Many a TOK teacher has added spice to a discussion on the scientific method by tossing in, for critique, pseudoscientific knowledge claims made by astrologists, psychics, ghost hunters and the like. Guaranteed to ratchet up interest even further is the fact that a cool million dollars awaits anyone who can demonstrate “paranormal” ability. For many years, former magician James Randi has been working to counter the claims of pseudoscience and to spread scientific skepticism (or “scepticism” if you use British spelling). Putting his money where his mouth is–literally–he has been offering a million dollars to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal abilities. So far no one has been able to do that.
James Randi and his educational foundation (the “JREF”) is probably the most colourful element in a movement particularly strong in the United States but with many international parallels. In fact, any TOK teacher or student who has checked out knowledge claims which are not accepted by the “scientific establishment” is likely to have come across a blog, podcast, or book by a member of the so-called “skeptical movement.”
In fact, if you’ve been following this blog, you’ve likely noticed references to such podcasts as “Rationally Speaking”, “Point of Inquiry” and “The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe.” This isn’t surprising: in many ways, the purposes, topics, language, and issues common to the skeptical movement run throughout the Theory of Knowledge course. Virtually any topic connected to AOKs and WOKs is handled by “skeptics”. For example, any discussion of intuition, faith, the scientific method, language, the social sciences can be linked to a lively and current discussion in the skeptical community. Most fundamental, of course, is the question of how we can apply critical thinking to knowledge claims.
What does “skepticism” mean in this context?
Turning to such sources, however, can be a little confusing if you don’t have some background on the movement and its terms. First and most important is the word “skepticism” itself. The skeptical movement is closely associated with “systematic” or “scientific” skepticism. Like the TOK course, this movement is concerned with assessing evidence and gauging levels of probability or plausibility. It aims to treat knowledge claims as credible in proportion to the extent of current evidence, while acknowledging uncertainties.
Other uses of the word “skepticism” can create confusion as we look to scientific skepticism and the skeptical movement as a support for TOK thinking.
1. Philosophical “skepticism”, with its roots in Greek philosophers, is somewhat different, concerned as it is with difficulties of ever making any knowledge claim with certainty. Extreme skepticism results in accepting almost nothing as knowledge, since very few knowledge claims can be beyond doubt.
2. Another interpretation of the word “skeptic” is its popular association with “cynic”, or the common assumption that a skeptic is suspicious and detached. Not so! Where a cynic stands on the sidelines passing negative judgments on life and undertakings – witty ones if we’re lucky — a scientific skeptic is engaged in evaluating knowledge claims and looking for what best to believe.
3. Third, and genuinely misleading, is the use of the word “skepticism” in reference to “climate change skeptics” who reject the possibility of climate change, or “denialists” who insist that AIDS can’t possibly exist in their own societies or that the Nazi holocaust never happened. This kind of skeptic has sometimes been called a “pseudo-skeptic” because this skeptic is “in reality, a disguised dogmatist made all the more dangerous for his success in appropriating the mantle of the unbiased and open-minded inquirer”. (1) That is, these people call themselves skeptics to make themselves sound as if they’re scientific thinkers who won’t accept knowledge claims without evidence. In fact, they are simply rejecting good evidence that they don’t want to believe.
How is the skeptical movement useful to TOK?
Admittedly, some skepticism, though lots of fun for a Theory of Knowledge class, is of limited use for its subject matter (even though valuable for evaluation of justifications for knowledge claims). After all, the primary fodder for a lot of skeptical enquiry until fairly recently has been ghoulies and ghosties and long legged beasties–astrologists, Big Foot chasers, conspiracy theorists, alien spotters, ghost hunters, palm readers, iridologists, and the like. In short, it has centred on claims for which there is no solid evidence, but instead much “anecdotal evidence” – scattered stories that cannot be reliably generalized — and, often, some exchange of cash.
Nevertheless, much contemporary skeptical analysis can be rich source of examples for those who are interested in working through the connections between the principles of TOK and important societal issues, ones that affect human welfare. Purported (and remunerative) “cures” for diseases that threaten large numbers, fear mongering about vaccinations, dismissals of environmental impacts of some kinds of industrial, fishing or mining practice and so on seem increasingly to be subject to close analysis by scientific skeptics.
Turning to books, blogs and podcasts, the ToK student or teacher will, unsurprisingly, find a few repeated features. Prominent amongst them is the insistence that extraordinary claims (that is, claims contrary to currently understood science) require extraordinary evidence. (Celebrity testimonies and anecdotes, as skeptics repeatedly point out, do not constitute such “extraordinary evidence”! On the contrary.)
What the ToK student or teacher will find, in addition, is a lot of very familiar territory being covered and especially
- abuse of research data, published studies, and meta-studies
- cognitive biases, heuristics, and faulty logic
- the role of media in innocently or willfully distorting evidence
Turn to a skeptical site and expect to see a lot of reference to cherry picking, confirmation bias and anecdotal reportage. Perhaps helpful for those first turning to skeptical sites is a brief list of some of the common terms, hardly unique to the skeptical movement, but certainly common there:
1. “red flag“. A red flag is a trait of a knowledge claim that instantly makes the judicious reader or listener cautious. An extraordinary scientific “discovery” made by a single individual that has been the elusive goal of much well-funded research by institutions (such as cold fusion, or a perpetual motion machine) is a typical red flag–particularly when it is coupled with a request for donations for further research. Extravagant claims for a single “cure” covering a broad range of diseases, or claims to overturn the “medical establishment” are likewise “red flags”.
2. “hand waving.” Hand waving describes the kind of irrational dismissal of rational enquiry through use of vague or evasive language, appeal to intuition and the like.
3. “true believer.” A “true believer” is someone who will insist on believing in something contrary to all substantial or credible evidence. “I just know…” or “I don’t care what you say…” or “All I know is…” are typical gambits of the true believer.
4. “woo” (rhymes with “boo”). Woo is the belief in especially irrational or counter-scientific phenomena. Most paranormal and “New Age” beliefs in, for example, crystals, homeopathy, and faith healing are commonly considered “woo”.
As for the sites worth exploring, there are many. Because most of these are largely or partly maintained by volunteer enthusiasts, they are not consistently interesting. Likewise, much of the quality varies with the guests (often authors of papers or books) being interviewed. Some of these, too, swing at times toward general issues and at other times to reports on recent findings in human sciences or natural sciences. However, all of them are often a rich source of entertaining, stimulating, and thought-provoking argument into the nature of shared knowledge.
Below is a list of some of these sites, with the first two being my favourites.
Some Podcasts and Blogs
The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: “Your Escape to Reality” (news stories with a recurring interest in pseudoscience, astrophysics, developments in alternative energy, listener email responses, interviews, quiz games)
Rationally Speaking: “exploring the borderline between reason and nonsense, likely and unlikely, science and pseudoscience” (often with a philosophical angle)
Skeptically Challenged: “Throwing Down the Gauntlet to Pseudoscience”(often interview-based)
Inquiring Minds: “…in depth exploration of the place where science, politics and society collide” (often oriented to cognitive issues)
Reasonable Doubts: Your Skeptical Guide to Religion (an emphasis on religion)
Point of Inquiry: “the Center for Inquiry’s flagship podcast, where the brightest minds of our time sound off on all the things you’re not supposed to talk about at the dinner table: science, religion, and politics.”
Skeptic zone: “The podcast from Australia for Science and Reason”
NeuroLogica: (“Your daily fix of neurological science, skepticism and critical thinking”)
Skepchick: (casual and spontaneous format; emphasis on female issues)
What’s the Harm. (emphasis on quack medicine, pseudoscience and beliefs that have caused suffering and death)
Skeptical Science: (“Getting skeptical about global warming skepticism”)
Skeptical Inquirer: The mission of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry is to promote scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims…. Skeptical Inquirer is the official journal of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Six times per year Skeptical Inquirer publishes critical scientific evaluations of all manner of controversial and extraordinary claims, including but not limited to paranormal and fringe-science matters
Junior Skeptic: A branch of Skeptic Magazine–requires subscription fees.
(1) Wilson, Richard (2008-09-18), “Against the Evidence”, New Statesman (Progressive Media International), ISSN 1364-7431