Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Triad of Belief: Pt. 1 - Skepticism

We make hundreds of decisions every day. Most are not very important but some can have profound effects on our lives and the lives of others. If we took the time to scrutinize every single claim we encounter, we'd never get anything done. That's why it's vital that we have a reliable mechanism in place for discerning plausible statements from implausible statements.

Take a look at this line:


Where do you fall on this line when the subject is religion? The holocaust? UFO sightings? Vaccines? Climate change? 2012 apocalypse? Nostradamus? AIDS? Bigfoot? Evolution?

Different people fall into different categories, of course. We tend to slide along this scale depending on the subject being discussed.

Today I want to focus on skepticism because I believe this is the best, most accurate way to judge all claims. This is the dot I try to stay closest to and I do my best to apply it to every area of my life. 

Let me define skepticism in a simple way as, "Following the evidence wherever it leads." I am not invested in the outcome but in the process. Put another way, I care less about the answer itself than in using the right method to get an answer. I use two sayings to whittle down everything quickly and, I hope, efficiently.

1. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." - Carl Sagan
2. "The simplest explanation is probably the best one." - Occam's Razor

Let's see how these work. 

Jake calls me up and says:

Wow, there is a terrible wreck on Hwy. 78! A truck overturned and several cars skidded into it. Several people are dead and many more hurt.

This is a tragic story but it's quite plausible. There are no extraordinary claims here because trucks overturn every day. Wrecks happen every day. People died or are injured in wrecks every single day. The law of large numbers makes it very reasonable for such a pile up to happen on Hwy. 78 today. I am highly inclined to accept this story at face value.

But what if Jake calls me up and says this?

Wow, there is a terrible wreck on Hwy. 78! An alien spacecraft ran a truck off the road and it caused a huge pileup!

Now I have a problem - what's the likelihood that an alien spacecraft appeared and did this? Is this something that verifiably happens every day? Even some days? Of course not! This is highly extraordinary so I'm going to need to see some proof. I need to see video of this, debris from the spacecraft, and hear eyewitness testimony at the very least.

Now what if Jake calls me up and says this?

Wow, there's a terrible wreck on Hwy. 78! An alien spacecraft ran a truck off the road. The truck's cargo spilled out and it was all zombies!! They started preying on the injured people and now they are spreading out into the city to attack everyone. I heard that the people who were bitten are rising as zombies too now. We're doomed!

At this point, I'm very concerned for Jake and I wonder if he is well. That story is highly implausible, even more so than the second story. These things haven't happened before and it's so improbable that they could ever happen. In order to believe this story, I need to see all the evidence for the alien spacecraft as well as the evidence for the zombie hordes. 

Now these stories sound ridiculous to most of us but think about the claims you hear every day. Claims about invisible sky gods, claims about magic weight loss products, claims about perfect balance, claims about boosting your immune system, claims about extraterrestrial communication, claims about fascinating creatures that no one else has managed to verify.

We live with claims like this all the time - especially marketing claims on TV. The best way I've found to stay relatively safe is to be skeptical of all of them. Being skeptical doesn't mean you necessarily dismiss them out of hand. It doesn't mean being a killjoy. What it means is that you wait for further evidence before making a decision. It's the logical thing to do really.