On Skepticism

Maybe I shouldn’t be admitting this, but my mind has a tendency to trick me into thinking and believing dumb stuff. It’s not my fault, though. It’s the result of cognitive biases that have wormed their way into human headmeats over a few million years of evolution. I see patterns of human faces in random objects and textures. I prefer things I like over things I don’t like, and also tend to think that those things I like are “correct” while the things I don’t like are “incorrect”. And more times than I can count on my fingers and toes have I talked about stuff while having no real experience or education about it.

I like to think I’m smart, yet my brain has tricked me into making dumb decisions over and over and over again. Is there anything I can do to reduce the amount of idiocy I commit due to these cognitive hiccups which result in logical fallacies and personal biases? As a matter of fact, there is. It’s called skepticism, and it’s available any time I face an issue which might dupe my brain into believing bullshit.

A word of warning, though. I encourage everyone to use skepticism, but it does require three things that most humans these days do not seem to have in abundance. The first is patience. Applying skepticism is sort of like going to the gym after a long bout of not exercising. It takes discipline and effort (which are about as appealing to many folks as brussels sprouts). The good news is, like exercise, skepticism gets easier, and more interesting, the more you do it.

With a bit of patience, the next step is to ask questions and collect evidence about ideas or propositions. The view of a mountain from a far-off highway looks different depending on from which direction you see it. Multiple perspectives foster greater understanding of its topography. The same is true for ideas. Opinions are views of an idea, not the idea itself. Opinions don’t count as evidence. To get the most perspective of an idea, one has to read. A lot. From lots of different sources. This is where item one, patience, comes in handy. Reading takes time (well, it takes me time because I’m a pathetically slow reader). Just like what was said in that commercial you saw during Saturday morning cartoons as a kid, the more you know, the greater perspective you’ll have of something.

Finally, to fully exercise skepticism, you have to take all the facts and evidence you’ve learned about an issue and weed out all the nonsense. You need to have a willingness to think heavy thoughts. Not heavy as in morose or depressing, but heavy as in perceptive and discerning. Piecing together an accurate assessment of an idea, free from biases and fallacies, is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with pieces from lots of other puzzles thrown in to cause confusion. But through resolve, research, and reason, a richer and more accurate topography of an idea or proposition will emerge.

I know what you’re asking. “Who has the time, man?!” With the internet spitting out anecdotal balderdash, the 24-hour news networks spinning out opinionated talking points, and popular culture spewing out insipid distractions, who can be bothered to actually think about stuff? Why think about stuff yourself when you can simply be told what to think so that you can get on with your busy life doing other things. As I said above, skepticism is a lot like going to the gym. Many people make resolutions to do it, but few actually follow through. Skepticism takes effort, and people are lazy. How do we encourage skepticism when it seem so unpalatable to the general populous?

My skill set is in biblical scholarship and drawing comics. Currently I’m writing and drawing a comic about a former monk, and this comic will eventually address issues about science, skepticism, religion, consumerism, and humanity’s relationship with the natural world. (It’s only nine pages in at this point, so there’s a lot to look forward to.) I’m also researching and preparing a blog series on the very human origins of the Bible. Maybe that’s not answering the big questions, but that’s what I’m doing. I’m sure I could do more, though I’m not sure how to go about it. I don’t really consider myself an activist. I’m an artist and a scholar. But I’m disillusioned by the anti-intellectual tack my country seems to be taking, and I want to do something to encourage science, and reason, and thinking, and curiosity. I’ve started by reading more skepticism blogs to get ideas of how other skeptics go about promoting skepticism. I know I can do more, though.

I don’t like it that my brain tricks me into believing dumb stuff. I don’t like to think of myself as gullible or naive. Yet I still totally am. That’s why I pursue skepticism. I want to understand things better. I have an advantage to skepticism because I genuinely enjoy thinking about stuff. I’d rather have my own opinion that I forged out of my own research than have someone else’s opinion that was told to me by a talking head on the television. The nice thing about facts is that you don’t have to believe in them, or keep repeating them over and over, for them to be true. Skepticism can be challenging, but I think it’s also very rewarding. And it doesn’t taste anything like brussels sprouts.


  • Jaime Wise
    12 February 2014 - 18:19 | Permalink

    I like the comparison between skepticism and exercise; I also think that comic sounds fascinating. Will you be posting any of it online?

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