Skepticism in a nutshell

On episode #208 of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast, the SGU folks took questions from the audience at TAM7. The best question, I thought, came from my friend Bruce who asked how to explain a skeptics convention and skepticism so that a teenager might understand.

I’d go farther than the teenager. How do I explain it to my Mom or Dad or coworkers who can see my enthusiasm for the skeptical community? They have no idea if it’s a religion, a fun hobby, a political party, or just an odd obsession.

I was not satisfied with the SGU rogues’ answers but there were a lot of pertinent points brought up – promotion of science and science education, examination of the paranormal, logical and critical thinking. I don’t agree with Jay who said that a short answer isn’t the best. I think at least a brief introduction is a good idea. A little bit is better than a full-out presentation with examples that might freak them out.

It could be there is no suitable in-a-nutshell explanation but I’m going to try.

“What’s a “skeptic”?”, asks an acquaintance/family member during a casual conversation.

“Well,” I begin, “A skeptic and the skeptical community are people interested in science who consider claims made by others using very careful collection and evaluation of evidence. The evidence must be better than a blurry photo or an eyewitness story on TV where the event or description can’t be verified, examined or reproduced. So, many claims about special medicines, miraculous cures, UFOs, conspiracies, psychic ability, supernatural phenomena, etc. do not withstand a skeptical inquiry because the evidence is such poor quality.”

If you have the opportunity, you might add, “Most people can’t take the time to check the so-called facts they hear on TV or in print, even the internet, but the skeptical community examines these claims critically and points out the fiction. I’d like to think Bigfoot or ghosts are what people say they are but, after decades of looking, there is just no body of scientific evidence for these things. A skeptic can expose hoaxes, tricks, scams or the misuse of facts. They can spot something that sounds like science but is really just a put-on that sounds credible. So, the skeptical community serves a very useful role in society because they question what many people just assume to be true. Exposing claims that are likely not true allows us to stop wasting time, money or effort on them.”

Did I go over 30 seconds? Don’t get me talking about this stuff, I’ll prattle on…

About idoubtit

Fluent in science, animals, paranormal culture. Expert in weird news.

0 thoughts on “Skepticism in a nutshell

  1. I think that was an excellent summary. I’ll probably lift it from you (with appropriate credit). It does go along with a recurring theme at this year’s TAM. Which is to define skepticism in terms of the positive, proactive aspects and not the negatives.

    Since returning from TAM and the episode in the elevator, I’ve had to revisit that issue again and again with friends and relatives. Each time refining my response a little. In addition to a summary of what I think the movement is about and why I’m involved, I tried to convey how much FUN we had, the nice people we met and the relatively easy sense of community that we shared.

    I also think that we always leave out one of the most important parts of the Skeptical movement, communication. We all benefit when we ask questions, talk about issues and share what we know.


    1. I agree Bruce. Thanks for sharing this story. Everyone has had a moment like this. It often pays to have some canned answers to such questions because they come up so frequently.

      I hope to make it to TAM next year.

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