Skepticism and the Burden of Proof
As someone who has always had an interest in so-called fringe subjects I know my way around the skeptic versus believer dichotomy fairly well. However it seems that many, mostly on the believer side, do not quite grasp why skeptics think the way they do and why skepticism and doubt are not positions that need proving.
One does not need faith to disbelieve, all it requires is reasonable doubt. When someone is proposing something that doesn't have sufficient evidence and is an extraordinary claim the proposed claim can be rejected out of hand. In this hub I will talk about the Burden of Proof and the various issues I see within discussions on fringe topics such as religion and pseudoscience.
I Used to Believe
As I stated throughout my childhood I was fascinated by fringe topics. Documentaries on Bigfoot, Aliens and UFOs and the like were all a big part of my television viewing experience. Even most of the fiction I watched was science fiction like the Twilight Zone and X-Files (which I still remain a huge fan of). Being raised a Christian by Fundamentalist parents and being vastly interested in fringe topics was a double-edged sword. This childhood of credulity turned into being a teenager who believed a whole host of different, often conflicting, views.
Everything from ghost hunting to the Loch Ness Monster was in my utility belt of pseudoscience. I used to look at hardcore skeptics with disdain and boo the screen when they showed up on Discovery Channel and History Channel documentaries about UFOs or Bigfoot. I didn't understand how they could reject all the evidence that I saw, from the photos to the eye-witness testimony (often by military personnel in the case of UFOs) to the legends that stretched back centuries (in the case of Nessie or Bigfoot). I had no idea that all of those things were of little consequence in the realm of scientific evidence.
I often scoffed at attempts to debunk claims. Trying to say that UFOs were weather balloons or Chinese Lanterns, arguments that sightings of Bigfoot were likely those of a large bear on its hind legs, etc.
I see the same disdain for skeptics today but now I watch it go on from the other side of that fence. Now I look back on the years I spent believing wondering why I believed so hard. Even after my skepticism toward religion began to tear away my religious faith I still wanted to believe incredible things. If you look hard enough on the internet you might still find posts from a bright-eyed Titen-Sxull from not-so-far-back defending UFO sightings, Bigfoot research and all sorts of other things.
The point is just to let any believers stumbling across this know that I understand the desire to believe incredible things. Accepting reality the way it is, or waiting for science to reach consensus on an issue, can be incredibly hard. The immediacy of eye-witness testimony, the emotion in people's voices as they remember some paranormal or transcendent event, can be absolutely convincing. But, as I hope to show, we must resist the urge to be credulous and set aside emotion if we truly value truth.
The Burden of Proof
Perhaps the most egregious breach in a discussion is when believers shift the burden of proof onto the skeptic. There is an epidemic of this in forums across the internet. From religious folks demanding an atheist “PROVE” that God does not exist to UFO proponents demanding a skeptic debunk their favorite UFO photo this goes on everywhere and in all manner of debates. The issue is that the skeptic has NO responsibility, whatsoever, to address claims that aren't supported by evidence.
If you have a photo of a UFO that's quite interesting but nothing can be said of WHAT that object is without evidence further than the photo. We can't simply declare it an alien spacecraft because a skeptic cannot debunk the photo or come up with an alternative. All we have is an UNIDENTIFIED object and that's ALL that can be said. This is, of course, barring that a positive ID of the object can be made, but that's only if the “UFO” turns out to be a known object, like, say, a plane.
As a skeptic I will readily admit that there is a lot more about this world and this cosmos to discover. There are many MANY mysteries in the world, no one can deny that. Much of pseudoscience and superstition manifests as attempts to explain those gaps in our knowledge. But jumping to conclusions just to fill an uncomfortable mystery moves us backwards as far as knowledge is concerned.
If you hear a loud bump in the night and immediately fill that gap with a ghost imagine your surprise when you wake to find a living breathing burglar has run off with a bunch of your stuff. Which brings us to the second point.
I used to do paranormal investigations and I used to be addicted to those god awful paranormal investigation television shows. Now admittedly in many of these shows the investigators do deploy SOME amount of skepticism to cover for their stupidity however it just isn't enough.
None of the shows about investigators of Bigfoot or Ghosts or any other phenomenon are really looking at things objectively or from a legitimate scientific standpoint. While I don't want to discourage amateur investigation there are serious errors in the assumptions the investigators make going into an investigation that cripple them with bias.
On a show like SyFy's Ghost Hunters, for instance, they assume from the get-go that ghosts or “entities” actually exist. This is the same for shows like Finding Bigfoot. Perhaps the most crippling on ghost investigation programs is their desire to turn off all the lights and make the show atmospheric and spooky. Now admittedly many of the places investigated on these shows are places of business that might have to be open to customers or maintenance or whatever during the day. However if their goal was to actually discover ghosts why in the hell would they only do investigations at night?
The answer: an assumption that ghosts only come out at night. This assumption is based on perhaps the most basal fear of human kind, fear of the dark. There is no logical reason why spirits, supposing they existed, would only be able to show themselves in the dark, or only be able to manifest at night. But ratings must be good to keep a show on the air and spooky stuff is supposed to happen only with the lights off right?
UFO and Chemtrail
Truth, Reality and Skepticism
Though I'm sure that there are a handful that have their own biases against the phenomenon most skeptics value truth. The issue is that in order for something to be accepted as true a skeptic requires a good deal of solid evidence. The more extraordinary a claim the more evidence required to support it.
During my days as a believer I didn't quite grasp this about skeptics, mostly because other believers just seemed to bash skeptics as closed-minded. What I learned in my journey to becoming a skeptic is that it is often the believers who are closed-minded, who dismiss out of hand the skeptical reasons to reject their claims. It is believers who declare the skeptics as lost causes after their attempts to convince them fail miserably. It never occurred to me when I was a believer that the reason I hadn't convinced anyone was that the evidence I presented was woefully insufficient.
Spirit Orbs are Dust
How Skepticism Works
When asked to debunk something skeptics don't have to. When it's demanded that we show evidence against someone's absurd claims we need not heed that call. But I do think it is important we engage with those who cling to fringe beliefs and explain to them how skepticism works.
Skepticism works by demanding sufficient evidence. Not overwhelming evidence and not a lack of evidence AGAINST an idea, simply sufficient evidence to support the idea. It's also a good idea to counter act an emotionally based desire to accept a claim with an extra dose of skepticism.
Religion and pseudoscience prey on sentiment and can be very emotionally manipulative. Anyone who's ever had to sit through an impassioned recounting of a near death experience or encounter with an angel, alien, etc should know what I'm talking about. It's hard to look at someone's personal experience and personal story and reject it as insufficient despite how sincere the person is and how adamantly they assert the reality of their experience. The more you WANT to believe the HARDER it should be to GET you to believe and in that way skepticism and keep you honest with yourself and help you value REAL truth rather than following your feelings and emotions.
God, UFOs, Bigfoot - Conclusion
So the next time you see someone online who demands that God, UFOs, Bigfoot, Ghosts or Elvis be debunked I implore you to explain the true nature of skepticism to them. Rather than get caught up in endless debate with someone who probably isn't going to change their mind simply explain why their demand of a debunk is, itself, bunk.
It is up to those putting forth the claim to support that claim with POSITIVE evidence. To those who are believers in fringe subjects it is you who must defend your beliefs. Simply because your idea or belief cannot be entirely disproved doesn't mean you've somehow proven it. The absence of evidence against an idea is not evidence in favor of it.
We don't have to disprove your God, Aliens, UFOs, Ghosts, Cryptids or Conspiracy Theories – YOU have to prove them to us. If you can do that, if you can present sound logic and actual scientific evidence then maybe you're idea won't just be accepted by skeptics, it will be accepted by scientific and academic skeptics and trust me they're a lot tougher than us amateur internet skeptics ;)
All the photos in this hub, except for the Patterson Bigfoot one and my crude MS paint drawing, were taken by me. The UFOs are all hoaxes I did quite a few years ago, all it takes is a small object to throw into the air and a camera. UFO 1 is a Barbie teacup I borrowed from my sister. UFO 2 is a quarter or nickel (I can't remember which I was using). UFO 3 is a shiny pebble from a fish tank. UFO 4 is the ball from a paddle-ball toy.