What is Skepticism?

What a Wonderful World

by Arlo Eisenberg

Would you prefer to live in a world full of mystery and wonder or a world guided by strict laws and rules? For many people this is the question at the heart of the tension between skepticism and belief. If the price of accepting science, or a naturalistic worldview, is the loss of wonder, then perhaps the price is too high.

In place of a standard introduction to Skepticism (of which there are several good ones online already), I will instead offer here the story of my own personal introduction to Skepticism and the impact it has had on my life, and my curiosity, and my sense of wonder.

Arlo at Vans Skatepark in Orange, CA. Photo by Jess Dyrenforth.

Arlo at Vans Skatepark in Orange, CA. Photo by Jess Dyrenforth.

Many years ago, in another life, in another world, I was a professional rollerblader (some will know this already, some won’t care, everyone else can google it). For the purposes of this story it is only necessary to know that I was afforded the opportunity to travel, often, and to many great places.

A lot of people don’t like traveling. At least that was true of most of the people I traveled with. Sure, they liked going places, they just didn’t care much for GETTING to places. Flights were seen as long and boring and uncomfortable; they were something endured, never enjoyed.

The joy of flying.

The joy of flying.

I actually loved flying. In fact flying may have been my favorite part of traveling. Airline flights were the only time when I felt completely free from obligations, either from family or fans or sponsors or work. My only chores while flying were eating and sleeping and occasionally excusing myself to use the lavatory. I couldn’t skate or work, even if I wanted to, and in the absence of any responsibilities or distractions what I was left with, often for hours at a time, was the opportunity to read.

I have always been curious and thoughtful and open-minded. Like many young people I had an active imagination and was especially attracted to the thoughts and ideas lurking at the edges of scientific knowledge. I was drawn to the claims that challenged what was possible and to the stories which hinted at the promise of things yet to be discovered.

I was blown away by the book “The Bible Code,” for instance, whose author claimed to have unraveled a pattern in the Old Testament that foretold past events and that could be used to predict future ones. I was fascinated by Ouija boards and ghost stories. I couldn’t get enough of “classified” UFO documents or elaborate alien conspiracy theories. I feverishly devoured dozens of Xeroxed “government” documents describing different alien races and clandestine government organizations like the Majestic 12. I had an appetite for wonder!

It was against this backdrop, back in the late 1990s that I was scouring a newsstand looking for good reading material to take with me on an international flight. Discover Magazine was one of my go to magazines, so I was in the science section, which also sometimes included the pseudoscience section (although back then I am not sure that I understood there was a difference). I was searching through the magazines when something caught my eye.

It stood out, a little taller than the other magazines with a thick glossy cover and a perfect bound spine, the cover art was cluttered with headlines touting everything from Roswell and aliens to Bigfoot and ESP. It was speaking my language! I took the magazine down and thumbed through it. The layout was pretty stark, nothing too flashy, just black text on white pages, there were a few black and white illustrations and photos and there were some charts and graphs scattered throughout, but mostly the magazine contained text — A LOT OF TEXT — columns and columns of it; page after page. To my eyes it looked like some serious paranormal investigating was going down! So I bought the magazine.

In giant bold letters written across the cover was the name, “SKEPTIC.”

Skeptic Magazine

Skeptic Magazine

Over the course of the flight I read the SKEPTIC magazine cover to cover. Each case was meticulously laid out; one article presented the claims supporting an alien crash at Roswell, another described the best evidence for Bigfoot and another the evidence for ESP. In each case the presentations were compelling, not unlike most of the other paranormal material I’d ever come across. The stories were plausible and detailed and I believed them.

But then something incredible and completely unexpected happened. One by one, each and every claim in each and every article was methodically and convincingly torn to shreds. Each bit of evidence was scrutinized.  Witnesses were interviewed, sources were checked, facts were verified and in every instance, after closer examination, the cases fell apart.

It is hard to express just how profound of an impact this had on me.

To that point I had no idea that evidence was something that could be scrutinized or evaluated, certainly not in any meaningful way. I’d never considered the QUALITY of evidence. I didn’t even know enough to know that meant something. I’d taken for granted that a blurry photograph WAS, in fact, evidence of something interesting.

I’d always thought that cryptozoologists and paranormal investigators simply “investigated” the things that they were looking for: Ghost hunters hunted for ghosts, Bigfoot hunters hunted for Sasquatches, Ufologists searched for UFOs and aliens. That’s what they did! The existence of the things being hunted was never in question, it was always simply a matter of pursuit and detection, evidence was just the stuff that was gathered along the way. Giant footprints and EMF readings and mysterious orbs of light all lurched the investigations forward. The accumulation of evidence simply affirmed the existence of the things being pursued. The search WAS the investigation!

What I had failed to consider, what had never even entered my mind before my exposure to Skepticism (and this seems SO simple now looking back, but it really did take a wholesale shift in perspective), was the possibility that there might not have been anything there worth looking for in the first place. Perhaps the claims just weren't true, or were simply without merit.

Of course the subjects of the extraordinary claims themselves couldn’t be tested directly, they were too elusive, but the evidence, the evidence for the claims was SOMETHING. The evidence COULD be tested. And what if there was a better explanation for the evidence, what if the evidence failed to stand up to scrutiny, then what to make of the claims?

bigfoot_foot_print.jpg

Giant footprints could be tantalizing evidence of an as to yet unidentified apelike creature inhabiting forests in North America, or they could come from humans or bears or they could be outright hoaxes. EMF meters could be picking up signals from beyond the grave, but EMF signals are everywhere and EMF meters are notorious for producing anomalies, it is hard to build a case on blips and bleeps. “Mysterious” orbs are known to appear in photos for all kinds of reasons, could floating dust, lens flares and bugs all be ruled out before invoking ghosts or an aliens?

The shift in perspective, from focusing on the subject of a claim, to focusing on the evidence for a claim was so simple and yet it was so powerful. It made so much sense! It was a watershed moment.

The conclusions from the evidence weren’t necessarily Earth rattling or paradigm shifting. They weren’t the kinds of answers I’d grown up hoping for. No one captured Bigfoot or discovered the carcass of a sea monster at Loch Ness; an alien spacecraft did not land on the South Lawn of the White House. But, Skepticism made it clear why none of those things were very likely to happen.

If not extraordinary, the answers were at least well reasoned and reliable. In an instant, in one single international flight, the promise of Bigfoot and Nessie and aliens and all of the extraordinary claims, into which I had invested so much, was gone — grounded — eviscerated by the scientific method, surgically excised with Ockham’s razor. And yet, incredibly, my sense of wonder did not vanish with it. In fact, my sense of wonder was not diminished at all, if anything it was reinvigorated.

There is no limit to the list of things waiting to be discovered or explained in this world: artificial intelligence, alien planets, alien life, the multiverse, deep-sea creatures, dark matter, clean energy, space travel, quantum computing…there is literally no end. The world is full of wonder and mystery.

What made Bigfoot and the aliens and all the rest so interesting was not the subject matter itself. There is nothing intrinsically more interesting about a giant, hairy, bipedal hominid than, say, a unicorn, or a leprechaun, or a boy wizard with a lightning bolt on his forehead. What elevated the great unsolved mysteries to something beyond pure fiction or imagination, what made them so gripping and enduring was their air of plausibility, the notion that they COULD be true.

An extraordinary claim is made extraordinary, not by virtue of what is being claimed, but rather by its likeliness to be true. The source of wonder comes not from the mystery of the claim but from the power of the truth in it. The truth is the source of wonder!

You don’t have to choose between a world of rules and laws and a world of wonder. The world is filled with wonder, more incredible, mind-bending things than we could ever hope to know. Skepticism merely provides the tools which can help guide us in their pursuit.

In Skepticism we learn to apply the skills that bring us closer to truth. By steering us away from the things that are very unlikely to be true and by guiding us toward the things that are, Skepticism brings us closer to truth. Truth is the source of wonder…

Skepticism brings us closer to wonder!

Arlo with Dr. Michael Shermer, the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine.

Arlo with Dr. Michael Shermer, the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine.