I did a radio interview a few weeks ago, and in it, I discussed homeopathy, acupuncture, salt therapy and chiropractic. Needless to say, the interview was followed by a range of alternative practitioners all calling in to defend their methods. The interviewer also read out a number of texts and emails, all pretty much saying the same thing: that I was just a closed-minded begrudger who should be a bit less dismissive about things he doesn’t understand.
It’s a common belief that sceptical people are somehow lacking in imagination and empathy. According to some, when we look at the world, we moan and groan at the stupidity we see around us. Somehow, most other people are lesser beings, and while we cast doubt and criticise, they are out in the world getting on with their lives. What a miserable, negative lot we are!
The thing is, I don’t see it like that at all. As a person, I’m not terribly negative about things, and most other sceptical people I know have similar attitudes. Indeed, what I see around me, when I visit sceptical conferences and organise my own get-togethers, are wildly interesting people. Among the sceptical community, you will find writers and musicians; painters, comedians and poets. You will find fantasists, willing to consider life far into the future and worlds yet to be discovered. You will meet people with great talents, and those with huge burdens to bear. There is a passion to our discourse, some sadness, and many, many laughs. The sceptical community is just like any community on the planet, as varied and fascinating as a patchwork quilt.
So, what makes us different? If there is something that distinguishes us from others, it is this: we are driven by a curiosity about how the world really works. From this, we believe that the best way to understand it is to consider the evidence that exists for it. If you are asking us to accept something as true, we will ask how well it is supported. If it has good backup, it will be discussed, considered, explored and toyed with for the possibilities that it may offer. If it has little or no support, then acceptance will be withheld, until such time, if ever, that better evidence comes to light. Over time, you develop a sense of whether an idea is worthwhile or not: a “baloney detector kit”, as it were, helping you sort the good ideas from the bad ones.
A glance at my bookshelf reveals books about the origins of life, the story of Galileo, the scramble for Africa, Richard Feynman, the Ice Age, the Crusades, the stories of civilisation, great epidemics and the life and times of an executioner in 17th Century Nuremberg – hardly the library of a cynical begrudger. It would pain me greatly if I was ever to be parted from them. I am possessed with a desire to know and understand what I can, and yet not be fooled in the process. To me, scepticism is part of the process of gathering knowledge. Without it, knowledge is meaningless, as you cannot distinguish the worthwhile ideas from the chaff.
Scepticism is a state of mind. It doesn’t mean I get angry every time I see something I disagree with, or that I’m always writing angry letters to newspapers complaining about the latest fad. Most of the time, it simply allows me to be discriminating in what I wish to spend time on. There are only so many battles you can fight.
That doesn’t imply that there are no issues to discuss. Scepticism gives me a perspective on which to look at the world, and from this viewpoint, I see charlatans – psychics, faith healers and cancer quacks – exploiting peoples hopes and vulnerabilities with non-existent cures. I see anti-vaccination groups scaring parents, thus bringing rare diseases back amongst our children. I see cult religions warping people’s lives when they could have been doing so much else. I see political think-tanks questioning the science on climate change, thus condemning future generations to a potentially dreadful future. These are issues that affect us all. My concerns are human concerns, focused on the best of what life has to offer us, and rejecting the worst. I’m just coming at it from a slightly different angle.
Ultimately, I think scepticism is a hopeful stance. I believe that we humans have the capability to extend our survival as a species and to make all our lives better during our short stay on the planet. We can solve many of the problems that beset us, but it will require hard work, trial, error and great insight. In the end, it’s less about ideology and more about the role of science, technology, education and a good dose of common human decency, in addressing the many challenges that we face, now and in the future.
So, it’s not all about begrudgery and negativity. Quite the opposite – scepticism is about intellectual honesty, unquenchable curiosity and truly great ideas. It is accessible to all, both young and old. As a perspective, it is valuable and satisfying, both emotionally and mentally. It is a viewpoint shared by many of the world’s greatest thinkers, scientists and innovators. If only our political classes would consider it more seriously! We sceptics still have quite a job to do to convince people that our stance is important and worthwhile, but in the end I am hopeful. After all, we have an important ally on our side: reality.