Saturday, February 16, 2013

Socrates meets Bigfoot

Bigfoot in Nor Cal.
Recently there have seen several attacks on "Bigfoot skepticism." If you are unfamiliar with this label, it is a derogatory term used to bewail skeptics who deal mostly with topics like UFO's, astrology, psychics, and Bigfoot rather than social justice issues or religion. It recently exploded all over the internet via the comment section PZ Myer's blog (it should be noted that PZ had a nuanced view and has nothing against "Bigfoot skepticism." This post is directed more at the minority of his readers who think examining Bigfoot is a waste of time).

Instead of explaining why this accusation is incorrect (which I think it clearly is. Skeptics like Peter Boghossan and Matthew McCormick specialize in religion. Michael Shermer and the late Paul Kurtz also talk about religion in their books), the purpose of this post is to focus on why Bigfoot and his friends are invaluable when it comes to training skeptics. Please note that this is not intended to be a book length retort to other internet sites. Instead it is just a few points about why I think Bigfoot and co. are awesome. I hope you enjoy.

Before we do so, however, I think it would be helpful if we first contemplated the skeptical methods of Socrates (469-399 BC). As you probably remember from intro to philosophy class, Socrates was known throughout his home city of Athens for critically examining the popular claims of his day. He used a methodology based on rigorous questioning to tear down baseless assumptions held by his fellow Athenians about religion, morality, politics, and the meaning of life. After this deconstruction, Socrates would work with the person he was questioning to come to new, more sound conclusions based on logic. This systematized, logic-based dialogue is often referred to as Socratic Reasoning in his honor.

Today Socrates' skeptical methods are as valid as ever. The topics which he applied them to, however, are seen as boring and irrelevant by the general audience. This is not astonishing. After all, how many people find ancient Greek politics to be interesting? But, you may ask, "if we do not apply these methods to the topics Socrates examined, what should we apply them to?" This is where Bigfoot and his pals come in. For whatever reason, the furry guy has long captured the public imagination. By applying skepticism to Bigfoot and similar topics, skeptics open a dialog with the general public. Bigfoot is also much less threatening than discussing politics or religious scandals with a general audience (look up what happened for Socrates). While I certainly believe that nothing should be off limits for the skeptic, there is something to be said for pursuing topics that wedge open the door. 

Aside from his popularity, there are a couple of other reasons that we should bring Socrates to bear on Bigfoot.  First, Bigfoot is very useful for training fledgling skeptics. By applying the skeptical toolkit to the big guy and his friends, we can teach valuable lessons about eyewitness testimony, cognitive biases, and evidential standards. Since Bigfoot is a fairly straightforward case of an extraordinary claim, we can examine him without getting too abstract. This allows newbies to cut their skeptical teeth without having to read through a bunch of Plato's Dialogues about the Forms, mathematical truths, or the ultimate nature or reality. The works of Daniel Loxton, Ben Radford, and Joe Nickell are excellent examples of "Bigfoot skepticism" that help both beginner and expert skeptics fine-tune their reasoning skills.

Second (and more important), Bigfoot and is friends are widely believed by the American public to be true. In a country of 300 million people, as much as 52%  believe in astrology, 46% in ESP, 19% in witches, 35% in ghosts, and 22% in UFO's. A recent survey also shows that 35% believe that President Obama is hiding details about where he was born and 25% think that President Bush's administration was behind 9/11 (link). Socrates thought that it was detrimental to society if there was not a gadfly questioning and deconstructing widely held irrational beliefs. Without skeptics out there playing the roll of the gadfly, we are conceding our public discourse to non-reason and non-evidence based epistemologies. This concession could be severely detrimental to our planet, our liberties, our safety, and our economy.

Given these reasons, I think that skeptics have all the reason in the world to criticize Bigfoot, UFO's, homeopathy, astrology, and the like. Not only are they good for training junior skeptics, but they both in the popular imagination and widely believed to be true. Even if this was not the case and virtually no one accepted Bigfoot, Socrates would never pass up such an opportunity to engage a belief that is held for such bad reasons. As skeptics, I do not think that we should either.

If you want to know more about Bigfoot skepticism and how to we can use it to benefit our critical thinking skills, I recommend investigating the work of Daniel Loxton, Benjamin Radford, and Joe Nickell.  All of their work is top notch and conveys a very non-threatening "nice guy" approach to skepticism and critical thinking.

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