What is skepticism?
What is skepticism? People often use the term “skeptic” to refer to someone who disbelieves. And more often than not, it has an underlying derogatory tone. Popular movies, television shows and books frequently portray the “skeptic” as either the fool who is proven wrong, or worse, the villain. It has become unattractive not to believe, seen as denying the magic, miracles and other wonderfully unexplainable things in the world. But what is skepticism really? Would it shock you to learn that the generally accepted definition of a skeptic as being someone who doesn’t believe in anything, is wrong? If so, well then you better sit down. A skeptic is a person who has profound, even devout beliefs. A skeptic has faith. A skeptic believes in magic and miracles. So what makes a skeptic different from, let’s call them, non-skeptics? It’s quite simple. A skeptic has profound and devout beliefs in that which can be proven scientifically. A skeptic has faith in science to answer the questions of life and the world. Perhaps more importantly, a skeptic has faith in themselves to work towards positive change without seeking the help of an unseen higher being, or beings. And a skeptic believes in the magic and miracles of science. Yes, you read right, miracles of science. One of the most often cited examples of a modern day miracle is the birth of a child. So where do babies come from? The process of a child being conceived is a scientific one, whereby chemicals combine to create life. And in recent years science has granted people the gift of having children when their own biology tried to stop them. In-vitro fertilisation is a scientific miracle and one that skeptics certainly believe in. So basically, skepticism is a way of thinking and living, in which the skeptic does not automatically believe everything they hear or read. The skeptic questions, investigates, researches, tests and uses science to check the facts, find out more information and form their own conclusions.
Why is skepticism important?
So now you have more of an idea what skepticism actually is, why is it important? It’s important because there is so much incorrect, untrue and even dangerous information out there. In this day and age, gossip has become even easier to spread thanks to social media. Too frequently, someone receives a piece of information that they immediately believe, and pass it on to others. And this continues, with the potential for millions of people worldwide to be exposed to lies. Skepticism demands that extraordinary claims are supported by extraordinary evidence. Rather than instinctively forwarding information on to others, the skeptic will take the time to investigate the claim. If the evidence supports it, they will pass it on. However if it does not, the skeptic must choose whether to ignore this piece of information or actively discredit it. This might be a good time to note, there are two kinds of skeptics; active and passive. Passive skeptics will make the choice to ignore the incorrect information, whilst active skeptics will counter it with the truth. And all skeptics have the capacity to be both, depending on the information and the situation. On social media, amongst friends, it is much easier to be an active skeptic when telling people that a certain natural therapy’s claimed benefits are not supported by scientific evidence. However, if your elderly grandmother insists that your deceased grandfather is speaking to her from beyond the grave, it can be more difficult to start lecturing her on the lack of credible studies demonstrating the existence of ghosts. Skeptics are not heartless; well ok, some are. But so are some non-skeptics, so this is a moot point. The importance of skepticism lies in ensuring truth is spread while lies are voided as soon as possible. There are many claims out there, and skepticism ensures that these claims are supported by appropriate evidence. People spend a great deal of money on medicines, beauty products, therapies and services and skepticism ensures that this money is only spent on those which actually have benefits. Finances aside, social media is crawling with rumours, gossip and conspiracy theories, which can be very hurtful to people, groups or even entire countries. Skepticism seeks to prevent such harm by validating these stories through evidence. The importance of skepticism lies in the seeking and distribution of the truth, to protect people from the lies.
One of the most common activities of a skeptic is myth busting. This involves investigating commonly held beliefs to validate them. Contrary to popular belief, skeptics do not seek to disprove information, they simply seek to confirm it. Should the evidence be lacking, the myth is deemed busted. However if scientific evidence supports the claim, it becomes accepted as established fact. Many non-skeptics attempt to use this in reverse to discredit skeptics. They cite the example of believers many years ago being ridiculed for thinking the Earth was round, when it was later proven to be true. The truth, is that it was in fact the earliest scientists, Copernicus, Kepler and eventually Galileo, who asserted the Earth was round, and this claim was laughed off by the so-called believers; the church. In fact it was deemed heresy to even mention heliocentrism or a round planet. Sorry I digress; heliocentrism refers to the now well accepted fact that the Earth orbits around the sun, as do the other planets in our solar system. The church was in favour of the belief of geocentrism, that Earth was the centre of the universe. Years of scientific research and observation has now demonstrated that heliocentrism was correct, thus, the myth of geocentrism was busted. It need not be pointed out the huge impacts this has had on world history; exploration, mapping, discovery and travel. Similarly, when homeopathy was first proposed by Samuel Hahnemann in 1796, scientists attempted to validate his claims that massively diluted quantities of substances could cure medical diseases. To this day, no valid scientific studies have been able to demonstrate that homeopathy has any medical benefits at all. Another busted myth, with the potential to save people from seeking ineffective medical treatments and thereby, saving lives.
Why am I a skeptic?
Surprisingly, I get asked this question quite often. People seem to worry that being a skeptic causes some kind of emptiness in life and that is results in one being perpetually depressed and negative. Yet none that know me consider me depressed, empty or negative. Why? Because being a skeptic does not automatically make one miserable. True, I experience great anxiety and distress when lies are treated as truth, particularly when such lies cause harm to those that believe them. But I am happy. I am happy, not in spite of my skepticism, but because of it. I love the truth. I love that I live in a world where the truth can be found, even if it means wading through a pack of lies to find it. I am a skeptic because I love this world and the people in it. I want people to know the truth about everything and not be deceived. I want people to be empowered to seek the truth, examine the evidence, test the claims and form their own conclusions. Being a skeptic allows me to share knowledge and set the example for others. I am not a militant skeptic, and do not endlessly lecture everyone, however I will correct someone if they state something as fact which I know to be false. But I always do so in a respectful manner, seeking to educate, not attack. There are times when I have been forced to simply agree to disagree. Some people hold firm to false truths, for various reasons, and no amount of persuasion can change their minds. Whilst this can be frustrating, as a skeptic, I must remember that everyone has the right to believe whatever they choose. The life of an active skeptic can be challenging, but it is a challenge I accept gladly because I am dedicated to pursuing the truth and empowering others to do the same.