This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
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.
(And since I’m writing here about skeptical rigor, I’ll be rigorous myself, and say right off the bat: This piece is very anecdotal. I’m writing largely about my own experiences, and my observations of other people. It’s not as if I have double-blinded, peer-reviewed, replicated research showing that a skeptical life is a more satisfying life. In fact, there is research showing that a few very specific kinds of self-delusion, such as having a somewhat higher opinion of yourself than is strictly warranted, are essential to mental health. A topic for another piece.)
See, here’s the thing. Lots of people who defend religious faith, who defend believing in God or the supernatural with no good evidence, insist that they only ever do this with religion. When it comes to everyday life — health and money, work and love, what car to buy and what food to eat and what city to live in — of course they base their decisions on good evidence. Of course they don’t believe whatever they’re told or whatever appeals to them. Of course they’re willing to let go of ideas when a mountain of evidence contradicts them.
But I know — from my own experience, and from what I’ve seen — that this is simply not the case. I know that it’s not so easy to believe whatever you find comforting in some cases… and then question, or challenge, or let go of your beliefs in others.
Skepticism does not come naturally to the human mind. The human mind is very deeply wired to believe what it already believes, and what it wants to believe. The habit of questioning whether the things we believe are true? The habit of letting go of beliefs we’re attached to when the evidence contradicts them? These are not easy habits to come by. They take practice. And they take discipline.
But it’s a discipline that pays off: in specific pragmatic results, and in the broader, deeper, less obviously tangible areas of personal connection and fulfillment.
Here are a few examples of what I mean.
Letting Go of Glucosamine
I have a chronically bad knee. There are some things I do that make it better, but it’s always going to be at least somewhat messed up. And one of the things I used to do for my bad knee was to take glucosamine. I kept hearing that glucosamine increased the production of lubricating fluid in the joints, which sounded nifty, and some of the early medical research was promising.
But then further, more thorough research was done… and the results were conclusive. Glucosamine doesn’t work.
You’d think I’d have been pleased to hear that. A rational reaction would have been, “Well, good. It would have been better if the stuff actually worked — but at least I don’t have to waste my money on snake oil anymore. Since it doesn’t work, of course I’d rather not take it.”
But I was extremely disappointed in this outcome. Upset, even. And at first, I was very resistant to accepting it. I liked feeling like I was doing something about my bad knee. Especially something so easy. It was comforting. It gave me a feeling of control. It helped me not feel so helpless. And I had convinced myself that the stuff worked. (The placebo effect can be powerful indeed.)
So my first reaction was to reject the research. My first reaction was to repeat my “Early research is promising” mantra, to drown out the “This stuff doesn’t work” mantra the universe was now presenting me with. My first reaction was to stick my fingers in my ears, pretend I hadn’t heard anything, and keep doing what I’d been doing.
But because I was beginning to identify as a skeptic, and was getting involved in the atheist/ skeptical movement, I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t keep trying to persuade people to reject the wishful thinking of their religious faith and take a rigorous look at the lack of good evidence supporting it… and still embrace my own wishful thinking about glucosamine over the evidence staring me in the face. Not if I was going to live with myself. That’s the thing about cognitive dissonance: once you become aware of it, rationalizing it becomes a lot harder. And that’s the thing about the cognitive errors skeptics are always yammering about, errors like confirmation bias and hindsight bias and the clustering illusion and so on: once you start noticing them in others, they become a lot harder to ignore in yourself. I couldn’t do it. I had to take my bottle of glucosamine, accept that it had been a waste of money, accept that it had all been a waste of money for years, and pitch it in the trash.
Why was it good that I gave up doing something that made me feel happy, something that gave me comfort and a feeling of control?
The most obvious answer is that I didn’t have to spend my money on the stuff anymore. That’s a very good argument for skepticism generally: of all the arguments against credulity and blind faith, Not Getting Taken By Con Artists is definitely high on the list. But in this case, that was a minor concern. Glucosamine was relatively cheap. I spend more money every day on useless things that make me happy. (Decaf coffee and cable TV both leap to mind.)
A better answer is that I was no longer doing something useless that made me feel like I was making a difference… so I started looking more carefully at things I could do that weren’t useless and that might actually make a difference. It wasn’t until I stopped taking glucosamine that I started pushing my doctor — hard — about getting me a proper diagnosis for my knee, and getting me some freaking physical therapy for it. I’d asked her about it before and gotten vague, half-assed answers… which I’d accepted, since I was soothing myself with the delusion that glucosamine was making things all better. Once I accepted the harsh reality that my knee was not getting all better, I was motivated to take action that might actually help.
This is a point I make a lot about skepticism and caring about evidence. Good information about reality helps us make better decisions about how to act in that reality. It helps us understand which causes are likely to have which effects. And the reverse is true as well. Decisions based on bad information are no better than guessing. Worse, in some ways, since we’re more willing to let go of decisions we know were based on guessing. It’s like people in data processing say: Garbage in, garbage out.
Facing harsh reality can be… well, harsh. It’s not always fun. And comforting delusions are… well, comforting. But that doesn’t mean they’ll make us happier in the long run. Does believing in God or the afterlife give some people comfort? Sure. Believing that global warming isn’t real gives some people comfort, too. That doesn’t make this belief useful or good. For the people who believe it, or for society as a whole. If you get mad at people who stick their fingers in their ears and say, “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you,” about global warming… why do you think that’s an appropriate way to think about God?
And then there’s the broader, deeper, “connection with the universe” personal fulfillment stuff. But I’m going to hold off on that for a moment, and talk about one more pragmatic effect skepticism has had in my life.
Lose Weight Now, The Skeptical Way!
A little over a year ago, my bad knee started to get very bad indeed. It went rapidly from “having to be careful getting in and out of cars” to “having serious trouble climbing hills and stairs.” It was a very upsetting experience, one that made me feel intensely helpless: my knee was getting worse, much worse, potentially cripplingly worse, even though I’d been doing everything I could to take care of it.
Well, almost everything.
Everything but lose weight.
I was, at the time, about 60 pounds overweight. And if you accept nothing else about the evidence connecting health problems with weight, at the very least you ought to accept that extra weight is hard on your joints. It’s just simple physics.
But I was also, at the time, deeply persuaded by the more extremist wing of the fat-positive movement that (a) being fat had no connection whatsoever with health problems, and (b) weight loss was essentially impossible. It is embarrassing to admit how much I let myself be deceived by denialism. I was stuck in confirmation bias, wishful thinking, all of it. I had pored over the trickle of studies suggesting that the link between weight and health was minimal, and ignored the mountain of research demonstrating that the link was both real and serious. I had pored over the statistics on how roughly 90% of all people who try to lose weight fail, and ignored the stubborn reality of the roughly 10% of people who do succeed.
Until my bad knee started to get worse. And I faced a choice: Stay stuck in my denialism, and slowly deteriorate into a steady loss of mobility until almost everything that made my life valuable was gone… or face reality, the harsh reality I’d been avoiding for years, and lose the fucking weight.
I had a very dark night of the soul. Or the soul-less, I guess I should say.
And I got up from my dark night of the soul-less, and decided to lose the weight.
I’m not willing to hold myself up as a weight loss success story. Not yet. I haven’t yet lost all the weight I want to, and I haven’t yet kept it off for more than a year. And I know — because I care about reality and am following the research — that keeping weight off is a lot harder and a lot less common than losing it. But I have lost just about all the weight I want to, and I haven’t yet gained any back… and I have a workable, practical plan for keeping it off for life.
And the degree of success I’ve had so far, I owe to the discipline of skepticism, and to prioritizing reality over what I might want to be true.
What does skepticism have to do with my weight loss? Well, for starters, it’s given me an evidence- based weight management plan that actually stands a reasonable chance of working. I’m not getting sucked down the garden path of fad diets, crash diets, snake-oil supplements, dangerous drugs, useless home exercise gizmos, and all the other Quick ‘n’ Easy weight loss tricks that offer false promises and deliver nothing but money into the promoters’ pockets. I’m basing my program on hard research into what does and does not work for healthy, sustainable, non- misery- inducing weight loss and maintenance. It’s a program that’s rather more difficult than popping some pills or eating nothing but grapes and Kool-Aid for six weeks — reality is a harsh mistress, and she demands both more honesty and more work of us than comforting self-delusion — but it does have the singular advantage of, you know, working. (Here’s more about the details, if you’re interested.)
But perhaps more importantly: My skepticism is what helped me see my denial in the first place. Because I was familiar with cognitive errors like confirmation bias and so on, I was in a better position to recognize them in myself. Because of the work I’d been doing to show other people how they were unconsciously fooling themselves into believing whatever they already believed or wanted to believe, I’d been softening the ground for my own paradigm shift: for that essential but elusive flipping- of- the- light- switch that’s such a crucial part of behavioral change.
Also, because I’d been reading skeptical blogs and journals, I was familiar with the skeptical criticism of the fat-positive movement’s extreme denialist wing: the wing that’s moved way past the sane and reasonable manifesto of “Society has an unhealthy fixation on an overly rigid and overly thin physical ideal, and needs to accept a wider range of healthy and beautiful body types” (a manifesto I am entirely in agreement with), and into the crazy realm of “Weight loss is completely impossible, utterly pointless, and seriously harmful, for absolutely everybody.” Because I was able to recognize denialism in other areas — evolution denialism and global warming denialism and AIDS denialism and vaccine denialism and whatnot — I was able to see it in the fat-positive movement’s refusal to accept any link between weight and health.
My weight loss hasn’t just improved my knee, by the way. It’s improved my overall mental and physical health, in ways I would never have imagined. It’s improved my feet, my asthma, my sleep. My libido. My energy. My alertness. My mood.
All of which dovetails into another discipline I’ve been practicing: the discipline of being present in the world.
And which brings me — at last — to the broader, deeper, less obviously pragmatic, “connection with the universe” personal fulfillment stuff I keep teasing you with.
What A Wonderful World
I could gas on for days about the pragmatic ways that skepticism has changed my life and my view of the world. I could tell how my views on strict gender constructionism, strict sexual orientation constructionism, the utility of exercise, the history of witch burnings, whether everyone is basically bisexual, and on and on and on, have all been changed by practicing skepticism as a discipline of everyday life.
But I think you get the idea. And there’s an entirely different way that prioritizing reality over wishful thinking has affected my life: a way that’s a lot less tangible than losing weight or saving money on glucosamine, but is in some ways far more intense and profound.
It has to do with feeling intimately connected with the universe.
It’s easy, as we all know, to walk around with our heads in a bubble. It’s easy to spend our lives wrapped up in our dreams and fears, our plans and memories, our fantasies and anxieties. It’s easy to tune out when we talk with people, to nod attentively while we think of what we want to say next. It’s easy to manage or medicate or distract ourselves from our feelings when they get uncomfortable. It’s easy to flip on the TV. It’s easy to shut out the world — the sometimes frightening, sometimes tedious, sometimes hurtful world — and live our lives in the more pleasant and predictable world inside our heads. It’s easy. It’s human. It’s entirely understandable. And it’s something I’m trying to do less of.
I’m trying to practice being more present in the world. I’m trying to pay attention to the street art mural between my job and the place where I get coffee, and to notice a new detail about it every time I walk by. I’m trying to really listen when other people talk, and stay with them, and let their words sink in before I decide what, if anything, to say back. I’m trying to limit how much time I spend watching TV or having music pour into my ears on my headphones; I’m trying to only watch TV or listen to music when there’s something I actually want to watch or hear. I’m trying to let myself feel what I feel. I’m trying to let go of expectations, and to let experiences and people be what they are. I’m trying to stop what I’m doing, at least once or twice a day, and remember that I’m alive, and conscious, here in this place and time. I’m trying to stop what I’m doing, at least once or twice a day, and remember that I’m living on a rock whirling around a star whizzing through a galaxy in an unimaginably enormous universe, and marvel and feel humble at the astronomically unlikely good luck I have in being alive at all. I’m trying to literally, physically, with my actual nose, stop and smell the roses. I’m trying to smile at people I pass on the street. I’m trying to notice the world around me, and to connect with it, and to let it in.
And prioritizing hard evidence over wishful thinking — prioritizing what is true over what I want to be true — is an essential part of that practice.
I’m not advocating that we all live our lives as purely rational beings. I don’t want to live on Vulcan. Impulse and intuition, emotion and creativity, passion and insight… all of these have crucial places in a full human life. The world would be desperately dull without them. When it comes to subjective questions, questions of what is or isn’t true for us personally — Am I in love with this person? Should I move to a different city? Should I save my money for a down payment on a house or spend it on a trip to Barcelona? — it is entirely right and reasonable to be guided, at least partly, by the world inside our heads and our hearts.
But when it comes to objective questions of what is and is not true in the world outside our heads… we need to be skeptical. And we need to be disciplined about it. We need to prioritize good evidence and critical thinking over ideology and preconception. We need to not accept propositions without good evidence. We need to let go of conclusions when the evidence doesn’t support them. We need to care about reality more than we care about what we want to be true about it.
Reality is a harsh mistress. She demands our honesty. She demands our work. She demands that we give up comforts, that we let ourselves feel pain, that we accept how small we are and how little control we have over our lives. And she demands that we make her our top priority.
And we can’t let her in unless we’re willing to let her be what she is.
And the discipline of skepticism is essential to making that happen.