JR'S Free Thought Pages
A Skeptic’s Manifesto: Don’t Get Fooled Again
How to survive in a world of Anti-intellectualism and Bullshit
by Johnny Reb
“Have a nice day. Your call is important to us.”
The cornerstone of an authentic education: Question everything
Anyone who has seriously studied history, real history and not the racist ethnocentric biased distortions and downright bullshit we had drummed into us in our high school history courses, cannot believe that things would have gone better if people had been less skeptical and asked fewer questions of religious and political leaders. Bullshit, nonsense, propaganda and outright lies have a lot to answer for.
When Karl Marx was asked by his daughter to fill in a “confession”, an informal Victorian questionnaire, he declared that his favorite motto - usually attributed to the great French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes - was De omnibus dubitandum. Or, to put it another way, “question everything”. Skepticism and the idea of questioning all things, especially the legitimacy of all authority, intellectual or political, are surely the primary prerequisites for any serious inquirer or genuine education. This is becoming more important in an age where universities have become glorified trade schools and education overall more than ever dominated by corporatism and market forces. Many have become nothing more than preparation for a consumer culture and the workplace. You can now get an undergraduate degree in the ultimate banalities of “marketing” and “business”. In other words a University education has been reduced to a get rich scheme. And we wonder why students, after four years of college, are uncurious, cannot think critically, have no desire for self-reflection and know precious little about science, history, philosophy, literature or how to carry out basic research. Even our elite universities have become bastions of conservatism, disdainful of honest dispassionate intellectual inquiry or any inclination to challenge the existing system of corporatism, wealth and privilege. It fact it is at these institutions that the status quo is firmly upheld and perpetuated.
The Corporatist Education: docile drones for the workplace
There are now over forty private universities listed on either the NYSE or NASDAQ whose primary focus is training our young people for the world of business. In the age of greed, money and profit academic subjects gain status almost exclusively via their exchange value in the market. Twice as many students major in business related studies than in any other major and not surprisingly, students are now referred to as “customers,” while some university presidents even argue that professors be labeled “academic entrepreneurs.” Instead of using their platforms to address important pedagogical and social issues, university presidents are now called CEOs and are viewed primarily as fund raisers. Whereas the university was once prized as a place where students learned how to become engaged citizens educated in the knowledge, skills, values, and virtues of democracy, today they are trained to be pliable workers and dedicated consumers. At U C Berkeley the highest paid staff member is the football coach who makes about $3 million per annum, about 30 times more than a full professor, expressing quite graphically where the priorities are at one of the nation’s elite universities.
In the age of increasing specialization, pay for grades schemes, excessive instrumentalism, and an increasing contempt for critical thinking, higher education is producing new forms of political and civic illiteracy, turning out students who have little understanding of the complexities of the larger world, unaware of their power as social agents, and removed from those capacities that combine critique and a yearning for social justice, knowledge and social change, learning and compassion for others. The upshot is a growing generation of young people and adults that are barely literate and live in an atomized wired world and are either indifferent or complicit with a growing culture of uncaring indifference, narcissism and nihilism. Education at its best is about enabling students to take seriously questions about how they ought to live their lives, uphold the ideals of a just society, learn how to translate personal issues into public considerations and act upon the vision of a genuine democracy.
The Orwellian Nightmare
Public discourse in our times has become debased and trivialized. It contains a depressing brew of conservative bias, propaganda, distortion, spin and outright bullshit and lies. The sources of this debasement are ubiquitous, from leading purveyors such as evangelical religious leaders, right wing politicians and Big Business to almost every other locality of the cultural landscape. The conservative groups who seek to distract, manipulate, oversimplify, scam, obfuscate or mislead have full and easy access to the instruments of mass representation, communication and persuasion. All others who aim to be skeptical, to criticize or challenge the status quo, those who are leftist in politics sentiment, and speak truth to power no matter how discomforting or inconvenient, or to advocate for difficult but necessary choices and alternatives, are marginalized and denied a platform for their views. Political discourse is the most egregious example. Conservative politicians, with their hired pundits and handlers and wealthy financial backers typically subject us to an unrelenting flow of manipulative, mendacious misinformation, designed to mobilize the frustrated and discourage the thoughtful. They are creating an entire generation of Archie Bunkers. Those who have the audacity to challenge the status quo and criticize the system such as Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky, Sheldon Wolin, Howard Zinn, Amy Goodman, John Ralston Saul and Naomi Klein are muted by the Big Brother corporate media. Television journalism in particular is a farcical sham with celebrity reporters who make millions per year masquerading as bona fide investigative journalists, but who merely spin and equivocate, obsequiously catering to and providing a platform for conservative interests of power and privilege.
Anyone who cozies up to the powerful without asking them uncomfortable questions while making millions per year at Fox News and calls himself a journalist ought to have grave doubts. As E. L. Doctorow once said, “genuine journalists comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Those in power ought to fear journalists, but they have absolutely nothing to fear. Despite the fear mongering and ranting of our corporate media, the real enemy is not an Islamic fundamentalist, but the oligarchy of conservative financial elites who sold out and gutted the working classes with their insidious ideology of union bashing, unfettered free markets and globalization. They have abandoned and systematically demolished the middle class that was created during the 30 years following the Second World War and have destroyed the local and global economies. Moreover, they have plundered public assets and taxpayers to bail themselves out and destroyed any sense of community or common good and moral foundations of our society. The serious problems we now face are structural and systemic and they are not about to be fixed. US President Obama has enlisted the same cast of criminals to fix the problem as had Bush, the same Wall Street speculators and thugs who created the debacle in the first place and who are now plundering the public purse, robbing taxpayers and creating trillions in public debt that will never be repaid. In the seventeenth century speculators and scum such as these were locked into a public pillory for days and then summarily executed. Today they are rewarded with taxpayer dollars to bail them out. Go figure? If you hired a plumber and he flooded your home, would you re-hire him to repair the problem? It’s apparent to me that we are heading for a very long period of precarious social and economic instability with the worst to come. With the specter of impending fascism, it will not be pretty. As the great American novelist and social critic Sinclair Lewis once said over 70 years ago, “when fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and wearing a cross.” We only need examine the agenda and policies of eight years of George W Bush.
We, in the working class majority, are seldom treated as democracy’s primary and essential stakeholders; our needs and desires are simply ignored. This has generally been true throughout history regardless of the existing socio-economic system. We are rarely if ever treated to an honest, systematic, thought provoking, fair minded exploration of the real issues that face us, the cost and benefits of the available alternatives, or the real winners and losers of the policy choices of our elite masters. Today we are enticed by a culture of greed and gratuitous consumption by hypnotic marketing ploys with rarely any concern to the costs, environmental or human. The priority of profit is inexorably placed ahead of people. Day after day we are intellectually anesthetized by our corporate news media by stories inundated with trivia and celebrity fixation that shock or titillate, but offer little of substance or impartiality that allows for rational reflection or enduring enlightenment on issues that are of real concern. The corporate media control and frame nearly everything we read, watch or hear, imposing an insipid uniformity of predictable opinion and intransigent world view. Any point of view that conflicts with those of wealth and privilege and the corporate world view are not even contemplated.
Don’t be Duped
The recent book by Richard Wilson called Don’t Get Fooled Again: A Skeptics Handbook begins with a health warning: people are inclined by nature to more than a little credulity and self-deception. The average person, Wilson advises, tends to believe that they are above average in almost everything, especially in qualities such as intelligence, physical appearance and athleticism. Sadly, these delusions, lies that we tell ourselves, are multiplied by countless New Age and quasi-religious self-help gurus and their pseudo-scientific nonsense in best-selling books such as The Secret. “Help Me” Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret espouses an extreme form of epistemological relativism* in which the gap between belief and knowledge is closed off. Belief becomes synonymous with knowledge and reality. Who we become and particularly material success in life are merely a matter of holding to a set of comforting beliefs, a positive outlook and other ostensibly desired dispositional traits. Rhonda Byrne tells us our lives are the “mirror of the dominant thoughts you think” and blames the victims of misfortune for their “negative thoughts.” Consider the wretched skeletons in Darfur, subject to starvation and genocidal pogroms engineered by their fanatical Muslim imams and overlords. Their predicament is their own fault because of their inability to “visualize” their own happiness, safety and prosperity and wait for them to “manifest”. The secret is that this “secret” works when it does and doesn’t when it doesn’t. The Secret promotes what Chris Hedges calls a Peter Pan culture, a delusionary world in which if we simply visualize what we want, have blind faith in ourselves and a God that will grant miracles, tap into our inner resources and grab onto the idea that we are all truly exceptional in some way, that we will be happy, harmonious and most important of all, wealthy. Reality is thereby a metaphysical construct fashioned from wishful thinking and the sheer power of the will. This escape into the illusion of a contrived reality is peddled by charlatans like Byrne and a continuous onslaught of positive thinking gurus, evangelical preachers and new Age snake oil mountebanks that contaminates our mass media. Even PBS, once a rare sanctuary of intellectual stimulation, has thrown in the towel and endorsed pseudoscientific nonsense and escapist folly with “self-help” fraudsters like Wayne Dyer and Deepak Chopra.
*Epistemological relativism in its most radical form asserts that there is no mind independent truth and no objective facts, only competing strands of subjective opinion. Science is granted no more credibility than religion or pseudoscience. Consulting your horoscopes has as much veracity as a visit to your family physician. In addition to the relativity of truth, it is also argued, in spite of the paradoxes of self-reference, that rationality and critical thinking are indoctrinated dogmas. The self-referential paradox occurs because anyone making such claims assumes there are such things as truth and rationality, namely the arguments and assertions they are making, Socrates, in the Theaetetus, raises objections similar to those sketched above when he attacks Protagoras' claim that "Man is the measure of all things." Socrates argues that if Protagoras is right in claiming that what anyone takes to be true is true, it follows that his opponents are correct in denying that which anyone takes to be true is true, since that is what works for him. Hence, we end up with the self-contradictory dilemma in which "P is true for A" and "P is not true for B" are both true. The famous American pragmatist William James' claimed that truth is "whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief" results in precisely the same self-contradiction. For example, A argues: "You claim it is to be true for you that P, but then you are asserting that it is absolutely true that P is true for you." B argues: "No, I am saying it is true for me that P is true for me...etc, and so on ad infinitum. To assert a proposition is to assert it to be true, therefore, "the true is what is good in the way of belief" has to be asserted to be true, but to James it need only be taken to be "good in the way of belief." It is good to believe that the true is the good and good to believe that this belief is good, and so on. Bertrand Russell, a vehement critic of the pragmatic theory of truth, calls James' claim that "on pragmatic principles, if the hypothesis of God works in the widest sense of the word, it is true", a mere tautology. Russell’s cogent arguments against James can be found in his book Philosophical Essays. One of Russell's major points in the essay is that the true believer does not accept religious faith because it is useful; he accepts it because of his insistence that it is true. Surely, if Christianity, for example, is saying anything at all, it must be making claims about what is objectively the case. As the philosopher Roger Trigg has stated, "If religious claims are true, they are true whether people believe them or not, and ought to be accepted by everyone" and "if they are false, they are false for everyone, including Christians.”
Those who embrace relativism cannot seriously attempt to improve or correct their epistemic or moral judgements and so rational reflection and discourse become not only pointless, but also impossible. In any area the possibility of rational thinking and progress towards an improved understanding necessarily presupposes that there are grounds for distinguishing good and bad reasons, relevant and irrelevant considerations, truth and falsity. In denying these possibilities relativism also precludes reasoning. The most common, and perhaps the most revealing, objection to relativism of this kind is that no such relativism can account for itself. Relativism poses as a truth for all schemes, but in reference to what scheme is relativism to be judged? It therefore collapses into a self-referential paradox. Many religious apologists get caught in this paradox when they promote the absurd notion that atheism is just another faith position. If this is the case then the devout are in no position to criticize atheists for their beliefs. If their own competing beliefs are just articles of faith, we are left with a debilitating epistemological relativism where there are no rational grounds for establishing the truth of any belief. In other words what is true is “whatever is true for you.” This is particularly odd when we consider one of the most quoted passages of Jesus from the Gospels: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.” (John 14:6) Is this not an explicit absolutist assertion about the nature of truth? Surely Jesus did not imply that “you may come to the father in any way you choose” or “that’s my belief but you can believe whatever you want.” But consistency is not one of the hallmarks of the Bible. Consider in the same Gospel the story of Doubting Thomas where the moral of the story is implicit in the statement “blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:29), thus endorsing the principle that it is virtuous to believe that which you have no evidence to believe, a rather convenient maxim for a belief system for which there is an extreme shortage of evidence.
In sum, if all beliefs and values are just relative, each ultimately no better or worse than the rest, then it becomes absurd to even try to achieve objectivity and truth or live by a correct understanding of ethical behaviour. Those who embrace relativism cannot seriously attempt to improve or correct their epistemic or moral judgements and rational deliberation and discourse become not only pointless, but also unachievable. In any area the possibility of rational thinking and progress towards an improved understanding necessarily presupposes that there are grounds for distinguishing good and bad reasons, relevant and irrelevant considerations, truth and falsity. In denying these possibilities relativism also precludes reasoning. It is not even true, as is often suggested, that relativism implies that one ought to be tolerant of other views. A relativist may choose to be tolerant but there is no reason within relativism why he ought to. If all viewpoints and values are relative with no possibility of rationally judging between them, then the value of tolerance is no exception. An argument made by Hilary Putnam among others, states that some forms of relativism make it impossible to believe one is in error. If there is no truth beyond an individual's belief that something is true, then an individual cannot hold their own beliefs to be fallible or possibly false. (The above footnote was adapted in part from my dissertation Constructive Scepticism, Critical Thinking and the Ethics of Belief, UBC, 1994)
No one can reasonably deny the value of genuine self-esteem, optimism and a positive outlook, but not to the extent that it collapses into a precarious self-deception and detachment from reality. I’m reminded of the uniquely American cult of never-ending self-deceptive optimism shared by Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Al Pacino’s bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon, and the burned out disconsolate positive thinking real estate salesman played by Jack Lemmon in David Mamet’s brilliant Glengarry Glen Ross, cock sure that prospects will be looking up for them, that the big deal is just around the corner, a phone call away. They just need that magical positive attitude and to play their cards right. It’s disturbing when a book of outlandish pseudo-scientific rubbish such as The Secret garners so much attention from the naivety of people like Oprah Winfrey who ought to know better. When Oprah had Rhonda Byrne on as a guest and mindlessly touted the book, sales literally took off and has spent over three years on the top ten sellers for fiction (er, non-fiction). Rather than waste your precious time and money on this drivel, purchase a good introductory book on critical thinking.
The World is a Babbling Brook of Bullshit
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 (1946)
It would seem that only pessimists, skeptics and even “depressives,” have a realistic assessment of their own worth. The practice of embellishing and overstating one’s own attributes and abilities seems harmless enough, Wilson argues in his book, as optimistic and self-confident people tend to do better in life, at least materially. However, this propensity to believe what is politically prudent, convenient or comforting is positively dangerous when it comes to wider social and personal issues. Palliatives ought to be restricted to the terminally ill. From public-relations spin to pseudo-science, Wilson relates numerous instances in which our capacity to swallow a lie has had negative, even deadly consequences. To survive in a world of bullshit we need to sharpen our skeptical sensors and keep our wits about us.
Shortly before I retired in 1999 as a high school mathematics teacher, I recall with disgust and disdain the nonsense that was disseminated and preached by guest speakers at “professional days” and subsequently by obsequious administrators. This was especially prevalent when the self-esteem movement was in full swing. In spite of the horrendous conceptual confusion surrounding “self-esteem” it was promoted as the be all and end all to ostensibly improving student achievement. It has been, as I expected, an abysmal failure as I had tried at the time to explain to myself why it would here. Another form of bullshit imported from the business and corporate word that was all the rage for schools in those early days of free market hysteria was the idea of formulating a “motto”, “vision” and “mission statement” for every school and school district. At our school the staff spent many wasted hours at lunch and after school on committees trying to concoct motherhood statements that would of course offend no one. They were, as I expected, reduced to empty platitudes, in short, valueless vacuities. The motto for our school became the ultimate banality: “South Delta Senior Secondary – A great place to work and learn.” The motto for the School District was even more ludicrous: “South Delta – Where learning Matters.” I won’t waste the reader’s time with the tedium of what we came up with for a “vision” and “mission statement”. It’s too embarrassing. All this was prime cut bullshit I thought and was so happy when the whole absurd mania was finally over. This exercise, and its mind-numbing outcome, had absolutely no impact on anyone inside the classroom or out, other than the time that was wasted. Of course anyone such as myself who was skeptical of the enterprise and who questioned wisdom of the whole exercise was labeled as being “negative” and a “shit disturbing curmudgeon.” Such is the life of a critical skeptic in a world of faith, credulity and delusions.
If we were all a little more skeptical and sensitive to political bullshit there seems to be little doubt that so many in the United States would not have been duped about the reasons for the Bush Administration’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq in 2003. But in faith based flag waving cultures such as the United States it does seem possible to fool most of the people all of the time. As fallible human beings, all of us share the impulse to justify ourselves and avoid taking responsibility for any actions that turn out to be harmful, immoral or stupid. Most of us will never be in a position to make decisions affecting the lives and deaths of millions of people like a George W Bush, but whether the consequences of our mistakes are trivial or tragic, on a small scale or a national canvas, most of us find it difficult, if not impossible, to say, "I was wrong”. It goes further than that: Most people, when directly confronted with proof that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but dig in their heels, rationalizing what they already believe with even more tenacity. Politicians, of course, offer the most visible, and often tragic, examples of this practice. Throughout his presidency, George W. Bush was the epitome of a man for whom even irrefutable evidence could not pierce his mental armor of religious faith and self-justification. Bush was wrong in his claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, he was wrong in claiming that Saddam was linked with Al Qaeda, he was wrong in predicting that Iraqis would be dancing joyfully in the streets to receive American soldiers, he was wrong in his gross underestimate of the human and financial costs of the war, and he was most famously wrong in his speech six weeks after the invasion began, when he announced, under a banner reading ‘mission accomplished’, that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended." And he was seriously deluded, medicated or hallucinating when he claimed that “God told me to invade Iraq.”
Even as commentators from the right and left called on Bush to admit he had been mistaken, Bush merely found new justifications for the war: getting rid of a "very bad guy," fighting terrorists, promoting peace in the Middle East, bringing democracy to Iraq, increasing American security, and finishing "the task [our troops] gave their lives for." All of it was prime cut bullshit. In the midterm election of 2006, which most political observers regarded as a referendum on the war, the Republican party lost both houses of Congress; a report issued shortly thereafter by sixteen American intelligence agencies announced that the occupation of Iraq had actually increased Islamic radicalism and the risk of terrorism. Yet Bush said to a delegation of conservative columnists, "I've never been more convinced that the decisions I made are the right decisions." Sounds like Hitler after Stalingrad.
What is a skeptic?
To be skeptical is to closely examine the evidence for a particular belief, idea or claim and check for inconsistencies, historical inaccuracies and outright contradictions. An important rule of logic employed in all courts of law is that the burden of proof for any and all claims remains with the one making the claim - and the more inconsistent the claim is with accepted wisdom and scientific knowledge, the more the evidence that is required. As the late Carl Sagan once said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” particularly in claims that are far-fetched, sound too good to be true or that violate basic laws of physics and biology. As George Carlin rightly proclaimed, “bullshit is everywhere” with religion, politics and business being the primary vendors and transmitters. Critical skepticism is an essential and meaningful disposition and skill in the search for truth in both scientific inquiry and everyday survival in a world of celebrity worship, propaganda, pseudoscientific and religious nonsense, hype and marketing. The pretense for the invasion of Iraq, as even the most credulous among us now know, was based on lies and fear mongering by both the Bush propagandists and spin doctors such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell, in addition to the complicit right wing corporate media. But fear mongering and deceitful ploys have been used over and over again by politicians and power brokers throughout history. Even the justification for the first invasion of Iraq in 1991 (Desert Storm) was based on “saving Kuwait for democracy,” a monarchist country in which only 2% of the population have the right to vote. It’s mystifying that such a worn out overused story has worked so well so often on gullible Americans ignorant of history, political philosophy, science and basic reasoning skills.
Over 2000 years ago Aristotle correctly stated that the ability to doubt is rare, emerging only among cultivated, educated and highly civilized societies. But he also proclaimed, "Man is a rational animal". In my view this latter assertion is obviously false. As the 17th century philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes noted, the mind tends to effortlessly and automatically take in ideas and information without intellectual filters. It’s as if we have not emerged from our childhood dependencies, at least intellectually. Consequently, a person must learn how to think logically and rationally and it’s a rarity for anyone to learn these skills in our institutions of “education.” If you want to counter today's swamp of commonplace nonsense, religious claims, misinformation, political double think, superstition and paranormal claims you need more than an inherited intelligence or inborn inclination, you need the tools and skills of logic, scepticism and critical thought.
Skepticism is an indispensable intellectual virtue, especially in a world crawling with bullshit, but what might be called radical skepticism is a futile and childish outlook on life, because each of us does and must accept as true a number of basic core beliefs in our engagement of day to day ordinary living. One cannot reject everything as not knowable. The position that one knows nothing is a point that was well taken when it was interesting 2000 or more years ago when the Skeptic school of philosophy was battling with Epicurus and others for respect in the Greek rational world. Since the radical skeptics lost, and rightfully so, it hasn’t really been that interesting outside of debates within undergraduate philosophy classes. Socrates however employed radical skepticism as a rhetorical device, claiming that “he knew nothing”, to discredit and refute those who claimed dogmatic certainty, but he was surely not a radical skeptic.
Of course I am not attempting to discredit a mitigated critical skepticism. As I have been arguing, skepticism is a crucial intellectual survival tool and a useful mechanism in our effort to avoid credulity, ignorance and stupidity. We are bombarded by religious zealots, politicians, new age kooks, marketing ploys and advertising, stock market and investment gurus on a regular basis. Of course as I have attempted to argue, no one can be a pure skeptic, and few people claim to be. What we are skeptical of are claims made about the universe and its contents without any obvious recourse to repeatable, tangible, empirical evidence, or claims that defy basic principles of logic and reasoning in the name of religion, fictive experience, superstition, ghost stories, and magical thinking. To be skeptical in this way is to possess the essence of the modern scientific rational mind, a necessary tool to avoid being sold a “pig in a poke” in a morally bankrupt capitalist culture of greed and power, where everything, including our minds and bodies are up for sale.
Some people believe that skepticism is the rejection of new ideas, closed-mindedness, or worse, they confuse “skeptic” with “pessimist” or “cynic” and think that skeptics are a frustrated group of grumpy curmudgeons unwilling to accept any claim that challenges their scientific world view. This is clearly wrong. Skepticism at a base level is nothing more than a provisional approach to claims. Why would someone be considered closed minded simply because they don’t believe in absurdities for which there is not provided a shred of evidence? Open mindedness is a good thing, but not to the extent that you allow your brains to spill out. The religious often charge skeptics with being closed minded. But faith and religious belief are synonymous with absolutes, certainty and dogmatism, the very essence of closed mindedness. It is simply silly to give a serious hearing to every proposal or wild-eyed hypothesis that comes along. Should astronomers pay attention to the flat-earth society or Astrologers? Should scientists extend a hearing to Creationists, Biblical prophecies, Christian Scientists, Scientologists or to a "back to Ptolemy movement?" It seems to me a frivolous relativism and an open-mindedness that has lapsed into credulity that tells us they must not. There is as much difference between an "open-mind" and a "hole in the head" as there is between "tolerance" and "anything goes."
H. L. Mencken's response to outrageous claims was that they didn’t even deserve the privilege of being debunked, declaring "one horse-laugh is worth a thousand syllogisms." Although we ought always to be open and amenable to new ideas and creative hypotheses, no matter what their source, not every claimant is a potential Copernicus or Einstein. The Catholic Church is the paragon of closed mindedness, not having changed its world view for two thousand years in spite of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution and massive volumes of evidence that refutes their medieval world views. The Bible continues to espouse views that any junior high school student knows to be not only false, but immoral. Along with much other gibberish and moral outrages, it includes a flat earth, an earth centered universe and the approval of slavery. That "slavery is unjust" and the “earth is spherical” are true and "the earth is the centre of the cosmos" is false independent of time and context - accepting their contraries may have been, at one time, justified, but false. I’m sorry to offend my dear Christian friends, but it’s my contention that religion is not much better than willed ignorance, a preference for comfort over truth.
Skepticism is the application of reason to any and all ideas, with no sacred cows permitted. In other words, skepticism is a methodology, not a position. Ideally, skeptics do not engage in an investigation blind to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true. When we say we are “skeptical,” we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe. Where’s the beef?
Skepticism has a long historical tradition dating back to ancient Greece. I’ve already mentioned the Greek gadfly Socrates who dedicated his life to dispassionate inquiry, truth and bullshit detection. Socrates once observed: “All I know is that I know nothing.” This pure position is of course sterile, self-referential and unproductive and held by virtually no one. If you were skeptical about everything, you would have to be skeptical of your own skepticism. Like the decaying subatomic particle, pure skepticism uncoils and spins off the viewing screen of our intellectual cloud chamber. But Socrates used this as ploy for exposing pretentious bullshit – directed at those who made claims of absolute truth based on insufficient evidence, flawed argument or unreasoned opinion and hearsay.
Twenty centuries later, the brilliant French polymath Rene Descartes started off the first of his Meditations on First Philosophy with the rather provocative recognition that so much of what he learned in the best French schools of the time was just plain false. "Some years ago I was struck," he wrote, "by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them." Descartes' remedy was a program of self-discipline that began with the rejection of those beliefs that fell short of certainty and, that proceeded with the construction of a system of beliefs that was "stable and likely to last." It was a lonely, individualistic enterprise, but the very fact that Descartes recorded his progress in his Meditations reveals that it was something he believed others could, and ought, to do as well. It was, indeed, a common Enlightenment fantasy that everyone would naturally follow along. The result would be a world with a lot less bullshit, maybe none at all. In the next century that vision was shared by the great Scottish philosopher David Hume who otherwise shared precious little with Descartes, but it was certainly sufficient. Hume, an atheist, held that all real knowledge took the form either of mathematics and similar "formal" sciences (which he termed "relations of ideas") or of natural science (for Hume, "matters of fact"), and he ended his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (a popularization, relatively speaking, of his two-volume A Treatise of Human Nature) with clear instructions for how to treat bits of speech that pretended to, but in fact did not, belong in either category:
“When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”
The Enlightenment passion that carried the consummate skeptic Hume to the end of his Treatise continued to inspire in philosophers visions of a bullshit-free world. You find them in the writings of other philosophical giants such as Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Wittgenstein’s mentor Bertrand Russell. Many of Russell’s brilliantly written anti-bullshit books and essays were directed against the number one disseminator of bullshit, religion, and had enticing titles such as An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish and Useless Knowledge.
Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, which involves 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, paranormal phenomena such as ESP and creationism, have been tested (and failed the tests) often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are not true. Other claims, such as hypnosis, the origins of language, the Big Bang and black holes, 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” radical skepticism and “anything goes” credulity. Descartes, after one of the most thorough skeptical purges in intellectual history, concluded that he knew one thing for certain: Cogito ergo sum — I think therefore I am. But evolution may have designed us in the other direction – I am, therefore I think. Long before Descartes, Aristotle claimed that “man is a rational animal. But any cursory examination of the behavior of humans and their history refutes Aristotle’s optimistic declaration. Humans evolved to be pattern-seeking, cause-inferring animals, shaped by nature to find meaningful relationships in the world. Those who were best at doing this left behind the most offspring and we are their descendents. In other words, to be human is to think and seek explanations. Unfortunately humans avoid hard work at every opportunity and since thinking is most difficult, they choose not to do so or seek out facile explanations that are emotionally satisfying but invariably wrong. Yes, Descartes was right, to be human is to think, but to survive intellectually and with honesty and rational integrity is to think well. We can say the same thing about the benefit of reading which is promoted by everyone from librarians to well-meaning celebrities. But surely it’s what one reads that is the most important factor, especially if all you read is Reader’s Digest, our corporate controlled news media or the tabloids at the supermarket checkout.
Sadly, our world is rapidly surrendering to the activities of men and women who would stake the future of our species based on beliefs that should not survive an elementary school education. We are regrettably witnessing the increasing stupidity and ignorance of the human race.
There is a significant difference between being skeptical and being in denial. Skeptics prefer keeping their beliefs to a minimum and consider provisional those beliefs that don’t meet the minimum standards of evidence and argument. Genuine skeptics endorse the scientific world view and methodology for assessing claims and are not upset by “unpleasant facts.” Skeptics are not deniers. When confronted with two competing theories, the denier chooses the one that best fits in with his preconceived political, religious, emotional or commercial assumptions and then declares himself skeptical about the alternatives. To find out why someone is fond of some idea or claim, we often only need to “follow the money.” Consider for example the decades of denial by the tobacco industry that smoking is a primary cause of cancer and other respiratory diseases in spite of the overwhelming evidence of science researchers. We see the same phenomenon today with respect to the causes of global warming by the corporations, particularly the petroleum and auto industries that have a vested interest in denying that their operations are likely contributing factors. Again, follow the money. The characteristic feature of bogus skepticism is that it is not an impartial search for truth, but based on defense of a preconceived ideological position or vested interest. Ask yourself first if someone is profiting from a “denial” of some phenomenon. Another telltale sign is the refusal to specify what would count as acceptable evidence. Unlike holocaust deniers and creationists who reject evolutionary theory, an important theory which is the indispensible driving force behind modern biology, genuine skeptics are at least prepared to define what evidence it would take to convince them. Most skeptics also prefer their beliefs to be “falsifiable,” that is, they desire some condition under which the belief can be shown to be false. Most, if not all, religious beliefs, for example, do not meet this criterion, often considered the demarcation between science and pseudoscience. Skeptics concede that all human evidence is fallible since it’s an obvious point about the limits of all human knowledge and the nature of certainty. But to use this argument selectively as the basis for debunking and rejecting only those established facts to which one takes personal exception, while setting a much lower standard for claims that one finds agreeable, particularly those to which one has an emotional or ideological attachment, is the antithesis of an honest skepticism.
Getting duped, again and again: Wars and Tobacco
Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former - Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
In Wilson’s book, his first major illustration of misplaced skepticism is the work of the giant public relations agency, Hill & Knowlton (H&K). The firm has been involved in a number of controversial campaigns of corporate spin against scientific consensus. When profit is compromised by scientific evidence, the corporate propaganda distortion and denial machines emerge in full force. In October 1990 in the lead up to Desert Storm, the first invasion of Iraq, as Wilson reminds us, a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, ‘Nurse Nayirah’, claimed that Iraqi soldiers had stolen incubators from a hospital in Kuwait City, leaving the children that were in them to die. The claim was that more than 300 children had perished as a result. In fact, ‘Nurse Nayirah’ was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US who had been coached to tell this fairy tale by staff at H&K.
If that lie led to the first war against Iraq, Wilson argues that H&K’s past crimes were even worse, leading to the deaths of millions of people. In the 1950s, the agency was hired by tobacco manufacturers to deal with the threat from the emerging medical evidence linking smoking with lung cancer.
H&K’s response was obfuscation: try to convince the public that the link was unproven and that there was genuine controversy, when the link was, in fact, well established. To this end, the firm promoted Clarence Cook Little, an American geneticist, as a leading expert on cigarettes and ill-health when he was nothing of the kind, while creating a Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC) to create the impression that the industry was actively investigating the link. In truth, the TIRC was little more than a PR operation. By 1964, a US government report had confirmed the link but, according to Wilson, H&K’s strategy was so successful that cigarette sales continued to rise before peaking a decade later.