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A Brief Introduction

All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike — and yet it is the most precious thing we have.

—Albert Einstein

The Skeptics Society is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) scientific and educational organization whose mission is to engage leading experts in investigating the paranormal, fringe science, pseudoscience, and extraordinary claims of all kinds, promote critical thinking, and serve as an educational tool for those seeking a sound scientific viewpoint. Our contributors—leading scientists, scholars, investigative journalists, historians, professors and teachers—are top experts in their fields. It is our hope that our efforts go a long way in promoting critical thinking and lifelong inquisitiveness in all individuals.

The Society’s Executive Director, Dr. Michael Shermer, is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the host of the podcast The Michael Shermer Show, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University where he teaches Skepticism 101. For 18 years he was a monthly columnist for Scientific American. He writes a weekly Substack column. He is the author of New York Times bestsellers Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain, Why Darwin Matters, The Science of Good and Evil, The Moral Arc, Heavens on Earth, and Giving the Devil His Due: Reflections of a Scientific Humanist. He has appeared on such shows as The Colbert Report, 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, Larry King Live, Tom Snyder, Donahue, Oprah, Leeza, Unsolved Mysteries, among others. He has been interviewed in countless documentaries aired on PBS, A&E, Discovery, History Channel, Science Channel, and Learning Channel. Follow him on Twitter @michaelshermer.

I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.

—Baruch Spinoza

Some people believe that skepticism is the rejection of new ideas, or worse, they confuse “skeptic” with “cynic” and think that skeptics are a bunch of grumpy curmudgeons unwilling to accept any claim that challenges the status quo. This is wrong. Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas — no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position. Ideally, skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true. When we say we are “skeptical,” we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe.

Skepticism has a long historical tradition dating back to ancient Greece, when Socrates observed: “All I know is that I know nothing.” But this pure position is sterile and unproductive and held by virtually no one. If you were skeptical about everything, you would have to be skeptical of your own skepticism. Like the decaying subatomic particle, pure skepticism uncoils and spins off the viewing screen of our intellectual cloud chamber.

Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, which involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions. Some claims, such as water dowsing, ESP, and creationism, have been tested (and failed the tests) often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are not valid. Other claims, such as hypnosis, the origins of language, and black holes, have been tested but results are inconclusive so we must continue formulating and testing hypotheses and theories until we can reach a provisional conclusion.

The key to skepticism is to continuously and vigorously apply the methods of science to navigate the treacherous straits between “know nothing” skepticism and “anything goes” credulity. Over three centuries ago the French philosopher and skeptic, René Descartes, after one of the most thorough skeptical purges in intellectual history, concluded that he knew one thing for certain: Cogito ergo sum — I think therefore I am. But evolution may have designed us in the other direction. Humans evolved to be pattern-seeking, cause-inferring animals, shaped by nature to find meaningful relationships in the world. Those who were best at doing this left behind the most offspring. We are their descendents. In other words, to be human is to think:

Sum Ergo Cogito
I Am Therefore I Think.

An Excerpt from How We Believe

“…membership or involvement in any capacity with the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine is not exclusionary. We could not care less what anyone’s religious beliefs are. In fact, at least two of our more prominent supporters—the comedian and songwriter Steve Allen and the mathematician and essayist Martin Gardner—are believers in God. Other members of our board may believe in God as well. I do not know. I have never asked.

The primary mission of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine is the investigation of science and pseudoscience controversies, and the promotion of critical thinking. We investigate claims that are testable or examinable. If someone says she believes in God based on faith, then we do not have much to say about it. If someone says he believes in God and he can prove it through rational arguments or empirical evidence, then, like Harry Truman, we say “show me.” …

If in the process of learning how to think scientifically and critically, someone comes to the conclusion that there is no God, so be it—but it is not our goal to convert believers into nonbelievers.”

—Shermer, Michael. How We Believe. (New York: W.H. Freeman/Owl, 2003.) pp. xiii–xv

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