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There was a lot of vigorous debate in the comments on a recent meta-question. A substantial part of it seemed to be arguing about a particular sub-question. This is an attempt to draw out the sub-question.

The Skeptics.SE tour makes a claim:

Skeptics is a question and answer site for applying scientific skepticism.

What does that mean in theory? That has been asked before. I would offer the Wikipedia page on scientific skepticism as a good starting point. It offers several different (consistent?) definitions of scientific skepticism.

In practice, a number of community standards are used to limit the type of answers, including eschewing:

  • Anecdotal answers
  • Answers based entirely on speculative, logic, mathematics and theoretical models, without empirical evidence
  • Original research
  • Discussion focussed on the nature or practice of skepticism itself on the main site (although, it is welcome in Meta.)

The question here is whether what we practise matches what we claim. Do we actually apply scientific skepticism on Skeptics.SE?

Related question: From the private beta period, about what the original text should have claimed: Should the question asking instructions be referring to "scientific skepticism"?

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    History suggests this may be a sensitive topic to some. Please take extra care to make sure you play nice and read replies carefully and generously. – Oddthinking Jun 3 '15 at 5:40
  • In order to answer this question, we need to agree on a definition of scientific skepticism, there are different definitions online. – George Chalhoub Jun 3 '15 at 7:06
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    @georgechalhoub We don't need to agree on a definition before we answer, but instead any answer should identify what definition it is using. – ChrisW Jun 3 '15 at 8:15
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    @Oddthinking a good way to do that: avoid commenting to express agreement or disagreement. Use votes to do so. Use answers to provide a well-reasoned, self sustaining argument. – Sklivvz Jun 3 '15 at 9:54
  • @Sklivvz I might disagree: I think it's pointless (uninformative) to downvote without commenting. Comments help to improve answers and/or to question and further explain them. I upvote if I agree with everything in an answer, but won't downvote without leaving a comment (and I may also comment without downvoting). – ChrisW Jun 3 '15 at 10:09
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    @ChrisW What I am suggesting is not to avoid commenting. I am suggesting that comments should not take the place of answers or the chat. Comments are best for "you can improve your answer like so", but are not appropriate for "I disagree". – Sklivvz Jun 3 '15 at 10:13
  • I worry that the word "science" is confusing - to some, it may mean a topic (a school subject along with history, maths, and English), and to others it may mean a process. – Andrew Grimm Jun 5 '15 at 22:56
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I'll use the definition from the top of the Wikipedia article:

Scientific skepticism (also spelled scepticism) is the practice of questioning whether claims are supported by empirical research and have reproducibility, as part of a methodological norm pursuing "the extension of certified knowledge".[1] For example, Robert K. Merton asserts that all ideas must be tested and are subject to rigorous, structured community scrutiny (see Mertonian norms).


Questions

People who ask questions on skeptics are almost always, ipso facto (i.e. by the practice of posting questions), being skeptical or practicing skepticism: because they're questioning whether claims are supported.

The ethos of the site encourages (doesn't require) answers to publish the results of reproducible empirical research performed by scientists (i.e. by scientific skeptics): which I think is a sufficiently close match to the first definition of skepticism above, that it's fair to say that questioners are practising scientific skepticism here (or at least engaging with or attempting to read the published results from those who do).


Answers

For answers, it's not so clear.

How this site actually works, i.e. what its rules are

When people post answers on this site, they're required to reference any evidence at all as they see fit.

Answerers may choose or may prefer to reference "empirical research which has reproducibility" however that is not a formal requirement. Instead the requirement is only that:

  • Evidence

    The answer must be reference some (any) evidence

  • Good evidence

    The evidence should be (in the opinion of the person posting the answer) as good as possible

  • Better evidence

    The evidence must be better than whatever evidence may have been published together with the claim that's being questioned in the OP (because otherwise "What's the point? It's not an answer."), for example:

    • If there was no evidence published with the claim then any evidence is better than that

    • If the claim wasn't specific and just said, "a recent study has found that [etc.]" then identifying and referencing some specific study/studies is better evidence than that.

    • Some people have posted suggestions or heuristics for how to determine and/or find what, in their opinion, is likely to be the more reliable evidence, for example:

  • Other users vote

    After any answer is posted, other users of the site (who vote) will read and upvote or downvote depending on whether, in their opinion, the answer is useful.

    Some "attributes of a good answer" are described elsewhere on this meta-site but should IMO include whether:

    • The user's answer is supported by the evidence it references
    • The evidence is good (convincing) and/or, at least, as good as it can be: for example if there's little evidence then the answer may (or should) say so, but must for example provide evidence for its assertion that there's little evidence.

    Users may (I won't say "must" because voting is secret and because there are no formal guidelines about how to vote or what your voting algorithm should be) also choose to upvote or downvote answers based not only on their stand-alone merits but also on their relative merits. For example if there were two answers coming to different conclusions based on seemingly-contradictory evidence, voters might choose to:

    • Upvote both because they're both good (or useful) answers with evidence
    • Upvote only the more convincing one
    • Downvote the less convincing one

    An even better answer would account for all the evidence: e.g. explain why one set of evidence should be discounted, or present a new synthesis (a synthetic theory).

  • You can judge for yourself

    See How do I know that the information posted in this site is reliable?

Reason why that's not called scientific skepticism

Some people argue that this site does not allow people's answers to practise 'scientific skepticism': in particular because 'original research' and/or 'theoretical answers' are sometimes not allowed.

Reason why that is called scientific skepticism

On the other hand, one might argue answers meet the second definition of skepticism above, i.e. that "all ideas must be tested and are subject to community scrutiny", because:

  • Only published (i.e. scrutinizable and/or scrutinized), not original, evidence is permitted in an answer.

    The scrutiny is often but is not always necessarily narrowly "scientific", because the type of peer review depends on the subject and the type of publication: for example anything published in a newspaper has journalistic/editorial review; anything published by a historian may have been reviewed by other historians; etc.

  • Answers themselves are subject to the scrutiny of the 'community' of users on this site.

  • "Answers themselves are subject to the scrutiny of the 'community' of users on this site." in that case individual research answers should be allowed as they will be subjected to community scrutiny. Note I am not suggesting that the regulations should be changed, they are fine as they are. – Dikran Marsupial Jun 3 '15 at 9:57
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    I don't agree that original research published only in answers here can be subject to community scrutiny. For example if you're a microbiologist publishing your original research here, the research is not subject to community scrutiny: because we're not a community of microbiologists we are unable to scrutinize that research ourselves. Instead we look for e.g. the peer reviews of other microbiologists, which requires that your research must have been published (made available to them for scrutiny), preferably in a journal of microbiology. – ChrisW Jun 3 '15 at 10:05
  • In that case, I don't understand the last line of your answer "Answers themselves are subject to the scrutiny of the 'community' of users on this site." how can that address "all ideas must be tested and are subject to community scrutiny" if we don't have anyone from that community (e.g. microbiology)? – Dikran Marsupial Jun 3 '15 at 11:08
  • @DikranMarsupial I don't know, think of the analogy of "software development managers" or "project managers": they may not know how to write a line of code; they may be able to read a line of code, but could not be trusted to do a sufficiently good code review because they're unaware of all possible side-effects and non-obvious exceptions; but maybe they're good at choosing (hiring) expert programmers, and good at estimating whether any expert development QA process (inspection and test) has been followed by other people. – ChrisW Jun 3 '15 at 12:31
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    IOW we've supposedly become expert at reviewing the form of answer (and of comparing the relative merits of answers when there are several answers to a topic) posted on Skeptics.SE. – ChrisW Jun 3 '15 at 12:32
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    Yes, that is what SkepticsSE is good at, which is something very useful, but that doesn't mean it is scientific skepticism. "Ordinary" skepticism is a pretty valuable thing. – Dikran Marsupial Jun 3 '15 at 12:45
  • @nomenagentis Apparently "yes" and "no" were both simplistic/arguable and therefore perhaps not as correct as they could be? – ChrisW Jun 3 '15 at 14:28
  • I recently added a new sentence: near the bottom, in the "not scientific" section, the second list-item, about "theoretical answers". – ChrisW Jun 5 '15 at 6:20
  • @Sklivvz I thought you approved the previous version of this answer which has the "original research" paragraph. Do you want to rehash that now? The new paragraph about "theoretical answers": I don't say it always happens (that all theoretical answers are not accepted) ... but do you want to edit that, somehow? – ChrisW Jun 5 '15 at 12:09
  • @Sklivvz I reworded it to claim that "Some people argue", which appears to be true. And I linked to the two FAQ topics, which you wrote. – ChrisW Jun 5 '15 at 13:45
  • Thanks, that's fine, I'll remove my objections above :-) – Sklivvz Jun 5 '15 at 14:35
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    Suggestion: "Reason why that is called scientific skepticism" could include that we privilege and often insist on empirical evidence and our process is very closely related to sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/…, even if we don't actually perform experiments ourselves, which is also true for many scientists. – Sklivvz Jun 5 '15 at 14:44
  • @Sklivvz I think I used to have something about 'empirical evidence' in my text about "theoretical answers": I had written, "we're less interested in whether something might happen in theory than in whether it has been observed to happen in practice" but you deleted that. – ChrisW Jun 5 '15 at 15:18
  • @Sklivvz I don't understand your saying "our process is very closely related to the scientific method": when you say "our process" are you claiming that the scientific method is the process which each of us follows individually before we write our answer, or are you saying something about the collective process? – ChrisW Jun 5 '15 at 15:27
  • Step 1 "Ask a Question" is performed by an asker; "Do Background Research/Construct a Hypothesis/Find Experimental Evidence" by the answerers. "Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion" and "Communicate Your Results" are done by the community (the answerers and the community at large each draw their own conclusions from the evidence, vote, write comments, etc.) – Sklivvz Jun 5 '15 at 16:13
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The question is why is this specifically scientific skepticism, rather than any other sort of skepticism.

Scientific skepticism requires that criticisms of the logical consistency and evidential support for a theory are examined based their own merits (rather than relying on the scrutiny applied by others). If we rely on the scrutiny of others, then we are not applying scientific skepticism, they are, and we are just reporting and contextualizing their efforts. However SkepticsSE does not allow purely logic based criticism or individual research questioning the evidential basis of a claim, and so SkepticsSE does not itself apply scientific skepticism. This is not a criticism of SkepticsSE.

Scientific skepticism requires that we should be able to accept any valid argument against our position. What matters is the validity of the argument, not the source or whether it has been peer-reviewed.

Some definitions of scientific skepticism from Wikipedia

Scientific skeptics believe that empirical investigation of reality leads to the truth, and that the scientific method is best suited to this purpose.

Note this says nothing about providing references.

Scientific skeptics attempt to evaluate claims based on verifiability and falsifiability and discourage accepting claims on faith or anecdotal evidence. Skeptics often focus their criticism on claims they consider to be implausible, dubious or clearly contradictory to generally accepted science. Scientific skeptics do not assert that unusual claims should be automatically rejected out of hand on a priori grounds - rather they argue that claims of paranormal or anomalous phenomena should be critically examined and that extraordinary claims would require extraordinary evidence in their favor before they could be accepted as having validity.

Note it says nothing about providing references.

From a scientific point of view, theories are judged on many criteria, such as falsifiability, Occam's Razor, and explanatory power, as well as the degree to which their predictions match experimental results.[citation needed] Skepticism is part of the scientific method; for instance an experimental result is not regarded as established until it can be shown to be repeatable independently.

Note it says nothing about referencing. Indeed the publication of a paper in a peer-reviewed journal does not mean that it has been shown to be repeatable independently. I know from experience that it can be very difficult to replicate the results in peer-reviewed papers.

Scientists do not regard papers published in peer-reviewed journals as established science. Publication of the work is only the first step towards acceptance, the independent replication and use of the ideas published in the paper is the next step. There are plenty of papers that get published that rarely get cited because the research community discovered them to be of little value or even simply wrong. SkepticsSE on the other hand treats peer-reviewed papers as authoritative (which is a form of appeal to authority), which is not part of scientific method.

SkepticsSE does not allow individual research or back of the envelope calculations or logic/reason based answers, even though all of these are perfectly acceptable in science.

SkepticsSE does not implement scientific skepticism as it does not allow pure reason or individual research. That doesn't mean that there is anything wrong with the form of skepticism that actually is applied. The contributors to SkepticsSE generally don't have the expertise to evaluate individual research or logic based answers, so it is delegated to the peer-reviewed literature. I would agree that is the right thing to do, but it only causes confusion to call that "scientific skepticism", rather than just "skepticism".

I don't think it is a big deal, it is just that saying the site implements scientific skepticism will give the wrong message to any scientist posting here, who would naturally want to use the form of scientific skepticism they are used to in their working lives (and get fed up with being told to change perfectly good (from a scientific skepticism perspective) answers).

  • downvoter, some feedback/discussion would be (genuinely) appreciated. – Dikran Marsupial Jun 3 '15 at 9:58
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    You're saying that references aren't necessary for scientific skepticism. If you want to say that this site isn't "scientific skepticism", then what is necessary for scientific skepticism, which this site lacks? The definition I used in my answer claimed that what's necessary (or that what's in the definition) is "questioning whether claims are supported" and "ideas tested and subject to scrutiny", which I think this site might do? – ChrisW Jun 3 '15 at 9:58
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    (not my downvote by the way) – ChrisW Jun 3 '15 at 9:58
  • @ChrisW I am most definitely not saying that references are not necessary for scientific skepticism, where there are good references, they should be used. I am saying that references are not what distinguishes scientific skepticism from other forms of skepticism. In science, pointing out an internal inconsistency in the logic of a claim is sufficient for it to be rejected. That is not allowed here. I have given an answer to a question here using a very simply calculation to show that we know the rise in atmospheric CO2 is anthropogenic, but if it wasn't for the fact I had written a ... – Dikran Marsupial Jun 3 '15 at 10:13
  • ... paper giving this calculation myself (and could cite it) you wouldn't have been able to find the calculation anywhere in the published literature (at least in that form) because it is a statement of the utterly obvious. However, from a scientific skepticism point of view, the argument/calculation was just as valid before I'd published it as it was after. Scientists don't need you to publish in a peer-reviewed journal to accept they are wrong, almost always you just need to point out the error. That is the difference between scientific skepticism and other skepticism. – Dikran Marsupial Jun 3 '15 at 10:23
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    Sorry if this sounds flippant, but is that like saying that MartialArts.SE isn't about martial arts, because the users there's cannot square off against each other in a dojo? This site has formal rules about what form an answer can take. The fact that excludes some forms is inevitable. I'd suggest that if it's nothing but a subset of scientific skepticism, then it would still be nothing but scientific skepticism. – ChrisW Jun 3 '15 at 10:38
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    Your answer states that "SkepticsSE on the other hand treats peer-reviewed papers as authoritative" but that is misleading. There are many examples here on meta where we do clearly state that 1. we do not claim correctness and 2. peer-reviewed papers are simply one of the possible references in a scale of different possible levels of reliability. – Sklivvz Jun 3 '15 at 10:39
  • @Sklivvz, it doesn't make the rest of that particular answer less scientifically skeptical, but not allowing logic or individual research based answers makes SkepticsSE less scientifically skeptical as such answers would be perfectly acceptable in science. Logic certainly is not an optional tool in scientific skepticism, it is a fundamental component. – Dikran Marsupial Jun 3 '15 at 10:41
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    @ChrisW that is indeed a flippant answer. At MartialArtsSE they are discussing martial arts, not performing martial arts. The claim is that SkepticalSE is performing scientific skeptcisim, not just discussing it. – Dikran Marsupial Jun 3 '15 at 10:42
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    "I'd suggest that if it's nothing but a subset of scientific skepticism, then it would still be nothing but scientific skepticism" unless it didn't allow the forms that distinguish scientific skepticism from other (equally valid) forms of skepticism. Asking for references to sources is common to pretty much any form of skepticism. – Dikran Marsupial Jun 3 '15 at 10:47
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    Your most recent comment sounds logically sound. If you worked something like that syllogism into your answer, "Scientific skepticism requires X; if it's not X then it's not scientific skepticism; the claim was that were allowed to practice scientific skepticism, however we're not allowed to practice X", then I suspect I'd upvote it. – ChrisW Jun 3 '15 at 10:52
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    Perhaps we're harvesting the fruits of scientific skepticism and "applying" these to topics (i.e. using them in replies to questions); but like Moses forbidden to enter the promised land, we are not permitted to create new fruits ourselves. :) – ChrisW Jun 3 '15 at 11:02
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    @georgechalhoub sorry I am not interested in quibbling about wording, I have already explained the point about authoritative earlier in the thread and it is mentioned in sklivvz answer. – Dikran Marsupial Jun 3 '15 at 12:03
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    I'd replace "SkepticsSE does not itself apply scientific skepticism" with "Skeptics.SE is not a place on which to publish those forms of scientific skepticism". Would that be OK? And change "not implement scientific skepticism as it does not allow" to "not implement scientific skepticism in that it does not allow". I'd prefer it if you'd make those changes (or let me make them) but +1 now on the understanding that I'm upvoting a version which I imagine as (or understand as) already including these changes. – ChrisW Jun 3 '15 at 12:14
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    BTW ChrisW, I do appreciate the constructive manner of our discussion! – Dikran Marsupial Jun 3 '15 at 12:29
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Is original research necessary?

There is no doubt that science needs original research and theoretical work. Does scientific skepticism need them too?

"Original research" and "Theoretical answers", in the sense used on this site, are only one of the tools used by scientific skeptics to debunk extraordinary claim and are seldom used for that (e.g. try to count how many Snopes answers only use calculations or self-performed experiments).

I've never seen them used to confirm an extraordinary claim (e.g. Drake's equation is never taken as proof of alien life by skeptics).

In conclusion, no, original research is only one of the possible avenues to apply skepticism, but there are many other ways which don't rely on it.

Definitions

The crux of the problem in the "Reason why not" paragraph of ChrisW's answer is a contention on the definition of "scientific skepticism".

Does allowing only a subset of scientific tools still retains the qualities of scientific skepticism or not? The answers we do give are quite similar in content, argumentation style, and logic to the kind of conclusions found in almost all other skeptics sites on the net and most skeptic authors' books.

I would say that the materials and methods that make up this site are qualitatively very similar to other applied scientific skepticism material and thus, we are applying scientific skepticism in a generally accepted way.

What is an appeal to authority?

An Appeal to Authority is a fallacy with the following form:

  • Person A is (claimed to be) an authority on subject S.
  • Person A makes claim C about subject S.
  • Therefore, C is true.

This fallacy is committed when the person in question is not a legitimate authority on the subject. More formally, if person A is not qualified to make reliable claims in subject S, then the argument will be fallacious.

(source)

There are a lot of arguments about this site presenting "arguments from authority". This is false.

  1. Presenting an argument from a legitimate authority is allowed. We only allow reputable references.
  2. A requirement of this fallacy is inferring correctness from authority. We don't claim correctness.

I've seen some definitions of this fallacy disallow any authority. In this case, point 2. still protects us from falling in that fallacy.

When a scientist uses a well-known formula, they also rely on some authority to prove it is correct and usable, this doesn't mean they are appealing to authority.

On the other hand, allowing an answerer to report a self-performed experiment is certainly an argument from (personal) authority.

Reliability

The crux is the reliablity of the answers, in particular the ability to estimate it, not the authority, and requesting references does make the answer evidence their reliability. An answer points to a poor quality reference? It's not very reliable. Is an answer pointing to a well established source? It's way more reliable. Is someone reporting a self-invented experiment reliable? Not very, it's anecdotal at best.

Does this prove anything on this site is correct? Nope. We don't claim to be correct.

On the other hand, it does provide a strengthening or weakening of the claims asked about, and as such it qualifies with the aim of scientific skepticism.

Novelty

Do we allow novel material on the site? Yes. Many of our answers do: spot checking, this is the first answer in my feed. It connects evidence to an answer. The evidence was not previously used to answer the question. Novel, useful information is certainly present.

Journalism

Are we a journalistic site? Not in my definition of journalism: news are typically top down and editorial. We are bottom up and community-oriented. We answer questions, so we react to our audience. In fact, we are our audience. Journals do not do that as their core.

Conclusion

What we do is connect questions with answers, questioners with answerers, extraordinary claims with reliable evidence. This is exactly what scientific skepticism is.

  • +10 from me. Completely agree with this answer. – George Chalhoub Jun 3 '15 at 11:45
  • You didn't define what scientific skepticism is, except by saying that Skeptics.SE is similar to other skeptics sites. Do you distinguish between "skepticism" and "scientific skepticism" (as Dikran Marsupial does)? Would you reference the other sites to whose content you're comparing ours, so that we can make that comparison too? – ChrisW Jun 3 '15 at 13:45
  • Your argument might be stronger if you removed the sentence, "We only allow reputable references." – ChrisW Jun 3 '15 at 13:48
  • "they also rely on some authority to prove it is correct and usable" -> "they often rely on some other author's having proven it correct" – ChrisW Jun 3 '15 at 13:51
  • @ChrisW I use the "wikipedia page" definition, but it's not useful as a starting point in the discussion, as I am contending this is a question of definitions, so simply choosing one is begging the question. – Sklivvz Jun 3 '15 at 13:57
  • "is certainly an argument from (personal) authority" -- Yes if you report a self-performed experiment then you're obviously the author of that experiment. But apart from that, apparently some Skeptics.SE users don't want to report their own experiments but do want to publish their own criticisms of other people's reports, and tell you that their own criticisms (of which they are the author) are not "an argument from personal authority" but are, rather, self-evident. – ChrisW Jun 3 '15 at 13:58
  • @ChrisW unless we are talking about "formal logic", which is not the case here, the determination of self-evidence is an argument from authority or an argument from common sense, in any case it's fallacious. – Sklivvz Jun 3 '15 at 14:01
  • if a paper contains a mistake, or the reporting of a given paper is fallacious, we already allow answers that only contain the paper as reference. – Sklivvz Jun 3 '15 at 14:01
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    "did humans and dinosaurs live at the same time" "no because it's illogical" "no because it's absurd" "yes because the bible says so" "yes because the genesis institute says so" etc. All this stuff is not scientific skepticism, but it is described by its authors as "logical" or as "reference" based. – Sklivvz Jun 3 '15 at 14:04
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    Saying, literally, "Yes because reason" wouldn't explain what the reason is and would therefore not be self-evident. I thought people might be talking about some longer answer which did include its own explanation/reasoning/evidence ('evidence' meaning etymologically 'something to see', I suppose, e.g. some logic to be seen). To pick one example, an explanation of why a video looks fake; or, a calculation, to show that a claim is plausible or implausible. I'm not saying that must be allowed on this site, but it's self-evident in a way that's more than merely appeal to non-existent authority. – ChrisW Jun 3 '15 at 14:26
  • @ChrisW all those examples are allowed if self evident to the reader. They are not if they are only self-evident to the author! We allow high-school science level calculations without reference. We require that more complicated calculations or scientific formulas be referenced. I don't see how allowing the same stuff without references would make us more scientifically skeptical. It would only make us more sloppy. – Sklivvz Jun 4 '15 at 12:12
  • I completely disagree with the last section (and therefore the whole post I guess). Is a scientific librarian a scientist? (No). Simply gathering information/evidence and pairing it with claims is not scientific skepticism. It is not an application of the scientific method in any sense that I understand it - it is some kind of journalism or being an archivist. Science is fundamentally a framework for testing and modifying ideas, but we aren't really allowed to do that here (modifying existing ideas is original research). What we do is archive information about a specific question. – KAI Jun 4 '15 at 21:34
  • @KAI Doing science and applying skepticism are not, nor are meant to be, the same thing. A scientist does science, which may or may not include applying scientific skepticism. We are most definitely not simply reporting findings, we are using findings to answer questions. Don't assume that "Is X true?" is answered by finding a study which says "X is true". In very many cases the work of finding relevant evidence is not a simple matter of reporting a direct answer someone else found. – Sklivvz Jun 4 '15 at 21:47
  • To use your (interesting!) example, a librarian can maybe find you a book on a subject, but can't answer your question based on what is written in the books, and based on the quality of the books. A scientist might find you an answer based on a book, or based on a new theory. In the former case, it's scientific skepticism. In the second it's speculative science, and it needs to be validated by experiments, for example, in which case it ends up in the books. – Sklivvz Jun 4 '15 at 21:50
  • @Sklivvz The definition of "Scientific skepticism" from wikipedia that was linked above states that a skeptic "openly applies the methods of science and reason all their claims...". Yet we generally aren't allowed to do this (we can only report that others have done so). Your counter to the fact that we aren't allowed to directly apply the definition of scientific skepticism is that we are allowed to act as scientific librarians. Since I do not believe that librarians are necessarily scientists or skeptics, I do not find this very convincing. – KAI Jun 4 '15 at 21:54

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