The word “skepticism” has come to represent a variety of things for different people. Depending on context, the term may have its grounding in philosophy, science, and/or religion and theology. In this (very) brief introduction, we will focus on the use of the term in contemporary discussions.
Michael Shermer writes, “Skepticism is not a position that you stake out ahead of time and stick to no matter what.” Rather, as Shermer continues, “It all comes down to this question: What are the facts in support or against a particular claim?”
In a similar vein, Brian Dunning notes that “Skepticism is the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. It’s the process of finding a supported conclusion, not the justification of a preconceived conclusion.”
In other words, to use a phrase by Shermer, one can think of a skeptic as a person who is a “curious but cautious” thinker.
It is important to point out that a skeptic is not one who does not hold any beliefs, but rather she/he accepts the guiding principle that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Consequently, a skeptic is also willing to change her or his position on a topic if the evidence contradicts their current views.
To paraphrase the philosopher David Hume: a skeptic is someone who proportions her or his beliefs to the (available) evidence.
In this regard, skepticism is also markedly different from “contrarian” and/or “denialist” positions.
- The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers a detailed account of skepticism.
- Brian Dunning‘s “principles of curiosity” is an easy-to-use guide to help you discern truth from fiction in fantastical claims.
- Steven Novella considers important skeptical questions everyone should ask.
- Jacques Rousseau contemplates the importance (and value) of “epistemic prudence and epistemic humility” in skeptical thought.
- James Randi recommends the best books on Scepticism in this Five Books interview.