Dr Steven Novella On Scientific Skepticism And Activism – NYC Skeptics

I’ve mentioned this talk a few times as a resource and a while back I wrote out a few pages of it – now I’ve forwarded those pages to the NYC Skeptics (yes, I’m a member despite being half-a-planet away, because they have great shirts, really good resources and I like to support skeptical groups where I can – they also gave me and a friend a great night out when I went to one of their SiTPs, back in 2009!) so they can finish the rest of the transcript for people who like to read as well as listen to the host of the SGU. This talk is from 2007, but I still listen to it on occasion to be inspired.

Thanks to Michael Feldman for letting me feature this on my blog.

…I’m going to talk to you about what I think scientific skepticism really is.

It is an approach to knowledge. It is definitely inextricably tied to science, to scientific methodology. There is no skepticism without science and the scientific method. It’s about how we know what we know. That’s the most important thing. Not just what we know, it’s how do we know.

Some of the principles that are embodied in scientific skepticism, it’s certainly embodied in methodological naturalism. Without getting too deep into the philosophy behind it, by the way, my talk over the next 45-50 minutes or so is going to be more broad brushstrokes.

I want to touch on a lot of things that in and of itself I could talk about for an hour, but I want to cover the breadth of things. Then we could do a follow up and question and answer session afterwards. Methodological naturalism is actually a deep concept, but what that basically means is that you investigate nature as if, it is naturalistic.

It doesn’t really necessarily mean that we believe that natural is naturalistic or materialistic, that we have to believe that there isn’t anything supernatural or beyond the physical or causative world. It just means that we are following a methodology that acts within that paradigm. That’s critical I think to understanding what skepticism is about, because skepticism is about not what we believe but what we can know and what we can know is tied to methodological naturalism.

There was a recent, just playing off of this a little bit, there was a recent editorial in the New York Times by Davies, Paul Davies, who concluded that science is dependent upon faith. I wrote in my Neurologica blog about that: it’s not actually true because science is not dependent upon faith in a naturalistic world. It just follows the methods as if it is naturalistic.

It may be assuming a subtle, actually I did mean to go forward, assuming a subtle philosophical distinction but actually I think it is actually quite critical. Again, it is not a system of beliefs. People often ask me and they will ask you as skeptics what do you believe? Well, it’s not about belief. Do you believe in ESP? It doesn’t matter if I believe in ESP. The only thing that matters is what is the evidence for ESP? It doesn’t make internal, logical sense.

It’s very important I think to present skepticism as a method of inquiry not a set of conclusions, not a set of beliefs. The other good thing about that is that it frees you from tying yourself, either your reputation or your ego to any conclusion. Because from day one you are up front saying “Hey, anything I have to say is subject to revision. I will change what I believe if the evidence warrants it.” I think that’s a necessary position to have.

Again, it’s not about faith. It’s not about a lack of faith, or a faith in any particular, unanswerable question. It’s not about belief, and it’s not about truth with a capital T. We are not after, because we can’t be after, the metaphysical certitude. We only can know what is the best answer evidence can tell us at the current time, always subject to future revision.

I think also, scientific skepticism, it’s important to define the arena of science. Again, methodological naturalism, what is the arena of science? It’s important to carefully define that, because that arena is under assault, and if you don’t know where the limits of that are, and what’s outside of the arena of science, then you won’t be able to stay focused on what scientific skepticism is all about. Also, it is based upon…If there is anything that can be termed a belief that is at the core of scientific skepticism, is that science works, that the last 300 to 500 years of the meta experiment of science, of methodological naturalism, has actually worked out quite well.

Carl Sagan said, “Science delivers the goods.” In a word, it works, and we accept that as a premise. It’s better than other ways of trying to know about nature. It’s better than authority. It’s better than revealed knowledge. It’s better than anything else humanity has come up with. There are some methods that are at the core of what we do.

All claims to knowledge should be critically analyzed. That means you don’t just believe something to believe it. You believe only in proportion to the evidence and that if someone’s making a claim, it is their job to prove that claim or to justify with logic and evidence. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Not all evidence is equal.

Some of these things may seem obvious. Again, I’ve been debating people who believe in the paranormal for a long, long time, and they don’t believe these things. These really are points of distinction between the skeptical viewpoint and the so called believer viewpoint. I’ve had people challenge me on that. “Well, no, evidence is evidence,” people might say to you in response.

Well, no. Anecdotal evidence is not the same as reproducible laboratory evidence with a hard outcome, and really crystal clear methodology. Those are different kinds of evidence. The burden of proof is entirely upon on the claimant. That’s actually more complex than it may at first seem, because you could actually phrase any claim as a negative, therefore, accepting something as probably true or probably not true, both could be considered claims.

What we really mean by that is if you’re making a claim that goes against the established knowledge or wisdom, whatever is accepted as being already proven, something that’s already met the burden of proof, if you’re trying to change that, you have to at least equal that with the burden of proof. Not all propositions are equal, in other words.

Also, it’s OK to say, “We don’t know.” If there’s insufficient evidence to arrive at a conclusion, you don’t have to make a choice. You could just say, “Really, we just don’t know what the answer to this question is.”

So, skepticism is a method, but scientific skepticism is more than…The method is the starting point, but it’s more than just a method. It is actually a body of knowledge. It actually should be an academic discipline, and it kind of is. It brings together a lot of different disciplines that all things that help us understand not only how we know what we know, but where the process breaks down – and these are areas of knowledge that, for anyone who wants to be an active skeptic, really needs to develop a certain fundamental knowledge base about this.

Listen to the rest of the talk at NYC Skeptics, An Introduction To Skeptical Activism.

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About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.


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