Issues Magazine

Skepticism and Critical Thinking

By Tim Mendham

Critical thinking is an essential part of everyday life, but sometimes it throws up answers that might be uncomfortable.

Critical thinking is not a pursuit reserved solely for the abstractionists or philosophers of this world. Critical thinking is as intrinsic to all of us as breathing ... well, almost.

But in truth, we practice critical thinking every day, in many different ways, from apparently trivial decisions to serious life-determining choices.

Critical thinking requires assessing a claim, weighing the evidence, and making a judgement based on the results of our thought processes. This is the basic underpinning of scientific method.

When we make a choice between going to work on a bus, a train or car, we take into account the costs involved, the time taken and the scheduled time of arrival, the reliability of the service, the comfort of the journey, the distance from the final stop to our destination, and the costs associated with parking versus foot-slogging.

These are all criteria for decision-making, and often ones we can analyse quickly and painlessly because it is a fairly common process. In other words, critical thinking with a practical and mundane application.

Moving on to an application that is less common, but no doubt equally “processable”: buying a refrigerator. Once more you assess price, as well as functionality, size, reliability of both the manufacturer and the supplier, warranties, even colour and finish. You might do this once every 15 years, give or take a decade. Again, you are practising critical thinking.

Let’s go to a more ephemeral but more important type of decision – about your health. Say you have a condition that needs treatment, so you need to decide who to see. If you have been given any recommendations, are these reliable? What diagnostic processes and treatments are offered, and what are the success rates and risks? How comfortable and confident are you with the treatment and the practitioner? Unfortunately, cost probably comes in there as well. These could be vital decisions, especially if made on behalf of someone else, such as a child.

Even more abstract and ephemeral is choice of religion, or even the choice not to believe. What is this based on? For many of us, the overriding criterion is your parents’ beliefs. Then there are the key human factors raised by an uncertain future: expectation and fear. Questions like “What happens when you die?” and “Why are we here?” weigh heavily on most people. There is also the question of moral guidance – which religion matches most with what you need and want for and from the world? Decisions involving religion are some of the most important in our lives – they affect our everyday relationships with others and the world, they impact on our personal and global “purpose”, personal and social motivation, and basically whether we view the world as a largely positive or a negative place, and how that impacts on how willing or keen we are to leave it.

Do we practise critical thinking for this last category? I would suggest less so than with the earlier examples. Can you practise critical thinking for this category? Certainly the ephemeral is more difficult to critically assess than the physical, but there are areas where we can apply some scientific method, such as religion made manifest: miracles, apparitions, or even magic.

This is where skepticism comes in.

A Matter of Definition
We need to differentiate between scepticism, skepticism and Skepticism. The differing definitions are accepted by Skeptics groups around the world.

In some ways this is purely semantic, based on international groups and how they identify their members. But intrinsically there is a difference, and it revolves around critical thinking and an adherence to that methodology.

Scepticism is something most if not all of us practise at some time or another, and is often confused or conflated with cynicism. We can be generally cynical or sceptical of politicians, used car salesmen and the like. A cynic or a sceptic in this circumstance is one who is just as likely to apply generalisations and gut feeling (“all politicians lie”, “all salesmen are crooks”, “all Muslims are terrorists”, “I don’t like his face” or even “I like her face”). This might be based on past experience, or a general perception, wariness of the unknown or unfamiliar, promotion by groups with a vested interest, media depiction or other, perhaps less savoury, agendas. There is sometimes very little critical thinking here, and assessments and decisions can be influenced as much by optimism or pessimism, fear, ignorance, prejudice, propaganda, bias or bigotry as on any formal application of scientific method. Many people who call themselves “climate sceptics” seem to be as much driven by a political agenda or preference as by any scientific approach.

The second category, skepticism (spelled with a “k” to differentiate it from the above more general scepticism), represents an attitude of applying scientific method to a specific though broad range of areas – what can generally be described as pseudoscience and the paranormal. The former encompasses any claim that seems to contradict established and accepted understanding of how the world works, and that may utilise unproven (or even disproven) methodologies and world views. Many examples of alternative medicine fall into this category, such as homeopathy (totally disproven) or some aspects and claims of chiropractic and acupuncture. The paranormal, on the other hand, looks at the many areas that are certainly beyond and in direct contradiction of any widely accepted scientific evidence – their very existence is up for question: psychic powers, clairvoyants, UFOs, astrology, anomalous creatures, fortune-telling, crop circles and creationism.

Note that the view taken by skeptics is not that these things are not and cannot be true; the view is that they are unproven. In some cases, the likelihood of supportive evidence for some topics is verging on nil, while others may have a grain of truth and others still may hold many worthwhile aspects that, as yet, are still to be fully and scientifically understood or endorsed.

The third category, Skepticism (with a capital “S” and a “k”), describes the more formal movement of skeptical people, encompassing such groups as Australian Skeptics , UK Skeptics and the (US) Committee for Scientific Inquiry. There are many skeptical groups, large and small, across cities, states, regions or nations that are independently active yet linked through a shared attitude and approach. Many publish newsletter or magazines, websites, blogs and podcasts, use Twitter and Facebook and other social media to connect with each other, and have regular social gatherings (often in pubs and cafés) and conventions.

The key criterion for skeptical investigation is that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”. This means that blind faith is not enough to prove anything’s existence and, as skeptics would say, an “open mind” should not equate to an empty head.

Many people accuse skeptics of not having an open mind, that they are unwilling to accept any “non-establishment” point of view and close their eyes to the “evidence” that is put forward by claimants of anomalous events or conditions.

But an open mind is what science thrives on, particularly as every scientist wants to make a contribution and a reputation, and that might come from having an open mind and a critical approach to others’ findings.

It must be admitted that there are those sceptics, skeptics and Skeptics who take a more militant and dogmatic view, which is certainly not a proper application of critical thinking, but the attitude that there should be an open mind until a topic is thoroughly proven or disproven is the one that does or should normally prevail.

The $100,000 Challenge
With this in mind, since 1980 the Skeptics have put their money where their philosophical mouths are. The organisation has on offer $100,000 to anyone who claims to have extraordinary powers and can demonstrate their ability under proper observing conditions. Apart from the prize amount, the first person to do so will receive a great deal of recognition and prestige.

The Skeptics have made this offer because they are sincere about seeking out the truth of claims that might be described as paranormal or that confront accepted laws of science. We see many such claims made by professed psychics, healers, witnesses to paranormal events and those selling devices that do the apparently “improbable” or even “impossible” (i.e. defy scientific laws). If there really is a way to generate free energy or read minds, to communicate with extraterrestrials or to tell the future, we want to tell the world, and in our own way give the claimant proper recognition.

On the other hand, if a claim is proved to be unfounded or fraudulent, we would reserve the right to expose this situation so that clients and the public do not waste their money and time on a product or service that fails (and can only ever fail) to deliver what is claimed for it.

In either case, we think the public deserves and has the right to know the truth. Consequently, the Skeptics’ Challenge is a genuine and serious undertaking, and the $100,000 prize a genuine offer.

The test method is negotiated at the outset between the claimant and Australian Skeptics. There are no restrictions except to ensure confidence in the result, and with manageable logistics. (Some have suggested tests with very long-term procedures, as in decades, but such tests are impossible to undertake.) The important criterion is that both parties agree on the protocol prior to testing. There is no going back later and suggesting that the test was unfair.

It would be naive to suggest that everyone who applies for the challenge has a sincere motive. Some would love to be able to say they fooled the Skeptics, and others are just in it for the money. But most applicants are sincere, and many are not after the money as their first target, but see proving their ability and/or the existence of such abilities as more important.

To date, no one has proved their claim, despite the Skeptics having been approached hundreds of times and having conducted dozens of tests. Everyone who fails has either claimed that the tests were unfair or that their abilities faded in the face of scientific or skeptical testing, despite the fact they often demonstrated their abilities under the very same protocols except for the absence of double-blind testing.

Skepticism and Values
When negative results are shown, Skeptics are often accused of having no values – of being amoral iconoclasts bent on destroying precious and long-held beliefs, putting nothing in their place. This is about as far from the truth as you could get.

Skepticism is not nay-saying cynicism, it is merely applying the mantra of “prove it” – nothing more, nothing less. There is nothing destructive in asking someone who claims they can fly to prove it: “Fly around the room”. If someone says they can lift objects with mind power, your natural response would not be to run around the streets saying this person can lift objects. Your first reaction would be to say: “Prove it”. And if someone says they can cure cancer by moving their hands over your body, the same reaction applies, only this time it’s far more important and the stakes are far higher.

The one area where many skeptics differ fundamentally from others is in spiritual and religious beliefs. Most, but not all, skeptics are atheists. They would suggest that religion and spiritualism are diametrically opposed to critical thinking. But that’s not to say that those who propose critical thinking are without any moral values. Again, far from it. Moral values are not solely tied to a particular religion. That goes without saying, otherwise the majority of the world’s population – believers in some other religion – would be without any moral values. Nor do moral values need to be tied to any religion. Moral values revolve around a concern for others and the world in which they live.

Those who support critical thinking are, by definition, enthusiastic about discovering all there is about the world. It just happens to be the real world, a world that does not rely on throwing away your brain in favour of a particular desire.

Do skeptics believe in mysteries? You bet. That’s one part of what makes life so interesting and offers untold opportunities for investigation and endeavour, and that is what science and critical thinking are all about.

Critical thinking is the basic tenet of the skeptical approach. It is an approach that underpins all of its activities and findings, drawing on the scientific method (research, analysis and peer review) to provide the evidence for our points of view. Skeptics probably spend more time doing their own internalised critical thinking – analysing their own motives and actions – than anyone else. It seems to be part of the makeup of a skeptic.

Critical thinking breeds good decision-making and can be helpful to others. The alternative can bring with it much fear, suspicion and even hatred of others, and often encourages ignorance. Some purveyors of pseudoscience and the paranormal often actively discourage questioning and deliberation. One need only look at some extreme cults to see evidence of that.

Critical thinking is also important to the specific areas of skeptical investigation: “alternative”, “scientific” theories in controversial areas. Such theories, by definition, are outside of accepted scientific understanding; otherwise they would be included in science.

It is not surprising, therefore, that such theories or beliefs are steeped in a broad range of motivations: from serious enquiry to anti-establishment persecution complexes; from misunderstanding and misconception to outright lies; from well-intentioned but possibly under-informed theorising to passionate and undiscriminating zealotry; from a heart-felt desire for the “truth” to a desire for power, influence and money. This is a long way from deciding which fridge to buy.

Most of us realise that if we’re making an important decision it’s important to use a little brainpower, a little discernment, some critical thinking. And the application of critical thinking has always been a vital part of the human makeup – it has always been important, and it should remain so as long as we have brains to use and good sense to guide us.