There is a skeptic inside each of us. Tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe and the vast majority will believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure. Skeptics want to see the world for what it actually is, instead of what someone tells them. Don’t just teach your children to read – teach them to question everything they read or hear or see or are told. Thus spake George Carlin, comedian and skeptic who looked what everyone else looked at and saw what few others did.
As ancient philosophy and science developed, doubts arose about commonly accepted views of the world.
Some dared to challenge the universally accepted claims that a dozen bickering gods ruled the world from Mount Olympus, the sun was the center of the universe, the earth was flat, and fearsome dragons ate ships that sailed too far away from land. Most skeptics were branded as heretics for not conforming to established beliefs.
Skeptics want to figure things out.
They are inclined to question mainstream opinions and established beliefs. Skepticism is from the ancient Greek for inquiring, examining, and reflecting. Skeptics look at the same things from all sides, collecting evidence pro and con. They devote their full attention to examining, absorbing, contemplating, and pondering the possibilities. Skeptics challenge the adequacy and reliability of claims by asking what they are based upon.
Many people confuse skepticism with cynicism, but they are not synonyms.
Skepticism is the process of applying reason and critical thinking, not merely seeking support for preconceived conclusions. Skeptics require strong evidence before accepting any claim while cynics believe everyone is motivated only by selfishness and acts only out of self-interest. Skeptics listen to everyone – cynics listen to no one. The true meaning of the word skepticism has nothing to do with negativity. Those inclined to define skeptics in negative terms often turn out to be people who are threatened by challenge and open examination.
Skeptics do not judge books by their covers.
The first year I was in Trinidad & Tobago, the flood swept away my car, so I went shopping for a replacement. I met a seller at the mall in Westmoorings and looked the car over. When I asked to drive it, I was told “You don’t need to drive it – you can tell it is a good car just by looking at it.” Actually, I cannot determine the quality of a car’s running gear by its appearance. I’m a skeptic because I know better than to judge the inner workings of something by its exterior.
Why should people be skeptics when it comes to research?
Because much of what people assume to be science is nothing of the kind. Here are three types of untrustworthy science that skeptics have learned to recognize:
- Deceptive science is unsound science that has good intentions, but its standards are unacceptably low because sponsors lack the ability to tell what is real science and what is not. This is much of today’s DIY research, where fatal flaws in design and execution are commonplace.
- Junk science is aware of the principles of the scientific method but chooses to ignore them in favor of designing the research so the outcome supports already-chosen positions. It commonly appears in advertising hype, exaggeration, and overclaim.
- Fraudulent science comes in two versions, both of which produce results that support the sponsor’s position. Some studies are intentionally fabricated to produce findings that will make the sponsor look good. Others manipulate their analyses and their reporting to present similarly friendly findings. Take a closer look at the claims of the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries.
Deceptive science, junk science, and fraudulent science can all be described as pseudoscience.
Because they are only pretending to be science, they depend upon the average person’s inability to see through the thin veneer. Beware pretty slides, one clue someone is selling you a bill of goods, an idiom meaning an attempt to convince others of a lie in order to take unfair advantage of them. Companies produce junk science and fraudulent science for two very good reasons. At the business level, distortions and fabrications are routinely used to sell more things. At the personal level, gatekeepers distort the science and the findings for personal recognition and career-advancement.
Even the sound of it is something quite atrocious. Much of what is called research today is pseudoscience in disguise. It does not comply with accepted scientific standards because those doing it either aren’t scientists or worse yet, scientists who willingly compromise ethics. And because it does not adhere to the scientific method, pseudoscience produces faulty evidence that cannot be trusted.
Save this table.
Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver served in the United States House of Representatives from 1897 to 1903.
While a member of the House Committee on Naval Affairs, Vandiver attended an 1899 banquet in Philadelphia. In a speech there, he declared, “I come from a state where frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”
How can we tell the difference between what someone would like us to believe and what is actually true?
The answer lies in an above-average understanding of the scientific method, which is central to skepticism and vice versa. Applying the scientific method means adhering to rigorous standards and practices when you do the research, when you analyze the data, when you interpret the results, and when you present your findings to others.
The scientific method is the best tool ever devised to discriminate between true and false, to distinguish between reality and fantasy, and to detect outright bullshit. The scientific method requires evidence. Here are three basic types:
- Anecdotal evidence. Individuals’ experiences and points of view, not necessarily typical. This is a good place to start an investigation.
- Observational evidence. Watching people using things in situ tells us a lot. Ask the UX people.
- Scientific evidence. Surveys built upon and conducted by expert application of the scientific method.
Systematically collecting personal testimonies and anecdotal evidence is an excellent way to establish a likely range of possibilities and build better surveys. I consider them an integral part of all thorough investigations.
A hypothesis is something considered to be a likely explanation – based on what we know so far.
Surveys test hypotheses that were generated from anecdotal and observational evidence. Scientists know there are limits to knowledge and knowing absolute truths isn’t attainable. So they set up the reverse of what they’re thinking and set out to disprove it. The notion of the Black Swan says all you have to do is find one case not explained by a theory and out the window that theory goes. Every swan in England was white, so Brits believed all swans to be white. This was quite a surprise to everyone from Australia, where black swans are quite common. They were there all along, but the Brits were content to assume the entire world was like their little corner of the world.
Significance tests are used to establish confidence in a reverse hypothesis. Proving a non-relationship does not exist leaves the possibility that a relationship does exist, and lo and behold, this alternative hypothesis is what the researcher really thinks is going on. Think of it as an elaborate mathematical minuet – the slow, stately waltz performed by elaborately costumed people in powdered wigs.
For statistics to have any meaning at all, the data have to pass muster on many levels.
With the ever-increasing push for faster and cheaper, some of the corners cut are the foundations upon which statistical tests rely. It’s the equivalent of building a concrete wall but not bothering with rebar because it takes too long and costs too much. Construction shysters say they did the work, but it’s only a matter of time before the building falls down.
Good questions to ask about the findings of any research investigation are:
- Who was involved? Why?
- Who funded the research? What were they looking for?
- Who reported the research? What are their interests?
- Who conducted the research? How did they go about it?
- Who did we talk with? Who did we exclude and why?
The sharp-eyed notice that all of these questions require explanations. When they get unsatisfactory answers to their questions, skeptics are able to determine the evidence people are showing them is either scientific or not. They know science-based evidence is:
- Objective and unbiased.
- Valid and accurate.
As the story goes, Proctor & Gamble went looking for a gimmick to sell their soap.
The soap floats because the factory whipped enough air into it to make it float. The implication that its purity is demonstrated by its ability to float is a fabrication. Start with the assumption customers make that it is “pure.” Ivory’s FAQs say it contains Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Disodium EDTA, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, and Methylisothiazolinone. So much for purity.
Wanting to define purity in spite of the chemical ingredients, P&G hired a consultant to come up with a creative definition they could use to sell the soap. With a clear understanding of his mission, he emerged from the lab with a measure that implies tremendous accuracy: 99 and 44/100% PURE – IT FLOATS. Here is a good thing to keep in mind: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Critical thinking is an essential element of skepticism.
Critical thinking encourages our curiosity, enhances our creativity, and improves our ability to solve problems. The University of Louisville says critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of skillfully analyzing, synthesizing, and applying information to guide decisions and actions.
Like so many terms, many different definitions exist, but the better ones generally include:
- A healthy skepticism.
- Careful examination of factual evidence.
- Unbiased analysis.
The ability to think critically is extra-demanding because it comes from within – it is self-directed, self-monitored, self-disciplined, and self-corrective – quite a tall order, even for scientists.
Why should I care about critical thinking?
A quick online check shows Monster has 45,000 jobs with critical thinking in the job description, Glassdoor has 95,000, ZipRecruiter has 101,000, and Indeed has 115,000. Many of these jobs are open because employers say three out of four college graduates don’t have the critical thinking skills they need.
People who can’t think critically also lack the skills that closely align with critical thinking because they can’t:
- Locate, organize, or evaluate information.
- Manage the information-gathering process.
- Analyze problems or solve them.
When you have learned to think critically, you will be able to do those things – and these things, too:
- Approach problem-solving systematically.
- Determine the quality of information you are being shown.
- Use real evidence to draw sound conclusions.
Skepticism, critical thinking, and the scientific method go hand in hand, each needing the other.
Too many companies make decisions based on pseudoscience that not only hides the bad news but also prevents them from discovering opportunities in disguise. The output of the research function must be information and insights that produce meaningful results for the business – especially in the face of denunciations by insider experts, those most threatened by skepticism and critical thinking. When it comes to research and development, real innovations begin with daring to challenge assumptions, and that’s something skeptics and critical thinkers do naturally and do well.