What was it about the title of this blog post that made you click the link? Was it a fear of the possibility that you may be raising a skeptic or the fear that you aren’t? Well, before you decide whether you hope to raise skeptics or not, let’s make a distinction between two words that can get mixed up. Cynicism vs skepticism. Cynicism, or the act of being cynical, is defined as being: (a) contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives, or (b) based on or reflecting a belief that human conduct is motivated primarily by self-interest. Basically, cynicism thinks the worst of everyone, always. It is one step away from wearing a tin foil hat. Meanwhile, skepticism is defined as: doubt as to the truth of something. While I discourage cynicism, I’d make the case for skepticism – now, more than at any point in human history.
Before I get into the how and why of things, let’s just review a few objective facts:
- There has never been a single documented case of halloween candy tampering, despite all of those warnings that your parents, teachers, schools, and I’m pretty sure, even the government gave you.
- Pluto, is not (presently considered to be) a planet.
- Scientists recently announced that they had discovered a new organ – but, that claim was challenged by other scientists, because, well, we don’t even have a universal definition for the word, “organ.” Let that sink in. We can’t agree on the meaning of the word, organ.
- We’ve mapped out far less than 10% of the ocean – the rest is a total unknown to us.
- Only a few years ago, we discovered that, despite whatever experts had previously told us, there are hundreds of billions more stars in the sky that we believed were there.
- You do not need, for any reason, to wait an hour after eating before you go swimming.
- We know and have learned a great deal about life, our planet and the universe… but there appears to be vastly more that we do not know, than the total of what we do know – yet we often speak in absolutes, or with absolute certainty. If you want a list of fifty more things that most of us are wrong about, click here.
Now that we have a list of things that we thought were true but have been demonstrated to be incorrect, let’s talk a little bit about why we should question nearly everything (in a good way). It is our nature to be drawn to things that reinforce our own beliefs. In fact, there is even a name for this: confirmation bias, and it afflicts all of us, to varying degrees. The extent to which there are varying degrees of impact relates to our own awareness of confirmation bias, and our personal desire to seek objective truth above our preconceived ideas. Absent this desire for objective truth, all human beings are extremely vulnerable to confirmation bias. The practical consequences of confirmation bias result in only reading articles that support the beliefs that we already held. Alternatively, the extent to which we read articles written from a differing point of view, is to only read them cynically, looking for ways to discredit the author and disregard the unsettling possibility that we are wrong about something. This approach doesn’t provide us with a complete picture, though. Instead, we end up with a very limited perspective. In fact, we never hear the other perspective, even if we encounter it, because we aren’t contemplating the actual merits of their position, we are only looking for an excuse to discredit them. This would be a great strategy, if we were never wrong about anything and possessed the ability to see all perspectives on our own natural intuition. Sadly, that turns out not to be the case. So the question becomes, how do we eliminate the inherent confirmation biases that we each carry with us?
Well, that is where the whole “being skeptics” thing comes into play. If we desire objective truth above reinforcing preconceived notions of truth, then we must:
- Engage the situation as a neutral observer – meaning that we don’t care about being right or wrong, and we don’t have anything to gain or lose if the author’s position turns out to be correct;
- Consider the information being presented with a skepticism – which is to say, to ask, “how did the author reach their conclusion? On what information do they rely? What research methods were used to reach that conclusion? What are their peers saying with respect to their work?”; and
- Drawing our conclusions from the cumulative result of all of the information that was acquired.
Even after all of the above, there must be a willingness to reconsider the conclusion that you reach when presented with new information, in the future.