What we're about
Our motto: respect people but challenge their ideas.
We are a friendly bunch of people who are passionate about truth, critical thinking, the debunking of logical fallacies, reason, rationality, drinking coffee and eating cake.
Brighton Skeptics in the Cafe (BSitC) hold regular meetings on the last Tuesday of every month in a cosy café in Brighton in order to listen to guest speakers, question them and, unsurprisingly, drink coffee and eat delicious cakes. We meet in The Salvage Café on Western Road.
In each of our meetings, we examine both beliefs and claims that are outside of the mainstream (though increasingly are becoming part of the mainstream), exploring how these views are constructed, and what evidence people feel they have to support their case.
We believe in approaching subjects with both respect and an open-mind; engaging with people of different viewpoints in an environment where debate is both polite and good-natured, yet robust and intellectually rigorous.
If you value scientific truth, see beauty in logic, and want to arm yourself against pseudoscience, come along to meet some like-minded folks, and maybe share a fudge brownie.
A LITTLE BIT ABOUT US.
BSitC was founded in May 2016 by a group of like-minded people who are passionate about science and disgruntled at the proliferation of pseudoscience and demonstrable nonsense. In our efforts to promote science and critical thinking, we host a variety of lectures and events each year at which prominent speakers from a wide range of backgrounds present on a chosen topic after which there is a question and answer session as well as lively debate and discussion.
What is skepticism?
Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. Skepticism is most often applied to extraordinary claims – those that refute the current consensus view.
The Skeptical process considers evidence obtained by systematic observations and reason.
The conclusion that is reached at the end of this Skeptical process is provisional because additional or better evidence may come along that points towards a more suitable explanation.
Mr. X tells us that a new pill greatly improves his memory. This claim, if true, is important and extraordinary. So, it would be fitting to apply Skepticism to this claim. We would want to see evidence that his memory is improved and that the pill was responsible for that. We consider alternative explanations that could explain why Mr. X would say the new pill improves his memory: he may be mistaken, he might be going through a less-stressful time of life, he wants to feel like he spent his money wisely on the pills, he was paid to promote the pills, etc. Good evidence that his claim has validity would be quality research results (multiple studies) that show many who take the pill displayed a measurable improvement in memory. And, preferably, we would be provided a plausible explanation for how the pill works to improve memory. If the manufacturer of Mr X’s pills do not have well-controlled studies of large groups of people that show that the product actually works, we can’t just accept his word that they work as they say because the alternative explanations are more likely.
As stated, Skepticism (spelled with a “k” to differentiate it from the general scepticism), represents an attitude of applying the scientific method to a specific though broad range of areas – what can generally be described as pseudoscience and the paranormal. The former encompasses any claim that seems to contradict established and accepted understanding of how the world works, and that may utilise unproven (or even disproven) methodologies and world views. Many examples of alternative medicine fall into this category, such as homeopathy (totally disproven) or some aspects and claims of chiropractic and acupuncture. The paranormal, on the other hand, looks at the many areas that are certainly beyond and in direct contradiction of any widely accepted scientific evidence – their very existence is up for question: psychic powers, clairvoyants, UFOs, astrology, anomalous creatures, fortune-telling, crop circles and creationism.
Skepticism is a method for discerning what is likely true from what is not. When presented with a claim, a skeptic reserves his or her right to reject that claim until such time as the claimant produces sufficient evidence to back up that claim. If the skeptic finds the evidence is compelling, then we will provisionally accept the claim as true; provisionally because we may observe more evidence tomorrow that proves the claim to be false or at least calls its veracity into question.
The quality and quantity of evidence required will vary from claim-to-claim and skeptic-to-skeptic. If you tell me that you have a pet dog, well, I’ll probably accept that claim just on your word. You’re not likely to get anything out of making up stories about owning a dog and I know that dogs are kept as pets by many people. If however you tell me that you have a pet dragon, I’m probably going to want to at least see the dragon before I believe you.
What does it mean to be a Skeptic?
You will often hear “I’m a skeptic” or “I’m skeptical” from people who are not sure about or who doubt some concept. That is a common, casual use of the term. Simply calling oneself a “skeptic” is not the same as practicing it. It’s easy to “doubt” things; everyone is “skeptical” about something. Good Skepticism involves understanding why one might or might not doubt the claim.
A Skeptic subscribes to a number of tenets.
Respect for the evidence. The application of reason to evidence is the best method we have to obtain reliable knowledge.
Respect for methods, conclusions and the consensus of science. Science is a particular way of obtaining information that is designed to reduce the chances of coming to an incorrect conclusion. Using a scientific process will minimize errors (but not eliminate them entirely). So, Skeptics are often vigorous advocates of science – in medicine, in schools, and for informing policy decisions. Fake, junk and pseudo-science is called out as a ruse. Logic and math are also components of science that can be valuable in assessing claims.
Preference for natural, not supernatural, explanation. Natural laws give us rational boundaries in our quest to determine explanations. Miracles are an example of using a supernatural agent (a god, saint or angel who operates outside of natural laws) as part of the explanation. A Skeptic will look for a natural explanation that does not call for a supernatural, unproven (and possibly unprovable) entity to be included.
Promotion of reason and critical thinking. Many Skeptics are good at identifying mistakes in arguments and reasoning.
An awareness of how we are fooled. People routinely fool themselves and are fooled by others. This is most commonly seen in our over-reliance on our senses and memory – for example, “I know what I saw,” or “I remember it like it was yesterday.” Skeptics are wary of eyewitness testimony because observation is fallible and memory is malleable. Stories of events, even from trustworthy people, make for very poor evidence on their own. Even collectively, anecdotes don’t tell us much about the validity of the claim. Skeptics also understand that people tend to look for, remember and favor the evidence that supports their preferred conclusion.
What skepticism isn't?
This section contains possibly the most important things to know about Skeptics. There are many misconceptions about what it means to be a Skeptic. Not everyone who says they are “skeptical” are applying Skepticism.
Skeptic is not the same as “cynic” or “disbeliever”. Good Skeptics do not dismiss claims out-of-hand. The “Skeptic” is often seen as the “debunker”, the “downer”, or the “balloon buster”. It may appear that way for those who are very attached to certain concepts to which Skepticism is being applied, such as existence of ghosts, Bigfoot or UFOs. Skeptics aren’t skeptical of everything, either. In classical Greek Skepticism, the individual did not commit to stating “knowledge”; everything was doubted, there was no certainty. That is not a popular stance today. When we speak of modern Skepticism, we are talking about those who seek the conclusion best supported by current evidence and reason.
Skeptic does not equal “atheist”. Many Skeptics are atheists, but not all. Skepticism is a process of evaluating claims, not a set of conclusions. Skeptics are a diverse group so lack of religious beliefs should not be assumed. Scientific Skepticism is applied only to testable claims (such as “prayer heals”), not to untestable claims such as the existence of God, who is supernatural. “Is there a God?” is a question outside the realm of science. However, philosophical skepticism can be invoked in considering claims about the supernatural.
Skeptic does not mean “denialist” or “truther”. A practicing Skeptic is informed by the scientific consensus. So called “climate skeptics” are not practicing Skepticism when they doubt global warming based on selective belief and by ignoring the results that science has given us to this point. “Denialists” (of climate change, evolution, conventional medicine, etc.) reject science that does not support their view. “Truthers” insist that the real “truth” has not been revealed and instead put forth the explanation that a conspiracy is afoot. These stances do not give fair weight to well-established knowledge we have.
Skepticism is not a religion. Skepticism doesn’t tell you what to think. It tells you how you should think about something to get to the conclusion that has the best possibility of being true. Skepticism may not always be the best approach to decisions at the moment, sometimes decisions based on emotions can feel like the right thing to do. So applying skepticism to everything in life is not always the best policy. There may be other factors to consider.
Skeptics are not a collection of doubters and grumpy nay-sayers, gathering to reject, out-of-hand, any ideas which do not gel with our pre-existing beliefs. Rather, we adhere to principles of scientific skepticism, a position which seeks to establish the veracity of claims through a logical and impartial evaluation of the available evidence.
We believe this to be the most reliable method available to distinguish truth from fiction and we seek to uniformly apply these principles to any and all ideas – new or old, established or controversial.
Skepticism is important
Why use Skepticism as a process to evaluate claims? Critically evaluating claims for flaws, mistakes and inaccuracies lessens the potential that you will believe something that isn’t true. Skepticism and critical thinking can be applied in everyday life where an invalid claim might have serious effects on you or people around you – such as in consideration of a medical treatment, a financial investment, a consumer product, or life choices.
Proponents of a claim will frequently say, “You can’t prove it’s not true.” That’s a ridiculous statement. It’s not up to the Skeptic to show that an extraordinary claim isn’t true. It’s up to those making the claim to provide evidence and reasons why it IS true. We must have evidence that a person DID commit a crime, for example, not prove that everyone else in the world did not.
After centuries of discovery, we are much more aware of how the world around us works. Mice do not spontaneously regenerate from dirty rags. Thunder is not in fact the sound of Thor’s chariot. Disease is now much better understood and dealt with than it was a hundred years ago. The length and quality of life for enjoyed by most humans has soared. We should be happy, grateful and full of confidence in the future. And yet, we to continue to see beliefs that were once thought to have been banished by the light of science endure, even flourish.
Astrology, vitalist forms of healing, the “spirit world,” acupuncture, zone therapy, angels, demons, homeopathy, ESP, remote viewing, out-of-body experiences and alien lore — these ideas now, unfortunately, all form part of our daily lives, in one way or another.
Fear of the future and what it will bring us, is deeply rooted in Man. But we will not be released from this fear by reading animal intestines by the fire, or casting spells in the full moonlight. We stand a much better chance with science. We gain nothing from ignoring the vast benefits that science and technology has brought us. We must always be looking for new ways of thinking, new ways of improving. But we must not be so open-minded that our brains fall out! Brighton Skeptics in the Cafe hopes to help dispel the darkness by providing a forum for skeptical and critical thinking.
The following quote from Richard Dawkins is a cogent call to arms:
"The enlightenment is under threat. So is reason, So is truth. So is science. I am one of those scientists who feel that it is no longer enough just to get on and do science. We have to devote a significant proportion of our time and resources to defending it from deliberate attack from organized ignorance."