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Why We Must Always Be Skeptical

Cogito ergo dubito Why does skepticism matter?

Not just in science, or history, or other academic pursuits where rigorous devotion to the truth is crucial. Why does skepticism matter in everyday life?

When I write about atheism — especially when I write about how the religion hypothesis has no good evidence supporting it and is almost certainly not true — there’s a response I get surprisingly often: “What difference does it make whether it’s true? Religion makes people happy. It gives people comfort in troubling times. It offers a sense of purpose and meaning. It lets people tolerate the idea of death without being paralyzed with terror. Why try to take that away from people? If it’s useful, who cares whether it’s true?”

My typical response to this… well, my first response is always dumbstruck head-scratching. To me, the idea that the truth matters is self-evident, and it seems bizarre to have to defend it in debate. And I am truly baffled by what people even mean when they say they believe something without necessarily thinking it’s true. (“You keep using that word ‘believe.’ I do not think it means what you think it means.”) But when my head-scratching is over, my typical response has been to write high-minded defenses of the philosophical and indeed ethical necessity of prioritizing the truth over our imaginings about it. Coupled with passionate love letters to the universe that would make Carl Sagan blush.

Today, I’m going in a different direction. Today, I want to talk about the uses of skepticism in everyday life. I want to talk about how skepticism — prioritizing good evidence and critical thinking over ideology and preconception, which includes declining to accept propositions without good evidence, and letting go of conclusions when the evidence doesn’t support them — can make our lives happier, healthier, and more richly satisfying. I want to talk about the real challenges that a skeptical approach to everyday life can present… and why the rewards make those challenges so worthwhile.

I want to talk about skepticism as a discipline.


Thus begins my new piece on AlterNet, Why We Must Always Be Skeptical. To find out how skepticism is more than an approach to scholarly pursuits such as science — how skepticism is a philosophy and a discipline that can and should be applied in everyday life — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!


  1. Nurse Ingrid says

    Ugh, and as usual, the AlterNet comment thread is a bubbling vat of stupid. No one has ever heard of the Golden Mean Fallacy, and lots of people think that Greta is “really” spiritual-but-not-religious or “really” a Buddhist deep down (just like all those bisexuals are “really” straight or “really” gay, right?).
    Oh, and the 9/11 “truth” brigade is out in force, again.

  2. says

    Nurse Ingrid: Not to mention the “She’s so focused on literal religion — what about religion as a metaphor?” brigade. Right. If your religion is just a beautiful metaphor, why do you get so upset when people tell you it isn’t really true?
    And I love the people who think I’m on a spiritual journey, who admire my dedication to being present in the real world and think I’m just one step away from perceiving the true reality of their invisible friend in the sky… without offering one scrap of evidence for why their invisible friend is real.
    Oy. I need to chill out. Calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean…

  3. Valhar2000 says

    What the hell is AlterNet anyway? What is it about it that so strongly calls to arrogant idiocy?

  4. says

    Valhar, I don’t think it’s the magazine. It’s a good, smart magazine. I think it’s what themann sez: any online publication as big as AlterNet is going to have little or no comment moderation, which means the inmates are running the asylum. I’ve seen comments as bad or worse on the website of the mainstream daily SF newspaper. AlterNet’s are really nothing special. It’s too bad… but hey, it does give me nearly infinite fodder for future pieces.

  5. Ron Rosenthal says

    Just an aside about glucosamine.
    I am a 53 year-old man with knee pain. For years I took glucosamine (as well as leg strengthening and posture monitoring) to help with the pain. I couldn’t tell if the glucosamine worked but, as you probably know why, would try anything if it might help with the pain. Then, someone I know who works with people with pain mentioned that glucosamine *capsules* don’t work. Glucosamine taken as a powder or liquid works much better. I switched and noticied a difference, not just in my knees but with an arthritic-like condition in my hands. Note that in the glucosamine study that you mentioned, they used capsules.
    You might want to try it again. If you don’t notice a change in two to three months, drop it and you can keep your skeptical bone-fides (sp?). It’s not a miracle drug – it won’t get rid of all the pain. It has seemed to help me and others.

  6. Kalia says

    The paragraph beginning, “I’m trying to practice being more present in the world.” is now up on my shop wall. You’ve joined the few non-wood, non-tool items up there. It’s a motley assortment, to be sure, but there you are. Well on your way to being printed on a tea towel….

  7. DavidByron says

    This seems like a significant piece but I think it could be improved; there’s something missing from it, perhaps more than one although I can’t say what as yet, (edited: looks like I managed to think of a few things below).
    I’ve always been very skeptical without trying, at least to the extent I recall, and very negative and critical. I’ve found that people react badly to criticism, negation, counter-point and skepticism or opposition to their political ideas, which are usually held dogmatically even when they are correct.
    People tend to be better over ideas they think of as “work” or do in a work like way.
    Btw on the diet thing you should try weight loss surgery if you want to lose a whole lot of weight. Diets fail because people like eating more than they like the positive results of not eating. I lost some weight when my wife had weight loss surgery (about 12% or about 35% of excess weight) but I only did two things on that list of yours, “Making all this a permanent lifestyle change” (probably the only one that matters) and possibly “Eating a low-fat diet” although I am not sure if it is low fat. Mostly I just ate less.
    Back to the skepticism thing: generally you just need an inner dialog that questions things and asks “is that so?” You will often find that the answer is “yes”, and then you have the flip side of skepticism which is the ability to always be able to explain why you believe what you believe. I have found most people cannot explain why they believe what they believe (even if it is a correct belief) and I see this as a bad thing (likely to lead to holding false opinions).
    Again certain aspects of life tolerate this state of affairs more than others. When you were learning mathematics in school they taught you all the proofs. That wasn’t just to convince you they knew what was true; it was a way of thinking. You need to be able to know how to prove eg. Pythagoras’ Theorem, not just know it. I come from a mathematical background and I think the field is connected to skepticism.
    Again where the results of an issue have an immediate impact or product eg at the work place, I think skepticism is more natural. In politics (and religion I suppose) your views have (usually) no impact of a practical nature at all so wrong thinking has little to no penalty.
    Confirmation bias is not a bad thing necessarily. It just means that to get a correct answer humans need to specialise and advocate a certain view and then confront someone with the opposite view. In this way the confirmation bias is working for you, because it helps develop a best case for a certain position. This is why free speech is essential. Without it the confrontation does not occur and then at that point confirmation bias screws you. Free speech is about the right to be corrected by opposition.
    With the feminism thing, for example, you seem to be groping towards reconsidering at least a small aspect of the dominant ideology you have. But you are not engaging with people who disagree with you so your confirmation bias is screwing you. You’re trying to be your own devil’s advocate and the brain just doesn’t work efficiently in that way.
    Finally on the idea that skepticism is an absolute good somehow, I don’t think you can make that argument. It is a tool to do something specific, and if you happen to enjoy it and find it easy that’s fine (I do), but if you find it hard work and hate it, as most people seem to, I don’t see why you’d want to do it besides the positive results it creates in seeking the truth. A tool for a job.
    Is truth a good thing? The same division I mentioned above seems to come up. If there are practical results it is, but on the topic of politics and religion the cost of stupidity seems much less. While I like the idea of truth for its own sake, I am not sure I could find a way to argue for it in EVERY circumstance.

  8. says

    DavidByron: Thank you for sharing.
    Ron Rosenthal: Thanks for your concern. But unless you can show me rigorous, double-blinded, placebo- controlled, peer-reviewed, replicated research showing that glucosamine taken as a powder or liquid is effective at alleviating joint problems, I have to treat your comment as anecdotal evidence. And there are a hundred reasons why anecdotal evidence is not considered good evidence: the placebo affect, confirmation bias, the fact that sometimes health problems get better on their own, etc.
    I’m glad your knee is better — but without better evidence, I have no reason to think that the glucosamine is responsible. (Especially since rigorous research contradicts that conclusion… and especially since there’s no mechanism I know of for making powder in a capsule less effective than powder not in a capsule.) Personal testimonials are exactly the sort of “evidence” skeptics need to be skeptical of. Even when those testimonials come from ourselves.

  9. says

    Dude. We are writing in parallel.
    You’re doing it better, I admit, but I just spent maybe 4 blog posts trying to say this exact thing: skepticism is a discipline. And my July talk to the SITP here in Atlanta was partly about the spiritual side of skepticism, of not having to be separate and special, but rather a part of the universe.

  10. says

    My response to the “Religion makes people happy even if it’s not true” argument is to separate it into not two, but three questions:
    1) Is any religion possibly true?
    2) Regardless of the truth value, is religious belief inherently a net positive or negative for society?
    3) Regardless of the truth value or the inherent utility, is religious belief as it is generally practiced right now a net positive or negative for society?
    #1 is a clear no. I consider #2 to be a very much open question –though my personal biases tend me to lean towards the negative, I think it’s conceivable that a de-dogmatized love-your-neighbor-ish religion like UU or Quaker could be a net positive.
    But I don’t consider #3 to be an open question. Religion, as practiced right now in most of the world, is clearly a net negative. Whether it’s preventing same-sex marriage in the US or causing the mutilation of little girls in Afghanistan, that religion today is a net negative ought to be painfully obvious.
    When religious dogma is given no voice in politics, when it stops impeding women’s rights for more than half the planet, when it stops being a justification for all kinds of violence… then we can talk about whether some people might be happier/more productive with this comforting delusion. Until then, I think I am well grounded in adopting a blanket opposition to religion anyway.

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