Reclaiming Skepticism

The other day, while poking around on the Interwebs, I ran across a quote that I’ve seen more than once, never attributed, along the lines of:

To the believer, no proof is required; to the skeptic, no proof is sufficient.

Though this statement is partially accurate — a person who believes in God, for instance, does so on faith and neither requires nor looks for evidence to justify those beliefs — its inaccuracies distress me. The term skeptic seems to have come to mean, at least in common usage, a person who does not believe in {xyz}, even when presented with evidence. For instance, those individuals (mostly Americans) who continue to doggedly refuse to acknowledge the reality of global warming, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, are often called (and call themselves) climate skeptics. I take issue with this. A skeptic is a person who insists upon seeing and evaluating the evidence before passing judgment. A skeptic appropriately reassesses his or her beliefs when presented with new evidence. A skeptic is a critical thinker, and is not emotionally attached to the outcome of his or her thinking process. A person who found the hypothesis of global warming interesting — but not necessarily convincing — back in the late 1970s when the National Academy of Sciences released the first major report on climate change would have been appropriate called a skeptic. A person who refuses to believe in global warming today — when every major government on Earth except that of the U.S. openly acknowledges the problem, when empirical evidence drawn from weather patterns, animal behavior patterns, and atmospheric data all support significant warming patterns — is not a skeptic, but a denier.

In my attempt to find an original source for the believer/skeptic quote, I ran across the following on a web forum for discussion of paranormal phenomena; I thought it was absolutely fabulously stated:

To the skeptic, evidence is everything. To the believer, everything is evidence.

-A forum user who calls himself TheBoyPaj on JREF

As there appears to be no other reference on Google to this particular quote, I believe it’s an original. As such, to TheBoyPaj — wherever and whomever you are — thank you. I’d like to shake your hand.

“To the skeptic, evidence is everything,” he says. No doubt. In this age of the University of Google, though, examining evidence is less a matter of finding information than it is of evaluating that information for its quality. Take, for instance, the growing concern in some circles that vaccines are linked to autism. I had one of my university classes read Seth Mnookin’s wonderful book The Panic Virus recently; in it, Mnookin explains that the “evidence” used to support this conviction ranges from the wildly inaccurate to the irrelevant. An example of the former is the poorly conducted, fraudulent study published in The Lancet by Andrew Wakefield et al. An example of the latter is toxicological data on methyl mercury (the kind in seafood), which is a potent neurotoxin in very small doses. Anti-vaccine advocates refer to such data in support of their objection to the presence and quantity of mercury in vaccines. However such references are almost always made without specification of the particular form of mercury present; thimerosal, used as a vaccine preservative, contains not methyl but ethyl mercury. This distinction seems small (after all, mercury is mercury, right?), but is, in fact, critical. Methyl mercury and ethyl mercury are as different as methyl alcohol and ethyl alcohol: the former is lethal even in small doses, while the latter is the alcohol in beer, wine, and liquor; while toxic in large doses, it’s safe and pleasurable in appropriate quantities. Maybe the most descriptive and accurate phrasing would be, “To the skeptic, the quantity and quality of evidence is everything,” but then, that wouldn’t sound nearly as graceful.

On the flip side, there’s the matter of blind belief. The Panic Virus is excellently researched and beautifully written, and I won’t do it the disservice of trying to summarize it here. To the point, though, Mnookin interviews a number of higher-ups in autism societies who firmly believe in the thoroughly-debunked vaccine-autism link and who tell him (in paraphrased terms) that it doesn’t matter what the science shows; we will continue to believe — we know in our hearts — that vaccines cause autism. “To the believer, everything is evidence,” TheBoyPaj says, and he’s absolutely right.

 

References

Wakefield et al. Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet. 1998 Feb 28;351:637-41. RETRACTED (see Lancet. 2010 Feb 6;375:445)

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8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jem
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 07:22:26

    A timely post, as there’s a lot of talk over here at the minute about the whooping cough vaccine and the decision to vaccinate pregnant women, with some concerns about the mercury within affecting the foetus; I am hoping this post will reassure a few people 🙂

    Reply

  2. Dorit
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 08:09:05

    I loved the quote you have found. You might be interested in the reactions to a recent article a friend sent me about the new CA law requiring parents who choose not to vaccinate to have the doctor sign that they received pertinent information – the same misinformation crops up there: http://www.mercurynews.com/health/ci_21671872/california-require-waiver-unvaccinated-students.

    Reply

  3. Holly
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 13:24:55

    Awesome post! I love your explanation. I’ll probably be linking to this from my own blog.

    Reply

  4. Cilla Whatcott & Kate Birch
    Oct 03, 2012 @ 07:21:25

    This post is honest and right to the point. I wish that more people who are weary of vaccines could see this. Thank you so much for sharing.

    People are so quick to vaccinate because they’ve been fed information that claims they are “bad parents” otherwise. However, little take the time to look at what is in a vaccine and therefore also being injected into their child’s body, which more often than not has not yet grown to develop fully (mostly in the immune system.)

    I appreciate this post and would encourage anyone who is skeptical of vaccination schedules and what it can do to your child to check out my blog: hpsolution.org — I have wrote a few books over this very debate and my latest offers a Solution to the vaccine epidemic.

    -Kate Birch RSHom(NA), CCH – a board certified classical Homeopath.

    Reply

    • SquintMom
      Oct 03, 2012 @ 08:11:38

      Thanks for the praise. Unfortunately, because this is a science-based website, I have to point out that homeopathic vaccines are not proven to work, and as a scientist, I can’t endorse them. You mention that there are clinical trials but they aren’t published because there are no pharmaceuticals involved; this is not an accurate claim. Medical journals do not require that preventative and/or curative measures contain pharmaceuticals in order to be publishable. In fact, there are several studies on homeopathy published in reputable journals. None, however, suggests that there’s any efficacy to homeopathic vaccines.

      Reply

  5. Michael Pelletier
    Dec 09, 2012 @ 16:13:56

    The Earth may very well be warming again, just as it did coming out of the last great ice age, but it’s quite dishonest to conflate skepticism of THAT idea with skepticism of the idea that the only possible solution to save humanity and every living thing on the entire planet from impending horrible doom is to turn over as much money and power as quickly as possible to un-elected, unaccountable bureaucrats in governments around the globe.

    Reply

    • SquintMom
      Dec 14, 2012 @ 07:57:17

      The current warming is not comparable to any of the post-ice age warmings, nor is the current level of CO2 in the atmosphere comparable. These things have been verified through ice-core data.

      Reply

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