Re: Skepticism - its uses and abuses

From: Iain Strachan <>
Date: Sun Dec 11 2005 - 16:09:00 EST

On 12/11/05, Michael Roberts <> wrote:
> Surely we need to be critical rather than sceptical in everything in the
> sense of testing everything.

In terms of "Scientific skepticism" (I'm spelling it wrong for the benefit
of our American readers ;-), I think "critical thinking" is the same thing
(as in this excerpt from the Wikipedia article on skepticism):

Religious skepticism and scientific skepticism are not actually related to
philosophical Skepticism. Most people who are
skeptical<>of claims of the
paranormal <> and
supernatural<>are not
adherents of classical philosophical Skepticism. Where as a
philosophical Skeptic may deny the very existence of knowledge, a religious
or scientific skeptic merely seeks proof before accepting extraordinary
claims. Scientific skeptics employ critical

Religious skeptics often focus on the core tenets of religions, such as the
existence of divine beings or reports of earthly miracles, while scientific
skeptics tend to target cryptozoology, UFO encounters, and alternative
science. Specifically when critics of controversial religious, scientific or
paranormal claims are said to be *skeptical*, this only refers to their
taking a position of doubt.


I would say that it's right to be critical (skeptical) of "alternative
science", e.g. my friend was examined by a doctor who used a device which
scanned her brain and produced an image of what was supposedly wrong with
her liver. When I went to the Russian website of the so-called institute
that produced this device, they were claiming (in broken english) that their
machine worked on the principle of Quantum Entanglement. Yup! I'm pretty
skeptical about that. Furthermore, when she developed a tinnitus problem
within a day of the examination, he then told her that she had developed
electrosensitivity because it had zapped her with 4Ghz microwaves. This
means now that she also believes that the video recorder in my lounge when
on standby has got stuff emanating from it that is zapping her. Do you see
why I'm skeptical? Should I go along with this nonsense? I dutifully
unplugged the video recorder & emphasised that it was only because as a host
I wanted her to be comfortable.

However as I am sure you would approve, you cannot prove anything except
> maths and that is theoretical and not concrete. As a rider to that, is our
> concept of absolute proof getting us into a mess with everything?

Sure you can't prove anything except in the formal mathematical sense. But
one has to go with the current explanation for which there is the most
evidence. In the light of new evidence, of course one should change one's
mind if it's found out to be sound. The trouble with a lot of "alternative
medicine" is that it tends to bank on things for which there is NO evidence
& say that there WILL be evidence in the future.

What about a missionary doctor I knew who gave patients an injection of a
> saline solution because the patient KNEW it would make them better. Almost
> quackmedicine but it worked.

I'd say that was questionable morality. There is a very helpful article on
the placebo effect in at . In
it there is a citation from an article where it had been observed that
asthmatics achieved a dilation of the airways simply by being told that they
were inhaling a bronchodilator drug, which in fact was a placebo. Another
article I saw concerned the "nocebo" effect; the opposite side of the coin
to placebo ( "nocebo" = "I will harm"). In an experiment, 27 asthmatic
college students were given salt water vapour to inhale and told it
contained an allergen. They all got asthma symptoms, two of them full-blown
asthma attacks, which isn't funny at all. Then they were given a placebo
inhaler & their symptoms all got better. Despite the questionable morality
of this experiment ( essentially it would seem they lied to the students),
reading this report caused me to question (be skeptical about) my own asthma
and dependence on asthma inhalers. I reasoned, if asthma can come on when
nothing is there to stimulate it but wrong belief, then how much of my own
asthma is psychosomatic? I resolved not to use the inhaler next time I got
short of breath, but to breathe quietly till it passed off. Guess what,
within a week, I was completely off asthma drugs & the episodes of shortness
of breath got more and more rare, despite cycling to work through the summer
in the height of the pollen season through pathways thick with vegetation.

But I still question the morality of the experiment in the first place,
lying to the subjects. A proper double blind clinical trial with placebos
is a different matter as both the doctor and the patient know the score,
that they could be having a placebo, and neither know which is which.

But it's clear that my "skepticism" over my asthma clearly helped me
(scientific skepticism). The problem is that scientific skepticism and
religious skepticism tend to go hand in hand.


> ----- Original Message -----
> *From:* Iain Strachan <>
> *To:* asa <>
> *Sent:* Sunday, December 11, 2005 5:29 PM
> *Subject:* Skepticism - its uses and abuses
> I'm writing on a new topic that I hope will provoke some useful
> discussion.
> I'm sure we're all aware as scientists that we always need to evaluate
> data and theories critically, and to beware of falling into the trap of
> believing what we want to believe.
> I'm writing this against the background of the trouble a couple of my
> Christian friends are in. I'm kind of closely involved having been the
> "best man" at their wedding. The wife has very bad depression, for which
> nothing seemed to work, and so as a couple, they sought the help of
> "alternative medicine" to try and treat her symptoms (some of which are
> physical). Since then, she has not got better, but has got steadily worse,
> being convinced, because one of these "alternative" doctors told her so that
> she is sensitive to electric fields, resulting in the fact that she's put
> herself beyond the help of her friends because she won't come into your
> house unless you unplug all the electrical appliances at the mains, and she
> won't walk with you unless you switch your mobile phone off. Everything in
> my understanding of science tells me that this is all bunk. However, the
> most helpful websites that support my view come from self-styled "Skeptics",
> notably the best one being which does a lot of
> debunking of alternative medicine (in fact most of the treatments that she
> has had). However, I find that quackwatch is linked to the so-called
> "skeptic ring" of internet sites, many of which like to bash Christianity
> (and not just the creationist kind).
> This kind of makes me uneasy - one has to be skeptical to a degree about
> these things, especially when it comes to health matters as there are a lot
> of people out there who want to make money out of you and will feed you any
> old pseudo-scientific gobbledegook. But at the same time, it seems to me
> that skeptics want to blow everything away. Another very useful site is
>, a Skeptic's dictionary, which has lots of useful stuff about
> the placebo effect etc. But it also dismisses things like glossalalia
> (speaking in tongues) as a load of rubbish as well, and I don't know how I
> feel about that.
> I guess what I'm saying is why can't one be skeptical but selectively so -
> the package seems to be that you have to be critical of everything, and
> corrode away faith and everything else.
> What do other people think?
> Iain.
> --
> -----------
> After the game, the King and the pawn go back in the same box.
> - Italian Proverb
> -----------

After the game, the King and the pawn go back in the same box.
- Italian Proverb
Received on Sun Dec 11 16:11:34 2005

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