Skepticism 101: In Which I Say What Skepticism Is, and Shoot a Video

It’s a good question, that, “What is skepticism?” A lot of folks hear the word “skeptic” and seem to equate it with party-pooper, cynic, or knee-jerk contrarian. If your party includes belief in woo, then we’ll cop to the first. But skepticism isn’t about being a dour old cynic, or doubt for the sake of doubt.

It’s not a belief system. There’s no master list of positions you must hold in order to be a skeptic.

Being a skeptic isn’t something you are so much as do. Because, you see, skepticism is a tool. It’s a way of detecting bullshit. It’s a set of methods applied to assess the truth of a claim. It saves you from falling for Nigerian princes and people who claim there’s a curse upon you which can only be lifted by silly rituals and the application of generous funds to the fortune teller.

And that’s what we tried to impress upon the audience at GeekGirlCon: skepticism is a tool, or rather a tool kit. I’ll show you mine.

I’ve got doubt in there. I add a healthy pinch of it when people proclaim things. But doubt by itself is rather useless. It’s no good going round doubting absolutely everything forever. That doesn’t make you a skeptic, it makes you a particular brand of philosopher or a fool. So I rummage about in the box a bit and come up with reason. Does the claim sound reasonable? Is it logical? Even then, it’s not always right. Perfectly reasonable and logical things can end up being absolutely untrue. So I’ll grab my evidence hand lens and take a really close look. Has the claim got evidence backing it, good, strong empirical evidence? Is the source it’s coming from someone who’s proved themselves correct in the past? Do others with a track record for good critical thinking and experience in the field that claim touches on find it credible? Is the mechanism claimed one that fits with what’s currently known about the way the world works? Are there conflicts of interest? Does the person making the claim have ulterior motives that might make them shuffle contrary evidence under the rug? Are there other ways of interpreting things that lead to a better answer?

There’s a lot of questioning involved. I don’t always do that questioning methodically. And I’m not always right. But I’ll tell you, I get taken in a lot less these days than I was before I started using this tool kit. And the longer you use it, the easier it is.

Now it’s confession time, because Case asked us if there was anything we used to believe in before skepticism changed our minds? And I have to tell you, although some of you already know: I used to be woo-girl. UFOs? Believed in ’em. Magic? Couldn’t do it worth a crap, but totally believed there had to be some functioning magic somewhere in this big wide world. Ghosts? Absolutely. Gods? Had an entire pantheon. Life after death? Yup. Super spiffy cures for various diseases the medical establishment was keeping us from? You betcha. In fact, I’d believe about any pseudoscientific argument someone put in front of me, because I wanted to believe the world was full of supernatural numminess. And, cherry on top, I belonged to a half-assed doomsday cult with pagan overtones and Christian roots back in high school. Oh, yes. That was me: trying to save the world from demons. Totally.

But there was one particular bit of woo I believed in that was probably the first to fall to skeptical inquiry: crystal magic. I’ve done you up a nice video that illustrates how I was taken in and how I got taken out:

I love that little piece of rutilated quartz. It doesn’t have to have magic powers. The truth of it is far more amazing to me now.

You may ask how I was taken in by something so bloody stupid as the idea that a bit of quartz with titanium in could predict the future. Look, I was in middle school. I hadn’t any critical thinking skills to speak of. I wasn’t quite ready to believe all that was claimed of it, mind – even living in Sedona, surrounded by New Age woo and crystal shops, I hadn’t really come to believe that rocks had any special powers. But a friend of mine believed, and she “proved” to me that the stone worked as advertised by having it predict which house my parents would buy. Mind you, it at first predicted we’d buy every house we saw. But once she recalibrated it (claiming “yes” and “no” must have become mixed up during the trip), and it steadfastly said no to every house until the one my parents eventually bought, I became a believer. After all, we hated that house. How could it possibly be chance that the stone had picked that very one?!

I didn’t know then about the very tiny hand motions that could make the stone swing at the end of a string, or confirmation bias, or how it could end up being right purely by random chance. I bought my own bit of rutilated quartz and went to town. And then spent a devastated afternoon weeping on a hillside because it had predicted I’d die in July of 2008. I’d be so young! It was tragic! Totally unfair!

And, obviously, completely wrong, because they pronounced me alive when I went to our on-site medical clinic last week.

Eventually, I started testing it to see if the stone would move without human contact. It did! It really did! It would swing when tied to the end of a stick (that I was holding), and it would sometimes even swing weakly if I stuck the stick it was tied to into a piece of furniture. But it wasn’t as strong as when I was holding it directly. This, my darlings, is why you have to be careful when experimenting: an experiment is only as good as its design, and my design was teh suck. It allowed too much random movement and subtle human influence. If I’d just tied the damned thing to a lamp in the first place, I might have been a skeptic much sooner.

But I eventually got there. The misses piled up; the hits were too few. I learned that no matter how stable your hand seems, it’s still making tiny movements that translate into a rather dramatic bit of motion when you’re dangling an object on a string. I learned that if you tied the string to something more stable than a stick stuck in furniture, the stone stayed stone still. I learned about science, and the scientific method, and how to ask questions, and how easily people can be deceived, and how the brain puts patterns together, and a plethora of other things that added up to what I am now: a skeptic and an atheist.

I ran from those things for too long because I didn’t think I could bear to live in a world without magic. But I’ll tell you something: the world has still got magic in it. Just not the supernatural kind. Is it any less wonderful? No: it’s more full of wonder now than it ever was back in the Days of Woo.

But that’s another story, one we shall be coming to very soon.

I’ll turn the floor over to you now, my darlings. If you’ve any stories of skepticism rescuing you from woo that you wish to share, by all means do so.

Skepticism 101: In Which I Say What Skepticism Is, and Shoot a Video
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10 thoughts on “Skepticism 101: In Which I Say What Skepticism Is, and Shoot a Video

  1. 1

    There’s a lovely event I don’t know that I’ll ever get back to known as the East Coast Gem and Mineral Show. It appeals to three big groups; geology nerds, artists, and crystal magic enthusiasts. Having missed the particular bit of woo, I was fascinated as I hiked up and down the aisles, carrying my pretty samples and strings of stone beads and fossilized shark teeth and lucite bug jewelry and… Okay, we need not discuss the absurdities of my shopping list. There’s a whole world of woo there that I didn’t have the remotest idea about. Funny how these things are so bright and consuming for some and totally foreign to others.

    Because I’ve indulged in my share of woo. Mostly when I was younger and just wanted to have magic powers, which I wandered away from pretty quickly after a lack of results. I do recall particularly two moments of skeptical clarity that I find fairly defining.

    One was in college, early freshman year. I’d finally escaped my Catholic home and was free to not go to church, and I opted to experiment with hanging around the pagan group at school. They had so much fun! Sure, they were bizarre about it and took things seriously that seemed to me just gleeful, but how else was I going to have an excuse to dance barefoot on the athletic fields to a goatskin drum and tambourine all Halloween night?

    A few days later I was walking with a friend and a girl who’d been there on Halloween hollered down to me to wait. She explained that something had told her to talk to me. She mostly talked to my friend, since I couldn’t muster nearly the enthusiasm, and I’ve forgotten most of that odd conversation. Somehow, she got around to the statement, “I don’t believe in Western Medicine.” She definitely pronounced it with capital letters. I didn’t tell her off at the time (I wish I had). I was just confused. I called her a flake and my friend defended her and that was the last time I brought it up, but the weird denial of reality and the tragedy of it (frankly, this girl pretty clearly would have benefited from a careful regime of evidence-based psychiatric medicine) stuck with me. I didn’t go back to any pagan society meetings and by the end of that semester I was calling myself an atheist.

    A more recent moment was less a moment of skepticism in itself and more the realization that I hadn’t been applying it. I come from a family with a lot of dreadful musculoskelatal troubles, mostly in the joints, and I walk with a cane at the age of twenty-three. My dad’s worse off than I am, and when I was younger, he was always seeing one chiropractor or another. We met a lot of them through our martial arts school (which was another source of woo, but that was optional). He sent me to one once, and the guy just ran me through some exercises and taught me a massage technique that helped out with some of the most problematic discomfort. It was a perfectly reasonable experience.

    As I got further into skeptic blogs and activities, I saw chiropractic coming up a lot. I was defensive at first, since a chiropractor had been so helpful to me and my dad and I knew and liked a lot of them. As far as I knew, chiropractors just did some therapeutic massage and exercise. I read further to discover all the very weird beliefs and the not-overly-safe adjustment techniques. I’d thought of chiropractic as pretty much physical therapy without wondering why they didn’t just, you know, go into physical therapy. Because I’d had a good experience and some friends, I’d gone along without examining a small facet of my world. Finding blind spots to address is as useful as applying skepticism to new ideas.

  2. 2

    I belonged to a half-assed doomsday cult with pagan overtones and Christian roots back in high school. Oh, yes. That was me: trying to save the world from demons. Totally.

    So you were Buffy?

  3. 3

    I remember a science teacher–I think it was in junior high, but perhaps grade school–tell the class that water goes down the drain one way in the northern hemisphere and a different way in the southern hemisphere (I have since forgotten which ways). At some point I decided to see if that were true by observing water going down a drain (duh). It’s not true. Water sometimes goes down the drain clockwise and sometimes counterclockwise. In fact, you can change the direction by pouring the water on one side of the drain or the other. Sometimes the water even changes directions of its own accord. I’m no expert on gravity, but I’m not aware of any aspect of it that would affect water drainage.

    Does anyone know where this myth about water drainage came from?

  4. 4

    On a large scale coriolis effect does make things like storms swirl counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere & clockwise in the southern. For smaller scale things like bathtubs a small initial swirl from the way the water entered the tub completely overwhelms the coriolis effect.

    I recall a film of an experiment in which the experimenters set up a tub a few meters across & let the water sit for days to settle before pulling the plug & in that case the other effects were small enough that coriolis did make things swirl the right way.

  5. 5

    […] Skepticism 101: In Which I Say What Skepticism Is, and Shoot a Video Being a skeptic isn’t something you are so much as do. Because, you see, skepticism is a tool. It’s a way of detecting bullshit. It’s a set of methods applied to assess the truth of a claim. It saves you from falling for Nigerian princes and people who claim there’s a curse upon you which can only be lifted by silly rituals and the application of generous funds to the fortune teller. […]

  6. 6

    Your teacher should have specified standing water.

    It’s the Coriolis effect. And it’s real, not woo. Caused by the Earth’s rotation.

    What you did with your experiment was overcome the Coriolis effect with momentum. The effect is pretty small — after all, if it were large, we’d be constantly careening to one side.

    Here’s an experiment. Flush your toilet. Which way does the water swirl? Fill a kitchen sink with water, then pull the plug. Which way does the water swirl. Same direction, I’ll predict.

    No matter how many times you do the experiment, the water will only swirl in one direction. Counter-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, clockwise in the Southern. And right at the equator, pretty much straight down.

  7. 7

    Fantastic bit of skepticism. For those of you who are unaware, this woo weapon of choice, the crystal method (*snrk*) relies on the ideomotor response — the same tiny involuntary movements that provide the engine for Ouija boards and dowsing. If you think about something moving in a direction, you’re going to make it move in that direction by virtue of the very tiny motions of your hand translating into the amplified movements of the thing at the end of the string / stick / whatever.

  8. 8

    For a good dose of such healthy scepticism, check out Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel. In every show the crew examines either a myth from popular culture or common movie/tv effects to see if they’re true or work in the real world. They do it just like dhunter does up above: by devising experiments that prove or disprove the myths. And sometimes they discover that the myths are true (for example, it is indeed possible to put a wetsuit over a tuxedo, swim underwater for a long time, emerge on a yacht, and then remove the wetsuit with the tuxedo still immaculate).

    All children should watch the show; hell, so should adults. Mythbusters is science in action. And, by the way, the two principals on the show are on record as atheists.

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