"Scientific Skepticism": Is there such a thing; and if so, what does it look like?

Romans 12:2 - “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

  • IMO, discernment is impossible without a some ability to be skeptical, but is there such a thing as scientific skepticism, and what does it look like?
  • How much is too much or too little skepticism, … from a Christian perspective?
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This is something I posted on Facebook about this subject a few years ago:

Scepticism is one of the most important disciplines in science. It is also one of the most misunderstood, especially in Christian circles.

It is important to realise that there is a difference between scepticism and unbelief. The word “scepticism” means something very different in science from what it means in theology. Unbelief is generally based on reasoning that is not well defined—cultural or political views, emotionalism, knee-jerk reactions, or even just good old fashioned prejudice.

It is also important to realise that scepticism is not an open invitation to accept any old narrative or conspiracy theory just because it is “contrary to accepted dogma.” Even if scientists are wrong about something, you don’t get any points for replacing it with something even more wrong.

No, scientific scepticism is simply an insistence on honesty, factual accuracy, technical rigour, and quality control.

Like everything else in science, scepticism is a very methodical and systematic discipline that operates according to well-defined rules. Claims must be backed up by evidence, which must be interpreted in ways that are mathematically coherent and consistent. Results must be reproducible. Cognitive biases must be accounted for. Conflicts of interest must be opposed. Sources must be cited, and cited accurately. Quote mining is completely unacceptable. And so on.

Scientific scepticism may seem threatening to some people, especially if they are not used to having their claims or teaching scrutinised. But it is a thoroughly Biblical concept. The Bible tells us that we are to test everything (1 Thessalonians 5:21); that we are not to believe every spirit (1 John 4:1); and that every matter must be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1; 1 Timothy 5:19). It is also very, very necessary. Without it, we would be granting a free pass to astrology, homeopathy, water divining, reading tea leaves, feng shui, the Maharishi Yogi, and tobacco companies trying to convince us that smoking is good for you.


For what it’s worth:

My first reaction was to say that scientific skepticism and the scientific method are on in the same. However, I do appreciate the nuanced differences between scientific and methodological skepticism detailed in the Wiki article. The verse from Romans seems to fall more on the side of methodological skepticism.


Thanks for clarifying the difference T, I didn’t realise there were different kinds of scepticism, I thought there was simply… scepticism.

And yes, I too think that methodological scepticism applies better not only to the verse in OP, but to what we tend to discuss in the forum in general.

Definition of discernment: ability to obtain sharp perceptions or to judge well (or the activity of so doing). In the case of judgement, discernment can be psychological, moral or aesthetic in nature. The process of discernment within judgment, involves going past the mere perception of something and making nuanced judgments about its properties or qualities. Discernment in the Christian religion is considered as a virtue, a discerning individual is considered to possess wisdom, and be of good judgement (source: Wikipedia)

Perhaps it isn’t a synonym of scepticism, but very similar, no?

Also without ability to be sceptical, you will believe virtually anything. Example:

(I know educated, professional people who aren’t even religious who believed that. Just in case someone wanted to say “surely nobody would ever believe that”)

I do wonder this myself. For example, if I were to read an account of something unbelievable, say a story of demonic possession or exorcism, would it be too sceptical to just assume it’s all made up lies because it sounds so incredulous? Surely there’s a stage where individuals wouldn’t believe anything at all, and how can that be reasonable?


I think healthy skepticism is simply asking for compelling evidence before accepting a claim as valid. Science as a discipline has come up with guidelines for what counts as scientifically compelling evidence. A Christian scientist could potentially find something compelling in some other area of knowledge or experience (aside from science) based on evidence that is compelling in other ways. There isn’t anything wrong with withholding judgment until you’ve heard the full case. That is different than demanding “proof” of everything you believe is true. Unfortunately I think many people confuse skepticism and cynicism. They pride themselves on being skeptical, but really they just have trust issues and think everyone else is lying all the time. Healthy skepticism is not a good excuse for never believing experts who know more than you just because you distrust experts and can’t personally weigh all the evidence yourself to see if a claim is valid.


Hi Christy, and Bravo: “. . . skepticism is simply asking for compelling evidence before accepting a claim as valid.”

Science, as a directed, formal and communal exercise in skepticism, is not defined by a singular “method” (methods can vary with the field of inquiry, tools available, etc.) but by a commitment to, and scrutiny of, EVIDENCE, as described by jammycakes earlier in this thread:
“Claims must be backed up by evidence, which must be interpreted in ways that are mathematically coherent and consistent. Results must be reproducible. Cognitive biases must be accounted for. Conflicts of interest must be opposed. Sources must be cited, and cited accurately.”

BUT because evidence is never exhaustive, empirical science (as opposed, say, to mathematics) never proves anything, can never lay claim to conclusive Truth. Even the most solidly supported theories remain vulnerable to revision or abandonment should conflicting evidence emerge. This contingency, this LACK of any claim to certainty, is critical: the legitimacy of science derives not from faith or belief in a given set of theories or “truths”, but rather from confidence in a variable and communal process by which EVIDENCE is discovered, critiqued, validated and integrated.

Why communal? Because we do not — we cannot — experience reality directly. Not only are our senses limited in type and scope; nothing penetrates the black box of our skulls but a series of electro-chemical pulses. Our sense organs are not windows, they’re telegraph keys. What the mind experiences is a construct or model — a best guess as to the causes of the dots and dashes.

(Google “checker shadow” or “rotating mask” to experience for yourself how your top-down models superceed bottom-up sensory input, and google “predictive coding” for the door to a fascinating neuroscience rabbit-hole!)

On this view, evolution has designed us not to know Truth, but rather to model our species’ limited ecological niche sufficiently well to survive and pass on our genes to viable offspring. It’s given each of us a 3lb. piece of meat (containing 80-100 billion neurons) capable of building, elaborating and amending (though with varying plasticity) models of our somatic, social and ecological worlds, based on experiences beginning in the womb and extending throughout life.

The problem — and the glory — is that, because each individual’s circumstances and experiences are unique, and because some neural development is limited to specific time windows, no two models are identical.

There’s a saying that “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” How to judge the most useful? Whether contemplating auto mechanics, climate change, or the moral bases of personal, societal or planetary flourishing, scientific skepticism and its corollaries — uncertainty, humility and curiosity — have proven the most trust-worthy guides. The foundational challenge: to continually expose even your most deeply-held models to the critical scrutiny of others. But again, that scrutiny comes down to EVIDENCE.

So I gotta come back to your web-site’s home page, which challenges a line “drawn between faith and science.” I accept the challenger!

Not to put words in your mouth, but, the claim that “faith is the evidence of things not seen” ( [Hebrews 11:1, King James Version) is self contradictory. The lack of a coherent conception of evidence, and the process it anchors, makes religion (which for my purposes I take to be belief in a conscious creator of the universe) incompatible with science, and extremely dangerous (if you can believe without evidence, what can you not be made to believe?).

As a skeptic, my starting-place is that I might be wrong. That’s the humility aspect. As for the curiosity part, I’ll be going through the web-site as time allows. But maybe you can save me some time. What evidence compels YOU to believe science and religion are compatible? I look forward to an interesting conversation . . .


Welcome, and notable first post! As is my wont, my claim is there is objective, as in factual, evidence.

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Oooh, “it’s not about belief in truth it’s about confidence in a process” is a very nicely expressed thought that I fully intend to steal and make use of the next time I am in a “do you believe in evolution” conversation.

From the get-go, you need to acknowledge that words are used differently in different communities of discourse. The discourse of religion triggers very different concepts, frames, and scripts, than the discourse of science, and this fundamentally affects how we talk about both. So you can’t import the usages and frames from the discourse of science into the discourse of religion and expect things to make sense, you have to pick a lane and engage accordingly. Bible verses are translated texts from a foreign culture thousands of years ago. OF COURSE, they are going to speak of reality differently than a modern scientist.

There is an underlying assumption here that empiricism is the only valid epistemology. It isn’t. Knowledge about the world can be ascertained using tools other than scientific ones, and the scientific tool set is not adequate for knowing all there is to know.

I believe that what we can know true things (although as you validly allude to, every human is limited by their perspective and embodied experience, so purely objective observation of reality is out of reach) using many different ways of knowing. Reality is multifaceted and some dimensions of reality are not accessible to the tools of science. Knowledge in these areas is acquired via other means. I believe love is an epistemological tool (see philosopher Esther Meeks), for example and some knowledge can only be gained via relationship. Humans can know things that cannot be examined using the tools of science. And science can discover and describe things that have not been revealed using the tools religion makes use of. Since I believe an objective reality exists, even if we never perceive all of it because of our limitations, adequate tools for understanding reality won’t lead to conflicting claims about reality. So, scientific claims and religious claims will not conflict if they are both true descriptions of reality.


I said his post was notable, and I am going to make a note of that too! :+1:

  • I find that comforting and encouraging, if the universe is “rational”, i.e. is reasonable and makes sense, whether it is explicable in whole or part. An irrational, unreasonable, absurd universe, on the other hand, can hardly be expected to be predictable or explicable, can it?
  • Scientific inquiry in a rational universe “makes sense”; in an absurd universe, scientific inquiry would seem to be an enormous waste of resources.
  • Personally, I recognize my bias in favor of a rational universe and scientific inquiry. Intuitively, that seems fit and proper. “Counter intuitivity” tends to set off alarms in my “Intuitivity Detector”.
  • Consequently, it should not come as a surprise to anyone when I find something that causes my Intuitivity Detector Alarm to ring off the wall.
  • It so happens that Einstein’s “relativity of simultaneity” is, IMO, counter-intuitive. And that’s when a crowd of science lovers rush in to put me in my place with the charge that my “Intuitivity Detector” is broken, and that my intuition is “my problem.”
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(To your point, there is the anomaly of synesthesia that a few percentage of folks have. Are you familiar with it? Some love and enjoy their variety of it, but to others it can be at least a major annoyance.)

Can’t our intuition be correct about some things and incorrect about others? E.g., the wonderful subcellular molecular machines: intuitively they appear to be irreducibly complex (as preached by IDers), but neutral drift and the neutral theory of evolution in conjunction with exaptation and co-option produce at least an intuitively acceptable correlation with evolutionary reality. (Excerpted from the yet to be written Confessions of a Former YEC and ID Advocate. :grin:)

I do not think you can be too skeptical from a Christian perspective if skepticism is simply an honest look at the evidence and logic behind the arguments for a particular position, idea or explanation. If the prior definition of skepticism is used, I would say that it is one of the foundation of science. Part of doing science is being skeptical, honestly and carefully looking at your data and the logic of your arguments to make sure that they actually support your model or explanation. In this sense, to be a good scientist is to be skeptical. I think the suspicion some Christians have about the term “skeptic” or “scientific skeptic” is that the term seems to be used as if it simply means that you reject non-natural explanations. This would clearly be problematic from a Christian perspective. On the other hand, it could be argued that Christians might in some ways be better skeptics since Christians and other religious believers are open to explanations that strict metaphysical naturalists might reject simply because they are not natural explanations. I am not saying that Christians should accept astrology or psychics just because they imply a spiritual reality, but it would be inconsistent for Christians who believe in miracles and a bodily resurrection to reject an idea simply because it includes supernatural or preternatural elements. Because of this, Christians and other religious believers who are in science might be less biased in at least one area compared to their naturalist colleagues.


I think that this is a valid argument not to enforce a given religious viewpoint on others–not to say that someone is not able to believe something based individually on their own experience. Am I interpreting what you are saying correctly? Thanks.

That you’re humble?

Hi Dale ~

Well, I just read the first of your two testimonies, which, if I remove anything referring to God, seems quite unremarkable: some of Rich’s friends thought he might be good at the new position, then another shared his admiration for an organization that had helped him with an adoption, and the organization turned out to be the same one Rich was considering (not especially surprising, since it was a large, well-established organization).

To me, Rich’s “shivers” indicate how primed he was to interpret ordinary coincidences as a message from God. This says a lot about Rich’s devotion, but nothing about the reality of its target. Please don’t take this as disrespect, but try re-reading his account and substituting the name “Rum-tum-tiggedy” for “God.” Without the latter label, and all the intellectual/emotional priors that accompany it, does Rich’s story feel different?

As for Maggie’s story, the lesson I draw is that scientists are people. Working for 84 hours a week (!) with the intellectual rigour and constraints that science imposes says nothing about how you think in your spare time. Saying that some scientists believe in god is no different than saying some people believe in God. The question remains: Why? It’s an honest question.

Maggie’s statement that “I had enough education and intelligence to eliminate some gods at the outset” is like saying “OK, you can be Creator Of The 13-Billion-Year-Old Universe, but only if you’re a white guy and not too short.”

Her suggestion that “There was no human way possible to meet any of these needs.” is a little extreme, don’t you think: basically she needed some money and a place to stay. She met an already-friend at the store, who happened to have a spare room available and was married to a biologist. Her bank made a mistake with her account (from my perspective that’s more of a certainty than a miracle!). She met a bank manager at another bank (!) who was impressed enough by her background to give her a loan.

Having decided that these events were miracles created specifically for her benefit must have been so comforting it justified 50 years of devotion to and intellectual buttressing of a seemingly very specific set of beliefs. Similar beliefs have provided hope and comfort for so many people in the most desperate of circumstances. But I knew a woman once who described how, as a poor single mom of four young kids, she shed dodged a lot of turmoil and pressure by simply flipping a coin to resolve any of the many fraught choices that came up relating to disciplining the kids, deciding which bills to pay, etc. As luck would have it, they muddled through (though my hunch is that part of whatever success she had was knowing - as a loving good-enough mother - when to cheat). And most people, whether Christian or Flippist, don’t rely on prayers or pennies when the car breaks down - they call a mechanic.

Miracles, it seems, are in the eye of the beholder. I’ve heard it said that any technology sufficiently beyond the ken of those newly exposed to it may be perceived as magic. Humans are notoriously bad at sensing probabilities but very good at filtering their experience according to prior expectations and biases.

Am I wrong in rejecting these two stories as providing evidence for a God? If so, can you suggest where? Maybe the criteria by which we judge evidence is different . . .

Yes. Rich did not want the job. Maggie’s providences were like winning five different lotteries in five different states, in the order that she bought the tickets… and she was the only one who bought any tickets.

But I am too well aware that accounts of God’s interventions, even entire sets of discrete independent incidents with the only thing connecting them is the induced or implicit (even explicit) imputed meaning particular to the individual, I am too well aware that they are not compelling (which is bizarre to me) for someone who is not ready to accept them.

The grounds of [true] belief in God is the experience of God*: God is not the conclusion of an argument but the subject of an experience report.
Roy Clouser


*That experience does not have to be multiple externally objective incidents though, although they are sweet. At least an internal one is, however.

They are effectively forensic evidence of God’s providential M.O., orchestrating timing and placing.

Read on.

Can we agree, though, that the reality is the same? Are we talking about day-to-day physical reality (as opposed to imaginary worlds)? If so, then surely we have to reach consensus on the meaning of the words we use and the validity of the evidence we interrogate?

If “the tools of science” refers to rational inference from empirical evidence," then what worlds are we talking about?

Obviously, empiricism can’t answer all questions (Can wookies read Latin?) My concern begins when what I see as imaginary worlds (with angels, demons, heaven, hell, miracles, dragons, whatever) seek to engage this world, with this-world consequences.

My take that empirical skepticism is the only appropriate stance for interrogating this physical world. is itself a proposition. Your rejection of it is based on what evidence? And if not based on evidence, then on what?

Agreed. But the conflict between science and religion, as I see it, is not based on the claims they make (science’s truths are always provisional), but on the process they use to support those claims: specifically an insistence on rational inference from empirical evidence. If religion’s “process” rejects that standard, it seems we have a conflict.

Why is that important? Because we’re not just talking about fun facts of the universe. Process is absolutely critical in making the innumerable choices life presents us with. How do beings like us, in a neighbourhood like ours, survive and flourish?

Yup. Life’s waters are choppy. The question is one of process: how do we navigate the waves?