Friday, January 23, 2009

Skepticism: The Pocket-Size Scientific Method

[Cross-posted at Salt City Skeptics]
Sam, the lone skepdude blogger at Skepchick, co-runs the Houston area skeptics group (Space City Skeptics... I swear I didn't steal the alliterative name and the SCS acronym) just put up a post called "What Is Skepticsm?" and I loved what he had to say so much I wanted to touch on some of it here.

You may have seen my own "What is Skepticism?" post here, and Sam touches on a lot of the same ideas. But he said a couple things that expand on these ideas beautifully. Here's the butchered-to-hell version of some highlights for you lazy people, but you really should go read the whole post.

...The scientific method is the single most valuable tool ever conceived for understanding the universe around us ... The conclusions we draw from doing good science are as honest and as accurate as anything can be. Science is that powerful.

But the scientific method is problematic; at least where regular folks are concerned.

It’s just not practical to apply the scientific method fully to everyday claims and situations. I mean, there are phenomena we encounter on a daily basis that spark our curiosity, and our desire to discover. Perhaps strange things are happening at the old lake house, and we want to know if it’s haunted. Perhaps the claims of homeopathic medicines pique our interests, and we want to know if they really work. Perhaps our co-workers insist the bright lights in the sky last night were alien space craft, and we want to know if that’s true. Unfortunately, the majority of us simply don’t have the means to set up lab experiments, test hypotheses, repeat the tests, have peer groups study our data and scrutinize our tests and repeat them, and have independent lines of inquiry from all over the world repeat the process. The scientific method is just too bulky and cumbersome for us in this regard.

That’s where skepticism comes in.

We can view skepticism as an express version of the scientific method; sort of a travel or pocket version that we can apply to everyday claims, ideas, and situations. It is a tool that basically does the same thing as the scientific method — it relies on evidence and the analysis of that evidence to draw conclusions that are most probably true — but it’s more practical for regular folks to use at any time, because it can be applied without the attendant “ceremony” of a scientific experiment. We basically become a one-person research team.

If we observe phenomena, or encounter outrageous claims, or hear seemingly amazing ideas in our everyday lives, we can deploy our pocket scientific method. Without the formality of a full-on scientific review, we can examine any related evidence that may be present. We can leave any biases we may have behind and rely on a critical analysis of the evidence to discover what is most probably true about the phenomena; the lake house is just old and creaky, homeopathic medicines are basically just water, and the lights in the sky were probably just the Goodyear Blimp.

Nice work Sam! I love the idea of skepticism as the pocket version of the scientific method. :)

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