Skeptical Advice

Back to Skepticism

Cut through the bullshit
  • Ad hominem attacks, appeals to emotion, baseless accusations, cherry-picking the evidence, conspiracy theories, disinformation, distractions, empty rhetoric, false claims, guilt by association, lying with statistics, misleading statements, red herrings, straw men, unsupported claims.

View Artifices of Deception and Distraction

Address the issues, views, and arguments

View Determining What’s True

Remember, a person making a claim has the burden of proof.
  • A person making a claim has the burden of proof.
  • Instead of trying to refute the claim, it’s easier to request an argument:
    • How do you know? 
    • What’s your evidence? 
    • What’s your basis for believing that? 
    • Why do you think that?
Know who made the claim, the context, and why the claim was made
  • Claim
    • Medicare is going broke because of Obamacare. 
  • Who made the claim?
    • Congressional Budget Office
    • Editorial in Wall Street Journal
    • President Trump
Don’t take consequential claims for granted
  • Nearly all news reporters in 2002 assumed that Iraq had WMDs.  But not all. Reporters Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel of the Knight-Ridder newspapers published a series of news articles that raised serious doubts about the evidence for WMDs.
Check out the fact-checkers
  • Fact-checkers rate claims true, false, misleading, and unsupported by evaluating the arguments pro and con.

View Fact-Checking

Don’t forget, you’re subject to wishful believing and confirmation bias
  • Remember, you’re subject to wishful believing and confirmation bias
  • People tend to be credulous toward claims that accord with their deeply-held beliefs and skeptical of those that don’t.
  • So you need to recognize and counteract your biases.
  • Learn the arguments on both sides of an issue.
  • Terms
    • Wishful Believing: believing what you want to be true.
    • Confirmation Bias: being disposed to recognize, accept and remember evidence supporting a deeply-held belief while ignoring, rejecting and forgetting evidence casting doubt on it.
    • Credulous: ready or inclined to believe especially on slight or uncertain evidence (Merriam-Webster Unabridged)
    • Bias: an unreasoned preference or inclination for or against something.
Clarify a claim by rephrasing it in clear terms
Don’t jump to conclusions
  • People jump to conclusions because:
    • They don’t know things, e.g. key facts or alternative explanations
    • Their reasoning is invalid, e.g. inferring a person lied because they made a false statement.
    • They want the conclusion to be true.
  • You need to ask:
    • Do I have all the relevant evidence?
    • Do I know what the competing theories are?
    • Am I familiar with the arguments on all sides of the issue?
    • Is my reasoning valid?
  • Example of jumping to a conclusion:
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence
  • The more unlikely a claim, the stronger the evidence must be to prove it.
Rely on reliable sources
  • A source is reliable if it has a proven record, e.g. 
    • Textbooks, encyclopedias, reference books, fact-checking websites, peer-reviewed journals, news stories from reputable news sources.
Be skeptical of causal claims derived from statistics.
  • statistic is the result of a mathematical calculation on the data. Conclusions are inferred from the statistic, perhaps fallaciously.

View Fooled by Statistics

Avoid irrational skepticism
Remember David Hume’s maxim
  • “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”