For those not familiar with the phrase ‘Doubting Thomas’, it references the story in the bible where, Thomas, doubts the resurrection of Jesus until he witnesses and feels the wounds on Jesus’ hands. In the context of the bible, ‘doubt’ is portrayed as a negative emotion or reaction, and this is a common notion that doubt signifies indecisiveness and uncertainty. On the contrary, to start with a conjecture of certainty is irrational and will, in most cases, not lead to the pursuit of truth, or towards untruth. Approaching information with doubt is a good start, but in itself, will not lead to the truth. The right way to pursue truth is to be skeptical.
How is skeptical different from being doubtful? Skepticism is an active approach, it begins with doubt, but then proceeds to analyse the message and either accept or reject it as truth or untruth. Without doubt we would believe everything we heard, with only doubt we would believe nothing, with doubt and skepticism we believe only what is true. So how do we go about being skeptical, is there a set of tools or methods that we can follow? Let’s talk about some of the tools, methods at our disposal.
- First, when receiving information or hearing an argument, be aware of and look out for obvious logical fallacies. Identifying fallacies is a skill that needs to be honed with constant practice and should become habitual after a while. Some useful resources are below. These are by no means a complete list, there are numerous logical fallacies, but the ones listed in these references are the most commonly encountered.
2. Now that we are fairly certain that the information we have is free of any logical fallacies, we can proceed to examine the content. At this point I would like to point to a set of rules put forth by a well renowned skeptic, Carl Sagan, in his essay “The fine art of baloney detection” . He proposed a set of tools, which he coined The baloney detection kit, that arise from a systematic deliberation of information using the scientific method. The tools are,
- Independent confirmation of facts – Using more than one independent source to confirm or deny the facts that are presented to you
- Listen to all points of view, through a knowledgeable and substantive debate
- In science, there are no authorities, at the most there are experts – No one can claim to be an authority, experts are fallible, that makes them a good expert
- Spin multiple hypotheses and devise tests to disprove them, the hypotheses that fails the test of disproof is most likely the right/true one
- Do not get overly attached to a hypothesis, remove any personal bias that might creep into the hypotheses testing
- Quantify vs qualify – Always use measurable quantities to test the hypotheses, qualitative measures are vague and open to explanation
- If there is a chain of arguments, every link in the chain must be true for the argument to be true
- Occam’s razor – If more than one hypotheses passes the disproof test, then choose the simpler one
- Ask if the hypothesis can be easily falsified, if a hypothesis cannot be tested then it is not worth much
Before I conclude, I would like to briefly touch upon the null hypothesis. Basically whenever we’re presented with an argument, we phrase the opposite (negative) of that argument as our null hypothesis and then proceed to test that hypothesis. The correct rejection (positives) or failure to reject (negatives) will give us the truth, for example
Claim: The earth is round
Null hypothesis: The earth is flat
Evidence proceeds to reject the null hypothesis, therefore accepting the claim (or alternate) that the earth is round.
Incorrectly rejecting a hypothesis leads to a type 1 error (false positive) and incorrectly failing to reject the hypothesis leads to a type 2 error (false negative).
Source of image: Errors and Power (University of Florida)
To conclude, being a skeptic should become habitual and for that it requires training. Our brains are wired to look for patterns in reality, and explanations for things we do not understand, that could or could not be true, and skepticism is the process to break that habit and pursue real truth.
Knowledge is constantly being updated, revised and corrected and there will come a time when we will have answers to the unknown questions. Until then it is perfectly alright to answer I don’t know, not opposed to continuing the search for the answer but opposed to assigning the wrong answer/explanation to the question.