JR'S Free Thought Pages
                                                                       No Gods  ~ No Masters    ~ No Bullshit



The Importance of Skepticism

How to Survive in a World of Stupidity, False Optimism, Deceit, Propaganda, Bullshit and Lies

By Johnny Reb, October 2021


                                                  An elderly Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

“Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth -- more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid ... Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man” – Bertrand Russell

"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt" - Bertrand Russell

“The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holder’s lack of rational conviction. Opinions in politics and religion are almost always held passionately” - Bertrand Russell, Skeptical Essays

“I do not pretend to be able to prove that there is no God. I equally cannot prove that Satan is a fiction. The Christian God may exist; so may the gods of Olympus, or of ancient Egypt, or of Babylon. But no one of these hypotheses is more probable than any other: they lie outside the region of even probable knowledge, and therefore there is no reason to consider any of them. The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more often likely to be foolish than sensible” - Bertrand Russell

What is Skepticism?

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was considered by many admirers, journalists and other analysts as the “Voltaire of his era”, a courageous iconoclast, sceptic and intellectual giant who stood up against injustice, hypocrisy and authoritarianism by both religious and secular dogmatists, bigots and charlatans. His disdain for conventional thinking, superstition and religious obscurantism set him apart from the crowd and his academic peers. A pacifist, socialist, brilliant mathematician, logician, philosopher and early critic of the Vietnam War, Russell was at odds with the tyrannies of his time, including capitalist regimes that were self-described as “democratic”. Russell’s penetrating insights expressed by his exquisite writing style are as relevant today as they were during his long life as a scholar and public intellectual which produced over seventy books and thousands of articles.


Skepticism for Russell was and remains an important and generally indispensable intellectual tool kit for both science and everyday thinking but like much else in life it comes in various forms and degrees. Skepticism in its radical or extreme forms, doubts all claims to knowledge, including scientific knowledge and all forms of common-sense beliefs, such as the existence of the material world. He famously stated that “common sense”, often merely the ideas and values held by ruling power elites, is the “metaphysics of savages”.

Skepticism is a crucial component of all science, reason and inquiry that most of us employ every day whether it is evaluating a used car purchase or whether to believe the claims of marketers, politicians or religious doctrines. It is also a key strategy in scientific investigation and thinking. It helps lead to fact-based judgments about what are true and real and what are not. Without first being skeptical it would seem that there would be no need for any inquiry for any of life’s decisions. Ancient Greek culture was a feverish dream of mythology, gods, spirits and superstitious nonsense. Most sceptics and those with a scientific world view would likely argue quite convincingly that not much has changed. After all, over 70% of the earth’s population of almost 8 billion credulous and, I dare say, stupid humans continue to believe in the superstitious irrationalities and absurdities of just three supernatural religions: Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. And most other humans not adhering to these faith based theistic dogmas believe in some other paranormal or other wacky religious rubbish such as Scientology, the Christian grounded KKK, Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate, Children of God, People’s Temple, Aryan Nation and countless other bizarre cultish absurdities, many of which continue to exist and flourish. A short list can be found here.

As credulous trusting children long before we achieve understanding of logic, assessment of evidence, science and reasoning skills most of us have had our heads filled with superstitious religious rubbish that often begins very early from parents, religious institutions and often both. The essence of skepticism is questioning everything and understanding how to know what to believe, what to doubt and which authorities are reliable. Once you begin to ask questions such as “How do we actually know anything” our beliefs begin to fall like dominos one by one. For example, how would we know what “god” means, and if a coherent concept is finally devised, what is the evidence for his/her/its existence, if aliens once visited Earth or if jabbing needles in special areas of the body could cure pain and disease? Medical quackery, now called “alternative medicine” is everywhere marketed on TV, the internet and elsewhere. Then there is the placebo effect, motivated testimonials and other dubious and false evidence that can create false inferences regarding cause and effect. But this questioning doesn’t always end well, as some people will choose to reject science so they can maintain their faith in comforting religion, belief in bogus remedies, faith healing, miracles or alien visitations. But there are others who keep questioning, a never ending process that ought to continue until we reach our inevitable status of an infinite dreamless sleep. We are part of an ever-expanding social milieu with which we share our quest for knowledge and understanding. And as a species, hopefully our life’s journey is one of curiosity, a life of the intellect and discovery as we attempt to understand what is real, true and what to believe. This desire for reality and true belief surely has an ethical component. Our starting point on this intellectual journey is skepticism since without doubt there would be no need for inquiry into anything.

On The Matrix, Jean Baudrillard, David Graeber and our FUBAR Phantom World

Humanity will never be free until the last bureaucrat and politician are strangled in the entrails of the last capitalist – Updated Denis Diderot quote

Most people are either hooked into religion, pseudoscience, the paranormal or the secular hegemonic dogma of our toxic global capitalist culture of greed, narcissism, mindless consumerism and self-inflicted stupidity. Skepticism is a requirement for anyone wanting to understand a FUBAR world controlled by hyper-capitalist crypto-fascist oligarchs, a global financial mafia, megalomaniacal billionaires and their sock puppet political boot lickers. One needs deep scepticism and the employment of compelling evidence and cogent argument to support their understanding as they continue subsistence (surely not the same as “living”) within a red pill v blue pill dream world as in the 1999 Andy and Larry Wachowski's movie The Matrix. As Morpheus says in The Matrix, “You take the blue pill, the story ends as you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Are you ready to see how deep this rabbit hole goes? I’m afraid you may discover that it’s not just one rabbit run but an entire planet of gullible humans who are quite capable of believing almost anything.

But The Matrix wasn’t the first prophetic leap into the 21st century whereby the vast majority of zombie land indoctrinated, mind altering drug and technologically induced brain dead people are hypnotized by simulacra, unable to distinguish opinion from fact or fantasy from reality. Moreover, the dying natural world is being steadily replaced by a technologically induced replication. Pop culture acknowledged the influence of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s insights in the aforementioned film The Matrix, about an impending global dystopia in which human society is a simulation designed by artificial intelligence and maligned computers to keep us enslaved. By the time the movie was released we were well on the way to the Orwellian dystopian neo-liberal dictatorship of finance and neo-fascist plutocracy of endless sequences of boom-bubble-bust-bailout. In the movies hacker hero Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) hides his contraband software in a hollowed-out copy of one of Buadrillard’s books and rebel chief Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) quotes one of Jean Baudrillard's most famous remarks: "Welcome to the desert of the real." He was invited to collaborate on the sequels, but declined; but Baudrillard later protested sardonically that The Matrix had misread him: "The most embarrassing part of the film is that the new problem posed by simulation is confused with its classical, Platonic treatment ... The Matrix is surely the kind of film about the matrix that the matrix would have been able to produce."

When Baudrillard wrote Simulacra and Simulation in 1981, the same year the dunce cap demented third rate actor Ronald Reagan was inaugurated - and as in the great Don Henley 1980s song End of the Innocence - he was informing us that something fundamental had changed and would change far more dramatically in the future. Since then our minds have been increasingly scrambled and metastasized by endless “anything goes “marketing, UFC blood sports, self-help gurus, gratuitous cynical violence in film, capitalist propaganda, addictive cell phones and other ADHD inducing superfluous gadgets, the orgy of consumerism, video games, lotteries, online gambling (including pro sport gambling) and other mindless fetishes such as body mutilation with spikes through tongues, rings through noses and hideous tattoos (body graffiti) and perhaps worst of all the surveillance state and the complicit  FAGMA (Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Apple) corporations that have created anti-intellectualized mind destroying technologies that  currently rule the neo-liberal disaster capitalist world and control our anti-democratic crypto-fascist police state governments and sycophantic politicians. But our governments hardly need the heavily militarized police since much of our docility and resignation has been self-inflicted by the mind numbing technologies that now control us. Consequently, too many of us have been transformed into unthinking sheep-like true believers and automatons that have no idea what has led to their empty lives of quiet desperation.

Jean Baudrillard had utter contempt for consumer society and considered state sanctioned and enabled techno and finance capitalism a totalitarian monstrosity but, although sympathetic, rejected any alternative socialist society run by the state. In this sense he was in sympathy with much anarchist thought. Appearance and reality have not only been blurred, but the “anything goes” notion of freedom has left us with “life after the orgy” where everything is permitted but in which nothing is interesting or intellectually stimulating, a virtual dead zone of any semblance of a life of the mind, community or solidarity. We are rendered anti-intellectualized and brain dead by a mass media of mere appearance and images in which ordinary people are depicted by the media and their endless marketing as gullible, uncultured, uncivilized and incredibly stupid- as if their mothers or caregivers had taught them nothing.

Baudrillard characterized the 1990s, with its delusional illusions about the "end of history", as a "stagnant" period in which real events went on strike. Eventually the strike was broken by the blowback attacks on the US of 9-11, 2001. He referred to this as "the ultimate event, the mother of all events". "It is the terrorist model," he wrote, "to bring about an excess of reality, and have the system collapse beneath that excess." Subsequently, for him there was no longer any need for the media to construct a sanitized narrative for events, as in the disgraceful slaughter of first Gulf war, since the war's participants had thoroughly internalised the rules of simulation. His 2004 essay, “War Porn”, observed how the photographs from Abu Ghraib enacted scenes of cruelty and fetish induced pornography, concluding: "It is really America that has electrocuted itself."

But most what is referred to as “terrorism” is inflicted by the so-called ‘democratic” states of the West. But another form of terrorism is the totalizing tyranny of the oligarchic neo-liberal capitalist world order which has created unprecedented levels of police state oppression, imperialist wars, poverty, homelessness and grotesque levels of economic inequality. Moreover, fascism has returned from the ghosts of the 20th century and is back with a vengeance.

Baudrillard prophetically wrote:

Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of the territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyper real. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – that engenders the territory….

Translated into plain English – as many French intellectuals, especially the postmodernists, can be abstruse and opaque - he is trying to tell us that in much of modern life realities have disappeared into its signs and symbols. And within these signals, these self-enclosed systems, distinctions can’t be made because simulacra often entail both their positive and negative poles, so they cancel each other out while holding the believer imprisoned in limbo. Once you are in them, you are trapped because there are no outside frames of reference, the simulated system of thought or machine is your universe, the only reality.  There is no dialectical tension because the system has co-opted and hijacked it. There is no critical position and no place to stand outside to dissent or rebel because the simulacrum encompasses the positive and negative in a circulatory strip process that makes everything equivalent but the positivity of the simulacrum itself.  You are inside the matrix, like being swallowed by a whale: “The virtual space of the global is the space of the screen and the network, of immanence and the digital, of a dimensionless space-time.”

If that “plain English” translated from French still does not make sense to you let us try Baudrillard again:

It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable and perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes. Never again will the real have a chance to produce itself – such is the vital function of the model in a system of death, or rather of anticipated resurrection, that no longer gives the event of death a chance.

For Baudrillard a hyper real techno simulated world is replacing the real world that at one time could be represented but not replaced. He argued that the real world was being replaced by replicas of the real world that never existed. He argued that this simulated world was generated by replicas or models of a real world that never existed and so people were living in “hyper reality” or a totally fabricated reality. This was perhaps an outrageous notion but his claim at the time that this was already controlling us was before the advent of personal computers, the internet and cellular phones, Google, FB and Twitter. But that was then; not now. Forty years have shown that his outlandish state of affairs have taken on reality. When Baudrillard once described the Watergate scandal and Disneyland as two key examples of hyper reality, arguing that the United States is in fact Disneyland which is not so fanciful since the imaginary has become more realistic than reality itself. It is the distinction they establish (between reality and imagination in the case of Disneyland and truth and lies or reality and ideology in the case of Watergate) which reveal how this difference collapses internally to reappear as hyper reality. Disneyland, for example, draws visitors into the world of escapism, false happiness and fantasy achieved through simulation; rendering the dismal injustices, exploitation and cruelties of the real hyper-capitalist world less significant.

At the time Baudrillard was considered by many mainstream conservative and liberal pundits as a postmodernist “philosopher clown”. There is a modicum of truth to this claim; however, he is worth reading for his contrarian, iconoclastic radical thoughts and frequent fragment s of thought provoking brilliance. As he once argued: "It is the task of radical thought, since the world is given to us in unintelligibility, to make it more unintelligible, more enigmatic, more fabulous." In this sense he was not unlike the aphorist Nietzsche. "Contemporary art is contemporary only with itself," he remarked; or: "Our sentimentality towards animals is a sure sign of the disdain in which we hold them." This is true of pets such as dogs which are becoming as much an overpopulation problem as the humans who own them, not unlike owning human slaves. The increasing tendency to own one or more dogs is perhaps a symptom of failure in human relationships in our atomized societies. People perhaps quite likely prefer animals to humans for companionship as the number of assholes, unethical jerks and idiots in the world are exploding exponentially. Too many of these cretins who simply cannot get enough, conflating wants with needs, in a system of complete capitalist control of pretty much everything telling us what is important to living and what we need to buy in order to be “happy”. Any meaning that once existed, even radical thought and dissent, has been hijacked and co-opted. Those in position of wealth and power; the “masters of mankind” as Adam Smith called the ruling classes of his own era are typically sociopathic monsters; amoral buffoonish bastards and arrogant assholes such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.

One of my favourite intellectuals is the late anthropology professor, activist and anarchist David Graeber (1961-2020) , a prolific writer who in his later works which included Direct Action: An Ethnography (2013), a study of the global justice movement which he claimed, “hardly anyone ever reads” and Debt: The First 5000 Years, “which virtually everyone seems to have read”. In The Utopia of Rules (2015) he argued that since the 1970s there has been a shift from technologies based on realizing alternative futures to investment technologies that promote labor discipline and social control. “The control is so ubiquitous that we don’t see it. We don’t see, either, how the threat of violence underpins society,” he claimed. It was striking too that, while no cure has been found for cancer, the most dramatic medical breakthroughs have been with drugs such as Ritalin, Zoloft and Prozac that are “tailor-made, one might say, so that these new professional demands don’t drive us completely dysfunctional and crazy”.

In 2018 Graeber wrote Bullshit Jobs: a Theory, arguing that most white-collar jobs are superfluous and meaningless as technological advances have led to people working more, not less? “Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they believe to be unnecessary. Jobs he included under this “bullshit” category are bosses, managers, administrators, CEOs, economists, public relations, actuaries, accountants, real estate agents, telemarketers, marketing gurus, stock market analysts, advertisers, lobbyists and dozens of other socially and economically useless jobs and  “occupations”. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound, a mutilation of our collective psyche. Yet virtually no one talks about it,” he said. Despite his frequent apocalyptic warnings and the grave disappointment he expressed at how different the world he inherited as an adult was from the one he had imagined as a child. [1] I admit to similar perceptions about the world as a youngster and continued this positive upbeat trajectory well into my twenties, but in light of what I have learned from experience, extensive study, reading and agonizing skepticism and intellectual toil – and given the dismal reactionary political, social and economic transformation and disenchantment of the world since the late 1970s - have found it impossible to be anything but a pessimist. Although pessimism is not a comfortable disposition to maintain, facts are unavoidable for a dedicated empiricist and realist such as me and, perhaps more importantly, pessimism serves as a defense mechanism against inevitable and systematic angst, remorse and disappointment.

These traumatic neo-conservative and other far right wing disconnections and transformations, especially over the past four or five decades have led to a progressive subjugation of the natural world to human ends, as in the gathering industrialisation of the advanced economies and what today is the current neo-liberal finance capitalist and corporatist neo-fascist feudalistic and technocratic takeover of the entire planet. This has resulted in utterly obscene and unprecedented levels of economic inequality, political disengagement, deep cynicism of a profound immoral capitalism and the global political orders that enable it. We are now returning to new tyrannies that include a rerun of fascism throughout the West and in the USA which has become blatantly clear in light of the gruesome spectre of Donald Trump. The entire global system is an unfixable putrid den of iniquity and corruption I agree with David Graeber that if the system doesn’t implode on its own dysfunction, people will need to wake up and bring down the entire tyrannical edifice of the dictatorship of capital. We do not have to live this way; only the poverty of our imaginations are stopping us from something far better, a dream of the counter-culture of the 1960s that is now a nightmare. Graeber, appealing to his area of expertise, wrote that “anthropology opens windows on other possible forms of human social existence … [and has] served as a conscious reminder that most of what we assume to be immutable has been, in other times and places, arranged quite differently, and therefore, that human possibilities are in almost every way greater than we ordinarily imagine.”

A Little History of Skeptical Thought and the Pessimistic Outlook

The early iconoclastic philosophers of the Ancient World stood out from their time by exhibiting an intellectually invigorating skepticism, an agitated inquiring questioning temperament and curiosity, a willingness to cut through all the commonly accepted drivel and find the truth. Not surprisingly, one of the most important questions for them was, which things are real, and which are not?The great Greek playwright Euripides (480 – 406 BCE) wisely wrote “Man's most valuable trait is a judicious sense of what not to believe”, an adage that is ignored not only by most of the credulous masses of today, but also by the so-called educated power elites and apparatchiks within the ossified bureaucracies of capitalist governance and the administrative bullshit jobs in the corporate offices, massive financial behemoths and of course, their sock puppet enablers within the corporate nanny state.

The Frankfurt School of Social Research, founded in the ashes and deep pessimism following World War I looked for explanations for why the revolutions failed as the world, including Germany, one of the world’s showplaces of enlightenment and humanistic liberalism opted for the authoritarianism of fascism. I will return to this institute and the “Critical Theory” philosophers such as Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse later in this paper. Suffice to say that the analyses and explanations such as those found in tracts such as The Dialectic of Enlightenment have been prophetic, effectively having demolished the notions of “progress” understood by most prior Enlightenment thinkers. Their subsequent exile in the United States was a matter of uncomfortable accommodation. Despite owing the country a debt of gratitude for their continued existence, they diagnosed American society with every social, economic and political ailment that afflicted the so-called “democratic” world in an exaggerated manner and form.

In the aforementioned book, in light of the two World Wars, the Holocaust and dropping of two nuclear bombs on two major Japanese cities they questioned the standard narrative of Enlightenment thought of continuous progress in all modes of human endeavour. In the 20th century humanity had resorted to various forms of barbarity, the nemesis being what they called “instrumental reason” and the transformation of all living things into inert objects and mere commodities for capitalist exploitation. These thinkers were not denying the value of reason; nor were they providing arguments for irrationalism and superstition for which they had utter contempt. What they tried to show was that instrumental reason, once it becomes an authority to which all human affairs must submit, ends up exercising a tyranny over human beings that turns their societies into mindless automatons and infects relationships between individuals and communities as well. Once we collectively become the willing components of a rationally ordered mechanistic totally administered bureaucratic system and surveillance state our intellects and humanity will have been eviscerated.  Moreover, as mentioned earlier, the human species has become complicit in their oppression by a mesmerizing addiction to consumerism, cell phones, video games, online gambling, Twitter and FB, disassociated from the very natural world on which we depend for survival.

Fast approaching its centenary, the residue of the Frankfurt School critiques need to be re-examined in the context of the massive threats to the world today, many of which are existential. There is therefore much that still resonates today from the work of Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School intellectuals such as Herbert Marcuse. The insight to which they called on their readers to awaken was that human consciousness in the age of mass propaganda of powerful corporations and social media was becoming wholly enclosed within the walls of an ideological fortress, caught in the endless circulations of capitalist exchange and those repetitive entertainments and distractions that were designed to obscure the truth. Nothing about the theory of the culture industry lacks traction in a world where the commodity form reigns supreme. Blockbuster dystopian movies of dysfunction and gratuitous violence produced by behemoths such as Netflix, Apple and Amazon, the endless marketing of activities such as online gambling, lotteries, reverse mortgages and payday loan sharks that in earlier days were illegal, the rubbish that passes for news and endless promotion of authority figures, obtuse billionaires and wealthy celebrities and the all-encompassing mania for addictive distractions such as cell phones, hideous fetishes and video gaming, in which mature adults have been co-opted into the shamelessly infantile principle of mindless play; the transmogrification of community and solidarity into mindless social media in which opinion is typically conflated with fact.

If organised forms of political resistance could be efficiently obstructed by such a system, often by subtle assimilation and even complicity in ones oppression rather than outright suppression and tyranny, the last barricade against it was the individual’s own refusal to be sceptical, logical and think critically regarding the prescribed status quo. The most difficult task facing any emancipation and revolutionary movement to overthrow our collective imprisonment of the dictatorship by capital is to encourage people to think for themselves, in a way that transcends facile slogans, mantras and dictates of instrumental reason. Genuine critical thinking requires not just a refusal to identify with the present status quo structures of capitalist society and pervasive non-stop marketing culture, but a deep awareness of the historical tendencies that have brought about the current impasse and of which all present experience is controlled and imposed.

It was perhaps the 1980s accelerating in the 1990s that the predicted nightmare of the Frankfurt School was realized. There was the emergence of the reactionary counter revolution against the 1960s counter-culture with neo-conservative proto-fascist authoritarians such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who declared that “There is No Alternative” (the infamous TINA principle – the quintessence of dogmatism) in which she meant no alternative to neo-liberal corporatist capitalism, to what one of the Frankfurt Schools most eminent philosophers Herbert Marcuse called One Dimensional Society. And our world, as Camus and Sartre once argued, has become absurd, only in the 21st century it is absurdity on steroids as meaningful employment in the sense of a career has been reduced to entrepreneur of the self wage slavery such as Skip the Dishes, Uber Eats and Door Dash. And save for the masses of unemployed, underemployed and homeless, in the miniscule time allotted for those who do have any of the bullshit jobs available, spare time by the vast majority is devoted to endlessly staring into the miniature screens of cell phones like zombie solipsists. You witness this one dimensional ritual everywhere even those attending professional sporting events for which they have paid $200 for a ticket, they are locked in. When you notice these mind numbing feedback loop behaviors, my deepening pessimism for real change is knocked down a few more notches. Stuart Jeffries in a Guardian piece from a few years ago summed it up:

“I now realize that customized culture, which is very nearly ubiquitous today, is a mutation of what Adorno and Horkheimer wrote about in their classic Frankfurt School text Dialectic of Enlightenment seven decades ago. Their contention was that the freedom to choose, which was the great boast of advanced capitalist societies in Western “democracies” is chimerical. Not only do we have the freedom to choose what is now become the same but, arguably, human personality had been so corrupted by false consciousness that there is hardly anything worth the name any more. “Personality,” they wrote, “scarcely signifies anything more than shining white teeth and freedom from body odor and emotions.” Humans had been transformed into desirable, readily exchangeable commodities, and all that was left to choose was the option of knowing that one was being manipulated. “The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.” The Frankfurt School is relevant to us now because such critiques of society are even more valid now today than when those words were written.”

Conceptual Issues of Skepticism and Independent Thought

Universal or radical skepticism, like that advocated by the Greek philosopher of classical antiquity, Pyrrho of Elis, is not practical since we would very likely never make decisions on anything. But not deciding is also an act, in the sense that one thereby surrenders to contingency, fate or accident.  In fact it can be a serious threat to your well-being. Pyrrho went to such extremes to have doubted the existence of physical objects, and so he apparently walked into them. Since he apparently doubted everything, it doesn’t take long for someone who doubts physical obstacles to win a Darwin award and exit the gene pool. In this way, such indiscriminate scepticism is consequentially not much different from total credulity.

For all but the genuine critical thinkers and sceptics, the best available recent evidence does not automatically update our often precious and emotionally held beliefs. Beliefs, it seems, have an active life of their own and fight for their survival within the credulous craniums of the vast majority of our not very intelligent species.

But there is a methodology and an art to being a skeptic – it requires not only constant vigilance, but commitment, sophistication and dedication to often agonizing intellectual toil. There's a difference between skepticism of religious or paranormal claims for example and skepticism of universal gravitation, the theory of relativity, evolution and genetics or other well-established scientific theories.

Skepticism is an indispensible modus operandi in any serious search for knowledge and truth. It's an epistemic device in assessing knowledge claims crucial to any scientific inquiry, namely a powerful, reliable and positive methodology that is used to evaluate those claims and decide their truth value. It makes decisions based on sound reasoning, logic, and evidence. Skepticism is based on a two step process: doubt and inquiry. The idea is to neither initially accept claims nor dismiss them; it’s about questioning and testing them for conceptual clarity, coherence and truth. Only after inquiry does a skeptic take a position on an issue. Skepticism is a mechanism for navigating through the insidious quagmire of bullshit and nonsense that permeates so many aspects of our culture. The primary sources of this intellectual debris are politics, business and the all-time purveyor of false claims and delusion - religion.

Consider contributions from three eminent skeptics:

"It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all." - Carl Sagan

"Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method involving the gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions. Some claims, such as water dowsing, ESP, and creationism, have been tested (and failed the tests) often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are false. Other claims, such as hypnosis and chaos theory, have been tested but results are inconclusive so we must continue formulating and testing hypotheses and theories until we can reach a provisional conclusion. The key to skepticism is to continuously and vigorously apply the methods of science to navigate the treacherous straits between “know nothing” skepticism and “anything goes” credulity"  - Michael Shermer, excerpt from Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time

"We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield."- George Orwell

Misconceptions about Skepticism

"Faults that permit us to hold unjustified beliefs are negligence, idleness, wishful thinking, cowardice, self-deception...carelessness" - K.V. Wilkes

Clearly skepticism is a degree term; people hold varying degrees of skepticism about various phenomena, real or perceived. Atheists dismiss outright or are skeptical of all religious claims and all religions treat their competitors likewise.  But absolute skepticism is not possible anymore than is absolute empirical truth. It's always conceivable that one could be wrong about commonly accepted verities - even long established scientific theories. It's possible I'm a brain in a vat but I have no reason to believe such a conjecture, so I don't. Agnosticism about alleged paranormal phenomena and dubious hypotheses is a confused position as it is about the supernatural. Agnosticism assumes that there's some balance of probabilities for knowledge claims, but there are precious few propositions for which this is the case.

Genuine skepticism is reserved for something that is plausible, at least logically possible or has at least some minimal evidential support, but simply has not been confirmed or disconfirmed by in depth scientific inquiry. For example, I'm not skeptical about religious claims and other claims of the supernatural. I dismiss them outright as patent nonsense.

By this I mean, God, gods, Satan, angels, heaven, hell, virgin births, resurrections from the dead, an afterlife and other religious entities and claims that have not a shred of evidence in their support. I don't question the validity of the supernatural; I reject it completely. I don't doubt the truth of any religion; I totally dismiss it as mindlessness, an antiquated Bronze Age thought process and a means of mind enslavement. I am no more a skeptic on these topics than I am about alien autopsies or abductions, the living dead, mind readers, fortune tellers, horoscopes, fairies, ghosts or the abominable snowman. I utterly reject and dismiss them as fantasies borne either from the imaginations or mental infirmities of people.

My skepticism is reserved for things that could be real but are dubious, such as a stranger who claims to have three testicles. Could it be so? Why not? Genetic mutations or genetic damage could produce multiple sexual organs, mixed sex organs, or the lack of genitalia entirely. But, I'd be skeptical of his claim since the frequency of such occurrences is miniscule.

I'll also save my skepticism for scientific theory for which there has been insufficient evidence, testing or study, no corroboration, or failure to repeat said find­ings in controlled conditions. It's possible that a the­ory could be true if it has some basis in natural law, or promotes a new "natural" event or condition not yet known. String Theory is such an example. I'll reserve judgment and be skeptical until more evidence and scien­tifically accepted conditions are satisfied.

But God, Gods, devils, angels, demons, heaven, hell, purgatory, virgin births, people formed from dust or ribs, the dead rising, water walking, transformation of water into wine, mil­lions of animal species on a boat, etc., etc., defies our collective experience, observations and understanding of science and natural law. They have no visible means of scientific support and are an insult to the scientific understanding of a junior high school student. I am not skeptical about them having occurred; I reject them entirely.

Brief Remark on Voltaire

"Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are…the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions" - Primo Levi

Voltaire instructed the world that "those who believe absurdities commit atrocities."  In many ways, we’ve seen this happen time and again.  From more isolated occurrences, such as abortion doctors being shot for performing their services to desperate women within the confines of the law, to larger events that history will not soon forget, such as the 500 year colonial and imperialistic enslavement and genocide of indigenous peoples throughout the world. An absurdity is an idea that is not just inconsistent with objective empirical truth or reality. I think it applies equally to all supernatural and paranormal beliefs in addition to many world views and ideologies that spring from both the religious and secular domains. Are Catholicism, Communism and Capitalism true in the sense that "ravens are black", "2 + 2 = 4 and the “earth revolves around the sun”?

Why is Skepticism Important?

"Citizens who think for themselves, rather than uncritically ingesting what their leaders tell them, are the absolutely necessary ingredient of a society that is to remain truly free" - Howard Kahane

Why does skepticism matter? Not just in philosophy, science, history, or other academic pursuits where rigorous devotion to the truth is crucial. But why does skepticism matter in our everyday lives?

I would argue that studying philosophy is one of the most worthwhile pursuits in promoting skepticism and critical thinking. Philosophy is an activity aimed at discovering truth and wisdom based on skepticism and critical thought to reach conclusions that can be justified by reason and rules of logic. By way of analogy, imagine standing on a multi-forked path. The paths represent a continuum from radical skepticism at one end to credulity on the other. Where you happen to stand on the path of skepticism depends on how deeply philosophical you are. Most of us share approximately the same point, that is, our day to day activities and thoughts are not uniquely philosophical. Making a tuna sandwich, playing a tennis match, tying your shoelaces and making a withdrawal from your bank account, are not activities that typically demand philosophical reflection. Philosophy comes into play only when one thinks beyond the mundane such as: “Am I morally justified to make a ham sandwich? A pig must die to do so…” “Do my shoe laces exist?” “Is money or bit coin real?” Philosophy comes to the forefront when one questions or challenges the underlying assumptions of the world. A successful philosophical inquiry and subsequent argument ought to force someone to a belief or lack thereof.

Such philosophical examination helps to mitigate the risk of being duped, misled or deceived by untenable beliefs and spurious claims characteristic of and promoted by alleged authoritarian sources, uncritical acceptance of which can result in dire consequences for the believer. Of course if you are not inclined to care about truth, then there's an approach that is incredibly easy; simply claim that truth is in the eye of the beholder. That we all have our own versions of the truth and that no one of them actually corresponds to the way things actually are in the universe. Truth is merely a subjective dispositional state or, as a former top selling new Age book The Secret claims, truth and reality can be created by the sheer power of the will. Once you swallow this particular conceit, then pretty much anything goes. Do you want to claim that God created the Universe in seven days by the flick of a switch, or that leprechauns reside in your rose garden? No problem; just reject the demand that some argument or evidence for your belief is required to justify such beliefs and presto, it becomes fact. Faith is an amazing labor saving device is it not? Do you believe that homeopathic remedies* actually work or that psychics posses paranormal powers and can predict the future, despite all the scientific evidence that they do not. Or perhaps you define democracy as what the United States brought to Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. You can dismiss the entire edifice of conceptual analysis and scientific inquiry by asserting that Science is just a Western cultural hegemonic bias. After all, conceptual clarity and evidence are just tedious affronts on my treasured beliefs. Best of all you don't even need to know what this means.

*Homeopathy is based on the principle that the more diluted a remedy is, the more effective it becomes. Taken to its logical conclusion, homeopathy works best if you reduce the dosage to nothing at all.

Skepticism and Pessimism

The challenge of modernity is to live life without illusions and without becoming disillusioned… I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but am an optimist because of will - Antonio Gramsci (1891- 1937)

Despite the horrors of two world wars and dozens of other sordid conflicts of political ideology and imperialism in the twentieth century, optimism presumed a degree of credibility for humanists and others with a scientific world view. This was likely because of the unprecedented success of science in solving so many problems for us, not the least of which was in advancing medical technique and technology. But in the twenty-first century, we realize that some limits have been reached that may affect our expectation that science will once more extricate us from the mess we have made for ourselves and the only home we know, planet earth.

One contemporary group of poets and artists that has taken a pessimistic outlook on our future is the Dark Mountain Project that offers a way ahead with its manifesto “Eight Principles of Un-civilization.” The Dark Mountain Project was inspired primarily by the American poet and early proponent of environmentalism, Robinson Jeffers (1887–1972). Many of its principles are reasonable and sound but fly in the face of what they feel is human hubris and arrogance. Humans, it claims, are not the “point and purpose of the planet; moreover “We live in an age of “social, economic and ecological unraveling.” And it takes a skeptical position at matching up solutions to pre-set problems. Although not apocalyptic, the writers have no illusions about the inevitable calamities and collapses on multiple fronts we are facing. This ominous reality is confirmed by many climate scientists, ecologists and global organizations such as Extinction Rebellion (XR) founded by Englishman Roger Hallam and co-founder Dr. Gail Bradbrook, a molecular biophysicist.

The world is not coming to an end because as wantonly destructive that human beings have been to the natural environment and the onset of the Sixth Great Extinction, the planet itself will be just fine without humans, the only species that continues to multiply (along with their dogs) in an overpopulated world like an out of control bacterial contagion. What is coming to an end, as many environmentalists and scientists understand it, is the relatively recent industrialization of human civilization, along with a great deal of the natural world that has been thoughtlessly decimated to stimulate that industrialization and technological upheaval.

Despite my lifelong love of the wonders of the natural world and the great outdoors and despite my agreement with the prognosis of Dark Mountain and Extinction Rebellion, I remain somewhat ambivalent about these distressing events, tenaciously attached to the so-called progress of science and the notion that one day we’ll all be living on Star Trek inspired man-made planets or massive starships, embracing a culture of sharing, caring and compassion while exploring the cosmos free of hunger, disease, poverty and the human stupidity and moral depravity of greed, acquisitiveness, war and endless conflict. This notion was imposed on me from a very young age, partly inspired by the great 1951 sci-fi movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, made during the belligerence, idiocy, mindless patriotism, anti-communist hysteria and threat of nuclear war [2] during the Cold War that followed the horrors of World War II. Later I came to realize that there surely must be intelligent life somewhere else in what now seems an infinite cosmos; it’s patently obvious given even a cursory glance at our violent authoritarian based human history, that here’s precious little intelligence or moral sensibilities on our own planet earth. Sadly, some of the most obtuse, cavalier and ethically insensitive are those with positions of power in business, religion and politics. The intensely moral technologically advanced super intelligent aliens led by Klaatu warned earthlings to wise up and behave – or else:

The Day the Earth Stood Still (4/5) Movie CLIP - Klaatu's Speech (1951) HD - YouTube

Observing the warp speed pace of technological advances today, it still seems tenable that we will wake up and save life on a dying planet. But wanting something to be true, like the superstitions of religion, is delusional. Faith and hope are for fools and eternal optimists as science and technological advancement has always been a double edged sword. Consider the development of nuclear power and the cell phone to which people have been reduced to solipsistic ADHD brain mush zombies - just to cite two of countless examples. And lately our abysmal beleaguered planet and its inhabitants have been controlled by a microscopic organism called covid-19, perhaps on the positive side injecting a little humility into the arrogant impulsive species called Homo sapiens (ironically, literally translated, means “wise men”).

One merely has to contemplate the velocity and scope of humanity’s destructiveness of the natural world to have those dreams thoroughly trashed. Whether we look to the exhausted vitality of the natural world that we have plundered voraciously and used as a trash heap or the systemic corruption, deceit and depravity of our modern, so-called enlightened capitalist “democracies”, we can no longer deny the obvious. The world we created is in a rapid state of deterioration and collapse politically, economically and most importantly, ecologically. [3]

Rational pessimism has a valuable role to play because it is the means by which we look beyond the best case and consider other options, less happy options, that are just as likely to ensue. The precautionary principle must be invoked for every decision that affects our dubious future; and most importantly we need to accept that we are in this mess together. Pessimism avoids the best-case fallacy when it asks what might go wrong; remember Murphy’s Law. With decisions looming on the scale of global warming, the stakes are high. What Greta Thunberg had in mind when she said she wanted people to panic was to shake them out of their sanguine confidence that things either aren’t as bad as we are told or that something will come along and sort things out without us having to change the way we live. This is what this courageous girl said to the gathering of the mighty super arrogant wealthy oligarchs at Davos in January 2019: “Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”

Despite the tendency of humanists to promote optimism, three of the great humanist minds of the 20th century well understood the constructive and beneficial effects a pessimistic life stance could offer. Albert Camus, George Orwell and Bertrand Russell were such people, men who were pessimists - but not fatalists - for which pessimism should not be conflated. Camus wrote, “The idea that a pessimistic philosophy is necessarily one of discouragement is a puerile idea, but one that needs too long a refutation.” George Orwell thought similarly, writing in 1940, “Creeds, parties, programs of every description have simply flopped, one after another. The only ‘ism’ that has justified itself is pessimism.” The third is Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) who was not only an energetic social critic and public intellectual but a celebrated and accomplished mathematician and philosopher, arguably one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. As an active public intellectual he wrote voluminously on a wide variety of topics, all of which were insightful and erudite. Skepticism was for him a key component of the intellectual life, but also for his work in philosophy, logic and mathematics. The ideal of critical thinking is a central one in Russell's philosophy, though this has not yet been generally recognized. Russell's name seldom appears in the immense development and scholarly literature on critical thinking which has emerged in philosophy of education over the past several decades. Sadly, the efforts to implement these valuable programs in logic and critical thinking programs from being implemented into the school curriculums have been systematically blocked by religious and other conservative groups. There are powerful people and organizations that have a vested interest in keeping the masses ignorant, docile, stupid, credulous and unable reason correctly. As Russell once remarked, critical thinkers are not valued in religion, politics and business because “they cause administrative difficulties”.

Few commentators have noticed the importance of Russell's work in connection with any theory of education which includes a critical component. Noam Chomsky, for example, reminds us of Russell's humanistic conception of education, which considers all students as independent persons whose development is threatened by religious obscurantism and other forms of indoctrination. Russell appealed to the concept of intellectual growth and was concerned with protecting the student’s autonomy and freedom to exercise individual judgment on both intellectual and moral issues. Russell claims that schooling all too often encourages the herd mentality and the status quo of authoritarianism with its fanaticism, hierarchies and bigotries, failing to develop what he calls a "critical habit of mind". The threat of indoctrination, conformity and docility, the importance of individual judgment, and the prevalence of fanatical opinions all point up the need for what nowadays is called critical thinking; and Russell's work is valuable to anyone who wants to understand what this kind of thinking entails and why it matters in both education and any pretense to “democracy”. The ideal of critical thinking is, for Russell, embedded in the fabric of skepticism, logic, philosophy, science, mathematics, rationality, education and a genuine functioning liberal democracy. [4]

Russell clearly favored pessimism over optimism, the latter of which he associated with faith and hope for which he had nothing but contempt. [5] Although he was comfortable with life’s uncertainties and contingencies, he thought if certainty existed, it would ultimately be discovered in one of his areas of expertise, mathematics. In the first decade of the 20th century he and cohort Alfred North Whitehead worked for ten years on a project to determine if Russell’s hypothesis about the possibility of mathematical certainty was correct. The outcome was a massive three volume several thousand page magnum opus called Principia Mathematica which attempted to show that mathematical truth could be determined by starting with basic principles of logic. [6] 

Russell wrote hundreds of books and thousands of articles during his long life; in his History of Western Philosophy he wrote “A man can be a cheery pessimist or a melancholy optimist” a claim for which I very much agree. From my perspective optimists, those who rely on faith, hope and an optimistic positive thinking outlook, are invariably disappointed and the history of the world attests to systematic failure and in many cases, utter catastrophes. The history of the 20th century alone ought to cure anyone of the notions of progress and hope for the future, especially today as global warming, rampant global warming, widespread species extinction, overpopulation and contamination of air, water and soils are pointing to a dubious future for all life on our beleaguered planet. The power-of-positive-thinking movement is the cornerstone upon which self-help empires are built. From charlatans such as Deepak Chopra and pompous ass conservative proponents of facile advice your mother ought to have told you about such as Jordan Peterson, revolting multi-millionaire prosperity gospel Christian Evangelists such as Joel Osteen who fly about the world in a private jet to naïve acolytes such as billionaire Oprah Winfrey, self-proclaimed gurus of faith, optimism and positive thinking movement have made large sums of money via traditional consumer-based strategies such as television programs, books, seminars and New Age retreats. The underlying bullshit rhetoric is simple: “If you think positively, positive results will come.” The reality is positive thinking programs, for the most part, have multiple detrimental effects, to say nothing of the precious time that’s wasted.

The bookstores are loaded with volumes of religious rubbish like Heaven is for Real and Jesus Calling to pseudoscientific pabulum such as Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret and Wallace Wattles’s The Science of Getting Rich. These idiotic self-help gurus - whether con artists or sincere true believers - are loading up their bank accounts on delusions of the power-of-positive-thinking movements. Search any bookseller’s website for “New Age”, “self-help” (which George Carlin rightly called “help”) or “law of attraction,” and you’ll end up with thousands of bed time fables touting a fool proof scheme to make boat loads of money, find love, improve your sex life and memory and even cure hemorrhoids or pancreatic cancer. One thing this gobbledygook on steroid does accomplish is an overall increase in stupidity. Not only can we not change reality and the state of the universe just by wishful thinking, faith or prayer, attempting to do so is childish, inane and a total waste of an all too short life. Studies conducted by psychologist Richard Wiseman clearly point out that there is no benefit from positive thinking; in fact there is a negative effect. In a 1999 study, Lien Pham and Shelley Taylor compared “effects of process-versus outcome-based mental simulations on performance.” In other words, they had students think positively about getting a good grade on an upcoming examination then compared them to doubting students who thought about the process of studying and taking the exam and then compared both to a control group. The students who imagined the process did better than the control, but the students who imagined getting good grades actually did far worse. The same can be said about the misconstrued and misapplied “self-esteem” craze that was peddled in the schools in the 1990s. The lessons are clear: Positive thinking by itself is not only worthless, it’s a waste of time and effort that detracts from more practical activity that includes preparation, planning and good old fashioned hard work. In fact, research shows there are many benefits of a negative or pessimistic outlook. Pessimism correlates with higher earnings, fewer marital problems, more effective communication, greater generosity, and less disappointment. It is apparently helpful to worry, at least to some extent. Excessive optimism can make us careless and set us up for failure - which for humans is the norm.

An excessively positive outlook can also complicate the process dying, something we all inevitably face. Psychologist James Coyne has focused his career on end-of-life attitudes in patients diagnosed with terminal cancer. He points out that dying in a culture obsessed with positive thinking can have devastating psychological consequences for the person facing death. Dying is difficult and people cope with oblivion in different ways. But one thing is for certain: If you think you can will your way out of a terminal illness, you will be faced with profound disappointment. The pious who think they will be headed to a “better place” of disembodied existence called heaven will never know because they will be dead. Individuals swept up in the positive-thinking movement may delay meaningful, evidence-based treatment or simply neglect it altogether, instead clinging to so-called “manifestation” practices in the hope or religious faith of curing disease. Unfortunately, this approach will most often lead to tragedy. In perhaps one of the largest investigations on the topic to date, Dr. Coyne found that there is simply no relationship between emotional well-being and mortality in the terminally ill. Not only will positive thinking do nothing to delay the inevitable; it may make what little time is left far more difficult. People die in different ways, and quality of life can be heavily affected by external societal pressures. If an individual feels angry or sad but continues to bear the burden of friends’, loved ones’, and even medical professionals’ expectations to “keep a brave face” or “stay positive,” such tension can significantly diminish quality of life in one’s final days.

And it’s not just the sick and dying who are negatively impacted by positive-thinking pseudoscience. By its very design, it preys on the weak, credulous, ignorant, poor and down-and-outers. Preaching a gospel of abundance through mental power sets society as for failure. Instead of doing the required work or taking stock of the harsh realities we often face, individuals find themselves hoping, wishing, and praying for that love, money or fame that will likely never come. This in turn has the potential to set off a feedback loop of despair and failure. I’m not claiming that being a reasonably positive person is necessarily detrimental. Nor am I advocating that one actively squelch a sanguine disposition; but don’t expect that thinking optimistically will result in being endowed with some sort of quasi-religious cosmic blessing of good fortune.

J Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project during World War II that developed the atomic bomb was clearly a pessimist when he declared that “The optimist believes we live in the best of all possible worlds; the pessimist fears this is true” and came to realize during the research that this was a massive existential and moral blunder. From my experience, when you inform people you are not only a skeptic, but a pessimist, they are generally shocked, disgusted and often don’t even want to talk to you. It may upset their breakfast or impair their afternoon golf game.  Our rose tinted glasses capitalist culture endlessly promotes notions of positive thinking, optimism and faith, especially faith those who have power over you, whether in the religious or political realm - and especially faith in the immoral, grossly unjust and unequal capitalist system. Of course it not unusual for psychologists and psychiatrists to believe that contrarians and social mutants like me must have some hidden internal reason for feeling as we do about the world. The fictional Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide (who was in real life Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716)) and “best of all possible worlds” created by the Christian god surely could not possibly be at fault. Anyone who reads Voltaire’s debunking of this myth in Candide ought to come away rejecting the so-called “just world hypothesis” and its corollary - the often touted beneficial notions of positive thinking and optimism since this attitude, as stated earlier invariably leads to disappointment and despair. But for anyone willing to invest the time to invoke acute observational skills and an inquiring, skeptical and critical intellect and study real history, Voltaire’s thesis is irrefutable. One perhaps ought to heed anti-fascist revolutionary Antonio Gramsci’s advice: The challenge of modernity is to live life without illusions and without becoming disillusioned… I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will. [7]

Final Thoughts

During my career as a Mathematics teacher I encouraged students to question everything and learn to be a critical thinker, to slice through all the bullshit, propaganda and outright prevarications and make every effort to understand how the real world works. Hint: it’s not democratic. I would not have remained a teacher if I hadn’t believed the immoral violent world of capitalism we inhabit should and could be far better. Only our lack of imagination prohibits us from creating a better world that the music of the 1960’s and 70’s attempted to describe in so many great pop songs such as John Lennon’s Imagine, The Hollies He Ain’t Heavy, He’s my Brother, Bill Wither’s Lean on Me , Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge over Troubled Waters, Cat Stevens’ Peace Train and the Youngblood’s Get Together. But back in those incredibly exciting hopeful days of the counter-culture of Woodstock, Civil Rights movements and the anti-Vietnam War protests, there was plenty of pessimism lurking as well. Even in the 1960s Barry Maguire’s song the Eve of Destruction was a premonition, a song as relevant today as it was back then. Conditions could get worse and by the late 1970’s one could find many reasons for impending doom and gloom. When anti-labor war mongering neo-conservative proto-fascist creeps such as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Lyin’ Brian Mulroney was elected to lead the US, UK and Canada respectively, one knew the revelry of high hopes and expectations were over. But who could have predicted social, political and economic conditions would get as bleak as they are now? In the eighties, Don Henley’s amazing song End of the Innocence and Bruce Hornsby’s equally amazing The Way It Is informed us what was happening, both songs by the way with Hornsby’s wonderful piano accompaniment.

 There is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde inside each of us so we must elicit our conscience and prevent the conditions that produce the dark side monster that lurks within us all. Call it optimism of the will, our conscience or moral compass but to try to live life as we think humans ought to live, at a minimum working hard intellectually to know the truth and behaving well and at the very least, abiding by the Golden Rule. Noam Chomsky put it this way: “You basically have two choices. You can say “Nothing is going to change, so I am going to do nothing.” You can therefore guarantee that the worst possible outcome will come about. Or, you can take the other position. You can say: ‘Look, maybe something will work. Therefore I will engage myself in trying to make it work and maybe there’s a chance things can get better.’ That is your choice. Nobody can tell you how right it is to be optimistic. Nothing can be predicted about human affairs…nothing.” It doesn’t contradict Chomsky’s assertion to conclude that failure to engage today will provide a definitive answer to Rosa Luxemburg’s famous question: “Will we be transitioning to socialism or barbarism?” {See Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power, Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel eds., New York: Harper & Row, 2002.


[1] In 1961 David Graeber was born to self-taught working class leftist intellectuals. His father, Kenneth, who fought in the Spanish Civil War with the anti-fascist Republicans as a volunteer with the International Brigades, the American contingent called The Abraham Lincoln Brigade. In real life he was a blue-collar job worker at an offset printing plant. His Polish-born mother, Ruth (Rubinstein) Graeber, was a garment worker who performed in her union’s musical, “Pins and Needles” which ran on Broadway in the late 1930s. Raised in Penn South, a union-sponsored co-op apartment complex in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, David translated Mayan hieroglyphics while he was in junior high school and so impressed professional archaeologists that he won a scholarship to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

Graeber earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology in 1984 from the State University of New York, Purchase and, while pursuing his doctorate at the University of Chicago, won a Fulbright fellowship to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in Madagascar. He finished his thesis on magic, slavery and politics and received his degree in 1998. Two years later, he was hired by Yale. In 2006 Yale refused to renew his contract quite clearly due to his political activism and discovery of his anarchism. But in the UK and Europe he was recognized as a brilliant scholar and hired as a professor, ending up at the London School of Economics. Graber was not unlike Michael Parenti, born into the East Harlem Italian slums of New York in 1933 and like Graeber, a brilliant student. Michael was eventually awarded a full scholarship to Yale, earning a PhD in political science and ending up with an academic position at the University. But Parenti was fired by Yale after he, like many others such as Norman Mailer and Noam Chomsky ended up in jail on several occasions following anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and was blacklisted from any academic position in the US. He did not have the international stature of Chomsky who was untouchable as the world’s most famous expert in linguistics. He had to survive on his intellect and wrote dozens of books, all of which I have in my library. I heard Parenti speak in the early 1990s in Vancouver and have been a huge follower ever since.


[2]The first time atomic weapons were deployed against human beings occurred during World War II on August 6-9, 1945 when the United States incinerated the already defeated Japan by obliterating the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, vaporizing tens of thousands of innocent civilians, killing an estimated 110,000 Japanese citizens and seriously maiming another 130,000. By 1950 another 230,000 died from those injuries and radiation poisoning. Earlier in 1945 two fire bombing raids on Tokyo killed 140,000 citizens and injured a million more.

[3] Progress of course, however loosely defined, has always been a myth. Billions of people are facing natural catastrophes, lack of meaningful work with a livable wage, starvation, under-nourishment, homelessness, lack of clean air and drinking water and due to global warming their very increasingly hot homelands will soon be swallowed up by increasingly garbage-filled contaminated oceans. The sixth extinction is now upon us as the world’s biodiversity is vanishing faster than cheap cell phones on Boxing Day sales. Moreover, even the minimalist representative capitalist “democracies” which have always been farcical are descending into conditions of grotesque economic inequalities, right wing tribalism and widespread authoritarianism. The corrupt corporations and larcenous financial institutions that underwrite our fascist police surveillance states and their prison gulags are back, almost as though we’ve learned nothing from the horrors of recent history during the 20th century. And are we not complicit in this tyranny, having relinquished our identities to Silicon Valley and their nefarious controlling devices?

Some may have embraced the trans-humanism of futurist guru Ray Kurzweil in which he predicts the next stage of our evolution by 2045 whereby our brains will merge with technology and AI, creating what he refers to as The Singularity. Thankfully, I’ll be locked into the infinite dreamless sleep by then. But even if we defeat covid-19 which appears dubious with the multiple mutations that are emerging everywhere throughout the world, one would be wise to hang on to those face masks since you’ll need them to breathe the increasingly toxic contaminated air (which will likely be privatized like everything else).

[4] Russell as a young man seems to have held a decidedly less than sanguine view of human nature, one which considered people as neither rational nor inherently moral. It’s not just human affairs that he considered irrational; he thought people in general are irrational and that this dismal state of affairs would very likely not change.

Russell’s dim view of human rationality and the dismal reasoning capacities of the average person is one confirmed by recent research in psychology. In what is called cognitive dissonance theory, psychologists today maintain that we tend to avoid uncomfortable facts and truths by replacing them in our minds with more comforting fictions. Psychologists began studying this idea experimentally and accumulating evidence for it in the 1950s. But one can find Russell asserting the same idea as early as 1908, and continuing to use it throughout his life. Another cognitive bias, particularly among stupid and incompetent people is the Dunning-Kruger effect in which people are too stupid to realize they are in fact stupid. These people, unlike the highly intelligent who are generally skeptics and self-reflective, tend to inflate their inferior abilities and intellects. Russell was very much aware of this affliction long before it was studied by psychologists; examine the leading quote in this essay.

The truth Russell acknowledged with rigorous honesty was that we are ultimately doomed. The current 21st century threats we face such as global warming, overpopulation, ecosystem collapse, species extinction, contamination of waterways, air and soils, ongoing capitalist rapacity and corruption, pervasive addictions and drug use, anti-intellectualism and declining IQs, the cell phone zombie walking dead, increasing political, economic and social dysfunction and a disturbing and developing authoritarianism that includes a sickening return of fascism are just a few of the ominous signs. The days of most life on our planet are numbered, and humans will soon be on the list. Art and science, typified by greats such as Shakespeare and Einstein, will someday mean nothing to a universe that has long since snuffed itself out in gross concord with the brute laws of matter and energy. We are doomed if only by way of the scientific laws of thermodynamics and entropy that predict conditions of uncertainty, randomness, disorder and decay. Nothing lasts forever but we deluded and typically uncaring, ignorant and stupid humans are now accelerating our ultimate demise. But we are in this depressing pessimistic situation together, and the greatest crime would be to spend our brief time in mutual torment and isolation. It is the high task, the great calling of enlightenment humanism, of those who can reason honestly and to see all sides impartially and to step between any of the more selfish of our species engaged in demonizing and despising each other in the holy name of religious obscurantism and dogma, political absolutism, societal willed ignorance and bias. Be prepared to lose if you are an anti-capitalist, anarchist, radical revolutionary or anyone on the political left. You will be attacked by conservatives (both religious and secular), many faux liberals and other reactionary forces for your troubles and you will likely affect no change at all. But as anyone with a moral compass, you cannot and must not accept the undemocratic demented status quo of greed, injustice and obscene economic inequality that has been our condition throughout history. But that is where you must stand for as long as you can muster every bit of your strength at the service of showing the comfortable and righteous the democratic humanist perspective of their opponents. In the end religions and empires fall as hypocrisy, pride, bigotry, self-deception and arrogance precede their demise and, if we become no less cosmically doomed as a result - at least we will have some company for the rough ride to oblivion that lies ahead. The condition of pessimism is realism but pessimist does not imply resignation. The ethically motivated pessimist does not capitulate at understanding the truth of the dire conditions we face but rather rejects the inaction of hope, faith and optimism - and decides to act. Only through action can change occur. This sentiment is uniquely explained in Terry Eagleton’s book Hope without Optimism and by Slavoj Zizek in his The Courage of Hopelessness, both released in 2017.

Russell held other pessimistic views about human nature besides the belief that people are irrational and self-justifying. He also believed, for example, that many people enjoy manipulating and persecuting other people. The pleasure people take in war, along with their rationalizations to justify it, especially by demonizing those on the other side, was, after his experiences as a pacifist during WWI, something Russell warned us all his life. We will see examples of other views he held about the irrationality of human nature intertwined with his view that people are typically self-justifiers.

Russell develops his view of the irrationality of human nature in his 1919 essay Dreams and Facts:

“The influence of our wishes upon our beliefs is a matter of common knowledge and observation, yet the nature of this influence is very generally misconceived. It is customary to suppose that the bulk of our beliefs are derived from some rational ground, and that desire is only an occasional disturbing force. The exact opposite of this would be nearer the truth: the great mass of beliefs by which we are supported in our daily life is merely the bodying forth of desire, corrected here and there, at isolated points, by the rude shock of fact. Man is essentially a dreamer, wakened sometimes for a moment by some peculiarly obtrusive element in the outer world, but lapsing again quickly into the happy somnolence of imagination. Freud has shown how largely our dreams at night are the pictured fulfilment of our wishes; he has, with an equal measure of truth, said the same of day-dreams; and he might have included the day-dreams which we call beliefs.”

And in general, Russell asserts that “every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day.” Russell then gives examples of convictions people carry around in order to avoid uncomfortable thoughts. Here is one:

“There can be no doubt that, in the autumn of 1914, the immense majority of the German nation felt absolutely certain of victory for Germany. In this case fact has intruded and dispelled the dream. But if, by some means, all non-German historians could be prevented from writing during the next hundred years, the dream would reinstate itself: the early triumphs would be remembered, while the ultimate disaster would be forgotten.”

If we cannot justify an uncomfortable belief to our satisfaction, we simply erase it from memory, or at least avoid thinking about it as much as possible. This is called willed ignorance. In another example, Russell says: “Voluntary workers in a contested election always believe that their side will win, no matter what reason there may be for expecting defeat.” After these examples, Russell describes whole hierarchies of self-justifications that people make to avoid mental discomfort.

To return to the example of the Germans and their defeat, one might wonder: is it really true that if Germans historians alone wrote histories of the Great War, they would have described the victories and forgotten the defeat? Can a nation really believe it is a mighty military force headed for victory against a puny enemy, lose the war, and then ignore, forget, or otherwise rationalize the loss, and continue thinking that it is mightier than its enemies, or even that it really won the war, or would have won it except for some unusual circumstance, say, a “stab in the back”? By way of an answer, let us look again at psychological research on cognitive dissonance.

So far, only one experiment with cognitive dissonance has been described, and that was a canned (‘in vitro’) laboratory experiment with college students. But does it actually work that way in the real world? Interestingly, the first scientific study of dissonance theory was a real-world social psychology study by Leon Festinger. In 1954, Festinger and his colleagues infiltrated a religious cult led by a charismatic woman who claimed to have had visions that the world would soon end (in a great flood), but that the sect’s members would be rescued and saved by flying saucers. On the assumption that she was wrong, Festinger used dissonance theory to accurately predict that group members would rationalize their error when the prophecy failed and even deny that they had been wrong.

As the day of destruction approached, some cult members quit their jobs and gave away their possessions – they wouldn’t need them in outer space; but others did not go so far. As the reader may have guessed, on the eve of the fateful day no spaceship arrived to pick them up. At first the cult’s members were very agitated, but then their leader had a new vision – that due to the strong optimism and faith of the group, God had decided to spare the world. The members were elated, and many became even more active in proselytizing for the group than before. In particular, those who had suffered most by resigning from their jobs and disposing of all their belongings, were especially active in the group following the initial prophecy’s failure, while those who had been less faithful and kept their jobs and possessions ceased to believe and drifted away, just as dissonance theory would predict (Festinger, Riecken, Schachter, When Prophecy Fails, 1956; recounted in Tavris and Aronson, Mistakes Were Made, 2007).

In addition to thinking that people are not particularly scrupulous about the truth, especially when it reveals distasteful truths about themselves that makes them feel diminished and distressed, Russell also thinks that people are not particularly kind to one another. Unsurprisingly, then, he frequently asserts that conventional morality is often just a concealment and justification for bad human impulses and behaviour, as in his 1925 essay What I Believe, where he writes: “In the ordinary man and woman there is a certain amount of active malevolence, both special ill will directed to particular enemies and general impersonal pleasure in the misfortune of others. It is customary to cover this over with fine phrases; almost half of conventional morality is a cloak for it.” Russell continues with examples of the malice we use morality to justify. They include “the glee with which people repeat and believe scandal… the unkind treatment of criminals in spite of clear proof that better treatment would have more effect in reforming them… the unbelievable barbarity with which white races treat Negroes, and… the gusto with which old ladies and clergymen pointed out the duty of military service to young men during the War.” - Why I Am Not a Christian, 1957. In the same essay Russell explodes many of the myths regarding Christian “ethics” and moral imperatives based on strict adherence to the authority of the deity as laid out in the Bible. For a recent expose of the myth of Christian morality, read this excellent piece:

The Myth of Christian Morality | Free Inquiry (secularhumanism.org)

Russell also finds moral cover-up and self-justification working in concert with education. For example, in 1926 he writes: “The essence of education is that it is a change (other than death) effected in an organism to satisfy the desires of the operator. Of course the operator says that his desire is to improve the pupil, but this statement does not represent any objectively verifiable fact” (“Psychology and Politics”, reprinted in Sceptical Essays, 1928). And in 1932, adding the rationalization of bad behaviour to education, he says: “The elements of good citizenship that are emphasized in schools and universities are the worst elements and not the best… citizenship, as generally taught, perpetuates traditional injustices... wherever an injustice exists, it is possible to invoke the ideal of legality and constitutionality in its support” (Education and the Social Order, 1932).

Consider two more examples from Russell’s later writings of the assertion that conventional morality is a cover up and frequently less that rational (both reprinted in Unpopular Essays, 1950). In 1937 we see him saying, “One of the persistent delusions of mankind is that some sections of the human race are morally better or morally worse than others” (‘The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed’). And in 1946, in the essay ‘Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind’, he asserts: “I think that the evils that men inflict on each other, and by reflection on themselves, have their main source in evil passions rather than in ideas or beliefs. But ideas and principles that do harm are, as a rule, though not always, cloaks for evil passions.” And so on. Russell’s assumption of human intellectual dishonesty stretches across his entire career.

In a final example among many that could be cited, we find Russell saying in 1953 essentially what he asserted 1910 about the self-justifying actions of the dominant ruling classes, but here more clearly:

“Holders of power, always and everywhere, are indifferent to the good or evil of those who have no power, except in so far as they are restrained by fear. This may sound too harsh a saying. It may be said that decent people will not inflict torture on others beyond a point. This may be said, but history shows that it is not true. The decent people in question succeed in not knowing, or pretending not to know, what torments are inflicted to make them happy.” (‘What Is Democracy?’ in Fact and Fiction, 1961).

Again, this situation is like the case whereby one person mistreats another and rationalizes the act, only now we have one group mistreating another group, with the dominant group creating what we have called a “ruling class fiction” to avoid the discomfort that recognizing its own injustice would cause it. As well as being an excuse for mistreating the subject people, a ruling class fiction typically includes a rationalization that the subjects were actually being treated well, or at least were not mistreated, by the ruling class. Any sort of excuse for ignoring or not knowing of one’s own injustices is willed ignorance, that is, desired ignorance, even if it is not consciously desired or chosen. The passage by Russell above describes willed ignorance.

[5] When it comes to human projects, Murphy’s Law is axiomatic. “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. Human history is a stark reminder and testament to this adage. So save yourself the agony of recurring disappointment and read my recent essay “On the Perils of Faith, Hope, Optimism and Positive Thinkinghere:


[6] As an undergraduate at Cambridge Russell had become increasingly disenchanted with the way in which his lecturers and tutors had taught mathematics. Their lack of logical rigour seemed to reduce it to no more than a bag of tricks and recipes designed for the puzzle-solving demands of the Mathematical Tripos Examinations. His interests shifted to the need to put mathematics on a secure logical and factual basis, and so from mathematics to philosophy. But the need for a foundation for mathematics was more than a philosophical challenge. Russell craved for the possibility of absolute certainty which, if there was such a possibility, he could only find in logic and mathematics. For over a decade he engaged in debilitating intellectual toil, collaborating with Alfred North Whitehead, on an epic undertaking to provide mathematics with a secure logical basis. Their work transformed mathematical logic, but the entire ten year project Principia Mathematica was literally destroyed by a paradox in set theory which has become famous as “Russell’s Paradox”.

Russell and Whitehead’s fundamental logical process was to be found in set theory, an important component of any study of logic. Most sets are not members of themselves, but some are, such as the set of all non-men (because a set is not a man). The logical obstacle which their philosophical project met was the question: Is the set of all sets which are not members of itself, also a member of itself? This proposition is neither true nor false. Thus Russell’s dream of certainty became a paradoxical nightmare. After nearly two years a way was discovered to patch things up by defining a suitably restricted class of sets. But irreparable damage to the decade long project had been done, both to the attempt to provide mathematics with an incontrovertible foundation in logic, and to the attempt to satisfy Russell’s craving for certainty. Nevertheless the final consequence of Russell and Whitehead’s prodigious efforts was Principia Mathematica, a towering intellectual achievement. But this failed quest for certainty had a detrimental psychological effect of Russell from which he never quite fully recovered.

Denied the absolute certainty which he had sought in mathematics – a foundation on which he could establish his thinking – Russell’s interests now moved decisively towards philosophical Realism and Semantics. Having found that logic could not be used to spin a web fine enough to control Mathematics he did not abandon logic, but developed an analytical approach that led to what is now called “philosophical logic”. Russell thus led a revolt against Idealism, a doctrine fashionable in philosophy at the turn of the twentieth century and the techniques which he developed established the basis of 20th century analytical philosophy. In a lengthy New York Times obituary on Russell’s death in 1970, it read:

The year 1900 was one of the most important of Russell's life. In July he attended an International Congress of Philosophy in Paris and met Giuseppe Peano, an originator of symbolic logic. Russell devoured Peano's works. Recounting his exhilaration, he wrote:

"For years I had been endeavoring to analyze the fundamental notions of mathematics, such as order and cardinal numbers. Suddenly, in the space of a few weeks, I discovered what appeared to be definite answers to the problems which had baffled me for years. And in the course of discovering these answers, I was introducing a new mathematical technique, by which regions formerly abandoned to vagueness of philosophers were conquered for the precision of exact formulae."

In October he sat down to write "The Principles of Mathematics," putting down 200,000 words in three months. With its publication in 1902, he plunged into an eight-year task of elucidating the logical deduction of mathematics that became "Principia Mathematica." Reducing abstractions to paper was a grueling intellectual task. "Every morning I would sit down before a blank sheet of paper," he said. "Throughout the day, with a brief interval for lunch, I would stare at the blank sheet. Often when evening came it was still blank."

As time went on and the agony of effort increased, Russell "often wondered whether I should ever come out of the other end of the tunnel in which I seemed to be." Several times he contemplated suicide, but he persevered. However, he said, "my intellect never quite recovered from the strain."

"I have been ever since definitely less capable of dealing with difficult abstractions than I was before," he said.

"Principia Mathematica," one of the world's great rationalist works, cost Russell and Whitehead, his off-and-on collaborator, 50 pounds each to publish. Despite its complexities, the book took the mystery out of mathematical knowledge and eliminated any connection that might have been supposed to exist between numbers and mysticism.

Principia Mathematica was a work which, even if its basic objective was later substantially undermined by the discoveries of German mathematician Kurt Gödel and the paradox that undermined the project, it was still massively influential not only in the development of analytic philosophy but in the rising science of computer programming.

Logic, mathematics, philosophy, international involvement, anti-war and civil rights and activist dissent were his passions but when it came to matters of the intellect, human rights and social conscience, Bertrand Russell was the hallowed, if often harrowed, master of his times. It would simply not be fair if that much achievement in one realm did not come at a price, and for Russell, that price was deeply personal. As brilliant as he was in thought, he was a at times - as we all are - imprudent in many relationships as he hopelessly pursued meaningful, emotional connections with other human beings, particularly his disappointing connections with women which went in most cases from disaster to tragedy.

As a child Russell lost his sister, both his parents, and his grandfather by the age of six, leaving him and his brother in the care of his arch-Victorian grandmother, to whom social conformity and stifling religious beliefs were the very essence of life. Russell learned early on to bury his intelligence and emotions deep down, to get by through a false facade of dutifulness and orthodoxy - all while churning inside with religious doubts and sexual impulses. For years he lived this false double life, deeply alone in his mind and body, unable to engage honestly with anyone until he moved at last to college. For some fascinating personal insights I highly recommend Russell’s three volume autobiography.

His autobiography is a testament of a young man desperate for intellectual companionship, devoted with an almost obsessive fervour to the private delights of logic and mathematics, and bursting at the seams with sexual frustration and shame. It is no wonder at all that he rushed into a first marriage with an entirely romanticized and unrealistic notion of who his partner was and what he could expect from life with her. For not the first time in his life, he saw what he wanted to see in his prospective partner, got carried away with visions of shared bliss, and worked himself up to such a pitch of expectation that disappointment could only be his lot. That pattern repeated itself through three of his four marriages, all of his many affairs, and his tragic succession of friendships eagerly begun and dismally ended, including with philosophers G.E. Moore and Ludwig Wittgenstein, novelists D.H. Lawrence and Joseph Conrad, his anti-war activism during the First World War for which he was imprisoned for six months, his revulsion at the Vietnam War and the independent inquiry resulting in a book War Crimes in Vietnam and late in life in his 80s the collaboration with Albert Einstein (the Russell-Einstein Manifesto) and others against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the movement he, Albert Einstein and many other intellectuals of the time led against nuclear disarmament, a movement that is ongoing today. 


More than his brilliant contributions to philosophy, logic and mathematics, more than his beautifully literary popularizations of the history of philosophy, is Russell’s great gift to humanism, the tradition of socially engaged, intellectual skepticism that publicly and persistently questions its own assumptions with as much vitality as it does those of its opponents.

Russell showed humanists how they could turn their gifts of rational analysis, empiricism, adherence to truth regardless of how unpleasant and a ruthless honesty and endorsement of the public good - by becoming for the world what Socrates was to Athens, the relentless annoying gadfly constantly buzzing hither and thither, stinging and prodding, debunking obscurantism, revealing deceit and the whitewash of history, ongoing crimes of capitalism all in the interest of a better world and preventing anyone from getting too satisfied and smug with themselves. Only Russell took the entire process one step forward by adding active participation in the world to his withering commentary on its shortcomings and optimistic appraisal of its potential.

The politically engaged humanist might not have been Russell’s invention, but he brought the identity unheard-of prominence, going to jail twice for his encouragement of resistance to immoral governmental policies (the second time at the age of eighty-nine for protesting nuclear armament). He wrote directly to Nikita Khrushchev, Dwight Eisenhower, Zhou Enlai and Jawaharlal Nehru, urging them to reach out to the global community to make their positions approachably understood, and he succeeded in calming world tensions in the midst of crisis on a number of occasions thereby. He took up administrative posts and leadership roles in groups that organized resistance to nuclear arms and the Vietnam conflict, demonstrating that philosophy without trying to make a better world in an age of injustice and potential mass destruction, no longer sufficient.

The world did not always reward him for his public service. For every Nobel Prize or Order of Merit he received, there were decades of hard-scrabble existence, writing literally hundreds of polemical articles and living a bare-bones existence to keep his family from starving, since no university would have a man of his reputation on its staff for long before priests and other religious bigots, hypocrites and sclerotic conservatives began the clamour for his removal in the name of public morality.

[7] Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) led the Italian Communist Party in the 1920s before Mussolini’s government sent him to prison for speaking and writing against fascism. While in prison he wrote the Prison Notebooks (1929-1935), in which he developed the idea of cultural hegemony. He died at the age of forty-six while still in prison after eleven years. British historian E.J. Hobsbawm described Antonio Gramsci as “an extraordinary philosopher, perhaps a genius, probably the most original communist thinker of the 20th century in Western Europe.” Born on the island of Sardinia into a recently impoverished family, Gramsci experienced the harsh conditions he was to write about. As a revolutionary socialist and co-founder of the Italian Communist Party, his effectiveness as a radical thinker, journalist, agitator and organizer led to his arrest and incarceration by Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime in 1926. The charge was treason - attempting to “undermine the Italian state.” Gramsci introduced the notion of “hegemony” - the manner in which the ruling classes and power elites in any society maintain their position of power and privilege by promoting its values and beliefs through the institutions such as education and the media that it controls, thereby suppressing any popular desire for change by indoctrination, propaganda and containment strictly within the parameters for what passes for intelligent dialogue.

Consequently, for many conservatives and rightwing liberals alike “hegemony”’ is a dirty word that connotes the many abuses of power, including indoctrination and systemic corruption. But it is also possible to view it more neutrally, as simply the process by which we, the members of a certain culture, form our assumptions about reality, which, once formed, exert influence on behavior, policy, capitalist ideology and laws. But how much influence, authority and impact do the masses have on these important cultural norms? Despite its powerful influence, hegemony is never final in the same way that culture is never final because culture is always interacting with various influences that keep it in a state of instability. But hegemony can be challenged and eventually replaced by another world view and perhaps even in a peaceful manner. But most change of any significance demands solidarity, organization and dedicated revolutionary methods and action by replacing the ruling elites. In the case of today’s dictatorship of global finance capitalism, it will likely require an implosion and collapse of the entire depraved edifice.

Mussolini had once referred to Gramsci as “this Sardinian hunchback and professor of economics and philosophy” who had “an unquestionably powerful brain.” At his trial the government prosecutor pointed directly at Gramsci and famously proclaimed, “For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning” and that was sentence, typical of fascist and other authoritarian regimes. The serious health problems that plagued Gramsci’s entire life continued as he spent most of the remainder of his life in Mussolini’s dark dank prisons. When his health deteriorated to a life-threatening situation he was moved to prison clinics in 1933 and 1937. Just prior to gaining his freedom in April, 1937 he succumbed to a stroke at age 46. While in prison Gramsci wrote his famous 34 volume Prison Notebooks in addition to 3,000 pages of hand written notes.

In 1929, writing from his prison cell, Gramsci tried to put his youngest brother Carlo’s fears to rest with these words:

You must realize that I am far from feeling beaten…it seems to me that… a man out to be deeply convinced that the source of his own moral force is in himself — his very energy and will, the iron coherence of ends and means — that he never falls into those vulgar, banal moods, pessimism and optimism. My own state of mind synthesizes these two feelings and transcends them: my mind is pessimistic but my will is optimistic. Whatever the situation, I imagine the worst that could happen in order to summon up all my reserves and will power to overcome every obstacle.

For Gramsci “the crisis” of his time and by extension to our own, arises from the fact that the old order is expiring but the new one cannot be born. In the intervening period, certain “morbid symptoms” emerge as they are today from multiple fronts, including overpopulation, systemic corruption, gross economic disparities, the re-emergence of fascism and widespread ecological collapse. Most importantly, there is no guarantee the new order will be better or worse than the present one and it could be catastrophically worse with even more despotic authoritarianism, both religious and secular.

One need not look far today to justify pessimism of the intellect, for Gramsci’s “morbid symptoms.” Decision-making in the USA and most of the Western World remains in the hands of massive private tyrannies; the systematic undoing of reformist concessions wrung from corporate capitalists and financial vultures has accelerated that includes endless imperialistic wars, millions of plant and animal species on extinction lists and four decades of demented tyrannical neo-liberal police state ideology that has produced grotesque economic inequalities, an empathy deficit disorder of epic proportions, record number of desperate refugees and homeless people throughout the world, ecocide and global heating which is euphemistically called “climate change”,  the populist reactionary right wing and outright fascism is gaining political ascendency around the globe, political manipulation, propaganda, manufacture of consent and endless irrationalities including conspiracies about covid-19 and environmentalism have attained unprecedented levels. All this as the American Empire with its 900 military bases throughout the world is in both moral and material decline and therefore its incomparable power is even more threatening to our collective existence and with the world seemingly in its death throes, the disjointed and diminishing impact of the revolutionary left is showing unmistakable signs of fragmentation and dysfunction as capitalism continues its depraved parasitic program of devouring what’s left of the world’s wealth and a gang raped Mother Nature.

On a personal level, claiming to face things as they really are - mandates looking into the abyss and acknowledging that my life may have been superfluous and perhaps relegated to irrelevancy. Viewing this from another perspective, thinking I’ve been right about so many things hasn’t counted for nearly as much as I’d assumed when much younger , more naive and optimistic. The awareness that the United States, the UK, Europe and the complicity of my own Canadian government is responsible for most of the world’s overt and structural violence is a background drum beat in my life of desperation and often leaves me feeling like a stranger in a strange land (to cite the title of Robert A Heinlein’s great sci-fi novel, one of many I read as a young teen).

I’d like to think I’m not alone in my radical, contrarian, often pessimistic, thinking but when you try to engage with many people, they not only don’t seem to care about what deeply concerns me, they don’t even want to know. Moreover the seemingly diminishing levels of civility and empathy paired with an increase in selfishness from one or two sociopathic asshole neighbors from hell has shocked me into a condition of increasing pessimism and even cynicism. I’ve always found the undemocratic uncaring attitudes of ordinary people mimicking the injustices and greed of ruling elites deeply disturbing and unacceptable. The beliefs and world views of that are particularly unique to many Christians and other conservatives certainly have not made most of them better people and those I have spoken with over the years very likely have not changed any hearts and minds. But for many of my Christian friends, but not all since some are decent people and even passionate environmentalists, salvation is already guaranteed and consequently they feel no need to care about the state of the collapsing material world which is only a temporary bus stop on the way to the Promised Land.

What then, is pessimism of the intellect? It’s seeing the world as it actually is, not some fantasy or fairy tale narrative about how we’d like it to be. It means questioning everything, challenging the status quo and not accepting what we are told at face value and in the absence of evidence. We must be skeptical and critical regarding what we’ve heard and read since childhood. This is the essence of a genuine education that must continue outside the classroom walls until we die. We need to understand what authorities are reliable and those that are not; certainly most that have vested interests, privilege and power are not. In terms of optimism of the will, Gramsci implies that humans, especially those like me on the political left and sympathetic to anarchism, have the capacity to overcome new challenges, to courageously move forward and create a better world in the face of very long odds. So be prepared to fail, but fail better. We can’t predict the course of history or even the weather beyond two or three days, but human agency is paramount and history is frequently made by the strength of human will.

Consistent with arguably the greatest intellectual of the past five decades, Noam Chomsky, a major focus of Gramsci’s work was on the role of intellectuals in challenging and re-organizing culture. Pessimism of the intellect requires discerning the truth about capitalism, economics, politics and the enigma we call “democracy”. However, Gramsci knew that “to say truth is revolutionary” but the reality is that most establishment intellectuals (most of whom are invariably “yes men” conservatives and limousine liberals) speak untruths to the docile and powerless hoi polloi. In his time, Gramsci observed this was so effective that “when truth is actually spoken, no one believes it.” In an age of universal deceit, truth, as Orwell so rightly declared, is a revolutionary act. Moreover, those who do speak the unpleasant unvarnished truth (not unlike environmentalists and peace activists) are deemed “enemies of the state”.

According to Gramsci it would be a grievous error to believe such matters are somehow only within the purview of individuals commonly referred to as “intellectuals.” Gramsci wrote about what he called organic intellectuals who emerge out of their socioeconomic locale. For the working classes, arriving at pessimism of the intellect and engaging in critical thinking are activities that can be performed by many different people depending on the occasion. It’s not about pedigrees, those possessing “superior powers of intellect,” certain writing skills or eloquence or special vocations. To be sure, affluence, leisure time and opportunity all factor in but “working class intellectual” is not an oxymoron. Some of the most intelligent, insightful and knowledgeable people I have known and with whom I’ve engaged in dialogue had no college education but rather enlightened and educated themselves.  On the other hand, some of the most arrogant and ignorant had graduate degrees.

“These organic intellectuals are distinguished less by their profession, which may be any job characteristic of their class, than by their function in directing the ideas and aspirations of the class to which they rightly belong.” This is what Gramsci meant by stating “all men are philosophers” or all individuals are intellectuals, in capacity if not always function. Different classes are intermediaries with their own intellectuals and the working class is fully capable of generating its own organic intellectuals in this broad sense. Noam Chomsky’s position is that most people we call “intellectuals” are a special class of people who are lavishly rewarded for imposing the ideas of those in power on the rest of us. He’s suggesting that people need to develop an “intellectual self defense” against these primarily conservative and self-described liberal “intellectuals.”’ Chomsky continues, “My suspicion is that plenty of people in the crafts, auto mechanics and so on, probably do as much or more intellectual work than people in the universities…if by ‘intellectual’ you mean people who are using their minds, then it’s all over society.”

Personally, this more nuanced and more inclusive view of the intellectual is a valid one in the sense that to be an intellectual is to be a counter-culture social critic, someone who identifies, analyzes and assists the vast majority to overcome obstacles blocking the way to solidarity, sense of community and the attainment of a better more free, humane and rational social edifice. To be sure, such a person will be treated as an irritant and a troublemaker (even enemy of the state) by those in power and it takes courage and commitment to withstand the social and political pressures.

What happens in the absence of optimism of the will? We already see it in those people who adopt a cheerful optimism of banality that Gramsci describes as “nothing but a way to defend one’s laziness, irresponsibility, and unwillingness to do anything” (Prison Notebooks, Number 9). More common is a sense of impotence, futility, fatalism and withdrawal into oneself to fend off further despair, a voluntary disengagement that U of Texas journalism professor emeritus Robert Jensen identifies as “the ultimate exercise of privilege.”

Listen to Professor Richard Wolff on Antonio Gramsci:

Ask Prof Wolff: The Contribution of Antonio Gramsci - YouTube

And here:

Richard Wolff On Gramsci And Hegemony ft. Richard Wolff (TMBS 87) - YouTube

But the dark place where we are at now was predicted even earlier by three Marxist philosophers, including Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm and Jurgen Habermas that were part of the Frankfurt School, Germany’s Institute for Social Research. Read the excellent article by Ryan Gunderson, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Gerontology at Miami University.

Here’s to the Last Philosophes, the Frankfurt School - CounterPunch.org

Suggested Reading and Videos:

Check out my graduate school dissertation Constructive Skepticism, Critical Thinking and the Ethics of Belief:


John Stossel and the value of skepticism on …wait for it… Fox News. Yeah, really, Fox News actually has something worth watching once or twice a decade….

Part One: (Introduction with Michael Shermer)


Part Two: (The True Believer; Gods and Ghosts)


Part Three: (Financial Quacks)


Part Four: (The James Randi Million Dollar Huckster Challenge)


Bertrand Russell, On the Value of Skepticism

Online essay: https://www.panarchy.org/russell/scepticism.html

Bertrand Russell, Skeptical Essays and Unpopular Essays

Bertrand Russell, The Will to Doubt

Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things

Michael Shermer, TED talk on why people believe weird things:


Michael Shermer, Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye

Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain

Michael Shermer, How we Believe

Michael Shermer, Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye

Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World

Robert Todd Carroll, The Skeptics Dictionary

Skeptic’s Dictionary Online


Philosophy Now, Aug/Sept 2017 article by Peter Adamson, “Don’t be too sure”


Why You Should Question Everything by Guy P. Harrison


"Think" is a fantastic and inspirational book that will teach readers how to think like scientists. Question everything, embrace doubt is a recurring theme that accomplished author, historian, anthropologist Guy P. Harrison drives home with mastery and clarity. This is an entertaining and illuminating book that will empower you to avoid common pitfalls of bad thinking in a constructive way. This enlightening 300-page book includes the following five chapters: 1. Standing Tall on a Fantasy-prone Planet, 2. Pay a Visit to the Strange Thing That Lives Inside Your Head, 3. A Thinker's Guide to Unusual Claims and Weird Beliefs, 4. The Proper Care and Feeding of a Thinking Machine, and 5. So Little to Lose and a Universe to Gain.


1. Beautifully written and researched book. Harrison has a passion for his topic that is palpable and admirable. A master at conveying clear and inspirational thoughts grounded in good science and sound thinking.

2. Skepticism is a great topic. This book is enlightening and fun to read.

3. Harrison always delivers! Quality critical thinking goes in before his books come out. He has earned my trust as an author that will consistently deliver a book worthy of my time and interest.

4. Drives home the need for skepticism. "Skepticism is an important issue for everyone. It's something we all need, regardless of intelligence, education, location, social status, or income."

5. This is a thought-provoking book and a quote fest, "Skepticism is just about having a healthy dose of doubt and using reason to figure out what is probably real from what is probably not real. It means not believing you know something before you can prove it or at least make a very good case for it. Skepticism is nothing more than thinking and withholding belief until enough evidence has been presented."

6. Harrison has a unique gift of giving intellectual beat downs in the nicest and most constructive ways. "Millions of people say that paranormal mind powers can move objects. Big deal; people can say anything. Let's wait until someone gets around to proving it before we get excited. In the meantime, why not check out how nature moves entire continents? It's called plate tectonics and scientists have plenty of evidence for it."

7. In defense of good science. "Science is best thought of as a tool. And, like most tools, it can be used to do something constructive or to whack somebody over the head. Science is a great way of thinking and discovering that helps us figure out much about the world and the universe."

8. Debunking common misconceptions. "Being smart, whatever that word means to you, doesn't automatically make someone a good skeptic."

9. Understanding the right approach to skepticism and it may involve just asking the right questions. "If believers refuse to think critically about their claims then call them on it. Why are you reluctant to challenge a claim that you say is so important and obviously true? What are you afraid of?"

10. The value of being a good skeptic. "Weak skepticism is perhaps the greatest unrecognized global crisis of all. Every day, people waste time, throw away money, suffer, and even die because they failed to think like a scientist."

11. A great discussion on brain science and how it relates to skepticism. "The good news for you is that just being aware of how your brain goes about its business greatly improves your chances of keeping both feet planted in reality." A bonus quote, "We don't really see what we look at. Instead our brain tells us what we see, and it doesn't give us the complete and accurate picture." Great stuff!

12. One of the great strengths of this wonderful book: reasons to be skeptical. Harrison goes through a long list of reasons to be skeptical in an accessible and intelligible manner.

13. Sound scientific principles. "The best we can do is accept conclusions that are backed up by the best evidence we have today and agree to change our minds if better evidence ever comes along that says something different tomorrow."

14. Great examples of common biases/fallacies and how to recognize them. Consider the Base-rate fallacy. "We can readily find ourselves focusing on one tiny speck of information (a single story, for example) or on bad data that supports a claim while simultaneously ignoring more credible information or a larger body of data that goes against it."

15. Provides MANY great examples of bad claims. "The basic claim of homeopathic medicine is that water can "remember" an active ingredient in the original brew and that--contrary to logic--the more you dilute the solution, the more potent it becomes for treating diseases. Most homeopathic remedies are diluted to such extremes that there is nothing left of the original active ingredient!" "Complementary or alternative medicine is really just unproven medicine."

16. Find out Harrison's favorite end-time scenario.

17. Addressing the so called Moon-hoax, "The late Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon, summed it up nicely: "It would have been harder to fake it than to do it."

18. Good overall health, including brain health. "There is just something about flipping back and forth between languages that keeps a brain sharp and healthy. It even seems to delay for years the onset of Alzheimer's disease in elderly people."

19. The hard cold facts, "humankind currently spends hundreds of billions of dollars per year on fortunetellers, medical quackery, and other nonsense."

20. A sense of awe. "By the way, if your life ever seems too slow, just remember that the Earth is spinning at the equator at a rate of about a thousand miles per hour. We are also flying through space around the Sun at speeds of more than 65,000 miles per hour."

21. Excellent notes, Bibliography and even a section called Resources to Keep Learning.


1. There is very little in this excellent book to complain about other than the feeling I get that Harrison wanted to go deeper into some of the topics and decided to go for quality and brevity over a more comprehensive approach.

2. On such an ambitious and broad topic like thinking and skepticism you can certainly question everything but it's too hard to cover everything. That is, some topics were left out: 911 conspiracy, Holocaust deniers, etc... Understandably so.

In summary, what a wonderful and inspirational book this turned out to be. Skepticism is a fantastic topic that has real value for the individual and society. Harrison succeeds in showing how to put good thinking into practice by applying it to a number of fascinating and popular paranormal claims. But what set this book apart from most are the youthful glee for knowledge and the quest for wisdom. "I love knowing that I'll never run out of things to learn and experience." My sentiments exactly! You owe it to yourself to be a good skeptic, get this book and learn how.

Further recommendations: "50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True" and "50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God" by the same author, "Critical Thinking" by Wayne Bartz, "An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist" and "The Magic of Reality" by Richard Dawkins, "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" by Carl Sagan, "This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works" edited by John Brockman, "Nonsense: A Handbook of Logical Fallacies" by Robert J. Gula, "The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible" by Joe Nickell, "Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine" by Paul A. Offit, "Tales of the Rational" by Massimo Pigliucci, "Voodoo Science" by Robert Park, "Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy" by Robert M. Hazen "Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science" by Shawn Lawrence, "Lies, Damned Lies, and Science" by Sherry Seethaler, and "Science Under Siege" by Kendrick Frazier.

Steven Novella

Dr. Steven Novella, MD, is an assistant professor of neurology at Yale University School of Medicine and the author of the excellent book The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, host of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, author of the NeuroLogica blog, executive editor of the Science-Based Medicine blog and president of The New England Skeptical Society. Here is his piece from the long standing periodical The Skeptical Inquirer.

Why Skepticism?

By Steven Novella, Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 40, No. 5, September / October 2016
Twenty years ago, I became actively involved in the skeptical movement when I and several others founded a humble local skeptical group. We were inspired by CSICOP (now CSI) and Skeptical Inquirer to add what we could to efforts to make the world a more skeptical place.

Over the past two decades, the skeptical landscape has changed quite a bit, but one constant has been the endless question: What is skepticism? What exactly do we do and why? As the movement has grown and diversified, the question has become only more complex.

What Is the Mission of the Skeptical Movement?

I have come to understand that scientific skepticism is a weird beast that is often difficult to understand, especially from the outside. We are not exactly scientists or journalists or lobbyists or educators, and yet we are all of those things to some extent.

I think the best way to explain scientific skepticism is that it is expertise in everything that can go wrong with science and belief, and it includes execution, communication, education, and regulation. It combines knowledge of science, philosophy, and critical thinking with special expertise in flawed reasoning and deception.

To understand this better, here is a list of what scientific skeptics promote and do.

Respect for Knowledge and Truth: Skep­tics value reality and what is true. We therefore endeavor to be as reality-based as possible in our beliefs and opinions. This means subjecting all claims to a valid process of evaluation.

Methodological Naturalism: Skeptics believe that the world is knowable because it follows certain rules or laws of nature. The only legitimate methods for knowing anything empirical about the universe follows this naturalistic assumption. In other words, within the realm of the empirical you don’t get to invoke magic or the supernatural.

Promotion of Science: Science is the only set of methods for investigating and understanding the natural world. Science is therefore a powerful tool and one of the best developments of human civilization. We therefore endeavor to promote the role of science in our society, public understanding of the findings and methods of science, and high-quality science education. This includes protecting the integrity of science and education from ideological intrusion or antiscientific attacks. This also includes promoting high-quality science, which requires examining the process, culture, and institutions of science for flaws, biases, weaknesses, conflicts of interest, and fraud.

Promotion of Reason and Critical Think­ing: Science works hand-in-hand with logic and philosophy, and therefore skeptics also promote understanding of these fields and the promotion of critical thinking skills.

Science vs. Pseudoscience: Skeptics seek to identify and elucidate the borders between legitimate science and pseudoscience, to expose pseudoscience for what it is, and to promote knowledge of how to tell the difference.

Ideological Freedom/Free Inquiry: Science and reason can flourish only in a secular society in which no ideology (religious or otherwise) is imposed upon individuals or the process of science or free inquiry.

Neuropsychological Humility: Being a functional skeptic requires knowledge of all the various ways in which we deceive ourselves, the limits and flaws in human perception and memory, the inherent biases and fallacies in cognition, and the methods that can help mitigate all these flaws and biases.

Consumer Protection: Skeptics endeavor to protect themselves and others from fraud and deception by exposing fraud and educating the public and policy-makers to recognize deceptive or misleading claims or practices.

Addressing Specific Claims: Skeptics combine all of the above to address specific claims that are flawed, biased, or pseudoscientific; and engages in public discussions of these claims.

Cultural Memory: Skeptics as a whole act as the cultural memory for pseudoscience and scams of the past. Such beliefs tend to repeat themselves, and remembering the past can be very useful in quickly putting such beliefs into their proper perspective.

Science Journalism: Many skeptics spend a large portion of their time doing straight science communication and journalism, which is important because science is so central to our mission. This is also an important skill to explore and develop because it is so rarely done well. Correcting and criticizing bad science news reporting, especially in the Internet age, has become a large part of what skeptics do.

What Topics Do We Cover?

Traditional skepticism addresses a very broad range of topics: all of alternative medicine, parapsychology, crypto-zoology, conspiracy theories, scams, postmodernism, self-help, education, science and the media, neuroscience and self-deception, fringe science, and a long list of topics that have political, religious, or social implications: genetically modified foods, organic farming, free energy and other energy issues, climate change, creationism, miracle claims, faith-healing, prophesy, channeling—the list is massive.

There has been frequent discussion about which topics skeptics “should” cover. My approach has always been that everyone, of course, should feel free to cover whatever topics suit their interests, motivations, and talents. There are no correct or wrong topics to cover.

There are, however, many considerations worth discussing. Skepticism is a method of applying science and critical thinking to all areas. It is worth thinking about how those methods relate to any particular topic of interest.

Here are some of the factors I consider when deciding what topics to address as part of my skeptical activism.

Teachable Moment: One very important criterion is this: Would addressing a claim or topic provide a useful teachable moment? Since one (if not the) primary goal of skepticism is education, this is a crucial criterion, and in fact it is often sufficient reason to address a topic.

This is the primary reason I have never addressed issues such as ghosts, Bigfoot, astrology, or the Bermuda Triangle (classic skeptical topics all). I honestly don’t care at all about ghosts, and I agree that this has extremely low priority as an issue. However, ghost hunters engage in a variety of pseudo­scientific activities and defend their claims with numerous logical fallacies.

There are many generic lessons about science and critical thinking that can be learned by examining any pseudoscience, and often the most obvious ones are the best examples.

I have also found that by examining the full spectrum of pseudoscience, I have been able to see recurring patterns that enable me to understand pseudoscience much more thoroughly and then apply those lessons to more important areas such as medicine.

Interest: Related to the teachable moment criterion is public interest. The whole point is to engage the public, and one technique for doing so is to go to where the people already are. The public is interested in ghosts, cryptids, and UFOs, and in fact they often learn pathological science from popular treatments of these topics.

If we leave these popular subjects to the charlatans, they will happily spread scientific illiteracy unopposed. This is, however, a great opportunity to teach the public about how science actually operates, mechanisms of self-deception, how to tell if a claim is valid, and how to detect pseudoscience.

Addressing pseudoscience and the paranormal is a way to popularize science, such as writing about the physics of Star Trek or the philosophy of The Simpsons. Ghosts and UFOs are the hook; the payoff is scientific literacy and the ability to think a bit more critically.

Impact: The relative impact or importance of an issue is definitely important, and nothing I write here should be interpreted as dismissing or minimizing that point. In fact, as the skeptical movement has matured over the past few decades I have noticed a definite shift to issues of greater social importance.

My primary issue is alternative medicine, the abject infiltration of fraud and pseudoscience into the institutions of healthcare. This results in the wasting of billions of dollars and diverting of research funds, and it causes direct harm to the health of individuals.

Other important issues we tackle regularly are vaccine refusal, global climate change, genetically modified foods, our energy infrastructure, future technology, teaching creationism and other pseudoscience in science classes, issues surrounding mental illness, the self-help industry, scams, racial or gender pseudoscience, and other issues that have a direct impact on people’s lives and our civilization. We also may consider how much of an effect we can have. Some issues are more amenable to scientific information than others.

Expertise: The world needs all kinds of experts, and scientific skepticism is a legitimate area of expertise. It involves a deep knowledge of pseudoscience, the philosophy of science, mechanisms of deception, neuropsychological humility, scams, logic, and other aspects of critical thinking. This includes knowledge of the history of pseudoscience.

Within skepticism, individuals also tend to focus their writing and speaking on their area of scientific expertise. So, skeptical doctors focus on medicine, astronomers on astronomy, biologists on issues such as evolution and creation, physicists on free energy, and so on.

If we have a bias, it is toward the areas of expertise that also tend to attract people to the skeptical movement itself, but this is hard to avoid. It is also not simple to correct, and straying outside of our areas of expertise is not a good solution. At the very least, it takes a lot more work to address an issue about which I am not already fairly expert.

Filling a Need: Very relevant to the question of what targets skeptics choose is who else, if anyone, is already addressing those problems. For example, reviewing evidence and establishing a standard of care for a particular issue within mainstream medicine is very important, but there are already professional societies that do that. All physicians and scientists should be skeptical, but in areas where mainstream scientists are already doing just fine at addressing misperceptions, physicians who have an expertise in skepticism are not needed and have nothing particular to add.

We tend to focus our efforts where there is the most need, meaning where there is a current lack of attention. Fringe ideas tend not to get attention from scientists, who don’t want to waste their time. Whether or not this is a reasonable position is debatable, but meanwhile skeptics are happy to fill the void. As a skeptical neurologist, for example, I am not going to spend my time delving into and engaging in debate over the possible mechanisms of Parkinson’s disease. There are scientists who are doing that. But I will engage with those claiming that near-death experiences are evidence for an afterlife because most scientists don’t bother to do that.

Journalistic Integrity: This last criterion is a bit of a personal choice. Some journalists and outlets unapologetically advocate for a political ideology. Everyone knows the Huffington Post is a liberal news source, for example. Some journalists, however, try to be as politically neutral as possible so that they will be viewed as a fair arbiter of factual information and analysis.

Similarly, some skeptics combine their skeptical activism with ideological activism. I have no problem with this, and most are upfront about it. Some skeptics, however, choose to be political or ideologically neutral in their activism, except for a defense of science and reason. I think this can be helpful.

While I certainly do have political opinions, I try to keep them separate from questions of science and evidence. If, for example, I am discussing global warming, I want to focus on the science and not be dismissed as liberal. Or if I am writing about GMOs, I do not want to be dismissed as conservative or libertarian. That can still happen, sometimes simultaneously, because people make unwarranted self-serving assumptions, but it helps when it is untrue. My opinions on these and similar topics are informed by the science, not my politics. This becomes a harder sell when you are also advocating for a political position. I also think it is helpful to have a movement that is based upon evidence and logic and is agnostic toward ideological positions or values, which are tangential.

Finally, it is more challenging to be neutral and unbiased when dealing with an issue about which you have a passionate ideological belief. You can make a reasonable argument for steering clear of such issues when trying to communicate objective science, or at least proceeding especially carefully. Otherwise you risk damaging your reputation as a science communicator.

What about Religion?

More often than not, the question of what skeptics do and what topics we address comes to the topic of religion. While I believe I have addressed all the relevant issues above, this is a common enough question that it is worth special mention.

No skeptical activist I know treats religious claims differently from any other type of claims. Any claim to empirical truth or scientific knowledge, whether based ultimately in religious ideology or social or political ideology, is fair game. The criteria I outlined above apply. Philosophical arguments are also fair game, as the tools of logic and critical thinking apply.

However, it is important to recognize that faith statements are simply different from scientific or philosophical statements. This does not mean they are exempt from critical thinking; it just means you need to be aware of the context and address them properly. This distinction, however, is often misinterpreted as avoiding religious claims, which is patently not true.

When a believer states that they believe something to be true based upon their own personal faith, there are a number of valid approaches. It is important to point out that the principles of freedom of religion and separation of church and state require that their personal faith not be imposed upon others. They don’t have a right to make other people follow their faith, to deprive their children of the basic necessities of life, or expect government to legislate their faith.

It is also useful to point out that beliefs based purely on faith are not subject to scientific analysis, and therefore they do not belong in the arena of science. They therefore cannot mix faith and science. Either the science stands on its own merit - or it doesn’t. You cannot legitimately use faith to rescue bad science from refutation or to render it immune to falsification.

This applies to faith-based beliefs that are not overtly religious. It is not uncommon for believers in alien visitation or extrasensory perception (ESP) to retreat to faith-based claims when the evidence does not support their position. They are effectively refuted by simply stating that they have left the arena of science and therefore have ceded this territory. If they wish to have a religion of ESP, then so be it, but they cannot simultaneously claim to be backed by science.

In other words, skeptics can address faith claims epistemologically without making the same epistemological error as the believer in order to falsely claim that empirical methods can disprove beliefs that are not empirically based.


Being part of the skeptical movement for most of my adult life has been extremely fulfilling and tremendously educational. After two decades, I still find it among the most rewarding work that I do. There is also a continued great need for the expertise and work of activist skeptics. We are engaged in work that will never be completed. Our goals are generational, to slowly move our species in the direction of science and reason.

Count me in until entropy prevails over my temporary biological processes.



                                                               For Home: