Tag Archives: Skepticism

Skeptical, Evidence Based Thinking

Be skeptical, not cynical

According to George Hrab, being skeptical — as opposed to being cynical or denialist — is a good thing. Doubts and reservations are the backbone of science and reason and have led to some of humanity’s greatest achievements.

He is a musician, a comedian, a storyteller, and a skeptic. He has written and produced seven independent CDs and one concert DVD; published two books; recorded hundreds of episodes of an award winning podcast; and has emceed numerous international science conferences, all while being the drummer for The Philadelphia Funk Authority. He’s travelled to four continents promoting critical thinking, science, and skepticism through story and song.

He says he is considered one of the preeminent skeptic/science/atheist/geek-culture music icons currently living in his apartment. (Whaaaat? Yup, that’s what he says.)

For about the first four minutes of this talk, he discusses Jenny McArthy and the anti-vaccine movement she helped to found. She popularized a fraudulent 1998 study that claimed to link the MMR vaccines most children are required to get with autism.

Jenny McCarthy - not very skeptical
Photo by planetc1

She even claimed her own son got autism from the shots, but Hrab points out that what he actually had was something else with no connection to the shots and that he is doing well now, a few years later.

The study was later withdrawn by the scientific journal that published it and the researcher lost his right to practice medicine, because of his fraudulent and unethical methodologies. Many studies done since have shown no link between the vaccinations and autism, but it is difficult to undo the harm that was done by believing bad science non skeptically.

He points out that Jenny McCarthy is not a bad person. She just isn’t very skeptical, so she drew wrong, harmful conclusions.

  • He advocates evidence based thinking and embracing your doubt.
  • When you hear a new piece of information, say, “Whaaaaat?”
  • “Every time you look on the Web,” he says, “Every time you receive a piece of email … pretend it’s April 1st.” April Fool’s Day. You don’t want to be the fool. Don’t assume everything is wrong; just check the evidence. If there’s no evidence, then don’t hesitate to doubt. Be skeptical.
  • Don’t be afraid to doubt. Doubt drives the engine of science.

Everybody should be skeptical

“Everyone is susceptible,” he says. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote Sherlock Holmes, believed in fairies in the garden. Little flying girls with butterfly wings. The only way to avoid believing a lot of nonsense is to be skeptical.

“Most important,” he says, “Don’t take my word for it.”


What does it mean to be a skeptic?

detectiveWhat does it mean to be a skeptic, or to be skeptical?

Being a skeptic means learning to be like a detective and question anything that’s important enough to deserve questioning. It doesn’t mean refusing to believe things. It means following the evidence.

I try to be skeptical of everything that’s important enough to question until I have evidence one way or the other.

I don’t question the loyalty of friends and family, because I’ve experienced their loyalty over and over again; and I’m equally loyal to them. The evidence is in the long past together and the loyalty has been demonstrated over and over, so there’s no longer any need to question it.

Neither will I question things that aren’t worth the energy. For example, if you tell me you’re hungry, I’ll believe you. You’re the expert on that question, and you are the one who may suffer if you make a misstatement about it. I have no reason to doubt your word.

However, people believe in many things for which there is no evidence and which must therefore be doubted. Some of these things are:

1. Gods, angels, demons, devils, jinns, genies, immortal souls and spirits, fairies, elves, leprechauns, and any invisible or supernatural beings or essences.
2. The War on Drugs.

I’m not usually a conspiracy theorist, but it’s clear the “war on drugs” in the United States has become little more than a conspiracy to steal personal property from its rightful owners.

Have you heard of “forfeiture?” It’s a system that actually encourages crooked law enforcement agencies to steal your house, your car, the money in your bank account, and everything else you own! And keep it! And the individuals involved get rewarded for their crime. All they have to do is claim your property was involved in some way with a drug crime.

Notice I said claim; not prove. They can seize it, and usually keep it, even if they never charge you with a crime! You don’t believe me? You’d better! It is happening all around us. Right here in the USA! You could be next. I could be next. And it’s scary!

3. Creatures visiting earth from other places in the universe.

Could be, I suppose, but not likely. Other stars are just too far away, and it’s unlikely they would come from anywhere else. At the speed of light, it would take four and a half years to get here from the nearest one. Then it seems likely they would eventually want to go back home. That’s nine years minimum travel time. And it’s very unlikely they’d be travelling anywhere near that fast.

OK, maybe they figured out how to break the speed-of-light limit. But, at present, that doesn’t appear to be possible. Or maybe they live so long that nine years away from home doesn’t seem like so much to them. Well, maybe. As long as we’re just “maybe-ing,” maybe just about anything might be possible. I just said I’m skeptical. I didn’t say I’m sure.

4. I’m equally skeptical of the idea that there are NO intelligent beings in any other part of the universe.

There probably are many different species of intelligent beings scattered around the universe far smarter than we are. How many? I have no idea. It’s become almost certain, of course, that earth is the only home of intelligent life in this solar system, even though several other places still may harbor life of some kind. But it seems incredibly unlikely that earth would be the only place in the entire universe where an intelligent species could be found.

The universe is HUGE, and contains an unimaginable number of stars. Estimates range up to 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, or a trillion trillion stars just in the part we can see. The part we call “the known universe.” If that’s true, and if just one out of a billion supports an intelligent civilization, that would be a million billion civilizations in the known universe. Didn’t I say the universe is big?

Admittedly, those are some very rough approximations. But even if they are off by a factor of a million, that would still leave an estimated billion other intelligent races in the known universe. And it’s anybody’s guess how much larger the rest of the universe might be that we can’t even detect.

Of course, we could debate whether or not even earth has indigenous intelligent life.

5. Creationism.

If God created us, He did a pretty lousy job of it. And we have to ask who created Him.

6. That sex without marriage is always bad.

In my admittedly limited experience, it’s usually been pretty good, as a matter of fact.

7. That humans are inherently either bad or good.

Only Santa Claus knows for sure, and he has to keep a list; but I’m skeptical.

8. That we’re as smart as we like to give ourselves credit for.

Look around. Sure, you and I are geniuses. But how many other really smart people do you know?

9. Heaven or hell as places of eternal life or punishment.

I have seen no evidence. Furthermore, a kind and loving god could never have created such a place as the hell the Bible describes. There’s nothing  kind or loving about it. And nobody has ever described a convincing visit to heaven.

10. An infallible Bible, or Qur’an, or any other infallible book.

Regardless what people say, it’s ridiculously easy to show many errors and contradictions in the Bible. The problem is getting believers to admit it. The Qur’an probably has fewer, because it was written later in history when more reality was known, but the “infallible word of God” would have none.

11. Fate, destiny, or predestination.

“Your future has not been written yet. Write it well.” (from Back to the FutureI realize there are plenty of skeptics who disagree with this, and I admit I may be wrong.

This is what skeptics do. We understand that even our beliefs are tentative until we have convincing evidence.

12. Immortality.

Although technology may sometime make our descendants virtually immortal. Maybe relatively soon.

13. Virgin births, resurrections, ascensions to heaven.
14. Walking on water (without technological help), turning water to wine (without biological help), burning water (as Elijah is supposed to have done), producing striped livestock by putting the parents where they will see a striped environment (as Jacob is supposed to have done).
15. A 6000-year-old universe, or earth, or human race, as many Christians and Jews believe.

There’s more than adequate evidence that modern humans have been here for at least 195,000 years, that earth has existed for about 4.55 billion years, and that the universe is an awful lot older still. (The current estimate is about 13.7 billion years).

16. Anti-assisted-suicide laws.

Why should any government have a right to prevent a suffering person from dying quietly, painlessly, and with dignity? It should be the patient’s choice. A brave man like Dr. Kevorkian should be treated as a hero; not prosecuted and persecuted as a criminal madman.

17. That an embryo a few days old is a “person” in any significant sense.

There’s nothing magic about the moment an egg and a sperm come together. A clump of undifferentiated cells in a womb is not a person any more than an acorn is an oak tree.

18. When somebody says any of the following:
  • “It’s not the money. It’s the principle.”
    It’s nearly always the money.
  • “It’s easy.”
    It may be easy for somebody, but probably not you or me.
  • “I mailed it yesterday.”
    This one needs no explanation. Just be cautious. Maybe he’ll mail it today or tomorrow, if you’re lucky.
  • “The Lord did it.”
    Hogwash! Whoever did it wasn’t “the Lord.”

Make Today Your Independence-From-Religion Day

This man’s story is little different from mine and about a million other people’s. But he tells it much better than most of us can.

He  just tells his own story, and does not urge you to follow. But I do. I urge you to declare today your FREEDOM FROM RELIGION DAY, but only if you want to believe real true stuff instead of stone-age superstition.

Gay Choice?

LGBT rainbow flag
LGBT rainbow flag

I have a very close friend who makes lots of authoritative-sounding pronouncements about many different subjects. They sound especially authoritative because we all know how much smarter and better educated he is than most of us. Recently he made the proclamation that homosexuals choose to be homosexual and there is definitely no such thing as a “gay gene.” He said he knows that because he studied genetics in college, neglecting to mention that it was almost 60 years ago.

But the fact is that nobody knows YET whether or not there is a “gay gene.” Much less 60 years ago when he was in college. (He’s a medical doctor; so he’s had a lot more training since then. I don’t know how much of it involved genetics, but evidently not enough.)

Most likely there is NOT a single gene that turns homosexuality on or off, but there may very well be a few genes that work in concert (when present, as we see in cancer, for instance) that may affect a person’s sexual desires and attractions. Homosexuality is present naturally throughout most of the animal kingdom — maybe more than most people realize — and I see no reason to think humans would likely be exempt.

Could you — if you are a heterosexual man — have chosen to be gay? When you were 9 years old, or 15, or 19, as many gays are when they realize they are “different” in that way? Could you have chosen to find other males sexually attractive instead of women?

I don’t believe any normal, healthy, heterosexual man could have possibly made that choice. And even if it were possible, why would anybody ever want to change himself in such a way? Just to rebel against society or God and bring major discrimination upon himself? Not likely.

Same questions apply to women and girls in reverse, of course.

We can choose what we do, but not what we are. I am a 74-year-old heterosexual man; and I don’t believe it would ever in my entire life have been possible for me to choose to be homosexual. And being heterosexual, I can’t imagine myself ever enjoying homosexual behavior.

For around 15 or 20 years, I used to have a middle-aged gay barber. Actually, a hair dresser. Several times we talked as he cut my hair. He told me once he had never in his whole life been sexually attracted to any woman. I believe him.

Homosexuals choose what they do or don’t do, just as the rest of us choose what we do or don’t do. But I don’t agree that they choose what they ARE. Whether it’s genetic or environmental (possibly in utero), or more likely some combination of the two, all the evidence indicates they are either born homosexual or become homosexual in very early childhood. It is NOT an adult choice.

Of course, all of the above applies equally to people all along the sexual spectrum, from hetero to bi to homosexual and if there be any other. All the evidence indicates the matter is settled during early childhood. Very possibly even sooner.

Do we all have a little Rain Man inside us?

This young man has incredible mental powers that we’d probably all love to have. With his help, it might be possible for scientists to find ways for us to have at least some of them . . . maybe.

It’s supposed to be real, and I think it probably is, but never forget to be skeptical. Just because there’s a video doesn’t make it real. If it is, we’ll probably hear more about this amazing young man.

Inerrant Except for . . .

An American family Bible dating to 1859.
American family Bible dating to 1859.

I had a very interesting visitor this morning. A physical therapist. (I’ve seen more than my share of medical-type people for the past couple of years.) She saw my Kindle and asked me what I read.

“Mostly science,”I said.

“What kind of science?”

“My two main interests are cosmology and biological evolution.”

It turned out she was a new earth creationist.

We discussed our differences briefly (and in a very friendly way) as we finished up my therapy for the day. Then it was time for her to go, but I imagine these subjects will come up again in future sessions.

Her insistence that the Bible, as originally written, was the infallible word of God, reminded me of yesterday’s post. It also reminded me of my father, who died many years ago. Dad used to go even further than my therapist. He said the King James Version was the perfect and infallible word of God in English.

“Well, except maybe for one thing,” he added. Dad thought the commandment that says “Thou shalt not kill” should have been translated “Thou shalt do no murder.” He believed this because he believed certain kinds of killing (self-defense, for instance) are not wrong and not murder. “But that’s the only mistake,” he would add. “The rest of the King James Version is God’s Word, and it was translated into English without any other mistakes.”

I agree completely that killing is sometimes justified. I also remember my father with love and respect. Still, I smile at the way Biblical literalists and inerrantists have to rationalize to justify their beliefs.

The Inerrant Bible?

I knew a preacher many years ago who happened to be the father of the most beautiful 19-year-old girl in the world at that time. At least, I thought she was. I was 21, and I wanted to marry her. But the thing I want to remember now is that he couldn’t understand why anybody would doubt or question the Bible. He said (and I’m quoting from memory), “Why would anybody question the Word of God? If God said something, then it must be true.”

Even then, when I believed our favorite national superstition (Christianity), I understood the problem with that argument. Yes, if God said something, it would presumably be true. But first, we have to be sure God actually said it. Not everybody believes the Bible is actually the Word of God. Or that God even exists, for that matter. (I did, but I hope it is obvious that I don’t any more.)

Listen to James “The Amazing” Randi discuss just one of the very many reasons why one might doubt the accuracy of the Bible.