Ranting in Reason: Why Skepticism?

“The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true.” – Carl Sagan.

Skepticism is a hard sell. Easy comforting answers are much more emotionally satisfying than cold facts. I don’t entirely buy that argument – the fact that the universe is indifferent to the survival of us or our planet is superseded by the beauty of life and the universe as revealed through science.

Easy, comforting answers may ease our fears and anxieties but ultimately, it is my contention, that the biggest risk is turning our backs on reason. Again, this message is a tough sell – “so my personal feelings don’t count huh? Come here and say that buddy!” On matters of fact, personal feelings don’t count. Irrational thinking and denialism are destructive – there are consequences to scaring parents away from vaccinating their kids for instance. There is a death toll attached to such irrational positions.

Those committed to a position put on coloured glasses that filter out inconvenient ideas that challenge their beliefs. Pretty soon all their reasoning from the perspective of the belief – something we in the brotherhood call confirmation bias.

To support claims that a person has decided on from the outset must be true, they will filter out evidence and see only the information that confirms their view. This will often require unfalsifiable hypotheses (which puts those ideas outside of empirical inquiry) and elaborate logical fallacies. If the dots don’t connect in reality then to make them connect there must be some artful mental gymnastics performed.

This is something humans are good at. We find something to believe, usually based on emotions not reason. Once the idea has taken a foothold it is very hard to reverse unless you are conscious of the process and question the validity of the ideas. The belief begins serving some form of emotionally satisfying function and we enegage our frontal cortex in rationalising in order to maintain that belief (rational lies).

This becomes a real obstacle when dealing with issues that require reasoned approaches and cool heads. But cool heads are typically what you do not get from people and groups that are committed to one point of view (making a stand).

Probably the most insane idea of our time is the seemingly inoccuous “stand for something or you’ll fall for anything”. This is usually used in reference to some moral crusade (GE Free, anti-abortion, anti-vaccination anti-evolution, “health freedom”). Proponents of these ideas (notice they’re not ideas they’re anti-ideas/anti-progress) are engaging in denial – committed to the position they hold, contradictory evidence is usually treated with disdain (who do those scientists think they are) or outright ignored.

“Stand for something or you’ll fall for anything” is only true when you stand for skepticism and critical thinking. Skepticism is a process not a conclusion. If anyone of the denial positions mentioned above weren’t supported by positions based on fear; had a lick of empirical support and didn’t require conclusions made from logical fallacies, then skeptics would support those ideas.

Human emotions are hard to overcome when trying to engage in reasonable discussions, particularly when fear is the prime motivator of one side. At the end of it all, any reasonable position must acknowledge the cognitive biases inherent in human reasoning and be humble enough to follow the evidence, wherever it may lead. That is skepticism and the scientific process.

We should no longer accept positions held by people that are immune to evidence. We live in an age where the complexities of the world need to be confronted with new eyes, unencumbered by the shortcomings of our evolutionary history. Let the strength of ideas and arguments be determined by their empirical validity.

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