Monday, January 21, 2013

Skeptics, Debunkers, and Perspective

Lots of people call themselves skeptics nowadays. It's what you are supposed to be if your views are to be respected. The problem is, most skeptics are not skeptics. Everyone, whether they are aware of it or not, are biased. Our experience, our learning, our belief, and our ego, all sets the vantage point from which we judge the validity of other ideas.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines skepticism beautifully here; "Philosophical views are typically classed as skeptical when they involve advancing some degree of doubt regarding claims that are elsewhere taken for granted."  If we go back to the origins of the word, we go back to the ancient Greeks and a school of thought that nothing can really be known for sure, only questioned. Your typical. modern skeptic does not fit these definitions. Instead, they are often out to simply support the mainstream and accepted view of things, and debunk anything that questions it. These people are debunkers. They have a set agenda. They have already made up their minds, despite their claims to the contrary. When Graham Hancock asked Richard Dawkins if he would ever try something like Ayahuasca, he expressed interest, but in the end, said he would write off whatever he experienced as just another fascinating aspect of brain function. A true skeptic could not say that. A true skeptic would go into such an experience with as open a mind as possible, and examine all the possibilities of what they may be experiencing. 

The other thing I find interesting about this clip, is Dawkins talking about the other experiment that he was a part of, and how he experienced nothing. I know other people that have very materialistic views of reality who have also told me they have never experienced anything even vaguely paranormal. This is a factor, of course, in our views of these things. If you have never had such an experience, then you may logically conclude other people are misinterpreting theirs. I suspect, however, that our individual brains have a lot to do with it. Perhaps, some people's brain's can tune to slightly different areas of reality, and some can't. Just like some can hear slight variations in sound where most people here an unchanging note. These things, however, influence what we think of as real. You cannot, however, claim to truly be a skeptic when you go into a situation knowing what you will think of it at the end. A true skeptic doesn't make pre-judgements. 

I watched an Episode of a show called American Unearthed the other night. It focused on the discovery of a grave of a potentially 10-foot tall giant in Michigan. The host, who believes that the Kensington Stone is genuine, is looking for further proof of Nordic occupation of North America. Thus, he kept calling this a Nordic Giant. Last I knew, though, Nordic people did not generally grow to be 10 feet tall. Not only that, but there have been giants found all over North and Central America, which makes it unlikely they have any direct connection to Vikings. However, his perspective was shaded by what he was looking for, and it narrowed his possibilities. He at some points talks to another archaeologist who claims the Kensington Stone is a fake. When he disagrees and asks why he thinks it's a fake, said scientist states that since we know the Vikings weren't here, the stone must be a fake. This, of course, is not a skeptical approach, but really one that is somewhat dogmatic. He is a believer in what he has been taught, thus everything that falls outside that, is false. 

It takes a lot for someone to break these types of biases. Their existence does not call for grand conspiracies or anything of the sort. It comes from human nature. We know what we have learned and experienced, and this creates our beliefs, and our ego protects them. We don't want to be wrong. When we touch on paranormal subjects, it may also be that the ideas frighten people, and thus enforce the bias of disbelief. When we look at the possibility of an advanced civilization existing in pre-history, that, too, can be frightening to some. If such a civilization existed, and was wiped out almost completely, which calls for some sort of cataclysm, then that suggests the same could happen to us! We want to feel safe, in control. We like to believe that the world as it is today, will always be like this, more or less, with any changes coming slowly and gradually. 

Science, unfortunately, tends to follow dogmatic patterns, especially in certain disciplines. Defending those patterns starts looking like defending religious beliefs after a point. You are not allowed to question the Big Bang Theory, for example. Not only is ego and bias tied up in such things, but a lot of money. Research money that will stop coming if said theory were too thoroughly questioned and couldn't hold up. The scientific method, which is an excellent tool, gets misused, not necessarily intentionally, but misused none-the-less. Robert Schoch, as a accredited Geologist, definitively showing that the weathering on the Sphinx was caused by water erosion, specifically, rain erosion, pushed the date of it's origin WAY back beyond what Egyptologists were claiming. But they aren't geologists. They made assumptions based on, well, very little really, and the origin date of the Sphinx became dogma. When Schoch came along, he caused some big problems for them. Twenty years later, Egyptologists still have not altered their official dating of the Sphinx, facts be damned. Science should always follow facts, as best it can, and that is a clear example of where it does not. In 50 years Schoch should be thought of as a man who rewrote history, but now, now he is ignored by mainstream archaeology, and not because he is wrong, or doesn't have the facts on his side, but because they don't like what it means. It means they were wrong. It means that there was a culture advanced enough to build such a monument that they know nothing at all about. It means all their history of Egypt is missing something critical. So then, if something so major could slip by them, it follows to ask, what else are they wrong about? A true skeptic would say plenty. 

The thing is, it's ok. We will never know everything. We can only grow and learn, and to keep our minds as open as possible, and as skeptical as possible, always questioning, because it makes life a whole lot more interesting. Some strong Gamma and X Rays from a particular point in space no more prove the existence of Black Holes than a disembodied voice on a digital recorder proves that we survive death. Both are possible explanations, but they are not proof of anything. Maybe that voice is a ghost, someone who died, trying to communicate with us, and maybe those peculiarly strong rays are from a Black Hole. And maybe not. Plasma creates those types of emissions, rapidly spinning. That doesn't mean a Black Hole is there. And maybe that voice is some kind of interference, or even something from somewhere else entirely masquerading as one of our dead. Only by questioning our base assumptions, and every new fact, and questioning again and again, will we make real progress. We will always have our own personal bias. The best we can do, is to question it. Be a skeptic. A real skeptic. Question everything. Never accept anything as unquestionable... because that is where Dogma starts, and progress stops.

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