The focus of my PhD is the impacts of learning science on the decision-making of adults (if indeed there is any). From this vantage point, I get a sideways glimpse at the development of scepticism by adult learners; specifically, pre-service primary teachers. Of course, in order to track the development of scepticism, I have to know what it is and how to recognise it. I’ve been trying to define scepticism for months, but that’s okay because it’s been fun*.
First of all, there are two spellings: sceptical, and skeptical. The spelling with the ‘k’ is preferred by the Americans, and by organised societies or groups of skeptics, often capitalised: Skeptics. The spelling with the ‘c’ is the older term, and is preferred in Britain. It is possible to dispute my breakdown of the spellings, and please do, in the comments.
What’s harder, though, is that there are so many groups and individuals that call themselves Skeptics/skeptics/sceptics. And they all say different things!
Maybe I should explain why I’m interested. I believe that the crucial reason to learn science is to make good decisions in personally relevant contexts. Everyday we make decisions about our health (to vaccinate or not to vaccinate? naturopath or general practitioner? antibiotics or wait it out?), our lifestyle (run barefoot or in shoes? marijuana is just a “soft” drug, right?), our safety (do I really have to call an electrician? should I sleep with the phone beside my bed?) and that of others (the 4wd or the small car with a crumple zone?), and our environment (recycling or waste? climate change or just regular weather patterns?). Lots of claims are put to us as we move through the world. Buy this! Vote for her! Many people need help making those decisions (astrologer, psychic, or psychologist?). Many of these decisions require some understanding of science in order to make an informed decision. It requires scientific literacy to interpret scientific evidence and explanation, and to justify our decisions through argument. But we need more than that – we need a process by which we can evaluate options and make a decision: the sceptical process can help us here.
People value science in different ways and to varying degrees. Science isn’t the only way of knowing something. But it is the best method we have of understanding our world, and for assessing the value of claims.
From what I’ve read (Kahneman; Stanovich; Osborne; and many more, but if you think there’s someone I should read, let me know in the comments), it takes a lot of effort to be sceptical. Being sceptical is learned, not innate, and it takes practice to turn it into a habit.
I look forward to receiving your comments.
*It hasn’t been fun.