From the Editor
By Edvard A. Hemmingsen
The lead article in this issue, on science and its methods, brings back a matter that has been fleetingly raised and dealt with at a couple of our public meetings. Are skeptics too negative? Or, rather, are skeptics perceived as being too negative?
I am a skeptic, but not a SKEPTIC. Let me explain. Like Jim Enright, who wrote this article, I am a scientist, and that plays a part in how I view the world around me and the events and phenomena that occur. Yet, this does not mean that I bring with me all the rigorous rules for testing and validation to issues and claims I need to evaluate in my daily life.
Whether or not I accept, at some level, the explanation of a phenomenon--or conditionally a given hypothesis--depends on many factors. Primarily, does the explanation or hypothesis conflict with known physical laws, our well tested and proven knowledge about nature and the limited set of observations and testing that I can do personally? Does it conflict with "common sense", that undefined entity formed by life-long experiences and logical reasoning? And finally, does the explanation involve untestable components, using unnecessary assumptions, chosen over a testable simpler explanation?
If there is an affirmative answer to any of these questions, I take a skeptical attitude. Although I do not need scientific "proof" for every idea or hypothesis put forward--that is neither feasible nor practical--I do ask for supporting objective evidence and the absence of conflicts with the basic laws of nature. Mysterious waves and energy fields radiating from our bodies, for example, do not fall into this latter category.
This is, a bit simplified, the core of my skepticism. It is far removed from the philosophy expounded by the classical skeptics of old Greece who questioned everything, and the revival of this philosophy with anti-science overtones by the post-modernists of our day.
Could my views be perceived as negative? Some time ago I ended up in a discussion about alternative medicine with a group of friends. Regular readers of this newsletter probably know my critical views about many of the new "therapies" sheltered under this particular umbrella. I was somewhat surprised by the reactions of some people in the group, none of whom I had ever considered to be irrational.
One reaction was: "You skeptics are not open-minded and are against new things." Yes, that may be a valid charge but only if the new things involve mystical and supernatural phenomena without supporting factual evidence. If the new things are supported by evidence, then in my experience skeptics in general seem less conservative and more open to enlightenment than the average person. And the incredible advances in technology and knowledge, including medicine, have come about by the use of rational thinking and experimentation to assemble bit by bit the facts that prove the laws of nature. Mysticism which we see practiced even today in some of the "new medical therapies" has not contributed to this progress. We should be glad that most of it was left behind in the Middle Ages.
Another reaction in our discussion was that "skeptics should not be crutch-kickers. They should not demolish the psychological crutches that other people use to get along in the world. As long as these crutches do not unduly infringe on the rights of others, the crutches should be allowed to stand." A point to ponder, because we do not want to unkind or even cruel. However, one wonders how the need for such psychological crutches arose in the first place; certainly exposure to skepticism did not put them on crutches. Did this need for crutches arise by indoctrination, brainwashing and irrational psychological assaults, as we see in some cults, religions and extreme political movements? If so, it may be best not to interfere; most persons would be too deeply set in their belief system to change.
However, if the need for crutches was caused by lack of information, education and critical thinking, then the message of the skeptics could have a positive impact. These are the people who may not perceive skeptics negatively, and they are the ones we should try to reach, to help them discard their so-called crutches.
Indeed, SDARI attempts to do this by informative monthly public lectures and this newsletter. Our intent is to encourage rational thinking by education and by providing facts about all aspects of life. We like to think that such attempts are not negative!