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{Published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, August 17, 2011}

Next week marks a watershed in the public life of Colorado Springs. Our town may be known for its more vocal citizens’ emphasis on unquestioning belief, but some of us are trying to change that. Next Saturday, August 27, we will hold Colorado Springs’ first Skepticamp .

(Full disclosure: I am a participant in Skepticamp 2011, but receive no compensation of any kind. Thanks to the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado for their generous donation of the venue).

Skepticamps are a growing movement started a few years ago with the idea to help encourage critical thinking among people from all walks of life. Unlike traditional academic conferences, the distinction between speaker and audience is deliberately blurred.

Anyone interested in skepticism and critical thinking can participate. In the words of the skepticamp web site, mastering critical thinking skills requires “practice, practice, practice!” Skepticamps are a great way to do that.

What exactly is the skeptical movement? We are not nihilists, who believe doubting everything. Skeptics assume there is a world out there that exists independently from us. We find trying to understand that world exciting and inspiring. If I had to put it in a nutshell, I’d say the skeptics’ creed is “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. The weirder some belief is, the stronger the evidence we should demand before we accept it.

It doesn’t matter how the belief makes you feel. It doesn’t matter how old the belief is. It doesn’t matter if people who believe it are smart, popular, charismatic, good, or numerous. What matters is the evidence.

Truth should come first. Then belief.

To the skeptic, intellectual integrity is really important. Skeptics do not want to be deceived by anyone, especially themselves. And unfortunately, our brains fool us all the time.

People who believe in alien abductions, out-of-body experiences, and supernatural events are not crazy or abnormal. Quite the contrary, such beliefs seem to be part and parcel of how our brains work. Unfortunately, the evidence says that our brains aren’t that good at distinguishing real causes from imaginary ones.

For that, we need science. Not because science is perfect, but because humanity has struggled for hundreds of years to distinguish patterns that are real from patterns that people make up. We’ve tried all sorts of things, and science happens to work best. So we use it. That’s really all there is to it.

Despite what our critics say, skeptics have a profound sense of wonder and awe. To us, honest engagement with the world as we find it is terrifically exciting and fulfilling. We are not afraid to say “We don’t know” if it’s the intellectually honest thing to do. Particularly because with every “I don’t know” comes a hopeful “But maybe someday …”

Today, there is no shortage of weird beliefs that need challenging. Despite what thousands of people enthusiastically swear to, the best evidence says that we landed on the moon, that the World Trade Center was brought down by Al Qaida, that the Holocaust happened, and that Oswald acted alone. So that’s what we believe.

The best evidence says that aliens have neither visited here nor abducted anyone, that astrology is bunk, that crystals have no supernatural power, and neither does prayer. So that’s what we believe. When the evidence says otherwise, we’ll change our minds.

That’s what skeptics do.

Skepticism has implications for politics too.

What would our politics be like if we asked our candidates questions like “Who says so?” “Who stands to benefit?” and “Where’s the evidence?” What if people interrupted a candidate’s speech by yelling things like “That’s a false dichotomy!” “That’s a logical fallacy!” “That’s argument from authority!” It boggles the mind.

So if you’ve got some time next Saturday, stop by and learn what we’re all about. Find a speaker who looks interesting and sit in. Google “Skepticamp Colorado Springs”, contact the Pikes Peak Skeptics Society, drop me a line, or just stop by and check it out.

Hope to see you there!

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