October 3, 2020

The Skeptical Attitude in Science

scientific analysis

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. In that sense, it might make sense to think of skepticism as a protective factor, helping to strengthen us against all sorts of folly.

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 err in framing skepticism too narrowly, emphasizing its application to religious claims so much that we 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. When someone claims that Omega-3 fatty acids in the form of fish oil supplements increase good cholesterol, for example, we do not accept the claim without good evidence. Does prayer work? After we operationally define what it means for prayer to "work" in a particular context, we can look at the evidence. If by prayer working, we mean that divine intervention takes place on the basis of one person's prayer for another and test this in a properly controlled study, we see clearly that prayer does not work. If we frame the question as asking whether the act of prayer might confer any benefits whatsoever to the person praying and opt for a much looser research design, we will probably find some evidence that prayer might work in that sense.

The skeptical attitude pervades science and is applied to scientific claims as well. Scientists 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 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 not merely possible but 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 spheres of life. We see no reason to grant religious claims an exemption from the requirement for evidence, and we recognize that difficulty explaining something is not evidence of supernatural entities. For some of us, this even helps to explain why we do not believe in gods.

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

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This post from 2009 was revised and expanded in 2020 to correct typos, replace broken links, and improve clarity. The topic of skepticism remains an important one here at Atheist Revolution, as I continue to believe that we'd all benefit from understanding it and applying it more consistently.