I am a skeptic, let there be no doubt about that. Skeptics are not, as some people claim, eternal negative naysayers. Instead, skeptics are simply people who refuse to accept any claim at face value, i.e. they refuse to be gullible. In our culture, skepticism often isn't received very well.
The best-known example of that -and possibly even its origin for our modern civilisation- is probably that of St. Thomas, according to the Bible, one of Jesus' apostles. He is a Catholic saint and one who doubted the veracity of Christ's resurrection, hence his nickname "Doubting Thomas". Unsurprisingly, his story is usually told as a lesson, an encouragement not to doubt anything the priests tell you.
Skepticism has nothing to do with always saying no, even though skeptics often have to do just that. Skepticism is often seen as an "outgrowth" or even an integral element of what many people perceive as "science". This may also lead to misunderstanding. Contrary to what most people think, science is not a body of knowledge, but rather a method to get to the truth, and skepticism is an important part of that method.
I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit
, the fourth most liveable city on the planet. As far as I am concerned, they have some rather strange ideas about what constitutes liveability, but they have the honesty of defining their terminology and of describing their reasoning. As such, I have no problems with their report.
I love Toronto. To me, it is the best city on the planet. But that is me. Maybe to others, it is the worst. This is not an objective opinion, but a subjective one. As such, the opinion of the Economist Intelligence Unit is almost certainly a lot closer to the truth than mine.
That said, since I love Toronto so much, I don't like to hear anything negative about it. However, I am not about to shoot the messenger. If someone has something negative to say about Toronto, I do not consider that person a "negative person", I simply listen to what this person has to say, and I then evaluate her/his claims. I may not like to hear negative points, but that does not make them untrue.
The current mayor Rob Ford, a semi-literate populist who seemed to think that he was going to improve the city's financial situation by firing the council chamber's coffee lady, and by investing millions the city does not have in subway systems, is a disgrace for the city. I don't like him, and I don't like the fact that he is the mayor. But I am not about to shoot you if you tell me that. You are not being negative because you tell me that. You are merely being correct.
This is the point about skepticism. It is not about what we like, but about finding out what is true. It so happens that Knack, one of the more popular Dutch-language magazines in Belgium, had something to say about an amphibious bus
in Amsterdam. This is not particularly interesting to me at the moment, since I am very unlikely to ever see it in person, but what got stuck in my craw is that the Knack article
claims this is the only amphibious bus on the planet. That is manifestly untrue.
First of all, claims such as "the only", "the largest", "the most" and other superlatives can be verified. In this case, quite easily. Second, I just happen to know that the Knack claim is untrue, because I can see proof of it every day during the tourist season. Yes, indeed, Toronto has its own amphibious bus, the Toronto Hippo
. So, shame on you, Knack, for lying like this!
Well, not entirely. Knack isn't really lying. What they have done, is either misread or imprecisely rephrase what someone else had written. That was easy to verify, since Knack did provide a link to the Floating Dutchman's website
. There, they have this to say:
The Floating Dutchman amphibious bus is the only hybrid amphibious touring car the world that complies with all European road and water regulations. The bus has been built by Dutch Amphibious Transport Vehicles (DATV) in Nijmegen. Three years ago DATV started the development of two prototype vehicles:[...]
The mistake isn't mine, by the way, and to be complete: the Dutch text looks as though it was written by someone who never learned proper Dutch grammar.
Nevertheless, it should be clear that the site does not claim that they are the only amphibious bus in the world. They merely claim that they are the only one that complies with all European traffic and maritime regulations. Whether they truly are the only one remains to be seen, but it seems highly probable that they do comply with all European traffic and maritime regulations. They would be prevented from using their bus otherwise.
In short: Knack was wrong, but this may not have been an intentional lie, merely a mistake. This is a nice -if rather trivial- example of how skepticism is not about nay-saying, not about systematically denying, and not about what most people would perceive as science. It is merely an attitude that reminds us to check facts and not to be gullible. While this example is a rather harmless one, others are not so harmless. Fantastic claims about homoeopathy come to mind. These can kill you.