skeptical skepticism?

A couple of weeks ago, my younger sister (very smart woman, highly educated and well-read) told me that she was seeing a chiropractor to treat the carpal tunnel syndrome in her wrist. I assumed that the chiropractor had given her some excercises to strengthen her wrists, but when she told me that the chiropracter had instead told her that the problem was really in her neck, alarm bells went off.

I asked my sister if she was sure this guy was a reputable chiropracter and not a quack, she assured me that he was. I then asked her if he gave here a full body x-ray at the first visit (yes, he did). I asked whether he blamed everything on “subluxation” (yes, he did). I asked whether he told her that a minimum number of visits would be required to deal with the problem (yes, he did). I then told her that these were all things that indicated the chiropractor might, in fact, be a quack.

Well, first she asked me where I got my information, and I told her that I had read it on a number of websites, including and She then told me that I shouldn’t believe everything I read, especially on the Internet, and that the people who run those sites probably have an axe or two to grind.

And she is, of course, perfectly correct (at least insofar as not trusting everything you read). And this made me realize how unstable the foundation of my skepticism might possibly be.

I am not a doctor, and don’t really know how the spine and various nerves in my body interact. I have read articles from doctors and scientists who state that chiropractic “medicine” is, on the whole, complete bunk, and I tend to believe it, but I don’t have any first-hand experience.

I am not a physicist and cannot say from personal experimentation that the speed of light in a vacuum is constant, and yet I accept that this is the case because it is “common knowledge.” Therefore, I tend to be skeptical about UFOs and reject the idea that they are interstellar crafts piloted by aliens.

I have read articles and seen TV programs where people have claimed to have made crop circles with boards attached to ropes, and I believe this to be the actual cause of crop circles. And yet, I’ve never seen anybody actually make a crop circle this way, and thus have no first-hand knowledge that they can, in fact, be made this way.

Whenever a particular claim is made that seems to me to be unlikely, I turn to the “experts” to see what they think. Invariably, the claim is debunked, and I feel smugly self-satisfied with the knowledge that my skepticism was justified. But was it really? How I can really know that the “experts” are correct? Those who believe in UFOs, crop circles, chiropractic medicine, etc., have just as many “experts” on their side – it’s just that I don’t accept the validity of their authority or testimony.

One difference, of course, is that “legitimate” experts make claims that are reproducible, whereas the quacks seem to have a problem with that. To which my sister responds, “Well, every time I go to the chiropractor I feel better.”

Anyway, seeing as how we are not all Renaissance men with a degree in every scientific discipline, how do we justify our skepticism? How skeptical must we be of those who debunk what we perceive as unlikely? How much of our “skepticism” is merely cynicism justified by the “experts” we choose to agree with?

Does anybody other than me ever worry about this stuff?



Actually, some time back, there was an article in Skeptical Inquirer specifically about the development of an “accepted body of doctrine and dogma” in skepticism–one that went beyond inquiry–a sort of “knee-jerk” skepticism what was every bit as unquestioning in its “skepticism” as the very beliefs it denied.

It is inevitable that some skepticism is dogmatic. As you say, we cannot all have advanced degrees in every branch of science.

However, we can adhere to a few basic rules for aquiring new knowledge. I try very hard to maintain an “I don’t know if its true yet” sort of attitude toward any new claim that comes my way. I try to apply it to scientific claims (some of the stuff coming from advanced physics research is difficult to accept) as well as “supernatural” claims.

I guess I don’t really consider my “skepticism” to be a set of information. I think of it more like a method for aquiring information. And, incidentally, one based on a constant willingness to question any source or claim.

How much of my attitude is cynicism? Probably a lot of it. :slight_smile: I don’t think this invalidates skepticism in general.

And yes. I worry about this stuff all the time. I think that the way in which people (and me in particular ;)) pick up ideas and hold on to them is one of the most interesting fields of inquiry.

One of the reasons I post here is that it requires me to think through my positions on a broad host of topics. It is a good place to force yourself to question your own sources and claims.

Well, if you just succumb to whatever the skeptical consensus is without understanding any of the arguemnts & refutations then no, you are not a skeptic.If however you read the relevant articles at quackwatch or CSICOP or or what have you and understood them adn accepted that, based on these refutations, the “quacky” claims did not jive with the observable universe and what you know of it, then your sister’s “Do not believe everything you read” is a bit of a strawman.
Furthermore your “skeptic’s alarm” should go off everytime someone utters the phrase “They(skeptics/scientists) probably just have an axe to grind”.Such borderline conspiracy theories are only ever employed when reason/logic/evidence is conceded to be on the skeptic’s side.


1)Occam’s razor is the skeptic’s friend.If crop circles can be made using wooden slats and ropes adn mathematics then invoking physics-defying alien craft to explain them is a no-no.

2)Certain concessions have to be made in order to live and get around without ending up in a padded cell.One such concession is that matter exists adn is the primary stuff of the universe.Another is that YOU yourself exist.
There is a chain of cause and effect at work here with science.I often encounter creationists who will assure me that evolution is bunk and yet we should kill Sadam Hussein before he uses chemical weapons on us.


If evolution is bunk then how is it that Saddam has chemical weapons which were only developed based on the correctness of evolutionary theory???Same goes for science in general.

I have never met a helicopter pilot before and am totally unfamiliar with the aeronaughtics involved.However I HAVE been on a plane, have learned a little about flying in general(planes and such) and based upon all I DO know from observation, study and experiment I can say that helicopter pilots’ existence is more likely by far than the idea that it is a massive governmetn cover-up of the truth that helicopters do not even exist.
The primary reason why psuedoscience is usually written of rather quickly is because, unlike real science, the claims made by the psuedoscience crowd are not only unsupported by evidence adn observation but they contain no *mechanism within the description/claim itself.Psychic proponents claim that some can read minds or remote view but provide no mechanism by which these abilities allegedly operate.


Again, to a great extent this is a necessary concession because we cannot possibly all become experts in all fields of study ourselves.If we were all experts in physics then who would design the wedding dresses and who would prepare our meals and who would build our homes?We take advantage of each others expertise or whatever we can contribute.I can ask Hawking about astrophysics and Joe Six-pack can ask Johhny Onthespot about Silver age comic books.


They do NOT have “experts” on their side.The have claimants.It is one thing to claim you are an expert in “wheat depression” and that a particular crop circle could not possibly have been made by a handful of students with boards and ropes but if a small group of students comes along right behind you adn demonstrates how they were able to create the crop circle in two hours time using onlky boards and ropes then that so-called “expert” is a quack.


Everytime my mom tells me I will be okay I feel better as well…even when I am being rushed through an emergency room.

I do not double check every single piece of information I accept as plausible or likely true because I am a finite being with very little time for such.Unfortunately we have no choice in the matter and either way we are going to have to make concessions of trust.

I will generally put my trust in those who have demonstrated consistency and accuracy.

I used to worry about how I could never know anything for certain.

Then I began to wonder how I knew I could never know anything for certain.

Finally, I decided that I should withhold judgement and wait for more evidence before deciding that skepticism was really the correct way to deal with uncertainties.

That’s a rather dogmatic and incorrect application of Occam’s razor. Occam’s razor does not prohibit considering other hypotheses, it only states which is preferable to consider first. However, if the only point of the “consideration” is merely to have a belief in regards to what is “true” without testing that hypothesis, it is better to have no belief at all.

if science is your accepted epistemology (and it seems to be about the best we’ve come up with so far), then be wary of claims that are unfalsifiable. that is pretty much the border between science and quackery.

i think if you adhere to that basic rule of scientific inquiry, it shouldn’t be too hard to rule out claims that don’t work well with reality. a claim can be considered possible until it makes a prediction that is falsified. any claims that can never be shown false should simply be avoided (invisible pink unicorns, and all that).

the claim “well, every time I go to the chiropractor I feel better,” is not necessarily a falsifiable claim. at least, it doesn’t make any claims about the nature of chiropractics that are falsifiable. if one feels better after a few painkillers, does that mean one’s arthritis is cured?

It’s best to be a skeptic when your life or money is at stake :slight_smile:

Every time I collide these two hadrons at this velocity, I see the same result.

Observation is not a theory, but it is used to build theories. “Chiropractors help my problem” is a common-sense, applicable, useful theory that people might have advanced based on their own visits, or visits of their peer group. That anyone could visit a chiropractor and be dissatisfied demonstrates its falsifiability, even if the claims cannot be addressed in an obviously quantifiable way. Falsifiability does not completely address the problem of demarcation, at least, it does not completely seperate what we intuitively would like to call science from what we intuitively would not like to call science.

This is how we live our lives, how we learn what foods we like. Sure, it is possible that I’d enjoy saurkraut now; fat chance I’ll test that hypothesis. :wink:

Chiropractors might not be cutting edge medicine, and maybe it is a fledgling science, maybe it has roots in chi or Eris knows what. Point is, chiropractors aren’t fly-by-night operations, and they have regular customers who enjoy their visits.

So do astrologers and plam readers.

As a user of scientific method, I find the above very depressing.
Why call this a ‘fledgling science’? What new discovery has been made?
What scientific studies have been carried out on chi?
Psychics, crop circles and Planet X believers also aren’t fly-by-night (which only describes one branch of fraud).
We all appreciate a sympathetic reception to our problems - what ‘added dimension’ does the chiropractor bring?

Occam’s Razor states that we do not uneccessarily mutiply our entities for explanation and my example was entirely in line with OR.I know it is common to define OR as a simple preference for the “simpler” of two competing explanations but this is incorrect.


Don’t either of your skeptic sites have links to some reasonable studies of subluxation, etc? Could you persuade your sister to track some down with you and see if either of you are convinced by the evidence?

I actually e-mailed her a bunch of links from both sites, but she didn’t respond. Knowing my sister, her mind is made up (she especially doesn’t like taking advice from her older brother).

However, I mention the story with my sister just to raise the broader point, i.e., how skeptical do we need to be about our own skepticism. I really don’t have any reason for believing what is on those websites other than the fact that I am predisposed to disbelieve claims such as those made by most chiropractors, and since those websites support my disbelief, I tend to accept them. But I really don’t know enough about chiropractic medicine and the workings of the human body to make a truly informed opinion.


What? No one noticed my immensely clever post?


Seriously, godzillatemple, if your sister was talked into having a full-body X-ray performed without good cause, I think you’re a bit late to persuade her to approach the whole thing rationally.

I don’t call it anything but chiropractics.

I don’t care.

Which means a great many people are apparently satisfied. They don’t subscribe to your method of satisfaction.

From anyone I’ve talked to who has been to a chiropractor, a (possibly temporary) relief from troubles.

And how many science books were sold with Bohr’s model of the atom? How many students were raised under the corpuscular or wave theory of light? Who cares???

The point of going to a chiropractor is to feel better, as far as I can tell. People, apparently, feel better after doing so, or they wouldn’t go. You can’t scam someone into feeling good when they really feel bad. The scam might be trying to give more weight to results than is warranted, but what does that change about someone going to a chiropractor with a problem, and leaving with relief? Anything?

I cracked up, TVAA. Reminds me of the old, I used to believe in determinism but lately I’ve felt compelled towards free will…

Technically, erislover, it is possible to convince someone that they really feel fine when they’re actually in pain. That’s most of what faith healing is, after all.

I’m reminded of a quote from a Leigh Brackett story. To paraphrase: humans are immensely proud of being able to reason, and consider this to be the primary difference between themselves and the animals. They think it’s an innate ability. The result is that most people never learn to think because they assume they automatically possess the power of reason, and generally allow superstition, illogic, magical thought, and pure emotion to guide their actions.

I think your intelligent and well-educated sister is “falling for her own hype”, so to speak. It can happen to the best of us – I, who prides myself on my skepticism and ability to see through deception, was once duped by the annual April Fools joke of Discover magazine. Specifically, the article about the naked mole rats who lived in the Antarctic.


I do not understand the grammar of tricking people to feel fine. I do not “seem” to feel fine any more than I “appear to see green” when looking at summer leaves on trees. I don’t seem to have feelings, I just have them. A person with a novacaine shot isn’t “actually” in pain because the infection is still in the root of the tooth, knowwhatImean?

I understand.

However, local anesthetics prevent pain signals from ever reaching the central nervous system. That’s not quite the same thing as persuading someone to no longer being aware of pain signals that actually exist and are being transmitted perfectly.