Because the universe is beautiful enough without having to lie about it

Skeptical Heresies #9

May 4th, 2011 Posted in Climate Change, Conspiracy Theories, General Science, Health

9. Skepticism is abused by conspiracy theories

I’m beginning to wonder why I called this series “Skeptical Heresies”, instead of something more descriptive like “Major Challenges Within Skepticism”. Anyway…

This post is about the fact that Skepticism has been kidnapped and forced against its will to become part of the labels for all sorts of conspiracy theories and unscientific belief systems, such as “climate skepticism” and “holocaust skepticism”. People are jumping on the bandwagon, and using the term Skeptic to mean something like “Someone who doubts something”. This partly goes back to my first post in this series, in which I stated that Skeptic is a very bad word to use to describe what we do, for many reasons. Some reasons are aesthetic and some are practical.

Well, here’s another argument that we should change our tactic – the word “Skeptic” does not really fully encompass what we do. Is it wrong for a climate change denier to call themself a “skeptic”? Maybe. But how about we choose a different term to describe ourselves that doesn’t leave us open to that weakness?

In medicine, there’s the field of “Complimentary and Alternative Medicine” (CAM), which basically is an umbrella term for all kinds of stupid. The medical community is often labelled as “Traditional Medicine”, perhaps conjuring upthe image of an organisation resistant to novelty and change. Scientists started using the term “Evidence-Based Medicine” to describe mainstream medicine, but this left them open to an obvious exploit – the CAM crowd started gathering “evidence” for their point of view. OK, so their “evidence” is usually very dubious, and at best marginal – but it’s definitely evidence of a sort.

So, in order to get round this problem, a number of prominent skeptical medical experts have recently started pushing for a new term – “Science-Based Medicine”, which is far more descriptive. You see, Science is based on two things – the evidence collected to prove or disprove a theory, and also a series of processes by which that evidence is critically evaluated to assess not only its own reliability, but also how it meshes with prior evidence also collected in support or opposition to the claim being investigated. And the difference is huge – evidence might say, for example, that you just witnessed a magician sawing a lady in half, but science tells you that your perceptual impression is probably wrong, and that such a process is impossible based on prior medical knowledge, so it dismisses the magical claim immediately.

So, what could we call ourselves instead of skeptics? Well, what we’re doing is basically applying the scientific method to evaluate the world around us. I’m not suggesting we go for “Scientific Methodists”, as that has obvious connotations, but I think we really need to start focusing more on the science side of what we do.

Though, having said that, there was always “scientific creationism”. Maybe the first task we need to conquer is to educate the public about what science actually is.

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