The ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) was last known to exist in 1944. Unexpectedly, in 2004, it was purportedly seen near Brinkley, Arkansas. This claim resulted in a scientific expedition that produced an inconclusive video that was used to confirm the bird’s reemergence from extinction, an article in Science magazine extolling the excitement that the bird was indeed back, and a worldwide fascination towards a species supposedly extinct but now here again. Yet, despite over 5 years of searching at a cost of over $10 million, there remains no physical proof that the woodpecker is in fact alive (Radford, 2009).
At a 2004 Florida conference about treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), a medical doctor spoke to a group of parents about electromagnetic fields and their impact on autism. The doctor asked one parent if she used cell phones, to which the parent replied in the affirmative. With a grand wave of the hand, the doctor pronounced, “throw them out!” advocating for the unproven belief that the electrical energy emanating from cellular phones was somehow either responsible for or negatively impacting the symptoms of this neurological disorder.
When confronted with claims that are presented as true, how can we make a reasonable evaluation to ascertain, as confidently as possible, whether such claims have merit? This fundamental question impacts virtually all areas of our society. Claims abound – of alien abductions, the existence of the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot, and the eating of wild boar meat to cure autism. How can we “separate the wheat from the chaff” in a way that both prevents the acceptance of wildly suspicious claims that have no support, and permits adoption, with some level of certainty and comfort, of claims that are likely to in fact be true?
The best way known to evaluate claims is to adopt the intellectual discipline of science and the scientific method of investigation. This methodology involves carefully defining terms, conducting controlled experiments when possible, practicing the law of parsimony, and adopting “philosophic doubt” or skepticism (e.g., Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). Although all of the methods of science are important, practicing skepticism is crucial to protecting oneself from believing unsubstantiated claims. Though the American public views science’s effect on society as positive (in a recent survey, 84% of respondents said that the effect of science was mostly positive and that the scientists were ranked as the third-most contributing profession to society, after the military and teachers; American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2009), the continued adoption of unproven beliefs, claims, and bizarre treatments (particularly in the field of autism) remains strong, suggesting that although science is lauded, skepticism – and scientific thinking in general – is not widely practiced.
Skepticism is not a view that promotes the disbelief of every truth or claim (Normand, 2008). Skepticism is more refined. Merrima-Webster Online (2010) defines it as, “an attitude or doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or towards a particular object” (emphasis added). The word is from the Greek “skeptikos,” meaning “inquirer” or “investigator” (DiCarlo, 2009). Pigliucci (2009) defines skepticism closer to the original Greek meaning as the suspension of judgment (either to adopt or reject) until sufficient evidence is examined.
Kurtz (2010) stresses this perspective with his discussion of “skeptical inquiry,” an approach that promotes the examiner to “…seek, when feasible, adequate evidence and reasonable grounds for any claim to truth in any context.” (p. 21, as quoted in Normand, 2008). Claims of all kinds should be, before adoption or rejection, examined for the amount and quality of evidence that supports them. Thus, if there is a particular treatment for which there is valid scientific evidence for support, that treatment should be adopted and viewed as evidenced-based. However, when a claim is shown to have no evidence, or evidence that is weak and of poor quality (such as solely relying on the opinion of the claim maker), the rejection of such a claim or position should be the decision. Simply put, skepticism is the position of objectively evaluating, by looking for empirical evidence, the validity of any claim of fact, and basing adoption or rejection on the evidence (or lack thereof; Normand, 2008).
This skeptical attitude, and the corresponding investigatory approach, reduces the possibility of adopting, as true, a claim (or treatment) that may not be true. As is often said, extraordinary claims could be true, but a skeptical approach towards them would require extraordinary evidence and evaluation of that evidence. To reiterate, a skeptical thinker does not reject all claims; nor does s/he accept all claims as true. Rather, the position of a skeptical thinker is one of assessing the validity of the evidence before rendering a decision. The type of evidence is important, and there is an acknowledgement that there exists quite a bit of variation and debate regarding what evidence constitutes “valid” evidence (Zane & Hanson, 2008). But there is general agreement that the methods and criteria used by science is the most acceptable perspective to take.
Normand (2008) smartly acknowledged that the literature provides little specification on exactly how to behave skeptically. To increase the number of people who are “scientific skeptics” (a termed coined by Normand; those who think and act skeptically), several suggestions are offered.
First, study and adopt the methods of science, scientific investigation, and skepticism, as described by numerous textbooks that exist on these subjects (e.g., Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007; Sagan, 1996). The scientific perspective and method of inquiry will inoculate against the reflexive acceptance of claims that are baseless.
Second, require that anyone making extraordinary claims provide extraordinary evidence to substantiate those claims. For example, when the practitioners of craniosacral therapy assert that they do not even need to touch the client’s body in order to change the course of the cerebral spinal fluid (Zane, 2005), they should be required to present evidence that this is in fact true. When Gutstein, the developer of Relationship Development Intervention, asserts that, “The RDI Program is for every age group and for every range of severity, including those who are severely affected by autism” (Connection Center, 2005), he should be required to present the evidence that backs up this extraordinary claim.
Third, don’t be gullible – do not accept claims without evaluation. Accepting all claims is not only intellectually dishonest, but potentially dangerous and fatal (Pigliucci, 2009). For example, promoting holistic remedies for curing AIDS will likely result in the unnecessary deaths of persons with the disease. Gullibly accepting the false claim that vaccines cause autism may lead to parents not vaccinating their children, and such an action puts children at risk for serious diseases. Furthermore, accepting claims without critical evaluation will result in significant costs in money, time, and emotion (Zane, Davis, & Rosswurm, 2009). Gullibility is the opposite of skepticism, so demanding evidence of truth will naturally protect one from being gullibly accepting every claim.
Fourth, behave according to this rule: “In science, keeping an open mind is a virtue – just not so open that your brains fall out” (James Oberg; Sagan, 1996). In other words, be intellectually willing to accept any claim, but always seek for evidence and proof of truth before acceptance is granted.
Finally, find contexts that promote skepticism. For example, attending meetings of other skeptics and listening to podcasts such as The Skeptics Guide to the Universe will prompt and reinforce skeptical behavior (Loxton, 2009). Consider following some of the suggestions in What Do I Do Next, a call for action on the part of all skeptics (Loxton, 2009).
Although many organizations officially promote the use of science-based treatment and services for individuals with autism (e.g., Association for Science in Autism Treatment; American Academy of Pediatrics), antiscience, pseudoscience, and bizarre claims continue to gain influence in the arena of autism treatment and this is partly due to the lack of understanding of the nature of science (Lamal, 2009). Skepticism is a key concept in understanding how to assess the level of believability of something. Pigliucci (2009) goes so far as to believe that there is an ethical requirement to be skeptical and question the veracity of claims. He asserts that everyone must seek the truth and this requires a “baloney detection toolkit” (Sagan, 1996). This set of analytic and decision-making procedures and rules allow us to, as best as we are able, ascertain what might be true and what does not have evidence of believability. The adoption of healthy skepticism will result in a more informed public, more informed decision making about claims and treatments for autism, and have the overall effect of the promotion of truth and validity to protect us from extraordinary claims that have little reason to be believed. Persons with autism will be the beneficiaries.
Dr. Thomas Zane is a Professor of Education and Director of the Applied Behavior Analysis Online Program at the Van Loan Graduate School of Endicott College. Dr. Zane earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in psychology at Western Michigan University and his doctorate in Applied Behavior Analysis at West Virginia University. He has served as a Post-Doctorate Research Associate at the University of Massachusetts, Professor at Mount Holyoke College, and Johns Hopkins University Department of Psychiatry. He is a licensed psychologist in New York and Massachusetts. Dr. Zane has published in various journals and books, presented at regional, national, and international conferences, and been an invited lecturer in Ireland and the Republic of China. His research interests include teacher training, staff development, and evidenced-based practice in autism. As part of his duties at Endicott College, he offers a BCBA certificate program through distance learning.
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