Friday, March 5, 2010

Origins of Skepticsm

Mistakenly I have taken for granted that everyone pretty much knew what a Skeptic was. so I have occasionally been taken aback when people are puzzled when I have used the term as a noun and people look surprised. So perhaps a bit of explanation is in order from Robert the Skeptic.

Over the years since my birth I have been nagged with doubt – doubt that what people told me was always the truth; doubt that Santa Clause could really visit 5 billion homes in one night, doubt my dentist wasn't finding more income in my mouth than cavities, doubt that a supreme and loving God was looking out for my personal best interest.

I was also scared of a lot of things when I was a kid; ghosts and monsters and kids bigger than me. I had nightmares for weeks after I saw War of the Worlds at the theater – I was sure that the "green glowing light" at night emanating from the neighbor’s yard two blocks away was the Mars aliens constructing their craft just like I witnessed in the movie. Later that summer I was invited to their home for a night swim… their pool lights at night illuminating their yard with a lovely blue-green glow! The Mars aliens were noticeably missing.

That and similar experiences got me to thinking that there might be other more reasonable explanations for the conclusions our imaginations are so eager to construct about our world. I began to wonder why photos of ghosts always seemed to look like blurry blobs and why UFO photographs resembled hub caps suspended by strings.

I was also forced at this time to attend Catechism at our Catholic Church. I wondered why a loving God would place me in the clutches of cruel and angry nuns. I wondered if God didn’t answer my prayers because he understood Latin but not English. I wondered why some of the things people said were sins were not mentioned in the Bible, and so on whose authority were they declared to be sins.

I dove headlone into science in High School and immersed myself in it; I couldn’t get enough. I learned about DNA and that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. I learned about quantum mechanics and the strange physics of the sub-atomic world. I learned about the vastness of the universe and I found the real world so much more interesting and miraculous than the simple and ambiguous morality tales told to me in religious venues.

Then I found about Skeptical Inquirer Magazine published by the then named Committee for the Scientific Investigations of Claims of the Paranormal. CSICOP now called Committee for Scientific Investigation CSI. And after I tired of stories investigating lake monsters and Big Foot, wanted to know more about WHY people WANTED to believe this crap. I subscribed to Skeptic Magazine and joined the Oregonians for Science and Reason and Corvallis Secular Society. My skepticism grew until I myself became A Skeptic.

Then I contributed to the body of knowledge my self by producing my first documentary film: Andrus – the Man, the Mind and the Magic about genius and friend, Jerry Andrus; a poet, writer, philosopher and inventor of truly unique optical illusions and magic tricks. (By the way, most magicians are Skeptics; they know how to trick the eye appearing to defy the laws of physics).

So I am a Skeptic. As Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic (and contributor to my documentary) likes to say, “Skeptics like to keep an open mine, but not so open that our brains fall out”. Skeptics are all from Missouri, the “show me” state. We will listen to your claims but require you to prove your conclusions. Prove to us that light in the sky is from a craft visiting from another planet, that the movie of the ape-creature isn’t a guy in a monkey costume, that the “orbs” on pictures taken at the cemetery are not lens flares from street lights.

I was born with a Bullshit Detector in my brain - It has taken a lifetime for me to hone it into a finely-tuned tool. I’ve discovered that there is a lot of Bullshit in the world. But if you can shovel some of it aside, our reality is a truly remarkable place.


Mary Witzl said...

I've got a pretty good BS detector myself and it works most of the time.

I once asked a Sunday school teacher why 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' were in the Bible along with 'turn the other cheek'. I felt these two contradicted each other and wanted to know her take on it. She got mad at me. I think if she'd had any sense, she'd have seen that at least I was trying to figure things out. And that is always a good thing.

I'm a skeptical believer, I suppose.

Charlie said...

"ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny"

Of course it does. Every idiot knows that.

I call mine the Bullshit-o-meter, and its needle immediately jumped to a 10 (the highest) for that statement I just made. I suspect yours did too, as well as Mary's.

Gorilla Bananas said...

I would say that true scepticism is based on the assessment of probabilities rather than outright disbelief, which is a similar attitude to credulous belief. I think the probability that we've been visited by aliens is low but not insignificant.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Mary That particular passage in the Bible is often quoted out of context, if you read the whole line it condemns the act, not encourages it.

Charlie When I learned about the discovery of DNA I thought that would nail the lid on the coffin of the anti-evolutionists. Wrong! There's apparently no hope whatsoever.

Gorilla I would agree with you to some extent, more like the occurrence is not impossible but not probable. It is not likely (probable) you will win at a lottery but it is not impossible.

Mary Witzl said...

So why couldn't my Sunday School teacher have told me that? Call me cynical, but I'm betting she just didn't know it.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Mary This is one of my strongest criticisms of people who quote the bible, intentionally taking things out of context to justify their position. The "eye for an eye" is one such phrase. The entire phrase follows:

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”