Michael Shermer on Skepticism

    Michael Schermer the resident skeptic columnist at Scienctific American, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and author of How We Believe (W. H. Freeman & Co., 1999) and Why People Believe Weird Things (Mjf Books, 2000) wrote the following on what skepticism is in the April, 2002, Scientific Ameircan (p. 37).  I find it to be a positive and accurate statement of what I understand skepticism to be and so I include it here in part:
    "To my considerable chagrin, it was five years into the editing and publishing of Skeptic magazine before I realized I had never bothered to define the word or even examined how others had used it.  Then Stephen Jay Gould, in the foreword to my book Why People Believe Weird Things, mentioned that it comes from the Greek skeptikos, for 'thoughtful.'  Etymologically, in fact, its Latin derivative is scepticus , for 'inquiring' or 'reflective.'  Further variations in the ancient Greek include 'watchman' or 'mark to aim at.'  Hence, skepticism is thoughtful and reflective inquiry.  To be skeptical is to aim toward a goal of critical thinking.  Skeptics are the watchmen of reasoning errors, the Ralph Naders of bad ideas.

    "This is a far cry from modern misconceptions of the word as meaning 'cynical' or 'nihilistic', although a consideration of the word's history gives some insight into why its original definition has shifted.  The Oxford English Dictionary offers this as its first definition of 'sceptic': 'one who, like Pyrrho and his followers in Greek antiquity, doubts the possibility of real knowledge of any kind; one who holds that there are no adequate grounds for certainty as to the truth of any proposition whatever.' This may be true in philosophy, but not in science.  There are more than adequate grounds for the probability of the truth of propositions--if we substitute 'probability' for 'certainty', because there are no incontrovertible facts in science if fact is a belief held with 100 percent certitude.

    "Superstring theory may be uncertain, but heliocentrism is not.  Whether the history of life is best described by gradualism or punctuated equilibrium may still be in dispute, but the fact that life has evolved is not.  The difference is one of probabilities, and this is reflected in a second usage of 'sceptic': 'one who doubts the validity of what claims to be knowledge in some particular department of inquiry.'  Okay, so we don't doubt everything, just some things--particularly those lacking in evidence and logic.  Unfortunately, it is also true that some skeptics fall into a third usage of the word: 'one who is habitually inclined rather to doubt than to believe any assertion or apparent fact that comes before him; a person of sceptical temper.'  Why some people are, by temperament, more skeptical than others is a subject for another essay.  But suffice it to say that the reverse is also true--some folks are, by temperament, habitually inclined to believe rather than to doubt any assertion.  Neither extreme is healthy.

    "Perhaps the closest fit to what we equate with a skeptical or scientific attitude is a fourth meaning: 'a seeker after truth; an inquirer who has not yet arrived at definite convictions.'  Skepticism is not 'seek and ye shall find'--a classic case of what is called the confirmation bias--but 'seek and keep an open mind.'  What does it mean to have an open mind?  It is to find the essential balance between orthodoxy and heresy, between a total commitment to the status quo and the blind pursuit of new ideas."

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    Created May 18, 2002,