There are skeptics, and then there are skeptics

Reading an old post, it occurred to me that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about skepticism, enough so that perhaps it could stand a bit of clarification as to where it comes from, and why at least some people find it to be useful. In many circles – circles that spend a lot of time discussing ghost stories, or UFO encounters, or miracles, and so on – ‘skeptic’ is taken to mean ‘cynic’ or ‘disbeliever.’ There, the term is pretty much an epithet, derisive – not respectful, certainly. Very often, one can see any variation of phrases such as, “You just don’t want to believe,” or, “You don’t trust anybody.” Both of these are actually rather telling in themselves, and we’ll get to them in due time. First, let’s consider what skepticism, as a dedicated pursuit (rather than a description of attitude) really means, and why anyone would pursue it.

In short, it’s the bare recognition of how often, and in how many ways, we as a species can be wrong, and the best ways to try and prevent it. Our knowledge is imperfect, our senses limited, our interpretations too selective. On top of that, we are inundated with scams, hoaxes, agendas, and skewed viewpoints from those around us, so of course avoiding these really needs no rational support.

But on top of that there’s one other, crucial factor, a difference that is probably responsible for more of the clash than anything else. Some topics we have an emotional investment in; they make us feel better, or provoke a sense of wonder, or somehow substantiate something within us. Other topics we treat as functional, providing something of benefit to us as a species, topics that can predict, or lead to further knowledge. Our taste in music is emotional – it’s safe to say that we’re never going to use it to cure cancer or rid the world of blister packaging – while our interests in fuel efficiency are to solve a serious problem. While we still may have an emotional investment in such topics, they are typically ruled by practical considerations. It’s probably safe to say that neither approach is very distinct, with plenty of overlap, but the difference is best characterized by a much heavier emphasis on, for instance, the practical over the emotional.

Note that the poster in Fox Mulder's office, from The X-Files, does not say, "I believe" - this is quite possibly intentional. Amusingly, this subtle difference has been repeated wholesale by countless UFO proponents. Image © Alistair McMillan, cropped for this usage, licensed under Creative Commons.
Note that the poster in Fox Mulder’s office, from The X-Files, does not say, “I believe” – this is quite possibly intentional. Interestingly, this subtle difference has been repeated wholesale by countless UFO proponents.
Image © Alistair McMillan, cropped for this usage, licensed under Creative Commons.

In most subjects where the clash between believer and skeptic can be seen, this difference in outlook is often very prominent. Within emotionally important topics, the efforts are often to ‘open the door’ for possibilities, claiming that science hasn’t ruled them out, and that people should keep an open mind. There remains a lot of weight given to evidence, but not comparatively; conflicting evidence is often ignored or minimized, while hearsay accounts that support the topic are given significant weight. Skepticism, however, takes a more practical approach, trying to determine if the topic has usefulness or measurable effect. Note that this is in direct contrast to a cynical approach, which really is to dismiss topics out-of-hand, likely for emotional reasons – both can, naturally, fall on the same side of the topic of ghosts, but should not be confused; cynics also don’t weigh evidence comparatively.

[The amusing bit is, skeptics are very frequently accused of taking the same emotionally-biased approach that is used by believers, only on the opposite side of the topic – there remains the inner recognition that it’s possible to be influenced by emotions, yet it is virtually never considered for oneself in such cases. I also want to emphasize that ‘sides’ is a bit misleading, since topics should never be broken into binary, yes/no possibilities, but I use it here just to simplify – the paragraph would get unwieldy otherwise.]

I wish to express clearly that there is nothing wrong with favoring a topic for emotional reasons – it does not necessarily represent a flawed personality or irrational approach. But if we wish to convince others that some topic deserves closer inspection or is strong evidence in some manner, we should expect to encounter the skeptical approach, and be willing to demonstrate that our interests are not strictly personal.

Given all of that, what constitutes the skeptical approach? There are lots of little factors, but those listed below are probably the most common and overriding ones.

Accuracy – Determining the accuracy of any given account, statement, measurement, or other evidence is important, crucial to a firm understanding of what we’re dealing with. This especially applies to personal accounts and observations, since people are notoriously bad about estimations, details, and emotional bias. There is a marked difference between the raw information we obtain through our senses, and how we interpret it.

Alternative explanations – It is often easy to find some potential explanation for any given event or evidence… but is it the only explanation? In most cases, there can be myriad causes, and remaining blind to them is only a method of introducing bias. If we’re seeking a full understanding of something, trying to ferret out what really happened, then it’s important to recognize how many options there truly are. This goes hand-in-hand with…

Probability – It’s not enough to know a list of options; it’s also important to know how likely any of them might be. Treating them all as if they had an equal likelihood is ludicrous. In many cases, probability remains our only guideline towards understanding.

Consequence – Simply put, “If this explanation is true, it should have these effects.” In order for someone’s death to be considered an assassination by conspirators, there would have to be adequate motive and means to both commit the murder and disguise the intent. If Bigfoot exists, we should expect to see more evidence as time goes on and urban development reduces the number of hiding places. Explanations do not sit in a vacuum; they impact everything around them.

Perspective – Cows missing tongues and rectums certainly seems mysterious, but this is hardly any support towards extra-terrestrial visitation; even if such beings wanted tissue samples, why not keep the whole cow? Why not dispose of the remains effectively? What the hell is a cow tongue going to tell anyone? These questions usually go unasked, since it is a cultural meme that aliens collect cow tongues (as well as various other bizarre activities) – curiously, we somehow know this specific behavior even while not knowing where they’re from, what they eat, how they travel, or even having proven ET life in the first place. The ability to ignore the cultural emphasis or ready explanation to ask, “But does that work in any way?” is a useful trait.

Avoiding the trap of ‘common knowledge’ – As indicated above, there are a lot of bits of folklore around, as well as numerous things that we ‘know’ because they’re what everyone believes. All too often, these haven’t been established in any way and are, at best, assumptions – check out what’s so damaging about gluten, as an example (hint: nothing if you’re not allergic to it.) Many people believe that if they’ve heard a story enough times, that makes it trustworthy, but popularity doesn’t equate with verisimilitude.

Awareness of ‘false relation’ – Not everything can be considered evidence, and often, items are conflated together when they bear no relation whatsoever. While a light in the sky and a radar track can be considered corroborative, this should be only if they are in the same location and behave in a reasonably similar manner – it’s not, after all, hard to find a light in the night sky. The desire to support a hypothesis leads to finding anything at all to add to a list of evidence, but evidence should be distinctive; if it’s ambiguous, is it even useful?

And finally,

The evidence leads to the conclusion – and not the other way around. Anyone whose mind is made up ahead of time, who is looking to confirm their suspicions, who seeks only supporting evidence, is obviously working from an overriding bias. Skepticism requires no investment in the answer, no interest in being proven ‘right’ – if a conclusion is to be found (and this is not always the case,) then it comes from the preponderance of evidence, and not from wishing it to be true. Note that, on most of the topics that benefit from skepticism, what is being examined is whether the claim for extraordinary phenomena – conspiracies, ghosts, aliens, gods, psychic powers – has been adequately supported; if not, the answer remains null. Not that psychic powers has been disproven, but only that no one has yet provided proof. This mistake is made constantly. Also constant is the idea that, with no proven scientific explanation, some extraordinary one can be accepted by default – the religious are notorious for this one, but there can be nothing that is determined by a lack of evidence either way. Every proposal requires positive proof (this is called logic.)

So, as an exercise, let’s see how these apply to a typical subject: The JFK assassination. This is admittedly a superficial treatment, but shows how these factors work towards the interpretation of evidence; they can be applied to all other traits named in any conspiracy, and further, in any other mystical, paranormal, or even curious account.

While there are literally hundreds of different theories pointing to a conspiracy, this is actually a red flag rather than a ‘smoking gun’: How come there are so many different ones, and why can’t they come to agreement? While plenty of people seem confident in their evidence, there’s no consensus on what it’s evidence of [Accuracy, Consequence, Perspective, Common Knowledge.] Virtually everybody traces back to one simple factor: the Zapruder film showing Kennedy’s head snapping back and to the left – Oliver Stone made a very big deal of this in his movie, perhaps without ever realizing that it was the only thing that anyone could agree on, and it solely relies on the belief that, in order to occur, the force had to come from the front right [Accuracy, Common Knowledge.] Ballistics experts, as well as those who have seen active combat, disagree entirely, and even a basic knowledge of physics and gunshot wounds tell us differently, despite what movies portray: the force did not come from the initial impact of the high-speed bullet, but from the shockwave of its passage through the brain as well as, potentially, muscle reflex. Get rid of this, of course, and the agreed-upon evidence of a conspiracy collapses in shambles.

That’s far from being the only evidence ever quoted, but it’s the only distinctive one. It was what prompted millions of armchair detectives to try and find supporting factors, such as the ‘puff of smoke’ from the grassy knoll seen in the photograph, which no one can see unless they’re desperate [Accuracy, Alternative Explanations,] and the ‘doctored’ photograph of Oswald posing with the gun in his backyard while there are order receipts, multiple photos, testimony from acquaintances, and even the admission of his goddamn wife that he owned the fucking thing [Accuracy, Probability,] the ‘impossible’ trajectory of the bullet that injured Connally that is explained by his sitting position and deflection from bones, that no one has demonstrated how it could be otherwise [Alternative Explanation, Probability, Consequence, False Relation,] and of course, the number of people with motives and apparently huge resources at their disposal who somehow didn’t recognize that the President does not wield autonomous power and so assassination would not permit an abrupt change of power or policy [Alternative Explanation, Probability, Consequence.] I could go on for hours (for a more amusing commentary, click here.)

The point is, any one account, any book, any ‘special’ television program, can sound convincing if we accept them without the understanding that they can be inaccurate, in countless ways. But there’s a lot of money to be made from promoting conspiracy theories, and humans are somewhat prone to believing them. Viewed with the idea that they might, just might, be bullshit, the flaws can become readily apparent. The bullet that fell out of Connally’s leg in the hospital – that’s surely atypical! True, but how does it even remotely support a conspiracy? The conspiracy claim is that he sustained his injuries from multiple bullets, converging from several different angles. So, the ‘planted’ bullet was all the doctors and the Warren Commission used to establish the single bullet theory? The fatal bullet was never found, but no one suspects Kennedy was killed by a ghost. The desperation to find evidence to support a conspiracy is obvious, especially when the scenario of how such evidence fits together is somehow routinely neglected.

Interestingly, it shows how probability is only considered when it’s useful. The highly improbable event of the bullet simply falling out is evidence that someone planted it, but all of the other highly improbable aspects are routinely ignored. It’s more improbable, however, that someone somehow planted the bullet, knowing that a) it explained the nature of wounds no one could possibly have any knowledge of, so quickly after the event; b) both the doctors and the Warren Commission would be fooled by it; and c) someone was handy and had the damn thing in their possession to plant in the first place. The bias is obvious, and it can be found in nearly every aspect of any JFK conspiracy. Compare all of these, of course, against the idea that a disgruntled, hotheaded, trained marksman acted alone from the very place that he worked. This is how probability is usefully applied.

Occam’s Razor is often mentioned here, but it is actually of limited use, at least in its popular form. It is only an expression of probability, not a law unto itself. It’s even subject to interpretation. Given the myriad bits of evidence often seized upon by UFO proponents (in denial of the ‘false relation’ tool,) claiming that all of it is explained by an extra-terrestrial visitor seems to easily, simply, fit the bill. This is the appeal of the conspiracy theory as well, but it ignores two things. The first is, the ‘evidence’ was chosen precisely because it fits the scenario, often with the dismissal of anything else that contradicts it. The second is, there is nothing simple about extra-terrestrial life; the number of questions that can be raised about it is vast, as is the amount of information we would need to confidently establish it as proven. While I have personally encountered many people who assure me that we have more than adequate proof of life beyond this planet, no one has ever answered my questions of, “Where is it from?” and, “Does it have DNA, or perhaps an analog?” Many conspiracies rely on suppositions that would require more and more complication – “we don’t have evidence of that because the government is suppressing it” – which bears no evidence at all, and usually begins to extend the hypothesis to involving hundreds or thousands of people and a vast structure of deceit, all without any indication whatsoever. It becomes a wanton abuse of probability, almost always just to explain why their initial ‘evidence’ has none of the support we’d expect to see.

Carl Sagan was probably not the first to express the thought (but he certainly popularized it) of, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This underscores a mistake made very frequently: it is not up to anyone to disprove any given explanation; the burden is on those espousing it to demonstrate that it is likely, or fits the evidence best. I’ve said it before; the idea is not to concoct the plot of a novel, but to determine the most plausible set of events. The idea of a prehistoric or wildly anomalous freshwater creature living in a lake in Scotland is a great story, but just saying, “Maybe it got trapped in there during the glaciation many thousands of years ago,” isn’t really cutting it; how come this never happened anywhere else? How did it last for all these years? What does it eat, how does it reproduce, do you realize that many species in small populations all over the world go extinct constantly because small populations are unstable? Can we even find the evidence of the peculiar event that trapped it, since it’s pretty clear such events leave gobs of evidence behind?

There’s even a telling shortcut that I use all the time. It’s been well established that hoaxes and misinterpretations abound in the topics of ghosts and UFOs; anyone unaware of this is far too ignorant to bother with. Thus, it makes sense that the very first thing any investigator, reporter, or enthusiast should do is to try and rule these things out before going any further at all. For UFOs, did they check the astronomical reports, and the list of satellites and rockets boosters that would be visible at that time? For ghosts, did they check for a history of belief, or pay attention to how the witness was trying to market the story? Most times, you’ll see none of this, or any other efforts; the emphasis is on trusting the story, right from the start. In such cases I consider it safe to assume that no skeptical approach is being taken, and ignore the remainder of the ‘investigation’ – they’re not going to produce dependable evidence or conclusions.

Also useful is the ‘case for the prosecution’ angle: those promoting any scenario should be obligated to establish their case as if it’s being heard in court (the response to this has not been warm and open, I can tell you.) If their evidence is as solid as they claim, this should be easy, but typically, the evidence is unsubstantiated, hearsay, speculation, and excuses (see government suppression, above.) Our court system and standards of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ are there for a reason: if there isn’t really good evidence, the conclusion isn’t sound.

That’s a hint of how often the skeptical approach is used in areas other than UFOs and paranormal research and debunking religion. Police departments know to separate witnesses and compare their stories for discrepancies, and seek corroboration of all personal accounts. Scientific journals rely on experiments that not only test a conclusion, but actively rule out all other conclusions at the same time – and then, it’s up to other scientists to replicate the experiments, to eliminate the possibility of bias or mistakes or jumping the gun. Even with a healthy history of success and experience, the researcher does not expect to be taken at their word, but provides distinct measurements and references to other papers, tracing their way back to visible results rather than relying on mere testimony; you will never hear of the “reputable researcher” within journals, since that assumption is purposefully avoided as corrupt. Wikipedia does the same, to a fault [citation needed.] As Joe Friday said, “Just the facts.”

It’s another reflection of the difference in approach. Relying on ‘trust,’ believing eyewitness accounts, or failing to consider how wrong something might be is an emotional approach; very often it is openly expressed that it is cruel or cynical not to extend this trust. Yet, there are far too many ways for humans to be wrong, including being untrustworthy, that extending such trust automatically is naïve and impractical. It is not a judgment on the individual, but a knowledge of humans in general (and thus not to be taken personally, though it often is anyway.)

Nearly everyone places value in truth; no matter how pleasant some belief might be, if it’s false, it’s not really useful – that’s fantasy, or denialism, or even mental instability. But the desire for something to be true can have a radical effect on how we approach certain topics, skewing perspective and weighing factors unjustifiably. Skepticism is the recognition of this bias, and the attempt to eradicate it. No one can be said to be a perfect Skeptic – we all have biases of one kind or another, so it’s really just an approach, a method to ensure that what we’re seeing is the truth, as close as we can determine… and sometimes we need to remind ourselves to use it. It’s not foolproof, either, but remains the best method we’ve ever used to determine how our world really works.

*     *     *     *     *

While this was in late draft form, I came across this article by Sasha Sagan, the daughter of Carl Sagan; the first half, at least, expresses the skeptical approach quite aptly. Check it out! (It’s much shorter than my post above.) Also, the special attitudes displayed by many of those who seize onto conspiracies and paranormal explanations is examined in this post, as a counterpoint.

* * * * *

P.P.P [In the old days of letter-writing, “P.S.” stood for “post script,” meaning after the main body of the letter, and if you thought of something after that, it was a “post post script” – of course, this is a post post post] – I was just about to publish this when I found this article on addressing conspiracy theories. Just to make me look bad, note the image they used on page 2. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Cracked for the meticulous accuracy of their articles, but quite often they provide a lot of links sourcing their information, like this article on the NY Times site regarding the mindset of conspiracy theorists. It is admittedly a bit disturbing seeing how well I fit the profile, and of course leads to introspective consideration that my skepticism is another form of ‘taking control’ – I’ll leave you to speculate on whether it’s a legitimate method or not. The most telling trait that I’ve seen among conspiracy theorists, though, is the lack of response, action, or follow-through; while there are a lot of people who are quite confident that they know there’s something nasty going on behind our backs, not once have I ever found anyone that had any idea what to do about it – there’s no apparent interest in correcting it.