What does it mean to be Skeptical?

Do you believe those letters and emails from Nigerians claiming to have millions of dollars waiting for you, if only you would send them a few hundred dollars? Do you believe that buying a particular brand of beer will make you incredibly popular and get you invited to all the best parties? Do you respond to emails asking you to type in all your bank account numbers and passwords? Probably not.

If you raise an eyebrow at claims like these then you are a natural skeptic. Being skeptical means not being gullible. There are countless scoundrels out there trying to get your hard-earned money, and it is only by being skeptical that you can avoid being scammed. It is the seasoned skeptic who is always asking questions and being curious, and if you are like this, you are well on your way to having a naturally scientific mind.

CFI posterIn this article,  we will look at what it means to be a skeptic and we will test our “skeptical muscle” by looking at a recent claim. First of all, let’s get the definition straight – being skeptical means “raising an eyebrow” when someone tells you something that sounds, well, fishy. It doesn’t mean being negative or being a denialist. Great – we have that out of the way.

When someone approaches you with a piece of news, you might believe it automatically because

1) they are reliable or

2) it sounds reasonable. If the claim is a bit outlandish (I just saw Ogopogo do back-flips off the bridge) you would raise your eyebrow and ask 1) did any one else see it? and 2) where’s the video? If your friend can supply neither corroboration nor video evidence you‘re better off thinking he is pulling your leg or was mistaken. The most reasonable explanation is not that Ogopogo did back-flips solely for him, but rather that he was mistaken about another perfectly normal and natural phenomenon, or he was playing a joke on you. In the words of the late Carl Sagan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

But what about claims outside your field of expertise? What about frightening or dangerous claims? How do you assess those? For most people there is no easy answer. Let’s take the recent spate of WiFi scares as an example. A group of parents convinced Barrie, Ontario schools to turn off their WiFi because of fears that the radio signals would harm children.

Why were they so firm in their belief? One reason is that strongly worded appeals to emotion – especially regarding children – will temporarily short circuit your bunk-detector. Another reason is that the person making the claims, Dr. Lai, sounded authoritative. However, according to the World Health Organization, “Despite extensive research, to date there is no evidence to conclude that exposure to low level electromagnetic fields is harmful to human health.”

Common sense also tells you that if WiFi did have such a negative effect, it would be widely felt because WiFi is now everywhere – but there are, as yet, no measurable problems to be found. In this world of complex science and technology it’s difficult to know what to believe. There are scam artists who will sell you “protective devices” that don’t do anything, and sometimes these scoundrels fan the flames of manufactured scares. To be able to criticise these claims requires a fair bit of scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, many people do not have much scientific knowledge so we need to rely on experts.

For example, one good place to begin researching is the magazine Scientific American, which recently did a nice job of explaining why cell phones do not cause cancer. The trick to determining what may or may not be realistic is to avoid listening to just one person – because a single person may or may not be correct. Instead, it is important to examine the consensus of many scientists from the same field of study, and see what their collective results reveal.

Having a PhD or MD attached to your name is no guarantee of authority, but the combined results of a majority of experts in the same field of research do an excellent job of highlighting truths.

When confronted with extraordinary claims a seasoned skeptic always raises an eyebrow and says “Wait a minute. I think I need to look into this a bit more.” The more you flex your skeptical muscle, the more finely tuned your “bunk-detector” will be present, and the safer, healthier, richer and happier you will become.

Blythe Nilson

Professor of Biology, UBC Okanagan

Board of Advisors, C.F.I. Canada