R.L. Pinsonneault is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California at San Francisco in the field of neurobiology and physiology. When not crafting grants, papers and the like, he prefers to write for Nature Network on the topic of politics and policy in science at his blog The Political Animal. He’ll soon be returning to the East coast of the U.S. in an attempt to get up close and personal with all this Change he keeps hearing about in Washington D.C.
“The improver of natural knowledge absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority, as such. For him, skepticism is the highest of duties; blind faith the one unpardonable sin.” - Thomas Huxley
Human beings are unique in any number of ways from the other organisms that provide for our eminently liveable environs. However, one thing that stands out is our ability and tendency to pose questions. This condition finds its zenith in that most annoying of creatures, the Skeptic. A skeptic at full tilt can cause stabbing, radiating pain in the breasts of campaigning politicians and ensure solid drug and alcohol problems amongst the sales community. Nothing is easy with these folks. You have to convince them that what you are saying or doing is not total and unadulterated foolishness.
Another word for skeptic could easily be scientist. The scientist observes a thing, a process, a behavior and then tries to make sense of it. But this is not done in some slapdash way that cannot be verified or repeated. He or she develops testable reasons for how, where or when something happens. And then performs the test. And then does it again. Therefore, science is not just important but crucial because it requires us to develop the discipline to ask these questions within a framework; the Method that we attribute to Sir Francis Bacon and Ibn Al-Haytham before him. Without science and the scientific method, human kind would be impoverished of reliable explanations for what happens in nature and the societies it sustains. Our structures, both physical and intellectual, would be built upon granular foundations that would yield to pressures as tangible as a tidal surge or less so, like popular opinion.
But these foundations are not meant to be built and left alone. The skeptic-scientist looks at what is there and re-searches in the context of what is new; what has been learned since the thing was last explained. Re-assessment. Questioning. Improvement upon what has been established, all the while employing the methods of science to be sure that any changes have a better chance at successfully suffering the pressures of time. Science (and by natural extension skepticism) is important simply because it keeps us honest.