To the lay person, scepticism and rejection can look very similar. You hear an idea that doesn’t agree with your world view and you reject it. The difference lies in the reasoning, justification and method of rejection of the idea. This difference can be found in the application of critical thinking.
When something doesn’t align with our desires, the instant human reaction is rejection. This can be due to surprise or disgust, two of the universal basic emotions. Surprise is due to unexpected events creating a defensive reaction which may or may not be justified, such as a domestic cat racing out of the hedge in front of you, or a tiger doing the same. Disgust is the reaction due to a stimulus that crosses a taboo boundary – such as off food or a social negative such as passionately kissing a sibling. Either of these reactions generates an instant “no” rejection reaction in us.
This rejection is an un-contemplated stance. We just don’t like it. When pressed, we can create all sorts of reasons to justify our stance, especially when the stimulus is not so simple as a feline jumping out of a hedge, or off food in the microwave. When we come across an idea that engenders these reactions our justifications can become quite elaborate. The problem with this justification is it is cherry picking to confirm our reaction, rather than questioning whether our reaction is justified. If the the surprise is a domestic cat, it is quite easy to laugh off our startle reaction. If it is a tiger, it is quite easy to justify the fear reaction. If it is a mid sized dog… it could go either way. If the idea that startles you or creates a disgust reaction is akin to the ambiguous dog – then we tend to look for reasons that justify our fear even if it turns out the ambiguous dog idea is placid. We are looking for evidence to support our stance, not for evidence to test our stance.
The methodology of using critical thinking is a sceptics toolkit for checking to see if the rejection reaction was justified in the first place. If the evidence supports the idea that we want to reject, then the sceptic should accept that the reaction was wrong and the idea correct, or vice versa. This is not done blindly, but uses a series of tools and concepts known as “critical thinking”.
Here are some basic concepts of critical thinking:
* Start with the null hypothesis – There is no relationship between the two phenomena without good supportive evidence
* Everything can be wrong, even well documented and supported ideas – but the more well developed and supported with good evidence an idea is, the greater the burden of truth is to overturn the established concept
* If it seems like an easy or pervasive solution, it probably isn’t
* Suspect words and concepts:
– If the thing is not referring to sub atomic particles, then the inclusion of the word ”
“quantum” in the description is suspect.
– “Natural” or “Organic” implying greater health. There is no “unnatural” in this universe – if it is here, it is natural. “Natural” often means less processed and in some cases that is good, in others that is bad. While “Organic” in farming practices refers to a particular method of farming, there is no significant evidence supporting any improvement to health to the end user due to this method.
– “Scientifically proven” – The scientific method does not prove. It only disproves. It can certainly test a correlation for causative effect, and there may even be a paper written about it. Yet if there is no reference, then there is no value. Even if there is a reference, if you don’t check the paper and see what was actually written, then there is only little value.
– “You won’t believe” – Quite right. I am not going to believe an advert that positions me to automatically defend my ability to believe what you are going to say next.
– “Scientists can’t explain” – means that either there is no evidence linking the two things together, or scientists don’t consider the connection important enough to prioritise funding away from other things, like cancer research, climate change and so on, to investigate if the connection is real. Remember, the default position is that the things are not connected without some kind of tangible evidence to suggest that they are.
– “Alternate medicine” – why is there alternate medicine. If it works, it is called medicine. I drove on a bridge the other day, created using alternate engineering, and I drank water from a tap that was delivered using alternate plumbing… um, no.
– “Energies” – Which energy? There are specific types of energy that are known and measurable. If it isn’t one of these, feel free to substitute “runs on Unicorn vibes” for equal validity. I’d love it to run on unicorn vibes, but I would need some evidence that unicorns exist for me to put much trust in it.
– “X don’t want you to know” – why not? If what you were doing actually worked, X would be selling it. This is an appeal to the distrust of large organisations, corporations and governments. Yet every country is quick to point out how many blunders and errors their government makes, yet they can pull off a perfect conspiracy to block you from knowing one specific thing – so that these guys can spill their guts and make money? Um… no.
– “I’m a celebrity and I think X” – means there is no sufficient evidence to back up the claim, so they are appealing to authority, even when that authority has no actual knowledge of the field. I asked a physicist the other day about how I should best brush my teeth – and he said rotational brushing was optimal; yet isn’t the best expert to ask a dentist? Even if a dentist endorses a dental product, that doesn’t mean the product is, in fact, any better than any other product, or even works. It just means that professional was paid to say lines on an advert.
There are many more, but this is a quick introduction to critical thinking, right?
Here is the summary – Anyone can reject an idea for whatever reason, but a sceptic doesn’t just reject every idea – they test them. The sceptic may actually reject the rejection if the evidence supports the initial idea despite the initial reaction – because using critical thinking examines the idea and does not assume the reaction is correct.