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Adventures of a stay-at-home, skeptical, homeschooling dad (etc.)


"Skeptic" is not an insult

I've noticed some people seem to have an odd definition of "skeptic". "Oh, he won't believe that, he's a skeptic." Or "I showed him the news article, but he won't believe it: he's a skeptic." They seem to use "skepticism" and "skeptic" as an insult, and it seems to mean a person is close-minded.

I have several friends who are always trying to convince me of the dangers of "artificial" ingredients in foods. As I mentioned in other articles, I am leery of many such ingredients, simply because they are so new and may not have been quite time-tested enough, so I do generally limit or avoid them when convenient. So, I am a bit skeptical of the claims that they been proven harmless.

However, I also recognize that there is no good evidence of active harm: there have been no large, peer-reviewed, replicated, and well-designed studies which show aspartame (for example) causes health problems (outside of those with the medical condition phenylketonuria). There are many small and poorly-done studies which purport to show harms, but they fall apart on closer inspection (and many require massive conspiracies). So I am also skeptical of the claims of those saying artificial ingredients have been proven harmful.

But being skeptical doesn't mean I never get to decide; it means withholding that decision until there is good evidence one way or another. If forced to make a decision, I am capable of choosing something based on the limited information at hand, but I won't be under the delusion that I'm correct.

Being skeptical means "I require good evidence to believe any claim." It does not mean "I will not believe a claim despite all evidence." Generally, I try to withhold judgment until there's quite a bit of evidence. The opposite is to form a judgment, then look for supporting evidence. This latter is OK as long as you also look for evidence you are wrong, but that's a very hard thing for humans to do.

Generally, I've come to put more trust into information gathered by scientific processes, because I know that it is an open process and if one group of scientists report that acai berry juice cures cancer (hypothetical example), I know that another group of scientists can test that claim.

I'm not "close-minded" that acai berry juice could cure cancer, I'm waiting for evidence that it does so. And a blog, a article in Men's health, or a conspiracy website is not enough evidence for me. For health issues, I need large, peer-reviewed, replicated, and well-designed studies. Anything less is possibly interesting, but it's not good enough evidence by itself.

I am "skeptical" of many things. (Technically, I am skeptical of everything, since nothing can be proven, but that gets a bit too philosophical rather quickly and I'd be required to doubt the existence of the world outside of me: I could be brain in a vat, in a long dream, etc. etc. etc.)

If you read my other articles, you know I am skeptical of the claims of alternative medicine and even "conventional" medicine. Skeptics are often accused of putting too much trust in scientists and doctors (and the FDA, of course), but that's not true either. It's not that I implicitly trust the experts: I just trust non-experts even less. Ben Goldacre has a pair of books which I recommend: Bad Science and Bad Pharma.

I am especially skeptical of those making active claims in areas where there is very little information. For example, I am always skeptical of anyone giving parenting or life advice and claiming it is anything more than opinion. I value opinions and mine them for what might be good ideas, but if you claim your opinion is fact, I'll probably not bother with you because there is so little real data on what "works best" in parenting or life in general.

This applies to political claims as well. Many people seem to conflate their political beliefs with cold, hard facts. I have my own strongly-held political beliefs, but I know there is currently no way to prove them correct or best. I think I'm right, but proven? No.

It should go without saying that I am skeptical of religious claims. Everyone has their own beliefs which they hold with different levels of certitude and rationales. From the outside, I see no way to see that any of them are more valid than any of the others. Each has its holy books. Each has its reports of "100% authentic" miracles. Each has its thousands or millions or billions of followers. Each, to me, has the same level of evidence: near zero. So, I choose none of them.

In conclusion, I don't equate being a skeptic with being close-minded: I'll let your opinions into my mind, but without evidence, they'll be judged accordingly.

2013-04-15 #science