In Kentucky, skeptics meeting are occurring on a regular basis. Skeptics can thank Laurie Tarr for many of these meetings. Tarr is the co-founder and co-director of Louisville Area Skeptics. Recently, I had a chance to talk skepticism with Tarr.
What is the mission statement of the Louisville Area Skeptics? Why are you a skeptic?
I created the Louisville Area Skeptics as an opportunity for people from Louisville and the surrounding areas to meet and share their love of science, their interest in critical thinking, and their skeptical worldview through social events and informal science presentations by professional scientists. I’ve been a skeptic since I was a young teenager and discovered the writings of Carl Sagan. Being a skeptic is a way for me to use science to evaluate information I encounter every day.
What is one of the most common misunderstandings about skeptics?
Many people unfamiliar with scientific skepticism confuse the word “skeptic” with the word “cynic”. Some might think that skeptics are unwilling to believe in anything. On the contrary, true scientific skeptics are happy to accept any claim, even a claim of the paranormal, as long as there is sufficient rigorous and repeatable evidence.
Why are some skeptics highly skeptical in many areas yet blindly faithful in others?
I think it is a funny trait of human beings that we seem hard-wired to accept what we are told. I try to examine the evidence before accepting or refuting a claim, but at the same time I have been reeled in by claims I have heard in the media, or from figures of authority. For example, when I first heard that low-glycemic-index foods aid in weight loss, I uncritically accepted the notion as plausible, without checking the science behind it, because the argument was believable. Later, after learning more, I realized this claim was perpetuated by people who are in the business of quick-fix weight loss solutions, so they had put a believable spin on their arguments.
I fell for it, although there was no science behind it, and I now realize my mistake. So it is important for skeptics to use critical thinking in everyday life as much as possible but still be open to admitting they are wrong when faced with compelling evidence.
What are the key characteristics of a good skeptic?
A skeptic is an individual who prefers to evaluate claims based on verifiability and falsifiability, rather than on popularity. Scientific skeptics value critical thinking skills and the scientific method. While skeptics do not immediately dismiss any claims, they do question claims lacking empirical evidence. My favorite skeptics are the ones who reserve judgment about a claim until evaluating the science behind it, and who always reserve judgment on the claimant. There’s no utility to belittling someone for their beliefs, but perhaps, with kindness and science, minds can be changed.
About Laurie Tarr
Laurie Tarr, a science educator, skeptic, and science-enthusiast, resides in southern Indiana. She received a Bachelor’s of Science in physics from Centre College, and studied physics, astronomy, and geology at Ball State University. She and her husband Rob are the founders of the Louisville Area Skeptics.
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Photo by A. Siegel, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.