Skepticism 101: What do you think?

Skepchicon starts in two days. For those of you who don’t know, Skepchicon is a “track” at Convergence, which in turn is one of those science fiction conventions where everyone dresses up as a Klingon or something.


A Klingon Warrior being interviewed at Convergence in a prior year.

The Skepchicon track and related events is an organized effort to bring skeptical conversation to the masses, focusing specifically on one very diverse group of people some of whom being very amenable to this sort of thing, and others perhaps not so. Normally, these conversations are very civil and informative, though there are times when one needs to take the argument outside and settle things like real geeks.


Gorilla-skeptic and Ducttapeman fighting over the question “Can you breath through your skin

Anyway, my schedule for the Con is here, including panels I hope to attend as well as those I’m on: I Will Be at the Con. (I realize that a lot of people did not get my joke about The Con. Re-read the title of that post once or twice.)

I’m hoping to see you there, but even if not, perhaps we can get some conversation going about the topics at hand.

We start with Skepticism 101. This is with Steve Thoms, Pamela Gay, Lois Schadewald, and me. To me, this is a place where we might discuss what skepticism is, how individuals who have an interest in the community of skeptics might begin to interface, where individuals who have had some experience with either skeptical thinking in their own social context, or with their own skeptical community might share experiences, etc. If, that is, we the panel can remain quiet long enough to hear what the audience says. I’m interested to see what the audience consists of. Why does someone decide to go to an intro session on a major philosophical movement at a science fiction convention? I can think of a lot of good reasons, but the real question is who will actually be in the room this year? (S-101 last year drew a pretty good crowd, as I recall.)

So, if you are a “skeptic” and you found yourself, say, at Easter or something with a bunch of relatives and they asked you about this “skeptics” thing, what would you tell them (assuming that you only get about 30 seconds to grab everyone’s interest before they go back to smashing the Piñata)? If you were a professional skeptic and your kid dragged you to school on “Drag a Parent to School Day” what would you tell the kiddies? In other words, how do you explain what a skeptic is, or what being skeptical might consist of, concisely but not so tersely that your definition’s pithiness overcomes it’s utility…. A paragraph or two.


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8 thoughts on “Skepticism 101: What do you think?

  1. I think it is ironic that a discussion of skepticism is being promoted at a conference of make-believe. However, since fantasy is often used to model the human psyche in much the same way as ancient mythology, I can see where there is opportunity for philosophical overlap.

    My definition of skepticism would have to include my grandmother’s advice to not believe anything you hear and only half of what you see. That is far too pithy, so I would add a few things. Be aware of common logical fallacies and the classic propaganda techniques. They got noticed and written down in books because they work. Learn how look out for them.

    It is common for people to believe the first thing they hear about a subject and filter everything else they hear through that. Be disbelieving and look for additional knowledge. Try to understand the whole situation well before believing what anybody has to say about it.

    Read widely and have enough general worldly knowledge to be able to guess when a given story does not cover the whole story and where supposed facts might be wrong. Do not believe that any of your assumptions about the story are true, either.

    Understand historiography and the qualities of evidence. The original source who first said something is a superior reference for information than later people who quote the source in a different way. Even if the later interpretation sounds better to you, it is worthless if the original source does not support it. Physical evidence trumps opinion unless the evidence or its interpretation is questionable. People are biased and always have been.

  2. I would begin by saying I am skeptical of the possibility of a warp drive. Or phasers that can kill bloodlessly, or be set to ‘stun’. Or the utility of phasers as sidearms without sights. Or why wearing a red shirt gets a guy killed.

  3. 6EQUJ5, that is often where our Easter conversation is going about the time someone asks about skepticism. We must be related!

  4. Being skeptical: It means being informed, using good sources of information, and evaluating the information critically. Then, it means avoiding a conclusion until reasonably certain. Then, it means that all conclusions are tentative.

  5. A lot of people call me a skeptic, but I don’t accept that at face value. Unless somebody presents me with a logical argument, based on solid evidence, why I am supposed to be a skeptic, I reserve my judgment.

    (As an aside, that’s clearly not Ducttapeman – it could be a Teenage Mutant Hero Turtle, but due to the absence of a mask, I conclude it’s actually Gamera! Gamera vs. King Kong! Now that movie would be an instant classic.)

  6. Tangaroa: I love your opening question, let’s explore that a little:

    What if it was a skeptic speaker (The Amazing Randi or someone) invited to give a talk at the Wochestershire Ladies Tea and English Literature Brunch?

    Those ladies sitting around drinking their tea and discussing English (fictional) Literature are engaged in fantasy and fiction, but he have invited a skeptic.

    I’m sure some of the attendeeds of both the Worchesterchire Tea and the Convergence Convention live in “another world” as it were, but most are engaged in recreational fiction and fantasy.

    I actually know a lot of people who have that “spiritual” labele, are druids, witches, whatever whatever, but who are hard core when it comes to climate, evolution, various aspects of science, even medicine as long as homeopathy is included along side the actual medicine.

    I sometimes wonder if the bigger problem is the large scale organized versions of Christianity. Not that being a druid is even a tiny bit more reality based, but it may well be less harmfull.

    Anyway, allmost the people I now who participate in The Con are atheists, if I know their “belief system” at all.

    So, in the end, you opening question may be kint of a dumb question. But, since it is the very first thing I thought last year when I was asked to participate, I can totally relate!

  7. As to the question of skepticism at an event for fiction, Convergence isn’t really exclusively a sci-fi convention now either, it’s really a “geek” convention. I see it evolving in the coming years to reflect this further. Eventually I think it will outgrow the Sheraton (it really already has) and then it will probably move somewhere larger, where there are more rooms and a larger diversity of panels could be had. I’d love to participate in a “computer geek” track or something along those lines.

    Anyway, I think part of skepticism lends at least myself to enjoy a bit of sci-fi escapism, where I can stop thinking rationally and just enjoy a good nerdy story.

    Anyways, I will be there! Hope to make as many of the skeptic track panels as possible, however I have class on Thursday night and a wedding reception on Friday night so I will inevitably miss some.

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