Scientific skepticism

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Carl Sagan, originator of the expression scientific skepticism

Scientific skepticism (also spelled scepticism) is the practice of questioning whether claims are supported by empirical research and have reproducibility, as part of a methodological norm pursuing "the extension of certified knowledge".[1] For example, Robert K. Merton asserts that all ideas must be tested and are subject to rigorous, structured community scrutiny (see Mertonian norms).[2]

About the term and its scope[edit]

Scientific skepticism is also called rational skepticism, and it is sometimes referred to as skeptical inquiry.

The term scientific skepticism appears to have originated in the work of Carl Sagan, first in Contact (p. 306), and then in Billions and Billions (p. 135).[3][4]

Scientific skepticism is different from philosophical skepticism, which questions our ability to claim any knowledge about the nature of the world and how we perceive it. Methodological skepticism, a systematic process of being skeptical about (or doubting) the truth of one's beliefs, is similar but distinct. Scientific skepticism embraces empiricism; in social science, scientific skepticism thus tends towards the positivist end of the spectrum of the positivism dispute, essentially rejecting antipositivism and qualitative research[citation needed], as well as other research approaches that do not follow a rule-based form of scientific method as unscientific or non-scientific. The New Skepticism described by Paul Kurtz is scientific skepticism.[5] Magician, Jamy Ian Swiss stated that scientific skepticism is about "how to think, not what to think".[6]

Various definitions[edit]

Scientific skepticism has been defined as:

"A skeptic is one who prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid to ones that are comforting or convenient, and therefore rigorously and openly applies the methods of science and reason to all empirical claims, especially their own. A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence, and studies the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves. Skepticism values method over any particular conclusion."[7]

"Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas — no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position."[8]

"Skepticism is a method of examining claims about the world. The skeptical "toolbox" includes a reliance upon reason, critical thinking, and a desire for verifiable, testable evidence about particular claims (especially extraordinary ones). Usually, the "skeptical way of thinking" is embodied in the scientific method."[9]


Scientific skeptics believe that empirical investigation of reality leads to the truth, and that the scientific method is best suited to this purpose. Considering the rigor of the scientific method, science itself may simply be thought of as an organized form of skepticism. This does not mean that the scientific skeptic is necessarily a scientist who conducts live experiments (though this may be the case), but that the skeptic generally accepts claims that are in his/her view likely to be true based on testable hypotheses and critical thinking.

Scientific skeptics attempt to evaluate claims based on verifiability and falsifiability and discourage accepting claims on faith or anecdotal evidence. Skeptics often focus their criticism on claims they consider to be implausible, dubious or clearly contradictory to generally accepted science. Scientific skeptics do not assert that unusual claims should be automatically rejected out of hand on a priori grounds - rather they argue that claims of paranormal or anomalous phenomena should be critically examined and that extraordinary claims would require extraordinary evidence in their favor before they could be accepted as having validity.

From a scientific point of view, theories are judged on many criteria, such as falsifiability, Occam's Razor, and explanatory power, as well as the degree to which their predictions match experimental results. Skepticism is part of the scientific method; for instance an experimental result is not regarded as established until it can be shown to be repeatable independently.[10]

By the principles of skepticism, the ideal case is that every individual could make his own mind up on the basis of the evidence rather than appealing to some authority, skeptical or otherwise. In practice this becomes difficult because of the amount of knowledge now possessed by science, and so an ability to balance critical thinking with an appreciation for consensus amongst the most relevant scientists becomes vital.

Not all fringe science is pseudoscience. For instance, some proponents of repressed memories apply the scientific method carefully, and have even found some empirical support for their validity,[11][12][13] though the theories have not received complete scientific consensus.[14][15][16][17]

Empirical or scientific skeptics do not profess philosophical skepticism. Whereas a philosophical skeptic may deny the very existence of knowledge, an empirical skeptic merely seeks likely proof before accepting that knowledge.

History of scientific skepticism[edit]

The history of scientific skepticism is in many ways intertwined with the histories of the disciplines of science, history and philosophy. Astrology was questioned by some thinkers during antiquity, and the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume famously argued against belief in miracles. Michael Shermer traces the origins of the modern scientific skeptical movement to Martin Gardner's 1952 book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science.[18]


Some of the topics that scientifically skeptical literature questions include health claims surrounding certain foods, procedures, and alternative medicines; the plausibility and existence of supernatural abilities (e.g. tarot reading) or entities (e.g. poltergeists, angels, gods - including Zeus); the monsters of cryptozoology (e.g. the Loch Ness monster); as well as creationism/intelligent design, dowsing, conspiracy theories, and other claims the skeptic sees as unlikely to be true on scientific grounds.[19][20]

Skeptics such as James Randi have become famous for debunking claims related to some of these. Paranormal investigator Joe Nickell cautions, however, that "debunkers" must be careful to engage paranormal claims seriously and without bias. He explains that open minded investigation is more likely to teach and change minds than debunking.[21][22]


Richard Cameron Wilson, in an article in New Statesman, wrote that "the bogus sceptic is, in reality, a disguised dogmatist, made all the more dangerous for his success in appropriating the mantle of the unbiased and open-minded inquirer". Some advocates of discredited intellectual positions such as AIDS denial and Holocaust denial engage in pseudoskeptical behavior when they characterize themselves as "skeptics" despite cherry picking evidence that conforms to a pre-existing belief. [23] According to Wilson, who highlights the phenomenon in his book Don't Get Fooled Again (2008), the characteristic feature of false skepticism is that it "centres not on an impartial search for the truth, but on the defence of a preconceived ideological position".[24]

Scientific skepticism is itself sometimes criticized on this ground. The term pseudoskepticism has found occasional use in controversial fields where opposition from scientific skeptics is strong. For example, in 1994, Susan Blackmore, a parapsychologist who became more skeptical and eventually became a CSICOP fellow in 1991, described what she termed the "worst kind of pseudoskepticism":

"There are some members of the skeptics' groups who clearly believe they know the right answer prior to inquiry. They appear not to be interested in weighing alternatives, investigating strange claims, or trying out psychic experiences or altered states for themselves (heaven forbid!), but only in promoting their own particular belief structure and cohesion ..."[25]

Commenting on the labels "dogmatic" and "pathological" that the "Association for Skeptical Investigation"[26] puts on critics of paranormal investigations, Robert Todd Carroll of the Skeptic's Dictionary[27] argues that that association "is a group of pseudo-skeptical paranormal investigators and supporters who do not appreciate criticism of paranormal studies by truly genuine skeptics and critical thinkers. The only skepticism this group promotes is skepticism of critics and [their] criticisms of paranormal studies."[28]

Perceived dangers of pseudoscience[edit]

Skepticism is an approach to strange or unusual claims where doubt is preferred to belief, given a lack of conclusive evidence. Skeptics generally consider beliefs in the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) and psychic powers as misguided, since no empirical evidence exists supporting such phenomena. The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato believed that to release another person from ignorance despite their initial resistance is a great and noble thing.[29] Modern skeptical writers address this question in a variety of ways.

Bertrand Russell argued that individual actions are based upon the beliefs of the person acting, and if the beliefs are unsupported by evidence, then such beliefs can lead to destructive actions.[30] James Randi also often writes on the issue of fraud by psychics and faith healers.[31] Critics of alternative medicine often point to bad advice given by unqualified practitioners, leading to serious injury or death. Richard Dawkins points to religion as a source of violence (notably in his book, The God Delusion), and considers creationism a threat to biology.[32] Some skeptics, such as the members of The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast, oppose certain cults and new religious movements because of their concern about what they consider false miracles performed or endorsed by the leadership of the group.[33] They often criticize belief systems which they believe to be idiosyncratic, bizarre or irrational.

Notable skeptical media[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Stemwedel, Janet D. (2008-01-29), "Basic concepts: the norms of science" (blog), ScienceBlogs: Adventures in Ethics and Science (Seed Media Group) : quoting Merton, R. K. (1942)
  2. ^ Merton, R. K. (1942). The Normative Structure of Science.  in Merton, Robert King (1973). "The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations". Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-52091-9. 
  3. ^ Sagan, Carl (1997). Contact. Orbit. p. 432. ISBN 1-85723-580-0. 
  4. ^ Sagan, Carl (1998). Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium. Ballantine Books. p. 320. ISBN 0-345-37918-7. 
  5. ^ Kurtz, Paul (1992). The New Skepticism: Inquiry and Reliable Knowledge. Prometheus. p. 371. ISBN 0-87975-766-3. 
  6. ^ Swiss, Jamy Ian. DIiznLE5Xno "Overlapping Magisteria". James Randi Educational Foundation. Retrieved 2013-03-19. 
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ Wudka, Jose (1998). "What is the scientific method?". Retrieved 2007-05-27. 
  11. ^ Chu, J.; Frey, L.; Ganzel, B.; Matthews, J. (May 1999). "Memories of childhood abuse: dissociation, amnesia, and corroboration". American Journal of Psychiatry 156 (5): 749–55. PMID 10327909. 
  12. ^ Duggal, S.; Sroufe, L. A. (April 1998). "Recovered memory of childhood sexual trauma: A documented case from a longitudinal study". Journal of Traumatic Stress 11 (2): 301–321. doi:10.1023/A:1024403220769. PMID 9565917. Retrieved 2007-12-31. 
  13. ^ Freyd, Jennifer J. (1996). Betrayal Trauma - The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-06805-X. 
  14. ^ McNally, R. J. (2004). "The science and folklore of traumatic amnesia". Clinical Psychology Science and Practice 11 (1): 29–33. doi:10.1093/clipsy/bph056. 
  15. ^ McNally, R. J. (2007). "Dispelling confusion about traumatic dissociative amnesia". Mayo Clin. Proc. 82 (9): 1083–90. doi:10.4065/82.9.1083. PMID 17803876. 
  16. ^ McNally, R. J. (2004). "Is traumatic amnesia nothing but psychiatric folklore?". Cogn Behav Ther 33 (2): 97–101; discussion 102–4, 109–11. doi:10.1080/16506070410021683. PMID 15279316. 
  17. ^ McNally, R. J. (2005). "Debunking myths about trauma and memory". Can J Psychiatry 50 (13): 817–22. PMID 16483114. 
  18. ^
  19. ^ Gardner, Martin (1957). Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Dover. ISBN 0-486-20394-8. 
  20. ^ "Skeptics Dictionary Alphabetical Index Abracadabra to Zombies". 2007. Retrieved 2007-05-27. 
  21. ^ Nickell, Joe, Skeptical inquiry vs debunking 
  22. ^ Hansen, George P. (1992). "CSICOP and the Skeptics: An Overview". Retrieved 2010-05-25. 
  23. ^ Wilson, Richard (2008-09-18), "Against the Evidence", New Statesman (Progressive Media International), ISSN 1364-7431 
  24. ^ Wilson, Richard C. (2008). Don't get fooled again: the sceptic's guide to life. Icon. ISBN 978-1-84831-014-8. 
  25. ^ Kennedy, J. E. (2003). "The capricious, actively evasive, unsustainable nature of psi: A summary and hypotheses". The Journal of Parapsychology 67: 53–74.  See Note 1 p. 64 quoting Blackmore, S. J. (1994). "Women skeptics". In Coly, L.; White, R. Women and Parapsychology. New York: Parapsychology Foundation. pp. 234–236). 
  26. ^ "Skeptical Investigations". Association for Skeptical Investigation. Archived from the original on April 12, 2013. Retrieved July 6, 2013. 
  27. ^ Skepdic article on positive pseudo-skeptics
  28. ^ Robert Todd Carroll "Internet Bunk: Skeptical Investigations." Skeptic's Dictionary
  29. ^ Allegory of the cave, Plato The Republic, (New CUP translation by Tom Griffith and G.R.F. Ferrari into English) ISBN 0-521-48443-X
  30. ^ Russell, Bertrand (1928). "On the Value of Scepticism". The Will To Doubt. Positive Atheism. Retrieved 2007-05-27. 
  31. ^ Fighting Against Flimflam, TIME, Jun. 24, 2001
  32. ^ Better living without God? - Religion is a dangerously irrational mirage, says Dawkins, San Francisco Chronicle, October 15, 2006
  33. ^ Langone, Michael D. (June 1995). Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse. W. Norton. American Family Foundation. p. 432. ISBN 0-393-31321-2. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Randi, James; Arthur C. Clarke (1997). An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. St. Martin's Griffin. p. 336. ISBN 0-312-15119-5. 
  • Sagan, Carl; Ann Druyan (1997). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Ballantine Books. p. 349. ISBN 0-345-40946-9. 

External links[edit]