Embrace Your Inner Skeptic 3: Why skepticism is healthy

This is a partial transcript of the talk I gave at St. Charles Community College on December 2, 2014.

  1. Amazing news!
  2. Nobody loves a critic
  3. Why skepticism is healthy
  4. What about religion?
  5. Evaluating information in the internet age
  6. Is Skepticism Right For YOU?
  7. Some advice on community building
  8. Q&A

Needless to say, making wild, unprovable claims is not a new trick. People have claimed they could talk to the dead for thousands of years. Here’s one of my favorite Shakespeare quotes, from King Henry the Fourth:

Hotspur (left) and Glendower

Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?

Anyone can pretend to be a psychic or a medium. It’s much easier than you might think to fool people into believing you. But actually using supernatural powers to find out something that isn’t already known, is pretty dang hard.

Above all, skepticism is a position of uncertainty. When you’re skeptical, you don’t say it’s  impossible to talk to the dead. But as far as we can tell, talking to the dead is definitely an uncommon event. So when somebody tells you they are doing that, the chance that it’s true is pretty small. The chance that they are lying or fooling themselves is pretty high.

Even if we knew that there were some confirmed cases of people successfully talking to the dead, it would still be a good idea to remain skeptical of any individual person who claimed they could do it. For example:

“I don’t want to go to Heaven, I want to go to the bank and cash a goddamn check!”

This is Whoopi Goldberg as Oda Mae Brown in the 1990 movie “Ghost.” She plays a con woman who pretends to talk to the dead. Patrick Swayze shows up as a ghost — oh sorry, spoiler! — and she’s caught completely by surprise. She refuses to believe that he’s a really ghost who’s talking to her, at first, because she is so used to lying to people about speaking to the dead. Which just goes to show: We might be living in a world where there are spirits all around us, but there could still be a lot more frauds and hucksters out to take advantage of you, than there are real people speaking to the dead.

Or they could be talking to the dead for real, but they could lie about what they were hearing. Because how would you tell the difference? I know for an absolute fact that I can’t communicate with my dead ancestors. I bet most of you can’t do it either. That’s why when somebody tells me “Hey, your grandmother got in touch with me, and if you pay me $100 I’ll tell you what she said!” I find it a whole lot easier to conclude that they just want my money than that they have a real connection to my grandmother. If you want to pretend to talk to the dead, all you have to do is just spout a whole bunch of platitudes that are true for most people, and fish for information so you can say things that sound very specific.

There is something that psychologists refer to as “confirmation bias.” That means that if you go into any situation expecting something to be true, you’ll tend to count the hits and ignore the misses. In other words, if somebody wants to believe that you have these powers, they will interpret everything they see as evidence for it.

One of my all time favorite examples of this was from a morning radio show I used to listen to back when I was an undergraduate in San Diego. The hosts had all invited a well known astrologer to be a guest on their show. They had an assistant, Chris, who was skeptical of astrology. The hosts were just giving him all kinds of grief about it. They kept insisting that this lady was so good that he’d become a believer. In fact, they decided amongst themselves that the first thing they would do was make her do a reading on Chris.

So the astrologer arrived, they explained the situation to her, and she laughed and said she would do it. She began by asking Chris for his birthday. Then she told Chris all sorts of things about his personality. As she was describing specific details, like “You have a stubborn streak” and “You will do whatever it takes to get ahead,” the other three were just eating it up. They were chortling and punctuating every sentence with “That’s Chris EXACTLY!” “You’re getting this absolutely right!” and so on. Chris just sat there and took it like a trooper, politely accepting everything she told him.

Finally, after a few minutes, he asked, “Are you finished?” She said “That’s all.” Chris calmly said, “That wasn’t really my birthday.”

This is a great example of confirmation bias. The hosts wanted to believe that the psychic had special powers; they expected that she would be able to guess all these hidden details of Chris’s personality, and so they focused on the aspects of the reading that seemed right to them. It wasn’t so much that the astrologer was wrong in reading Chris’s personality… it’s just that her claims were partly too vague to pin down, and partly she was just figuring out what Chris was like based on the few minutes they’d already spent together.

Everybody experiences confirmation bias. You can recognize it, you can minimize it, but you can’t completely avoid it. That’s why it’s important not to feel too smug or self-satisfied about any one position you might hold. The moment you start believing you’re infallible, that’s when you make a mistake.

That’s why we have science. Science is the effort to correct our faulty assumptions and come to a greater understanding of what is really true about the world. Over time we’ve come to recognize that all humans are wrong sometimes. There is not one person in human history who didn’t believe something completely ridiculous. Even the pope!


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