The Skeptical Scientist

Why Must Scientists Be Skeptics?

Skepticism is the act of suspending judgment (the opposite of jumping to conclusions) when evaluating an explanation or claims. It allows scientists to consider all possibilities and systematically question all information in the course of an investigation.

Why is maintaining a skeptical outlook so important? Skepticism helps scientists to remain objective when performing scientific inquiry and research. It forces them to examine claims (their own and those of others) to be certain that there is sufficient evidence to back them up. Skeptics do not doubt every claim, only those backed by insufficient evidence or by data that have been improperly collected, are not relevant or cannot support the rationale being made.


What Is the Difference Between Skepticism and Denial?

People sometimes confuse skepticism with denial. Skepticism allows scientists to reach logical conclusions supported by evidence that has been examined and confirmed by others in the same field, even when that evidence does not confirm absolute certainty. By contrast, denial is the act of clinging to an idea or belief despite the presence of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

In order to remain objective, scientists must remain skeptical. In order for scientific knowledge to be advanced, that knowledge must be open to revision. Science works to determine the statistical probability (mathematical likelihood) of a claim's accuracy, not its certainty. Similarly, in a court of law, juries are asked to accept a level of proof that is beyond a reasonable doubt — not absolute certainty — when deciding to convict a defendant.

“Skepticism is healthy both in science and society; denial is not.”
(Washington & Cook, 2011, p. 2)

The effects of climate change may drastically alter our environment, and this prospect can be frightening to people. When faced with drastic change, it is not unusual for people to deny bad news in order to cope with the stress. However, denial can be counter-productive by preventing appropriate planning and timely action that might delay or lessen the severity of the changes.