Native Skeptic

Native Skeptic
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Sunday, August 15, 2010

An Introduction Into Science and Skeptical Thinking

For quite some time now, we have known that Americans do not have very much general knowledge about science. Numerous surveys that measure the public's broad views on evolution, climate change, the Big Bang, and even the idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun, all reveal how huge the gap really is between what science tells us and what the public believes. But what does that really mean? How is that even relative to you? And why should you even care?

So much bad information has embedded itself within our society that it has started to spill out into our popular culture. The various claims and theories that we get from people around us, on TV, or on the internet are examples of where we see certain forms of information being more harmful than informative. Not only does it make things more complicated for the general public, but it makes things more dangerous as well. Today, we have so many extraordinary, or even downright weird claims that are loosely based on naturally occurring phenomena, such as UFO’s or pareidolia. People generally form these types of claims from a poor understanding of perception, memory, and science.
Those who are not aware of such concepts like thought processes, analytical thinking tools, or principles of logic appear to be unaffected by any scientific data which undermines their own opinions about the world and are naturally inclined to argue with irrational technical claims that are of dubious merit. This is a model of how normal, intelligent people can still manage to allow ideas develop into beliefs that come from misinterpreting their own personal biased perspective as truth. There are plenty other examples of how our society displays its misunderstanding of how science works through the media and on the internet. Scam artists, outright frauds set up shop under the cloak of pseudo scientific terminology that very few care to understand because the payoffs are so great and there is so little apparent risk. Nutrition is a field of science that has been subject to many of these false claims that prey on the knowledge that people seek better health but are ignorant of the science. Dietary supplements are a prime example of a growing market in which there are major pseudoscientific claimants that prevail in today’s culture by adhering to those trying to stay young, using key words like vitality, and by selling people on “magic” pills or cures. Today, we live in a age where people can develop erroneous beliefs and fixate on things like eliminating toxins that naturally accumulate in the body or the even the basic idea that every person needs to take a vitamin. When in fact, most of these baseless types of technical sounding processes are not based on any real science and lack any significant evidence or basis for belief all together.

According to a response article written by Alfred E. Harper, Ph.D., chairman of the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences, 1978 to 1982, posted on the Quackwatch website;

"During the late 1980s, the Council for Responsible Nutrition (a supplement industry trade association) falsely suggested that average Americans were in danger of nutrient deficiency and should take supplements."

For updated information about appropriate supplementation, see

At some point, people just stop asking questions and assume things such as the fact that there is iron in your blood, therefore magnets must also be able to influence your circulation. This statement would be true, if the iron in your blood was ferromagnetic. Some might ask what the harm could be in buying this brand of pseudoscientific claim, in this case nothing more than your money. However, if you just had the slightest bit of understanding how magnets work, or in science, this would not measure up to the standards of your reasoning. “I believe what I do because I just do” is simply not a sound position, argument, or standpoint on any subject pertaining to the physical world. But that is not to say that there aren’t other extreme cases that some beliefs or ideas can evolve into being something outright dangerous. So a conundrum presents itself in these following questions;

"Why do we believe in the things that we do? What makes us think that we know something? What distinguishing factors determine what we know, from what we think we know?"


Before I even start to get into these concepts of thought processes, we need to cover the subject of inference. This understanding explains the process of how we know what we think we know. When we break down the very notion of “thinking”, we are referring to such things as decision making, evaluating, interpreting, explaining, predicting, and calculating. All of these various forms of cognitive brain function fall under the practical study of inference that we call logic. It is by this process that allows us to learn from nature by developing criteria for evaluating the natural world so that we may maintain a high level of understanding about our own inferences. Or in other words, inference can be summed up by saying that it is the process of taking existing information and using it to produce further information. For example, the particles of light called photons take 8 minutes to reach the Earth from the Sun. So, the light that you see has to reflect off the surface of something in order for your retina to capture and process that information through inference in order for your brain to actually produce the experiences of sight. Our minds are pattern seeking machines that don’t always interpret things correctly. We have learned from the help of people like James Randi that through simple visual tricks and basic magic, it is not particularly difficult to fool anyone, even experts. Matter of fact, magicians are nothing more than experts in manipulating and exploiting these assumptions of our minds. The pattern goes against what your mind assumes, the results of the trick are not what you expected, and if there are no obvious alternative explanations it must be “magic”.

Often people see what they want to see. Our beliefs can alter our minds' observations to the extent that it can begin to perceive information in a way that reinforces assumptions as being certain, even when another observer perceives it to be different. So, much like the illusion that the magician sets up with the repetition of throwing a ball into the air, the fourth time the ball does not go up but some people would testify in court that they saw a ball in the air. People see what they expect to see and will continue to do so until they are shown otherwise with a type of selective thinking called “confirmation bias”. When we tend to only notice and look for information that confirms our beliefs while ignoring contradicting evidence, we are no longer looking at things objectively. The things you look at are always more complicated than they seem. There are many of these assumptions that your mind makes, even when you are not conscientiously aware of them. The brain produces various forms of information as it interprets nature through your senses. The experience of sight, smell, taste, hear, and touch are all produced by the brains' inference of new information from the outside world. But even our whole notion of thought is subject to scientific inquiry. Apparent mental causation, or the sources of the experience of will, give more than sufficient evidence to question everything, even the way you think about thinking.

“Science makes the real world objective.”

Misconceptions about skepticism and science

There are many similarities between skepticism and science. Much like the misconceptions about science, skepticism is also riddled with many misunderstandings that flourish in the regions where we lose communication in the midst of that huge gap between the people who have analytical thinking skills and the ones who do not. Skeptics have been prone to developing a bad reputation as being condescending and arrogant due to these misconceptions about science and the general lack of understanding in scientific reasoning. Many people perceive skeptics and scientific thinkers as generally being deniers and on occasion go as far as saying closed minded, but this oversimplified characterization of science couldn’t be much further from the truth. Matter of fact, science implements the notion of remaining open to new evidence, promotes the challenging of hypotheses, and encourages those to observe with skeptical eyes. Often it is the common idea that science is basically the ability to recite a list of facts about the planets or simply memorizing the names of genes and species. The various memorizing techniques and acronyms that we use to remember names of the planets in our solar system and merely teaching people how to answer which planet is the fourth from the Sun, are not examples of science. These are just more examples of where we can find complete misunderstandings, which are not just isolated to just our society, but flourish across the globe spreading erroneous beliefs about science like malignant cells. Science itself is not a belief system, an ideology, or set of preconceived notions about reality. Science is a methodology that we use to demonstrate where certain claims stand with us by providing examples of validity. Science makes objective claims that are only concerned with the physical world. Personal beliefs that are outside of what is subject to verifiable testing are beyond the definition of science and therefore are deemed to be unreasonable for any scientific inference. They simply do not pertain to science because they do not pertain to the natural laws of science.

What is the scientific method?

Out of the many skeptical tools, the scientific method is by far the most central to all of skepticism. The defining process of skepticism follows the basic fundamentals of the scientific method. The proposed hypothesizer regards himself as fallible and actually tests himself, criticizes, and makes corrections for continuous improvement. This methodology could be defined as a body of techniques that are used to investigate phenomena, acquire new knowledge, make corrections, and combining previous knowledge. The actual process of how the scientific method is used, consists of the following steps; formulating a hypothesis, collecting data through observation, and experimentation. A hypothesis is simply defined as any explanation for natural occurring phenomena, not to be confused with a scientific hypothesis or scientific theory. This brings us to some of the requirements that are established by the standards of the scientific method. First, in order for a claim to be deemed as being scientific, it must be observable, measurable, testable evidence that adheres to the specific principles of scientific reasoning. Second, the scientific method only implements verifiable evidence that is gained through “validated” testing. Not only does this set a higher general standard, but it establishes the fact that deriving evidence from validated testing is a fundamental requirement of science. The validity of a test is determined by the methodological process and the control measures that were utilized to help eliminate any variables that may influence the results, such as those found in the personal bias of anecdotal evidence and personal testimony. So, when non-skeptics share anecdotal accounts from personal experiences as testimonies to some kind of first hand validation of evidence, it is generally not accepted. This often leads strait into an emotional response and strait out of a rational discussion.

Since we have established the notion that our minds are very complex information processing machines that constantly seek recognizable patterns for thought, we have also recognized the fallibility of our minds. The real genius is in the notion that we are accepting and may change those perceptions in order to build stronger foundations, continuously improving our ability to freely and truly think. Ideas change and can get more precise when our understanding grows deeper and they can also grow by merging with other ideas in a metaphorical evolution. But we learn from our mistakes and we use the results of experimentation to infer new information from it. But, when we make the inevitable mistake, we need to be able to have a way to keep it from happening again. In order for a hypothesis to be considered scientific, it must also be able to make predictions about experimental outcomes or observations about natural phenomena. This is why it is important that our scientific hypothesis not only be testable, but the process must also be repeatable. In that, the scientific method can virtually be considered the act of troubleshooting. Others need to be able to duplicate the results to ensure the level of quality is being met, and at the same time, cutting down on any obvious errors. If the hypothesis is not accessible by observation, it is not yet useful for the scientific method and must sit on the backburner until the day someone comes down the road with a new recipe to rekindle that flame. That being said, science is the most “open minded” process there can be.

On the other hand, as Dr. Steven Novella and David Bloomberg put it in feature on the CSI website,

The purpose of showing people how to apply the scientific method in their own life is not just to point out pseudoscientific beliefs and ridicule those who believe them. It’s about teaching others through communicating the concepts of science and skepticism so that we may be able to help others filter out what is real themselves. Our brains are not wired for skeptical thinking, they are wired to believe.

At the largest meeting of critical thinkers and skeptics in the world, The Amaz!ng Meeting 8 in Las Vegas, Astronomer Phil Plait gave a lecture which posed this question,

“How do you explain to someone that they are not thinking clearly when they aren’t thinking clearly?”

Science is that method of processing information which has lead to an evolution of knowledge. Our perspectives of the laws of nature and the world continue to evolve and reshape with every monumental step that we make. All cultures of people look to nature for the answers to questions about life and reality. As Native Americans, we have stories and tradition of ceremony that we use as the testimonial evidence of nature. So, we have always had the concept of using methodology to seek guidance from “Mother Earth” about the truths in our lives and reality. But, we must always remember to factor in the assumption that we might be wrong. Just ask nature and allow her to give reason. Always feel free to ask her on your own as well and she should give you the same answer. This is why as scientific thinkers, we can say that we are truly free of personal bias because we let nature tell us what is real and this defines what it means to be a “free-thinker”.