zondag 15 november 2009

How I became a skeptic

I think I have always been a skeptic. How I define that is as being someone who wants good evidence before considering something either true or useful. The latter by which I mean that something might work but as long as we have no good idea of how it works, it can't be used in a practical sense.

In my childhood I was already interested in science, mathematics and philosophy. I was known as the little professor, you might know such children yourself. Forever digging into books, news (as young as 7) and reasoning. On my twitter account I recently (approximately 11 to 14 November 2009) I remarked on the low number of good science books as compared the, at best, speculative science in my local public library. They have no Carl Sagan but they do have Sylvia Browne, Char Margolis and Allison DuBois. For want of a better word, I consider this disgraceful and shameful. If anyone would like to argue otherwise be my guest. I feel very strongly about this.

When I was young, it wasn't much better. At an age where I didn't have any meaningful command of English, I had to do with books translated into my mother tongue, Dutch. This is a small market which means that mostly books expecting to sell a good number are translated. In practice it meant that for example the only Carl Sagan book I found was Cosmos (from the TV series) and one other (Dragons Of Eden, if I remember correctly). The number of books on the paranormal, alternative healing, UFOs and such were plentiful. On a sidenote, this is why I am not surprised why such things (homeopathy for example) persist despite scientific advances.

Such a situation is not good for the development of critical thinking. I had no intellectual tools to counter false claims. Also, I assumed the writers were honest and some were, yet that does not exclude naive and misguided thinking. Good intentions are no guarantee in research. The result was that I believed in spirits and ghosts, ancient civilizations, the Bermuda Triangle, energy healing, homeopathy, the list goes on.

I didn't believe just anything, there was a core of skeptic thinking, I just missed good methods to detect pseudoscience. I did not suddenly rid myself of this. Not 6 years ago I explained to someone close how a message from his deceased father seemed incorrect only because time flows differently there. 5 years ago I was considering learning reiki. In the past 10 years I consulted 3 psychics as well as using homeopathy against inflammation of the elbow. As a teenager I borrowed the I-Tjing from the library (an example of a translated work of pseudoscience) and was earnestly using it for predictions. I thought that my lack of understanding how it worked was my fault (faulting the practitioner is a common excuse used in the world of alternative and pseudoscience). I also was a faithful listener to a radioshow about the paranormal and went to the first Dutch paranormal fair. I cannot count the times I explained to people how the spiritworld, energyfields and so forth work.

Had Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World been available in translation, I am reasonably sure this would not have happened. However, as I said, there was much pseudoscience, less science and no books on critical thinking. School was not helpful either. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the science thaught in school, only later I realized how it lacked in teaching the scientific method or critical thinking. I had mostly good, enthousiastic and sometimes inspiring teachers but they could do only so much. I don't blame them.

Human memory is a crude, insufficient device. That is why, in good science, eyewitness accounts need to be used with care. What I remember is incomplete. I have only 2 examples I can be sure enough about to illustrate how my thinking developed.
First was a book that explained why the Bermuda Triangle mystery was not a mystery and not true. It made a list of everything that was claimed to have happened because of it. First it set aside everything that, if it had happened, did not happen there. Then it proceeded to inspect each case. For example, if the disappearance of a ship was claimed and there were no records of such a ship ever to have existed, it was taken of the list. By the end, no claim was left: there was no evidence of a Bermuda Triangle mystery.
Secondly, there was Cosmos, the TV series. It was not to teach critical thinking, yet it prevaded it. No more needs to be said of it and it helped my critical thinking and appreciation of true wonders. Even if spirits existed, it would not come close to the amazement over the life of a star, how it comes into being, lives and dies.

Slowly and surely, my belief in anything pseudoscientific vaporated. The last things to go were (afterlife) spirits, reiki and homeopathy. The first might have been UFOs. Conspiracies never entered my mind, I never believed anything of it.

I stopped believing in homeopathy because it didn't work. In the world of homeopathy this apparently counts as good evidence, as many such products are supported largely by testimonies. So my testimony should count equally: it never worked for me, despite my belief in it. Having a homepathic/antroposofic GP for 20 years, I had a lot of exposure to it.

I stopped believing in psychics for a remarkable reason, at least I think so. All 3 psychics (and may I remind, I believed in it during and even after it) either started explaining that what they did was real, despite that I did not challenge them (I even agreed with them) and one did not want to tell me about a ghost he saw being with me because I was too skeptical. Let me assure you I was nothing of the kind towards his claimed abilities. I believed him to be a true psychic.
Now I realize the problem. I'm diagnosed with Asperger's syndrom (my son is an autist, middle- to high functioning). Part of that is my lack of appropriate facial or bodily expression. When I listen, people often think that I don't listen, ignore them or don't believe them. Reality is, I have little no expression. Part of what psychics do is reading facial expression, consciously or unconciously. We all do but for psychics it is especially important. I think I made them uncomfortable because I could not hand them this tool. My sincere assurance to them of their readings being correct did not ease them. One was confused, one kept explaining the reality of his ability and one was irritated, somewhat hostile even (I was not so much told I was skeptical, the tone was accusing).

My sense of wonder is for the explained and eventually to be explained universe. Magic holds no attraction to me. It is empty.

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