Skepticamp 2009

We had an excellent night at the Edinburgh Skepticamp 2009. The two Alexes gave presentations on statistical fallacies and paranormal investigations, respectively, whilst someone I’d never met before called Terry spoke about how best to win over the believers, and I concentrated on alternative medicine with homoeopathy being the main focus.

It was the last Q&A section that started the most vigorous debate, where we were speaking about whether it would be easier to win over a fundamentalist or a moderate believer, with all of the speakers up on stage. One man stood up and asked the question “What’s wrong with being a believer?” to which someone on stage replied that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong (depending on what you mean by ‘wrong’), as long as it doesn’t affect other things. The man agreed, but continued with the sentence “it’s wrong for religionists to force their beliefs on others, just as it’s wrong for skepticism to be forced on others”.

This struck me as rather curious because he was comparing two very different things, religion being a set of dogmatic beliefs, and science and skepticism being a method best suited to acquiring the truth. So I said so and he replied that, for example, ‘evolutionism’ was a belief that we were forcing on others. Somehow then we got into a discussion about the evidence for evolution and established that although it’s not a fact, it’s about as close to a fact as we have in science. But this man maintained that since it is not a fact it should not be forced onto others.

I struggle to see what his point was. Was he seriously suggesting that it’s just as morally wrong to teach a child about evolution, with all the evidence in favour of it, as to teach the child about creationism which has no evidence for it whatsoever? It’s obviously more wrong to ‘force’ a lie onto someone than a truth, and although we can’t possibly know for sure whether something is true, that’s not to say that all beliefs are equally valid. We can put them in order of what is more likely to be true, based on the available evidence, and we do know that some claims cannot be true based on the current evidence.

But that’s missing the larger point that skeptics don’t force their beliefs on others! Skepticism is about criticising other people’s beliefs and claims, picking them apart and saying “this is unlikely to be true because A, B, C.” We may then propose another belief that is better supported by the evidence, but skeptics would be more than happy to defend their beliefs from critical argument, if only because at the end of the process we’ll be one step closer to the truth! It’s all about the free interchange of ideas, something that skepticism and science do well, because they are always changing, and something that dogmatic belief systems like religion do very badly, since they don’t change at all.

I’m reminded of this video that PZ Myers posted on Pharyngula this week of Wendy Wright from American Women Concerned for America or something. I only watched the first part because I’m short on time right now, but that’s enough to see that she’s asking for a ridiculously high level of evidence for evolution (her version of evidence is ‘if you can’t put it in my hand, it’s not evidence’), whilst allowing her own beliefs to slip completely under the skepticism radar. Take a look, here’s the first part and I’m sure you can find the rest of them.

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7 Responses to Skepticamp 2009

  1. Marc Surtees says:

    Hi,

    If I understand correctly being skeptical means one is skeptical of everything, science, astrology, magic, religion…. you name it.

    At the end of the day a skeptic is never sure… but I could be wrong ;-)

    • Alex Pryce says:

      Hi Marc,

      This is a potentially long discussion, should we be skeptical of everything? If not how do we chose?

      Skeptics are skeptical about many things that wouldn’t usually fall under the stereotype of “Skepticism”.

      Take Ida for example, the recently revealed fossil showing common ancestry between different species. Although she is generally accepted as good evidence for common decent, the skepticism came in when the press, mainly, jumped all over the fossil proclaiming it THE missing link. THE missing link is a dodgy phrase anyway and I rarely hear it being used any more, simply because every new fossil is a missing link to some extent. People looked at the fossil and the evidence and concluded that is is indeed a very important fossil and does show common ancestry- but even a piece of evidence that supports our side of the argument still received scrutiny and distrust until it was established- which it now is.

      So, its probably better to say we are skeptical of any large claims being made that could have an affect on us, society and our understanding of science, history, the natural world etc. Someone telling us that they had a good weekend and enjoyed their time in, say, Blackpool is not something we would be skeptical of. It is not an outlandish claim, and whether it is true or not does not affect us or society. So we are not skeptical of everything, it depends on the claim being made.

  2. grammarking says:

    You say that as if it’s a weakness, personally I think admitting we don’t know something is the greatest strength of the skeptical/scientific method. Remember, just because science doesn’t know everything, doesn’t mean you can fill the gaps with whatever fairytale most appeals to you.

  3. grammarking says:

    And I’d rather be unsure about something supported by evidence than sure about something not supported by the evidence.

  4. AlexMagd says:

    Oh dear her fake smile and patronising voice make me want to just run away. I am very glad that Dawkins points out that any controversy in “Teach the controversy!” is entirely manufactured by one side. Can’t wait for his new book

  5. grammarking says:

    I just wish Dawkins had asked more frequently for evidence for her position. There is one point where he asks and she says that “DNA is unique in each person so it means we were all created individually by a loving God”. The thing about evidence is that it has to be in support of one thing as opposed to another. I can’t say that trees must have evolved because their bark is brown, because whether or not trees evolved or were designed, the bark would still be brown. DNA being unique isn’t evidence for creation, Dawkins says it is evidence for evolution. I disagree, it’s not evidence either way.

  6. other_alex says:

    I think it is important to point out that dogma by its very definition can’t be progressive. Science will change its ideas in the light of new evidence.

    Skepticism should never force a belief on anyone, it doesn’t have any- it should just encourage people to think logically and critically about claims.

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