The issue with skepticism.
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.
This explains why you and I may accept the evidence of a new scientific discovery. We understand that there is a system of checks and balances in the scientific world. We understand that the scientific method exists to disprove experiments. Nothing can be proven true, only falsified.
This also explains why someone else may struggle to accept evolution or CDC guidelines. They just don’t fully understand the amount of work it takes to create a scientific theory or a professional recommendation. And when they imagine the work that goes on at the CDC, for example, they compare it to what they know: the disorganization of the company they work for, or national scandals like Watergate and the Clinton Impeachment.
The Story of Jacob
Here’s an example.
This is Jacob.
Remember him? He's that Facebook friend with the weird post.
Let's talk about Jacob for a bit.
Jacob is raised into a very religious household. I’m talking VERY religious. Like ‘no sex before marriage’ religious. Jacob had to read the bible every night growing up. His mother worked at their local church. His father ran a physical therapy office. Jacob’s primary community and core group of friends growing up were from his local church.
Jacob isn’t dumb. In fact, he’s pretty smart. He played varsity football for his high school and he graduates with a 4.1 GPA. Eventually he goes off to college and majors in Exercise Physiology. Toward the end of college he decided to continue his education and become a Doctor of Physical Therapy.
Jacob eventually accomplishes his and ends up making $110,000 a couple years after college. He has a long-term girlfriend and he is thinking of proposing to her. He’s fit and takes a cooking class in his free time. Jacob is happy, and that’s all anyone can really ask for, right?
But here’s the issue. Jacob doesn’t understand systems.
He’s never considered himself a creative person (and his parents aren’t particularly creative either), so he’s shied away from abstract thinking and has instead focused on concrete, quantitative thinking.
He's also formed his worldview from two primary sources: religion and sports.
His morals. His basis for trust. His approach to problem-solving. He thinks about all of this in terms of religion and sports. When he makes references in conversations it’s usually about a football team. When he is with his family, they discuss matters of the church. When he wakes up in the morning he considers God first and foremost.
Jacob has never really given systems much thought. He’s never really thought about how scientists arrive at their decision or how peer-review works. Sure, he might be able to repeat the official definition of peer-review back to you if you were to ask, but he hasn’t really internalized the understanding.
But Jacob understands how God sees the world. And he sure as hell understands how a game of football works. So he applies these thoughts to the world around him.
He doesn’t truly understand how large authorities like the CDC operates. He doesn’t understand that there are checks and balances to ensure accuracy within every agency. He hasn’t taken the time to understand the principles of statistics or the approach to ensuring a proper experimental design.
So, when Jacob is presented with information, he doesn’t recognize the difference between an authority like the CDC and thetruthisoutthere.com. In his mind, both authorities hold the same weight. And when thetruthisoutthere.com tells him not to trust the government or the CDC, Jacob believes them. Why would thetruthisoutthere.com lie to him?
Except thethruthisoutthere.com is so darn convincing in proving their point: to be skeptical of the government. The government is out there to take advantage of you.
And that's when Jacob begins to go down a rabbit-hole of theories. What other information is out there? What else is the government not telling us? So, Jacob begins to trust these wacky sources. And he begins to read other sources that are similar to thetruthisoutthere.com.
And because his worldview is shaped by religion and sports, he believes that all professional organizations operate with the same type of complexity and structure. Essentially, he applies the systems he does understand to the systems he doesn’t understand.
One could take a small leap of faith and suggest that Jacob may be overconfident in ascribing his knowledge to the wider world around him. That he believes he's smarter than the scientists who have dedicated their lives to their practice. And this may very well be correct. It IS overconfidence. Ignorance even. I guess you could say ignorance is bliss!
Eventually, Jacob becomes one of those people who distrusts everything and is convinced aliens built the pyramids and that coronavirus was created in a laboratory in China. In the worst-case scenario people like Jacob become Flat-Earth conspiracists.
But usually they just trust stupid sources. They’re the ones you see sharing links on Facebook that make you roll your eyes.
You Don’t Need to Understand Every System
There are a thousand ways someone can arrive at Jacob’s conclusion. Being religious does not mean you’re going to believe the moon landing was filmed in a Hollywood studio. Being a football player does not mean that you’re going to protest the coronavirus lockdown on the steps of the Michigan capital building.
People like Jacob are everywhere.
Just look at the older generation alive today. They never learned to understand systems or how to differentiate between trustworthy and untrustworthy sources. They don’t completely understand the difference between an academic journal and Fox News. They never had to understand. They take information provided to them at face value.
Conversely, a person with a deep understanding of systems understands that there are levels of trust that must be made. They also understand that all organizations, whether public or private, have primary goals and secondary goals, and that these goals drive the entire organization in a specific direction.
And while someone with a deep understanding of systems may not understand every system out there, they are adept at identifying what constitutes a strong system and what constitutes a weak system. They can identify when someone is smarter than them because they understand that the world is extremely complex and that you can’t apply your religious faith to every system out there. They also realize that distrusting everything is just too much darn work.
But most importantly, a person with a deep understanding of these systems realizes they must place trust in the professionals who make up our world. They realize that they don’t know everything and that it’s impossible to know everything. So, we trust our systems and place trust in the people who really deserve it.
I don’t know how to confront people like Jacob. You can’t shift their entire worldview in a single conversation. You can’t snap them out of a dream and show them the truth. And even if you could do either of these things, there are millions of other people who are just like Jacob.
People like Jacob can be harmful, partially because many of them are not stupid. Many of them have some form of authority in the world. This authority enables them to influence others.
I find this issue so important because I believe it is one of the driving factors of our world these last few years. A general distrust of corporations, the media, and large organization has permeated our culture. And I get it. There seems to be no reason to trust these groups. They’ve lied to us. They’ve made us more partisan. They orchestrated some of the largest catastrophes in recent memory.
But this doesn’t mean that we should immediately distrust everything. It means that we should become better at identifying what makes a good organization.
With that said, I’d like to finish this essay where it started: with the word skepticism.
Skepticism is good in moderation. Taken too far, it can be harmful to the progress of our society and to the health of our people.
But skepticism is necessary to identify bad laws and bad research. Skepticism is necessary to identify brilliant scientists and empathetic politicians.
I don’t know how to confront people like Jacob. But I invite you think of a solution with me. With a little skepticism maybe we can find a solution together.