Scepticism is important, scientific scepticism in particular. At it’s core is a questioning attitude towards claims or knowledge that haven’t been achieved empirically. Claims should not just be taken for granted but put through a series of tests to ascertain their validity. Does the claim have reasonable prior probability or does it go against the existing body of knowledge? Are there unstated or false assumptions in the premise of the claim? Has a logical fallacy been committed in the subsequent reasoning? Are there any systematic biases at play that skew the analysis? The next time you read an article about science or health or such ask these questions of it and see how well it does.
Of course one of the difficulties of this is that many people are wholly unaware of the many types of logical fallacies and cognitive biases that exist and how we are all, every single one of us, prone to fall foul of them at some point or another. I strongly believe that at least the top twenty logical fallacies should be taught to every teenager in the land. Whether or not they have an interest in going into science is not relevant, society as a whole would be better off if we were collectively better at assessing the merits of claims. Everything from advertisements to political speeches need to be passed through sceptical filters to help us know if what we are hearing is valid or not. Politics, as you can well imagine, is particularly prone to confirmation bias and motivated reasoning.
I shall cover logical fallacies in a future post but right now I want to mention cognitive biases, especially as I have just come across this great graphic from Samantha Lee and Shana Lebowitz from Business Insider. Some you may already have heard of; most people have heard of the placebo effect though almost no one knows what it really is. Others are more obscure and there were several that I hadn’t heard of. It’s also just nice to have them all clearly laid out and simply explained. There should be a poster sized print of this in every classroom.
Even people who study scepticism extensively need to be constantly on guard against their own preconceived biases and prejudices, we all have them. Identifying them and acknowledging them are the first steps in making sure that we don’t deceive ourselves with them. Study hard, friends!