Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Organised skepticism has made me more open-minded…

…although, as the old adage goes, not so open minded that my brains will fall out. Even though I used to hold religious beliefs, I have always been sceptical of superstitious and paranormal beliefs. As a kid I never worried about stepping on the cracks in the pavement and I made a point of walking under ladders. Although in hindsight even though I still believe this wouldn’t have affected my luck, it may well have increased the probability that something might land on my head.

I have fed my sceptical viewpoint for years with scientific reading, but only in the last year or so have I been partaking in Skeptical fellowship via the medium of lectures, talks, Skeptics in the Pub and Podcasts. These organised sceptical events and broadcasts have proved valuable resources in widening my understanding and appreciation, but they have not made me more dismissive of the claims of believers, in fact the complete opposite is true.

It would be all too easy to counter claims of psychic abilities or paranormal forces with un-investigated denial. All previous attempts to validate such claims have been successfully rebutted, why waste time even considering the possibility that such claims could be true? I’ve come to see that taking such a stance would be taking a non-scientific approach and would open me up to valid criticisms that I accept my sceptical views on faith. Fortunately scientists like Richard Wiseman aren’t afraid to conduct such experiments and whilst I’ve yet to see evidence to support the claims of believers, results still reveal placebo effects and other surprising details attributed to additional factors that may have not been considered otherwise.

For example, scientific evidence to date shows that it is easily possible to walk a short distance barefoot across hot coals due to the rate the heat is conducted through the coals and the feet. However longer exposure will result in burns, so when a believer claims their spirit guide can allow them to walk further, don’t just dismiss the claim. If nothing else it provides excellent entertainment watching them burn their feet, and if they succeed, then that’s an area worth further serious scientific investigation.

Taking some claims seriously and investigating them may reveal genuine benefits for those irrational beliefs. Maybe your psychic or astrologer is giving you sound valuable advice, despite their dubious methods. Maybe your belief in alternative medicine is providing a powerful placebo effect. Although on balance I still think such beliefs do more harm than good. (Check out Whatstheharm for numerous examples), the argument is perhaps not as one sided as I once thought.

I’m writing this blog on the day that Patricia Putt is taking James Randi’s Million Dollar challenge for her claimed psychic abilities. Although I am fully confident that Randi’s fund is safe, I'm not so arrogant to mention her failure without first checking the results. (0/10)

So for those believers who claim the rise in organised scepticism is promoting closed minds, I beg to differ.
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