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Living Skepticism

Benjamin Radford

Skeptical Briefs Volume 11.3, September 2001

In this issue Paul Kurtz asks how far critical thinking can be extended, what areas logical inquiry applies to. A similar avenue of inquiry might ask what it means to live skepticism-not just understand its principles or lecture on them, but live them in some way, to use skepticism as a philosophy.

I have a lawyer friend, for example, who spends many of her days involved in reasoned argument, analysis, and logic. Yet her bookshelves groan under stacks of astrology books advising her that celestial movements predict her future. Astrology has been disproved for decades, and there is no evidence of any plausible connection between where the planets happened to be when you were born and your future. Yet she (and most of us) hold beliefs that would contradict each other if we bothered to examine them honestly and skeptically.

As Professor Erich Goode noted in the November/December 2001 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, “It is only when specific paranormal beliefs are placed in direct, rude juxtaposition with a specific, systematic empirical test that faith in them is diminished.” If we do not take the considerable mental effort to apply scientific and skeptical principles to our beliefs across the board, we just compartmentalize them. Many will be logically inconsistent, but then again many people don’t think (or care) about such matters. This is how many conservative religious biologists and scientists reconcile their belief in God and Darwin’s theory of evolution. One is a matter of faith, untouched and untouchable by science (or so Stephen Jay Gould would argue); the other is a useful, practical method of explaining natural processes in the world.

Real skepticism doesn't stop at Bigfoot reports and claims that Bush’s presidential victory was legitimate. For my own life, I live skepticism through small details as well as large issues. For example, I’m a believer in blind tests. A few years ago, just after moving into a new apartment, I thought the tap water tasted a bit funny. I couldn’t tell if it was just my imagination, so I decided to do a taste test. I got tap water, filtered tap water, generic store brand filtered water, and a national brand of spring water. I kept track of which was which by labeling each one with a letter, then writing that letter on a card attached to the bottom of four identical glasses. I refrigerated each water so there would be no difference in temperature, then poured the same amount into each glass and shuffled them with my eyes closed for about a minute. I ranked each one from best to worst, marking my evaluation down on a sheet of paper. I repeated the process ten times.

I had expected the tap water to taste the worst and the expensive bottled water to be the best. The results? I could not consistently tell the difference between the waters. Sometimes the tap water was the best, other times the worst. I was surprised and somewhat dismayed, but my methodology was good and I got the answers I was looking for.

Another example: In the 1980s and 1990s, a “revolutionary” eye surgery promised to free its patients from eyeglasses forever. There was much media hype about the procedure, called radial keratotomy. Small slits are cut into the eye, reforming the cornea to correct the patient’s myopic vision. Over a million people rushed to get the procedure. But the benefits were oversold, the risks and complications underplayed. Many patients now have vision worse than before the surgery, and radial keratotomy is rarely done today. Many of those who were skeptical of the initial claims saved their eyesight.

The news is littered with stories of presumably safe and effective procedures and drugs that in retrospect were dangerous. For those people who waited to try the diet drug combination Phen-Fen, their skepticism may have saved their lives.

Similarly, I prefer to wait on buying the latest technology and gizmos to let manufacturers work out the bugs. It means that I don’t have all the high-tech gadgets, but it also means that I don’t have the headaches associated with them. At one point, not so long ago, new movies on videotape cost around a hundred dollars to own. Many consumers paid this ridiculous amount, while others wisely waited. Most videotapes now sell for a fifth what they used to, and those consumers who wanted to see the movies first paid very dearly for the privilege.

The story of the laserdisc players is also instructive. They had a heyday of about five years in the early to mid 1990s, when millions of people traded in (or added to) their VCRs for the new machines that promised superior picture quality. Today the laserdisc is effectively dead; few machines are produced or sold, and most movies aren’t even available in that format. The DVD is the new darling, and though VCRs still dominate, they are on their way out. While no one can escape the problem of technology being outdated the second you buy it, consumerist skepticism can help mitigate the losses.

I don’t believe it when I get mail from Publisher’s Clearinghouse saying I’m a millionaire; I’m skeptical when I get an e-mail promising to reveal the secrets to real estate success; and I don’t believe for a minute that I can earn $5,000 a month in my spare time working at home, as the little placards on telephone poles promise. My skepticism is not a sterile philosophy but alternately a shield and a knife, protecting my wallet and cutting through claptrap.

As Skeptical Inquirer editor Ken Frazier noted, on a basic level skepticism is little more than ordinary common sense: “You kick the tires and get a mechanic to take a look before you buy a used car. Why not take a very close, skeptical look before buying someone else’s opinion?” The same goes, however, for buying your own opinion. I’ll just drink my filtered tap water until something better comes along.

Benjamin Radford

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Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author, co-author, contributor, or editor of twenty books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits (2018).