good job of attempting to collect replications and further evidence and will say things are a fraud; it's just that they don't tend to take the more general lessons into account, and so miraculously become open minded again as soon as someone posts a discredited design with the most minor of changes.

But, while the old perpetual motion seekers had to admit defeat, the modern variants can tack their ideas on the usual flavours of conspiracy. The devices work, but the evidence is being suppressed! Even if such accusations were true, it would be a trivial thing to prove that their magic devices worked. Until they unhook their houses from the mains and run their heaters and ovens and cars on just water, these people can still take their place with the alchemists.

Q - Quantum woo[edit]

The thing about science is that it can be difficult. After all, reality is under no obligation to do what we like or what we think - otherwise there would be no point in observational evidence and science. So when it comes to some of the oddest, yet still truest, theories of how the world actually works, is it really any surprise that they come complete with odd misinterpretations? No, of course not. Quantum woo is the textbook case.

Quantum theory is a little weird, and so it finds itself attached to almost every form of crankery out there. It's not so much a piece of woo itself, it is an explanation behind other things from alternative medicine to bizarre theories about the mind. Homeopathy has seen it in action, pest control has seen it, and even drinking straws (well, sort of) have had some of the esoteric terms associated with them. It's been used as an explanation of consciousness and a load of New Age chakra stuff.

The key difficulty with such things is actually the source of the problem itself: quantum theory is difficult to understand. It takes years of full time University level study to get to grips with it. It takes even longer to really understand it and all the subtle meanings of the equations and the predictions - and some say it's impossible to understand properly at all. Refuting it thoroughly and in short order isn't something to be tackled by someone who's experience of quantum mechanics is limited to thinking Schroedinger's cat is literally true. Instead, the onus should always be placed on whoever is proposing this quantum explanation - if they really know their stuff they should be able to get it published somewhere other than viXra or some other woo-friendly website. The odds are that they can't, and they have to especially keep their assertions away from people who know what they're talking about. It's best to keep things simple; assume it's all bullshit unless someone like Brian Cox says otherwise.


S - Science was wrong before[edit]

This is a common gambit used by everyone involved in the anti-science movement from creationists the homeopaths - but it takes a lot of different forms, each less explicit than the last. Whether it be talking about Piltdown Man, or peppered moths, or Newtonian mechanics, the implication is always that if science has been wrong in the past, then it might just be wrong again... therefore my piece of woo is right! This is the general pattern, but it can be dressed up in more fancy sounding ways, such as talking about how scientific theories are about being disproved and that we can never know the Truth (technically, but trivially, true) or that we don't yet know everything so must keep an open mind. The crux of the argument is that a skeptic is apparently unjustified in dismissing something on current data (or lack of it) because something might change in the future to suggest otherwise. QED atheist/skeptic/rationalist/closed-minded bitches!

The problem with the argument is that if we don't know enough information to make a decision about a phenomenon, then we don't actually know enough information to make a decision about a phenomenon. Simply put, making this gambit is false because it's simultaneously saying we don't know enough to discount a hypothesis, but we somehow do know enough to prove it. This is nonsense and violates everything that having an open mind is about.

But this isn't all that's wrong with the "science was wrong before" gambit, it also fundamentally misrepresents how scientific theories develop and alter. Science develops theories to explain evidence that we can see - that's all. The scientific method is about testing the limits to see where these theories stop explaining evidence. A theory's inability to explain a new piece of evidence doesn't invalidate its ability to explain the old evidence (if it did a good job of it in the first place). Even if most of quantum mechanics was augmented by string theory (even though this is looking increasingly less likely) it would not invalidate many of the observations that quantum theory has very accurately predicted. In a more easily visualized (albeit borderline silly) example, the "theory" that the Earth is flat is of no use to NASA putting things in orbit, but it's fine for architects building a house as on that scale the Earth is, more or less, flat. Given this, the terms of "right" and "wrong" aren't the way we should think about science; it's always a case of what range of data and evidence a theory can explain. This is far more subtle than simple and outright terms like "right" and "wrong" would suggest, but it more accurately reflects how science develops over time.

So it can be said that, when done properly, science wasn't really "wrong" before.

T - Toupee fallacy[edit]

This is a relatively unused term, and isn't really a unique fallacy on its own, but it does very nicely illustrate a few concepts of skepticism and the philosophy underpinning the scientific method. And silly analogies can often help people get a good grip on relatively abstract concepts. The toupee fallacy is as thus: "All toupees look fake, there's never been a toupee that I've seen where I couldn't tell it was fake."

Seems like a bold statement, but look closer and you can see that it actually illustrates something in philosophy known as the problem of induction. This problem asks whether you can make a conclusive generalised statement from specific cases - philosophers like to phrase this as whether induction leads to "knowledge". The toupee fallacy is a nice visualisation of this because someone declaring all toupees to look terrible because they haven't seen a realistic one is basically saying that the realistic ones could have fooled them! Or at best, in the style of Russell's Teapot, they haven't been looking hard enough through those non-suspicious haircuts. A single realistic looking toupee would smash that statement to pieces, but the person asserting it is implicitly ignoring evidence (maybe innocently, because they don't know what they're doing) that would prove them wrong.

And so, the toupee fallacy also demonstrates how to go about forming falsifiable hypotheses and why this is an essential component in science. You can't really prove that all toupees look fake by looking at yet more fake-looking hair and declaring these pieces to be toupees. But you can test the realistic looking ones and falsify the statement instead. While the statement can never be proved that way, it can be disproved, it becomes a testable statement, and any absence of evidence can still contribute to our confidence (provided we go about this carefully!) in the truth value.



W - Wilful ignorance[edit]

Ignorance is one thing, it's merely a simple unawareness of a fact. Would you blame a five-year-old, with an interest primarily in ponies for not knowing about quantum mechanics? No. Of course not, because it's understandable that they wouldn't have that knowledge. But here's the thing; how far can we push this "understanding"?

Where is the true cut-off point between an understandable lack of knowledge (ignorance) and something truly unforgivable that is an affront to critical thinking? It's not easy to point out, and doesn't necessarily correlate with either age nor "intelligence". People have different levels of specialism, and different limits to their knowledge - something outside that simply won't be known to them and they may, in fact, have no need to seek it out. This much is obvious; so why do we sometimes treat people like this as if they're stupid, or uninformed, or somehow abhorrent to skeptical thinking? Simply put, it's because we confuse it with something else entirely; wilful ignorance. And as such, "ignorance" on its own has become quite a slanderous term, and we accuse people of being ignorant all the time as if it's something bad when, really, no one is at fault for it.

Wilful ignorance doesn't just suggest a lack of knowledge, or ignorance of a fact. It suggests two things 1) an outright denial of a fact when presented and 2) an active avoidance of trying to gain those facts. A large number of creationists, the foot-soldiers on the ground believing their Bible are simply ignorant of any other way. To them, they don't come from no monkey and other than that they just go about their lives. Ignorant, or wilfully so? Probably the former, as often creationism spreads by evolution being badly taught (deliberately or otherwise). But what about more vocal creationists, the ones with the "evidence", the ones doing the "research", the ones coining new terms and pretending to do science? They are, certainly, far more wilful in their ignorance because by putting themselves out there they will expose themselves to more evidence, and the tools to acquire it.

There might be something of a sliding scale of wilfulness, but let's remember not to lay the blame at people who are just victims of disinformation and bad teaching, rather than their thoughtless desires to preserve their own beliefs.

X - Xenu[edit]

There is no need to beat about the bush here: Scientology is a cult, and a dangerous one. This has been repeatedly demonstrated and catalogued. Every time it hits the news, it's not for a good reason; are they suing someone, have they killed someone, are they fleecing people out of money? Rational and coherent argument is preferred when combating the irrational aspects of religion, superstition, and even the worst conspiracy theories, but the Church of Scientology really doesn't deserve that because as a movement it is beyond redemption.

There really is little else to be said.