Time for Some Introspection
When we started Ottawa Skeptics a year-and-a-half ago, we used to get together in Seanna and Steve’s family room every couple of weeks to discuss what we wanted to do in the group and what we wanted to accomplish. Some of our original ideas have come to fruition, such as the website, forum and podcast, and some are still on our to-do list.
To facilitate our discussions, one of our first activities was to write a mission statement. It was a group effort, although Seanna and Steve’s cats notably refused to take part. I’m not sure whether they were showing bemused detachment or taking a principled stand. Drafting the statement helped us explore our vision and gave us some focus, but it was written quickly and was just based on our intial thoughts at the time.
It has always been our intention to review the statement once we achieved some stability in our activities. Also, since we’ve received a memo from head office telling us to delete from the statement all references to “The Illuminati” and any mention of animal sacrifice, it’s time that we got on with the review.
Over the last little while, I have skulked about the websites of our sibling skeptic organizations to see what they have for mission statements or how they characterize themselves, preferring to evolve their ideas rather than to wait for divine creation of our own. I visited 9 sites in Canada, 35 sites in the US and 5 sites in other English speaking nations. What I found was that, although each organization took a different approach to describing itself or had a different focus, collectively the groups covered the same ground.
What follows is a discussion of my findings and some proposals. I’m hoping that group members will offer their comments and suggestions in the associated forum thread. After the review, I’ll craft it into a form that we can leave up as an “About Us” description.
People who have worked in corporate or government organizations, especially in the 1990s, may recognize this effort as a “mission, vision and values” writing exercise, typically done at an offsite with a cheesy facilitator hired for the day to be unnaturally cheerful and annoying. We will depart from the exercise of “I want each sub-group to write the name of a kitchen appliance vertically on your flipchart and, using each letter in the name, write out something about the organization that you are proud of.” The end result of these group hugs always sounds phony and formulaic anyways. Instead, let’s exploit the work of our sibling organizations.
The groups that do a good job of describing themselves follow a framework that is similar to the mission, vision and values model but is more along the lines of the following:
- Who Are We? The groups, not surprisingly, all have some type of mission statement in the forma of a single concise statement that describes the purpose of the organization. The statement is longer than a motto but short enough to be useable for products such as press releases and brochures. If you look at enough of the statements, you will see that they typically reuse the same elements, which will be explained below.
- What Do We Do? Instead of a vision statement, the groups usually list the activities that they pursue. Each group has a different focus, but collectively, the set of activities is finite and can be listed either generically or specifically.
- What is Skepticism? Many groups recognize that the concept of skepticism and even the term itself are not widely recognized in the general public for what we know skepticism to be. As a result, these groups include some explanation of skepticism, either as some point-form notes, as some provocative questions or as an entire essay. The points discussed are not really values and are certainly not beliefs. Instead, they are probably best described as tenets – as in, principles that skeptics hold to be true. If nothing else, this separate description of skepticism takes pressure off the mission statement for having to include too many details.
Who Are We?
Our current mission statement is:
Ottawa Skeptics aims to promote the use of the scientific method, critical thinking and rational thought in our community. Ottawa Skeptics supports high standards of scientific integrity, academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. We have one bias: Science is the best method for determining objective truth.
There is nothing exceedingly wrong with this statement, and we can always keep it at the end of our deliberations if we choose. The trend in the other groups is to describe what they are “for” – typically rationality, science and critical thinking – and what they are “against” – typically pseudoscience, the paranormal and conspiracy theories.
A possible reworked mission statement could be:
Ottawa Skeptics promote the use of sound scientific methods, critical thinking and rationality in our community and investigate questionable claims made by proponents of pseudoscience, the paranormal and conspiracy theories.
Since skeptics also get involved with consumer product claims and with pseudohistory, those items could also be included, but no other group mentions them and a longer list could detract from the overall message. Alternative medicine could be called out for emphasis, even though it is part of pseudoscience, but doing so might detract from the overall message. The parts that appear in our current mission statement but not in this proposed one get covered in What is Skepticism? section.
What Do We Do?
Listing the activities that we seek to undertake gives visitors an idea of what the group is about. This list can either be generic or specific, and could appear in its own section or as a paragraph that follows the mission statement.
An example of a generic listing is:
Ottawa Skeptics seek to inform, reflect, discuss, communicate, educate, investigate and advocate on skeptical issues.
An example of a specific listing is:
Ottawa Skeptics provide a website that features articles and a discussion forum, produce a podcast called “The Reality Check”, investigate questionable truth claims, host pub nights and other social events, organize speakers and film presentations, support science fairs and enrichment courses, and advocate for evidence-based public policy and spending.
Neither of these examples is necessarily in their final form. They are just intended to illustrate the two styles. Either list of activities can also be shown in point form.
What is Skepticism?
In other groups, the discussion of the nature of skepticism is wide-ranging, but the following general topics are covered on the whole:
- Importance of science
- Standard of evidence
- Critical thinking
- Cost of irrationality
- Ideological neutrality
The discussion below is an attempt to cover, in as concise a way as possible, the salient points mentioned by other groups. Another way of presenting this content is to change it into a point-form list of axioms. More examples could be included as well, but that would make the section much longer.
Importance of Science
The scientific method is the best way to determine objective truth, and scientific consensus represents knowledge that has had to pass a high bar of scrutiny. Science is also self-correcting and with increased examination over time comes better understanding and fidelity.
Wanting a claim to be true or simply asserting a claim as true does not make it true. Scientific jargon does not imbue a claim with scientific credibility or truth either. Claims must undergo scientific testing to determine veracity. Supernatural explanations are inherently untestable and so are not scientifically relevant or interesting.
Using the scientific method, investigators do not look for data to support predetermined conclusions. They seek to falsify their own hypotheses and determine if they can survive randomized controlled testing or epidemiological analysis. If investigators can achieve supportive results that are significant and unequivocal, then they expose their findings to credible peers for review and criticism. Only when the testing withstands this review and is replicated by others can the results be considered scientifically credible. Even then, rarely do major breakthroughs result from single studies.
Standard of Evidence
Anecdotes and eyewitness reports are not evidence. Humans are subject to perceptual and cognitive errors and biases. People can find patterns in random stimuli, such as with pareidolia, and tend to remember clues that support their expectations while ignoring misses, such as with confirmation bias.
The onus of proof is on the person making the claim, and as Carl Sagan is often quoted, “Extraordinary claims requires extraordinary evidence.” Unsupported assertions, even by learned authorities, and references to ideologically-based sources do not constitute proof.
Saying that something is unexplained is not equivalent to saying it is inexplicable, and describing something as unexplained is not necessarily a bad thing. Ultimately, it is better to accept something as unexplained than to grasp at straws.
Even when sufficient evidence is available, people can be irrational by not thinking critically, such as by committing logical fallacies or falling prey to cognitive dissonance. Caution is warranted when issues are presented as simple and only two-sided or when claims sound too good to be true.
Ultimately, if an explanation has to be selected from several possibilities but insufficient evidence exists to confirm the best one, then Occam’s razor advises choosing the explanation that demands the making of the fewest assumptions. The often cited example is that, when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.
Good skeptics are not cynical, negative or hypercritical of people making claims, unless they are committing a scam or deliberate fraud. All claims should be considered in an open-minded fashion, bearing in mind Robert Oppenheimer’s injunction to “Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.” However, time and resources are not unlimited, so claims that are not scientifically plausible or are not backed up by supporting evidence may not receive priority consideration.
Cost of Irrationality
Pseudoscience, the paranormal and conspiracy theories come with costs. They raise unrealsitic hopes and fears. They distract people and divert resources from real solutions. They prey on people’s guilt and gullibility. And they provide cover and reward for scam artists. Ultimately, people are free to believe in what they will, but the negative public repercussions of pseudoscience, the paranormal and conspiracy theories should be confronted. People should be held accountable for the consequences of the claims that they make.
Skepticism is not a belief system. It is grounded in the scientific method and governed by evidence. It is based on methodological naturalism, and so it is agnostic about religion, except for religious claims that impact on the natural world, such as creationism and healing prayer. It is also politically non-partisan, although it endorses policies that support science and rationality and advocates against policies that support pseudoscience and irrationality. Ultimately, skepticism encourages people to discover truth, not compel them to believe in it.