Sunday, January 27, 2019

Skepticism and Facts

Skeptics consider themselves a last line of defence against irrational beliefs. When inaccurate information has been accepted in the culture as truth and scientific agencies have brushed aside their responsibility to correct the incorrect, the skeptical community mobilises, though sometimes it can appear as if it’s using a ladle to bale out a sinking ship.

In the wake of the 2016 US presidential election, a Pew Research Center study found that 23% of American adults had shared a false news story, sometimes knowingly. Shortly afterward, Oxford dictionaries selected “post-truth” as its word of the year because, following significant disinformation campaigns – Trump’s election, Brexit – the expression had evolved from “being a peripheral term to being a mainstay in political commentary”. (The Collins English Dictionary selected “fake news” for its list 12 months later.) Last year Wired magazine co-founder Kevin Kelly told the BBC: “Truth is no longer dictated by authorities, but is networked by peers. For every fact there is a counter-fact.” What is demonstrably correct, these days, seems negligible.

“Most people are not by nature critical thinkers,” Chris French, a British psychologist and for a decade was the editor of The Skeptic, explained. “It’s not a particularly natural way of thinking. So, skeptics, we’re kind of a weird bunch. We say, ‘Really?’ We say, ‘Show us the evidence!’ ”  To the question, “What should we believe?”, he responds: “Find out for yourself!” He continued, “I don’t think we’ve ever had a situation where fake news and claims of conspiracy have been so much a part of our political and wider culture,” he told me. “Fake news has always been there. But it’s not had the prominence it has now, thanks partly to the internet, and partly to Donald Trump. And there’s never been a greater need for people to try to make a distinction between claims that are true and claims that are false – no greater need for critical thinking!”

The American skeptic and neurologist Steven Novella describes contemporary skepticism as “a generational struggle, one that will likely never end”.

The aim is to debunk suspicious fringe claims: that homeopathy is a viable treatment (untrue); that the MMR vaccine causes autism (no); that,  a medium is able to retrieve loving messages from the dead  (never proven).

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