Updated: Jun 21, 2020
Editor's note: This post is an opinion piece. Some of the information is factual, but much of it stems from my own experiences and views. Please be skeptical as you read. Thank you!
You’re scrolling through Facebook, wasting time, catching up on the lives of people you haven’t spoken to in years (Amber has two kids!?) when you come across a post from Jacob, an old high school acquaintance.
Jacob’s post is a close-up of someone wearing a face mask. There’s a link to a website you’ve never heard of and a two-paragraph summary below the photograph. The headline reads: “The Real Science Behind Face Masks and Why You Shouldn’t Wear One”.
Jacob has added his own thoughts to the post. He types: “Don’t be a sheep. Don’t believe everything you read on the coronavirus. Here is some actual science for you.”
So, who do you trust on the matter? The CDC, a United States federal agency who is advising everyone to wear a face mask, or Jacob and thetruthisoutthere.com, who is telling you that the CDC is lying to you?
The question is more difficult to answer than you would think.
Most of us have been taught throughout our lives to be skeptical of information. To question everything. To find a diversity sources and alternative viewpoints. To compare information and measure authority.
And I agree with all of this, for the most part.
It’s good to be skeptical. You should question things. It’s all but required for real progress and creativity. It’s how we become better as a culture and as a species.
BUT - and let me repeat - BUT.
There is a limit to healthy skepticism.
The Spectrum of Skepticism
Imagine a spectrum of skepticism.
It sort of looks like this:
On the left is the healthiest of skepticism. On the right is the unhealthiest of skepticism. Everyone falls somewhere on this spectrum.
On one end of this spectrum is the Flat Earth Theory and the Anti-Vax Movement.
Most of us would agree that the Flat Earth Theory and the Anti-Vax Movement are both ridiculous movements. I would even say they’re two of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. Yet many people still believe these conspiracy theories despite all evidence to the contrary.
These are what I call anti-system theories. A distrust of ALL authority: scientific evidence, medical organizations, government agencies, and professional opinions.
If you move a little further in on this spectrum, you’ll see some other conspiracy theories: 9/11 conspiracies, jet contrail conspiracies, chemicals-turning-frogs-gay conspiracies, moon landing conspiracies.
These conspiracy theories don’t really harm other people, but they are wacky. And for people who believe these theories, there is some logic to it: the government does secret stuff and has ulterior motives.
Now we’re starting to move into some grey area. This area of the spectrum is mostly unhealthy but there are some healthy aspects to it.
Here you’ve got a general distrust of large, professional authorities. A skepticism of the CDC when they issue warnings on the Coronavirus. A skepticism of economists warning against tariffs. A skepticism of climate change warning from the EPA. Every once in a while, it may be necessary to distrust large, professional authorities. But this doesn’t happen often.
And now we move into healthy skepticism.
Here you’ll find a skepticism of smaller professional authorities. This includes both primary and secondary sources who may agree or disagree with large, professional authorities depending on the situation. These smaller groups include think-tanks, academic journals, information-based nonprofits. But be careful! It’s easy to slip into unhealthy territory here.
Around this same area is a healthy skepticism of corporations and private media sources.
Most people are skeptical of information provided by corporations because primary goal of a company is to make money. All other goals for a corporation will contribute to this primary goal.
For private media sources, the line is a little murkier because many Americans believe that media companies have a moral duty to report the news. But people are beginning to come to terms with the reality.
The primary goal of a private media company is also to make money. Many people believe that media companies have a moral duty to report accurate news, but reality tells us otherwise. Therefore, we should always be skeptical of information coming from corporations and media sources.
The final step on our skepticism spectrum is a skepticism of singular sources. Specific academic studies. Twitter personalities. Even individual articles from professional sources can fall into this area.
This is the healthiest of all skepticism and every academic professional and scientist practices this type of skepticism.
The Causes of Healthy and Unhealthy Skepticism
Most of make use of Stages 1 - 4 on the Skepticism Spectrum. We engage these different levels of skepticism when we need to. And for the vast majority us, Stages 5 and 6 are strictly off limits.
Unfortunately, there are a few of us who fall into Stages 5 and 6.
Why do some of us exhibit unhealthy skepticism?
Psychologists believe there are three core reasons: a desire for understanding and certainty, a desire for control and security, and a desire to maintain a positive self-image.
And while these three reasons may be true, they don’t explain where these three desires came from. Why does one desire control and security more than another? How does one desire a positive self-image to the point of believing the moon landing was a hoax?
It goes deeper.
I believe there are two causes:
1) The ways we interpret the world around us.
2) The levels to which we understand our cultural systems.
Both of these reasons are intrinsically intertwined.
First, let’s talk about the ways we interpret the world around us.
The Ways We View The World Around Us
Everyone views their world in a unique way.
I’m not talking about whether or not you’re ready for kids, or if you’ve decided you now like to eat olives.
No, I’m talking about deep-seated views. The views that decide who we are. Our problem-solving abilities. Our creativity. Our moral compass. Our motivational sources. Our passions. Our mental connections. Our core personalities. And our baselines for comparison.
For example, when you’re trying to understand a topic do you compare a new concept to money or biology? To the Bible or to a football game? When you make a reference, do you make references to politics or movies?
These are the deep-seated views I’m talking about.
So, what dictates our deep-seated views? Some of these views stem from our genetics.
But a lot of our views come from external experiences. What our family believes. How they act. How they problem solve. How they deal with stress. How they treat you. What their career paths are.
A lot of it also comes from our community. The things we are taught in school. The emphasis our community places on religion. The impact of government policies on our community. Our genetic background and demographic and the ways our community interacts with these traits.
All of these variables create a complicated math equation that decide just how someone will view their world.
Which brings me to my second point: the levels to which we understand our cultural systems.
Cultural Systems and Universal Truths
A system is an overarching group of interactions in our world. Systems exist at many levels: it may refer to our entire government or your immediate family. It’s a combination of the laws and processes that make up organization. It’s the type of person an organization attracts. It’s the checks and balances an organization has to ensure truth and honesty.
Some people are good at identifying these systems. Some people...not so much.
If your upbringing has led you down the correct path (or math equation) you will have a deep understanding of the systems that make up our world.
If your upbringing has led you down the incorrect path you will have a shallow understanding of the systems that make up our world.