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The Virtues of Skepticism

Skepticism generally refers to any questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere. Philosophical skepticism: an overall approach that requires all information to be well supported by evidence.

Skepticism tends to get a bad rap on the internet because a lot of people understand it as a culture of nay-saying, of disbelief and denial. This comes mostly from fundamentalists who feel as though they are under attack from skeptics, people who claim to be skeptics but are actually cynics, and people who don’t actually know what skepticism is but hear a lot of people screaming about the godless heathen skeptics and the gullible neanderthals.

However, skepticism is not synonymous with suspicion, the act or an instance of suspecting wrong without proof or on slight evidence; mistrust; a state of mental uneasiness and uncertainty. Don’t be misled by the adorable but very suspicious cat.

(Now may be a good time to say that I am not a hardcore skeptic, and that my reflections of skepticism in this blog are of course only meant to be my interpretation and not the definitive last word on skepticism–which wouldn’t be very skeptical anyway.)

Some people say “skepticism is all about the facts.” I disagree. For me, skepticism is all about the evidence, which I differentiate from the word “fact.” “Fact” is too absolute in most cases. I just want examples. What are the tangible instances of this idea? Where can I see this in action? Can it be presented without bias? I want observable, objective phenomenon. I want data. There are certain things that I believe in very strongly, like evolution and science in general; this is because of the body of evidence, much of which I myself can reproduce. I could do Gregor Mendel’s pea experiment myself and see the same results. I believe in the scientific method and I believe in peer review. I trust science based on my experience with it in the classroom, where I have dissected animals and performed experiments.

Socially and politically, things are a different story. Almost everything we debate about are either opinions or just one of a hundred ways of doing things. There is no best way. There is no absolute moral truth. All of the fundamentalism and absolutism that is coming through in this election, with everything from religion and morality to economics and defense, is only hindering the social discourse. I think a healthy dose of skepticism from politicians and voters would go a long way towards streamlining the system.

Many people are religious skeptics. I personally don’t choose to apply skepticism to religion, because leaps of faith are inherent in religion and a truly skeptical person (or, for those with connotations of skeptical, a truly questioning person) is not usually disposed to leaps of faith. It is practically impossible for a person of faith and a skeptic to actually debate their positions with any hope of changing the other person’s mind, because they will probably be incapable of understanding the other’s fundamental position. In cases like these, I think the best thing to do is agree to disagree, and remember the 1st Amendment–you know, the one that guarantees U.S. citizens freedom of religion? That means that the government doesn’t get to impose any tenets of religion on me, which in turn means that just because your church thinks birth control is a sin doesn’t mean I should be denied reasonable access to it.

But where issues of faith are not involved, skepticism can really be a very open-minded lifestyle. For me, being a skeptic means that I take very few things for granted. I may be used to doing things a certain way, but if you start telling me about a new way, I’m going to listen. If I find your testimony intriguing enough, I’ll look into the new way myself. If I like what I see, I’ll probably try it your way, and may even start doing it that way all the time.

For example: my roommate Chelsea and I both like to cook, but she has a lot more experience than me. A few weeks ago, she showed me how to mix my own marinade instead of buying pre-made bottles. I liked it because I could play around with the flavors more, but for convenience I still buy the bottles.

Oh, do you do that too? You’re a skeptic.

I want to buy a new TV for my new apartment, one with HDMI hook-ups and a bigger screen. I’m shopping around and comparing prices. I may also be switching to a new bank. I’m comparing their fees, hours and services to my current bank. Chelsea and I are both trying to change our diets and eat healthier, so we’re doing research and trying new recipes.

Oh, you do that too? Guess what!

Did you go to see The Hunger Games before you decided whether or not you liked it? Did you read reviews of a certain dentist’s office before you made an appointment? Did you ask your friends what they thought of that dress before you bought it?

When you read that article about an Indian couple rejecting their baby daughter and suing for custody of a baby boy instead, did you wonder about the Indian culture that values boy children over girl children? Did you find out that the bride’s parents are still expected to provide a dowry for their daughters upon marriage, and that it can get very expensive?

Did you reject that as still not being a good enough justification? Did you demand a better reason?

Guess what.

My point is that people employ skepticism more often than they think in their own lives, but for some reason don’t connect it to the skepticism employed by those who ask bigger questions of the universe than “is this really the best deal on my car insurance?” It’s not about being a non-believer. It’s not about doubt and denial. It’s about constantly questioning the why and how. It’s about improvement. It’s about being informed, being thorough, being well-rounded. It’s about reaffirming your beliefs and lifestyle by comparing them with and seriously considering those of other people, and being able to defend the choices you’ve made with an argument that other people can understand whether or not they share your values. It’s about being open to the choices others have made. It’s about not being judgmental, really.

The world changes constantly. Being a skeptic means being a part of those changes, rather than being dragged kicking and screaming.

One thought on “The Virtues of Skepticism

  1. I believe there is healthy skepticism and there is ignorant skepticism. Healthy skepticism leads to discovery. Ignorant skepticism leads to denial.

    The Apostle Thomas, while expressing his doubt over the resurrection of Jesus, was, at least, willing to be convinced. He basically said, “when I put my finger into the nail holes, and my hand into the wound in his side — I’ll believe.” The whole story is in John 20: 24-29. Interesting that Jesus, after he met with Thomas, said “blessed are those who haven’t seen, yet believe.”

    Shall I list all of the incredible scientific discoveries over the centuries and the men and women who, though not having seen, believed? I doubt I will (oxymoron?).

    President John F. Kennedy announced to the world on September 12, 1962 (http://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm) that America would go to the moon. Nearly seven years later, on July 21, 1969, that goal was reached. I watched our astronauts on television, about 238,857 miles away as the crow flies.

    Seeing is believing, right? I remember saying to myself, “I can’t believe they’re walking on the moon!” There are still those who think everything about the moon mission was a hoax.

    Prior to 1953, two scientists, James Watson and Francis Crick had an inkling about cellular design, and announced the double helix model for DNA.

    How many of their associates responded, “Yeah, right!”?

    I believe that science, rather than disproving it, is, in fact, substantiating a valid and evidentially-based argument for intelligent design. The specific jobs and duties of enzymes and other cellular machines is too fantastic to dismiss intelligence for randomness.

    Who, or what, that intelligence is, is matter for another debate.

    But, if you are a healthy skeptic about God, you may just find yourself down a path of discovery that will blow your mind.

    Does my comment prove anything?

    “I seriously doubt it,” he said, skeptically. : )

    Skip Marsden

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