I’m passionate about a lot of things. Aside from geology, meteorites, and space science, I can easily geek out over beer, coffee, Star Trek, Firefly, duck fat (best thing ever for roasted potatoes), and a certain online video game whose name I will not mention. Another topic that I love to discuss and argue about is skepticism.
I know, to some people the S-word is kind of dirty. It implies a contrarian, or someone who stands in opposition to an issue for which the majority agrees on. Or it can pertain to a cynic whose only role is to exude two parts pessimism to one part puppy dogs, unicorns and all that sparkles in this world. Ok, so the latter is an exaggerated example, but you get the point. Skeptics are a bunch of naysayers with nothing better to do than argue, bitch and moan, and just be difficult.
While we certainly can be all of the above, we are also a group that values rationality, critical thinking and science above all else. This doesn’t mean we are a bunch of austere, emotionless Vulcans. Just come to one of our meetings, bring up Star Trek vs. Star Wars, or even better yet, Kirk vs. Picard and you’ll see just how much emotion we bring to the table.
In fact, we are skeptics because we care passionately for more than just sci-fi universes and starship captains. We are a group of people that demand extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims. You wanna claim that rocks and crystals are attuned to energy healing vortexes? Prove it. How about the efficacy of homeopathy? Prove it. The link between vaccinations and autism? Prove it. How about talking to the dead and mind reading? Prove it.
You see the overlying theme in there? If you make a claim that A leads to B, than you’d better have proof that leads to testable and repeatable results.
Some may ask what is the inherent harm in believing such things? Or, why do you care what people believe? The reason we care about these topics is that there are many quacks, charlatans and cranks that peddle and sell their nonsense to a very gullible and unsuspecting public. A long and extensive list of such examples can be found at What’s the Harm.
Locally, we had a very unfortunate and sad example of the consequences of believing in the supernatural claims of faith healing. The Followers of Christ in Oregon City basically shun the use of medicine and instead rely exclusively on consecrated olive oil and prayer to deal with sickness. As a consequence of their misguided belief, children have either died or been left physically scarred. The only good thing to come out of this situation was Governor Kitzhaber’s signing of a law that did away with religious freedom as a legal shield for those that practice faith healing.
This example can easily be extended to those that choose to not vaccinate their children or rely on unconventional medicines to treat serious diseases. A very recent example of this is the sad death of Steve Jobs. Brian Dunning at Skeptoid writes that Jobs, while having a more treatable form of pancreatic cancer, relied on natural therapies to treat the beginning stages of his illness. While Jobs did eventually turn to medical science, his time spent on natural therapies did nothing to help his condition.
These two examples perfectly illustrate that those taken in by woo or pseudoscience are as likely to be religious as to not be religious. The issues that we as skeptics hope to address respect no political boundaries and can be found on the left (i.e. anti-vaxxers) or on the right (climate change denial). It’s for this reason that I, and thousand of others in this country, are skeptics. Not to argue and debate, but to prevent people from being duped and harmed by those selling the proverbial snake oil.
To end this rather long rant/post, I’m going to post a TED video from the grandfather of the skeptic movement: James Randi. I highly recommend watching it because he illustrates the importance of critical thinking in a very entertaining, but informative way.