Friday, March 17, 2020

In Praise of Skepticism

When something is out of fashion, that's usually a strong indication it's worth checking to see what you might be missing. Skepticism is essential to success in science, politics and business. The fact that it's unfashionable doesn't change this in the least.

Skeptics are never popular. They rain on every parade. They distrust emotional responses, positive or negative. They constantly ask difficult questions and usually refuse to accept your easy answers. Worst of all, they point out all the flaws in your pet project, just when you've convinced yourself it's perfect.

Before you agree that skeptics are just a pain in the butt, consider the alternative. Have you ever made a fool of yourself by being carried away by some idea? Do you know of situations where unscrupulous people have deceived others out of their money, their freedom, or their lives, by rushing them into actions based on nothing but faith in lying promises? Wasn't there a need for something—or someone—to call a halt before the damage was done?

The current fashion, especially here in the USA, exalts faith-based approaches to life. But when faith becomes too dominant, you're a short step from dangerous gullibility. Science based on faith is no science, since any belief with a sufficient body of faithful supporters will be accepted as the truth. The same is true of medicine. Politics based on faith puts loyalty to the cause above the wider public good. In business, unquestioning faith in a charismatic leader is usually a recipe for disaster, as is unthinking faith in some vision of the future. Speculative "bubbles" are products of unquestioning faith, as those who poured money into the "dot com" boom can testify. They had faith. In time, it was all they had.

Keeping your footing in our complex world depends on balance. A little skepticism is a sovereign remedy against being taken in by hucksters of every kind. Of course, unrestrained skepticism quickly becomes nihilistic, undermining our confidence in the future and reducing us to mass depression. Too much is too much. But unrestrained outbursts of faith are also something people need to avoid. History shows blind faith has been the driving force for dictatorships, wars and massive financial frauds. Today's international terrorism depends on people whose unquestioning belief in a cause allows their leaders to send them on cynical suicide missions.

We need skepticism to slow us down enough to sort out good ideas from bad ones. It's so easy to be carried away by imagination and see only the positive. Skepticism demands proof. It wants every claim to be justified, no matter how persuasive it sounds. While people are being swept along by wild enthusiasm, the skeptic steps aside and asks whether all that emotion has any verifiable basis.

One of today's worst fallacies is the false dichotomy: an assumption that there are only two sides to an issue; that everything is either black or white. You're either "one of us," a faithful supporter of the right approach, or "one of them," an enemy of truth. You support the government of the day—or you're unpatriotic. You're a team player—or a useless loner.

Balderdash. All balderdash. Only the simplest and most feeble problems have just two options; especially if, as is usually the case with false dichotomies, they're both extremes. Of course, it makes a more exciting story—and provides more sound-bites—if a complex question can be reduced to the old cowboy cliché of clean-cut goodies versus evil baddies in black hats. It's dramatic, but it's not true. Our world has a trillion shades of gray. Most opportunities—and most options—lie in the middle ground, away from the extremes beloved by headline writers and instant gurus.

Skeptics and naysayers get a bad press. They're usually depicted as blockages to the dream of progress. In our world of instant gratification, the most outrageous claims of advertisers, politicians and business leaders scarcely raise a ripple of concern; while those who raise questions and want to delay long enough to check the facts are howled down as reactionaries and Luddites. Politicians rush to enact legislation fueled by partisan ideology and mass emotions, when the purpose of reasoned debate in the legislature is to prevent the passing of bad, one-sided laws without adequate time for review. Business leaders jump on Wall Street bandwagons instead of standing aside and concentrating on sound, long-term strategies.

Skepticism is medicine for bad thinking. True, it sometimes tastes bad, but it's still the best cure for unforced errors. Skeptics may annoy us with endless questions and challenges to our comfortable assumptions. In some cases, as with the Greek philosopher Socrates, asking too many difficult questions gets you put to death. Yet without the skeptic's constant demands for verifiable evidence, we'd probably still believe the earth is flat and warts are caused by witchcraft.

The next time you find someone using calls to faith as the basis for justifying some action, try taking a healthy dose of skepticism. If the idea is correct, you'll be able to prove it. If not, you'll avoid a good many problems. Every enthusiast needs a skeptic around to keep them balanced. The power of positive thinking is immense—but so is its capacity for error, unless you take the time to answer the skeptics before committing yourself.

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Amen! A skeptical, secular amen, but all the same, I couldn't agree more. I work in science, where we are supposed to be skeptical professionally; still, I frequently see groups of scientists head off cliffs because they went along with the consensus without evaluating the data.

This needs to be shouted from the rooftops to managers, too. Engineers and industrial scientists get yoked by upper mgt with whatever the latest lemming stampede coughed up often enough that we should recognize our vested interest in promoting careful, skeptical thought.
Thanks for your comment, Dave. It seems to me people are becoming less willing today to express views, or advance ideas, that aren't obviously part of the so-called mainstream. That ought to stop, for the health of our society, as well as the benefit of our minds.
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