March 11, 2009

The Skeptical Attitude in Science

An attitude of skepticism is essential to the scientific endeavor. In addition, most atheists will tell you that the skeptical attitude can and should be applied to religious belief. Simply put, skepticism allows us to guard against believing absurdities which, although they might make us feel better temporarily, tend to have negative effects on individuals and societies.

Many religious believers effectively utilize skepticism in other spheres of their life; they just refuse to do so when it comes to their religion. We atheists know that this is a mistake, but we sometimes make the mistake of framing skepticism too narrowly, emphasizing its application to religious claims so much that we may miss other important applications. In this series, I plan to explore the skeptical attitude in science, atheism, and some other important spheres which tend to be neglected even by atheists.

Briefly, the skeptical attitude refers to the stance of withholding acceptance of various claims until one has evaluated the available evidence in support of such claims. The more stupendous the claim, the greater the necessary evidence must be. So when someone claims that Omega-3 fatty acids in the form of fish oil supplements increase good cholesterol, for example, we are intrigued but we do not accept the claim without good evidence.

The skeptical attitude pervades science and is applied to scientific claims as well. Scientists are are skeptical of their colleagues' claims and even their own research findings. This is the point of replication and convergence in science. Results must be obtained again and again before too much is made of them. Independent labs must obtain similar results, and differing methodologies must converge before even seemingly trivial findings are trusted. This is a big part of what scientists mean when they refer to science as a "self-correcting process."

Some scientists compartmentalize their skepticism deliberately. They view it as an important part of the scientific enterprise but do not allow it to impact other spheres of their lives, such as the religious sphere. The reasons for this decision are largely psychological, and I do not intend to address them here. My point is simply that such compartmentalization is possible and actually rather common.

Other scientists, and I am proud to count myself among them, see little point in such compartmentalization. We apply the skeptical attitude to most or all spheres of live. In short, we see no reason to grant religious claims an exemption from the requirement for evidence.

The next post in this series will focus on the skeptical attitude in atheism.