Saturday, February 02, 2013

How I done became a skeptic and why skepticism applies beyond bigfoot

There are currently a few people out there saying I’m not a skeptic at all, of course, but pretending for the moment that I have skeptical qualifications, this is how it started.

Simple enough: I read a lot of pop science books when I was a kid. And I started to recognise that I didn’t know how to tell which claims were true. There were clues, of course. I’d already rejected religion and a lot of claims in books marketed as pop-sci look a lot like religion. Some of the books didn’t really seem to be saying anything at all, even those with ‘quantum’ in the title.

I desperately wanted to learn how the world works but didn’t know how to tell what’s true. I knew that some of  the things I thought were probably wrong, but I didn’t know how to tell which ones.

Don’t get me wrong. I read books like The Selfish Gene, which argued their position in compelling ways and I read other books that didn’t seem to have a premise or a conclusion and seemed to appeal to mystical thinking. But I still didn’t have any tools to systematically tell whether a thing was true or not. I knew just enough to doubt that I could tell what was real from what was not.

I didn’t discover that there were such things as skeptics until years later. There were people who had actually worked out proper ways to tell what was probably true. My first encounters with people like this was on usenet, which was a rewarding if often distressing experience. Later, I discovered James Randi, who codified what skepticism is and changed my life. 

Randi made me realise that the unease I was feeling about not being able decide what’s true was the proper way to feel. And he, his organisation and the network of people surrounding that organisation told me about the tools we can use to sort stuff into what might be true and what is probably false.

Randi taught me 20 years ago what people like PZ already knew and are trying to remind us of recently. Skepticism is a process. It’s a filter we can apply to absolutely everything. The entire point of skepticism is that nothing is exempt.

So you people who say I’m not a skeptic, examine the mote in your eye. Are you sure I’m the unskeptical one about things like feminism?

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