This is a partial transcript of the talk I gave at St. Charles Community College on December 2, 2014.
- Amazing news!
- Nobody loves a critic
- Why skepticism is healthy
- What about religion?
- Evaluating information in the internet age
- Is Skepticism Right For YOU?
- Some advice on community building
I’ve pitched the value of skepticism for a lot of reasons: Being skeptical keeps you from being conned, it can be a safety issue, it prevents wasting taxpayer money on bad ideas, it protects you from jumping to unwarranted conclusions. But in a time where there are all these people and web sites and fake news sources who are actively trying to lie to you, how do you figure out what’s true and what’s not?
For starters, I’d like to propose that everyone make a little effort to apply the scientific method in their everyday interactions with the information they come across. As everybody knows, the scientific method goes a little something like this:
- Ask a question
- Make a hypothesis
- Predict the results of a test
- Perform the test
- Evaluate the results
You can apply this by being in the habit of treating each new piece of information as a scientific question. When somebody tells you something, maybe about politics or science, the first thing you should be asking yourself is: “Is this true?” and then: “How do I know it’s true?” Don’t believe something just because it sounds appealing and then feel satisfied to stop there. Go out of your way to find opposing viewpoints, and understand their arguments so well that you could make them yourself in a serious way. It’s only by having a really firm grasp of arguments you don’t agree with, that you can be really sure you understand why your own arguments are solid.
That means that if you folks in the Secular Student Alliance want to be good at talking about atheism, you should engage with your local Christian groups. You should engage with Muslims and Jews. You should invite those Mormon missionaries or Jehovah’s Witnesses into your house, give them a drink, and seriously engage with what they are saying. Heck, if you’ve never been to church… go to church! Read books by well known evangelists and understand the points they are trying to make.
And if you’re a Christian, maybe you should consider doing something like spending an evening listening to some atheist guy rant about skepticism. …Oh hey, good job guys! Now you have discussion points for your next meeting!
If you’re a political liberal, take some time to listen to Rush Limbaugh once in a while, without filtering him through liberal websites that tell you what you should think about him. If you’re conservative, take a minute to stop thinking other people are trying to destroy the country, read a left wing blog and try to understand where the author is coming from, and what he actually says his motive is.
When you do this, I’m not saying that you have to take the other side really seriously. Just listen to them, think about what they are saying, and come up with your best responses to everything they said. Make sure you are responding to them fairly, and not just putting words in their mouth based on things they don’t really believe. Test out those answers by using them in person. See what other people say about your answers, and if it turns out some of your arguments don’t work very well, then just abandon them and use something else next time. Learning to argue well is a very systematic process, and it goes hand in hand with gaining information you didn’t have before.
And I have to warn you: When you do this, sometimes you will encounter arguments that you just can’t win. Sometimes you will try your hardest to defend a position you have taken, and you won’t be able to answer an opposing viewpoint. And then you go and research that argument, and you can’t find any good counters anywhere, and it turns this position that you oppose is airtight.
When that happens, you shouldn’t be sad, you should celebrate! That means that you used to have a point of view that was wrong, and now you’re going to change it to something that’s right instead.
This process of making your opponents’ argument for them really does have direct parallels in the modern scientific process. Most of the time, a science paper dealing with a hypothesis that most people would find unusual or difficult to accept will contain a discussion section, where the author anticipates the arguments that will be made against his position, and responds to them before they are made. More importantly, scientific papers go through the process of peer review, where other scientists in the same field will try their hardest to find flaws in the paper, and reject the publication of that paper if the flaws can’t be addressed.
Putting your own ideas up for peer review isn’t just a nuisance; it’s a really good idea that will make your positions stronger and better thought out.