When you think of a skeptic, what comes to mind? A doubter? A Negative Nancy? Someone who is cynical and bitter? I’ve been called all these things, and admittedly, some days they are perfect descriptions of me. But that’s not what I mean when I say I’m a skeptic. Being a skeptic means you apply models of reason to things you read or hear. It means that you value the scientific method, the process of evaluating a claim, and the data it yields. You also demand it. Skeptics don’t accept a hypothesis until they’ve been given a reason to do so. And most importantly, when reliable evidence is presented, the skeptic can change their views to fit the evidence. This is the fundamental difference between a skeptic and a denier.
I often hear about open-mindedness. People who continue to believe things that have been discredited by science often accuse the skeptic of having a closed mind. The truth is quite opposite. In fact, the skeptic is open to new ideas, modifying existing ones, throwing out the ones that don’t work. In science, challenging the consensus is considered a good thing, it’s how we learn, grow. But denialists work a different edge. While pronouncing they have an open mind, they reject good evidence that contradicts their claim. They will ignore, and argue their set opinion, even as the stones of its foundation begin to crumble. They will also quickly latch onto ideas that seem to support their preconceived notions, to the point of absurdity. As Carl Sagan once said, “It pays to have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.”
Why is it that so much of what you say aligns with the official positions of large scale institutions, does that not raise a flag with you? That’s not very skeptical.
It can be hard to seek out good information from an agenda-free source. I get that. There are so many propaganda sites, product pages, charlatans with bottles filled of hope. But to ascertain that organizations that go against the grain are revolutionary, while Big Pharma, Big Brother, Big…whatever are all in on a thought control conspiracy is fallacious. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. When denialists use the ploy of “just asking questions” it implies a profound distrust disguised as innocence, and is usually the mark of someone who has no intention to understand the answers, no matter how well sourced. Skepticism can be a curse, in that it never lets you look at anything the same, but it is also the most important tool in the progression of knowledge.
It is important to remember that everyone is a skeptic to some degree. When you’re in the market for a used car, you don’t just take the seller’s word that it’s a good deal. You walk around, inspect it, open the hood, maybe smell the oil on the dipstick. You take it for a test drive, listen to the motor, ensure the braking ability, and check the headlights, turn signals, wipers, and window controls. All these steps are part of a critical thinking process that helps you know if the seller’s claims are true, or if you should take your money elsewhere. Expanding this method for accepting or rejecting a claim to other areas of your life can only improve your attention, your influencing decisions, and help you to stop wasting money on irrational endeavors. Debunking myths can be less about snarky “told you so” attitudes, and more about living wiser.