The skeptic movement is alive and well. In my home state of Kentucky, skeptic groups are becoming ever more prevalent. What is a skeptic group? Why do they exist? Those are just a couple of questions I asked one of the founding members, Frank Lovell, of Kentucky’s first (and still active) skeptic group, Kentucky Association of Science Educators and Skeptics.
What is the mission statement of the KASES?
The mission of the Kentucky Association of Science Educators and Skeptics is the same as the mission of the national organization of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (which publishes the Bimonthly magazine Skeptical Inquirer), and that is to promote scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason and objective evidence in examining controversial and extraordinary claims. KASES also provides for local skeptics to meet and dialogue with each other, and to participate together in investigating local claims of paranormal phenomena (haunted houses, Sasquatch-like footprints, UFO sightings, and the like) and in local programs and presentations for educating the interested public in the results of such scientific investigations into the claims of the paranormal and other extraordinary claims.
When KASES was first formed it was for more than a decade the only such group in Kentucky; today many cities and towns have formed their own local skeptic groups which meet regularly and today these local groups are now collectively a lot more active than KASES, which serves more of a general information link between local groups.
Why are you a skeptic?
I became a skeptic of the claims of the paranormal in my early twenties as a member of the United States Army when I discovered how many people put so very much stock in personal beliefs which do not enjoy the crucial support of even a shred of objective evidence (and sometimes in beliefs which are crucially contradicted by objective evidence). I was then — and still am today — simply astonished by the large number of people who believe in (and spend lots of money supporting) all sorts of objectively undemonstrated claims of astrology, of UFOs as alien spacecraft, of abductions by aliens, of numerology, of clairvoyance, of ESP, of “rod”-dousing for water, precious metals, gems, of out-of-body experiences, of near-death experiences, of homeopathy, of “healing (non) touching or (non) massage” (to name a few examples).
And also beliefs in many empirically testable claims of religion such as the universe, Earth and life having existed for only six to ten thousand years, and medical disorders being nothing more than spiritual disharmony with God (Christian Science). And for me the astonishment is WAY less about whether or not such claims are true or false than it is about the manner in which people do or don’t examine and test such claims for merit (or lack thereof) before deciding to believe such claims.
What is one of the most common misunderstandings about skeptics?
In my experience the Number One misunderstanding the public at large has of skeptics of the claims of the paranormal is that public thinks we skeptics are simply contrarians, disputers of everything, spoil-sports who’ve decided in advance of objective investigation that the claims of the paranormal are false – that is, it is the misunderstanding that we skeptics aim to debunk claims of the paranormal and other extraordinary claims rather than that we aim simply to find out whether claims of the paranormal and other extraordinary claims enjoy the crucial support of objective evidence, or not.
There are many claims which, when first made, seemed extraordinary that we skeptics today accept as true beyond reasonable doubt on the basis of a compelling array of crucially supportive objective (empirical) evidence; for examples, the heliocentricity of the solar system; the microbial theory of contagious diseases; the extraordinary counter-intuitive claims of special relativity; quantum mechanics; continental (crustal) plate tectonics. We skeptics have not decided in advance of objective investigation that extraordinary claims are false, we’ve simply learned why objective investigation should come first before deciding whether extraordinary claims are likely true, or likely false.
Why are some skeptics highly skeptical in many areas yet blindly faithful in others?
I don’t know why.
Many people who in most matters seem preeminently rational and skeptical (meaning, keen to objectively investigate before deciding whether to believe or not believe any particular extraordinary claim) just seem to have a blind spot in special cases where they have indeed put belief in a particular cherished notion ahead of objective investigation of the associated claim. I am a former professional chemist, and so Linus Pauling was one of my intellectual heroes — but he believed in and advocated for vitamin C as a prevented of and effective treatment for some cancers and all manner of others things not supported by objective investigation (not supported then, and still not supported today).
Why so many who are skeptics insistent on objective investigation before committing to belief of extraordinary claims in most cases yet occasionally apparently blind in embracing some other objectively un-demonstrated extraordinary claims is a mystery to me. Investigators and skeptical authors like Michael Shermer have examined this phenomenon and written at length about it (and I have read their books and essays on the subject), but this nonetheless still puzzles me, I really just do not understand it.
What are the key characteristics of a good skeptic?
I think the characteristics of a good skeptic are:
1. The keeping of one’s belief or disbelief from reaching 1 (absolute belief) or 0 (absolute disbelief); so long as one’s belief is non-zero but less than 1 one can readjust one’s belief as new evidence warrants. But once one’s belief reaches 1 or 0 it generally petrifies into dogma that seems thereafter immune to the influence of new evidence warranting a revision of one’s state of belief. [This is an adaptation of R.A. Lyttleton’s “Keep Your Bead On The Wire” metaphor presented in his essay, “The Nature of Knowledge” that appeared in The Encyclopaedia of Ignorance; Ronald Duncan and Miranda Weston-Smith, Editors, Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1977, pp. 9-17.]
2. The valuing of objective (meaning, empirically intersubjectively demonstrable) evidence above all other forms of evidence (eyewitness testimony; anecdotal evidence; tradition, unchallenged or unchallengeable authority; intuition; personal purely-subjective-of-one’s-own evidence) in forming and revising one’s beliefs and opinions, requiring (in advance of believing such claims) objective evidence which crucially supports those claims whose nature (ordinary to extraordinary) matches the (ordinary to extraordinary) nature of the claims others present to one as true.
About Frank Lovell
Frank Lovell is a lifetime Kentuckian, living in Louisville. He is a retired Senior Professional from General Electric, formally trained as a physical-organic chemist. He is an avid amateur astronomer, lifelong student of natural history, a close “watcher” of Young-Earth creationists since 1980, and a skeptic of the claims of the paranormal (and of all other extraordinary claims that do not presently enjoy the crucial support of even ordinary evidence) for the last 50 years. Frank is one of the original founding members of the Kentucky Association of Science Educators and Skeptics (or KASES, which was created by CSICOP Fellows Robert A. Baker and Joe Nickell in 1989).
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