What It Means to Be a Skeptic and Why You Should Be One

In the last few weeks, I’ve been re-learning fundamental statistical concepts in order to better understand psychological research. In the past, I accepted what I learned on good authority, especially if that authority was well-regarded. But the truth can be a fucked up thing, as enraging as it is liberating.

If we think of our egos in the context of short-term gratification and fortification, it’s easy to see why someone would prefer to not engage with opposing views. Anxiety is often considered with respect to its contribution to physical survival but seldom to its relationship to self-esteem, and thus, emotional survival or equilibrium at the least. While most of us can certainly tolerate being wrong, we behave in ways that indicate we can’t. Our minds protect our ideas and beliefs to the degree that they protect us from physical harm, again, even though we can tolerate the state of defeat.

Living this way, with the soldier mindset, to use the term created by Julia Galef, bolstered my sense of self, but I wasn’t aware of, or didn’t want to be, its fragile foundation. As I explored the implications of the varied attacks on my field, I was mostly angry with myself, for being so stubborn. If you’ve read some of my prior blogs, you would know that I fell for most of it. I believed that grit (or determination) was more important than intelligence and that the growth mindset was the key to one’s success. And, this is the one I’m most ashamed of, I was a proponent of social priming, the perspective that subtle, environmental cues unconsciously affect our choices. My biggest mistake was the desire to feel like I was “in the know.” And psychological research will surely help you get there.

Sometimes, we go to absurd lengths to feel intelligent and, at others, not so much. I suppose one can defend my beliefs on account of where they came from and how many in the field accepted them, but I still can’t help but to feel stupid. And, unless there’s the potential of physical danger (as with vaccine skepticism), this is the major downside of wishful thinking: eventually, your errors are exposed. My identity has always been wrapped up in how much I knew; it was my defining feature. So, considering my blogs and our podcast, I hated the thought of having to apologize and admit my mental flaws, knowing that I could have spared myself the public embarrassment.

Of course, I’ll always make mistakes and maintain some set of false beliefs, but the most shameful aspect in all of this is my consistent unwillingness to re-consider my assumptions. Those beliefs made me feel wise and using them made me feel effective, so I chose to forego looking too deeply into their opposition. Thus, I learned what I needed to the hard way.

To be clear, grit and the growth mindset aren’t flawed concepts in themselves; they’re just overhyped. Instilling each takes time (as it usually takes a long period to convince someone of their effectiveness) and their effects on achievement are relatively minor. (I refer you to Jesse Singal’s new book: The Quick Fix.) But, I should have been more skeptical.

In a cutthroat world, most of us want to be experts. We want to be able to sell our services and even have people admire us. However, that admiration isn’t worth the cost of losing one’s reputation. Saying that you believe something is true but aren’t sure isn’t glamorous and won’t provide you with a widespread following, but you’ll gain a more mature, albeit less substantial, audience. And those folks will keep returning because they’ll trust you.

Michael Shermer, who was a guest on our podcast earlier this year, has a great and popular podcast, which often doesn’t present sexy information. Yet, I keep listening to it because I learn a little bit more with each new episode. Rather than espousing original ideas, his guests teach me more about what I already know, adding details to my repertoire. And I think that that’s what any credible thinker ought to do: help others build on their foundations, instead of trying to destroy them. Destruction may be more appealing, but addition is sustainable.

2 Comments

  1. Great piece! And so informative! Often, being a skeptic means listening to your gut- your intuition, and questioning the people in power. Many people are afraid to do that due to, as you mentioned, their egos and the risk of losing their reputations. As a society, we have been conditioned to ignore our innate sixth sense and the vibes we pick up from others- the very thing that helped humans survive before civilization was even thought of.

    Liked by 1 person

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