A middle-aged man dreaming of the day when he can stop begging for scraps and write for a living.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Importance of Skepticism

One of the things I regret about my education growing up is that there wasn't any significant effort made to teach skepticism and critical thinking. These are skills I've had to pick up on my own as an adult, and it's been haphazard at best. I don't have the greatest critical thinking skills and I'm not nearly as good a skeptic as I want to be. The problem is that the more I learn the more I recognize the need for these things. I also recognize that there are a lot of misconceptions about skepticism and people who practice it. I thought I'd dedicate this post to examining the art of skepticism and how it applies to everything we do.

First of all, it helps to define what skepticism really is. As Michael Shermer pointed out, skepticism is not a position, it's a process. A skeptic isn't a curmudgeon who automatically naysays anything they hear. A skeptic isn't someone deliberately trying to pour cold water over your head to ruin your day. A skeptic is someone who follows a process intended to distinguish reality from wishful thinking. Let's face it: there's a lot of wishful thinking in the world and it creates problems we could otherwise avoid.

A skeptic is not necessarily a scientist, but a scientist must be a good skeptic. Your average skeptic isn't going to have better than a layman's understanding of things like biology, chemistry, cosmology, economics, physics or politics. They may sound more knowledgeable but that's relative to your average bloviator. A good skeptic will research a claim before deciding whether it is true or false, but there's no guarantee that the information they find will be accurate. Skeptics are just as prone to bad information and false assumptions as everyone else, they're just more likely to update their assumptions as new information becomes available. A successful skeptic is not someone who can debunk any claim they find, it's someone who can debunk their own assumptions when they're wrong.

There are so many examples of how skepticism should be an essential part of our daily lives, but I'll keep this short. There's one example that's infamous in the modern age, something everybody thinks they know to watch out for: getting conned. In the computer security world it's known as social engineering but confidence artists can be found in every walk of life. It's a profession almost as old as prostitution where someone tricks you into trusting them so they can take advantage of it to defraud you of money or property. How many times have you taken a phone call from someone offering to fix your credit problems or sell you a product that will revolutionize your life? Do you think all the email spam talking about breast enlargement pills and penis enlargement tools get sent out because it makes them giggle? The Nigerian Prince scam has been around for at least a hundred years, possibly more. Years ago I had to explain to a friend that they shouldn't go shopping for a new house just because they received an email advising them they'd won a lottery in London -- a lottery they admitted they'd never entered. These scams persists because people fall for them. Not everyone does, and not all the time, but it happens.

But before you pat yourself on the back for being a successful skeptic, take a closer look at your assumptions. Are you a fan of alternative medicine? Do you believe in angels? Are you convinced that lowering corporate tax rates creates jobs? Do you think that poverty is created by coddling the poor? I guarantee you have assumptions that you are not being skeptical about. So do I. The question is are you constantly questioning your assumptions and trying to update them with current information or are you only willing to accept information that confirms what you already know?

It's up to you to decide: are you a skeptic? Do you think skepticism is a crucial skill or is it a danger to your beliefs? Do you have the impression that a skeptical world is a cold, dark place devoid of love or meaning?

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