The Skeptic and The Fool

The internet is a fantastic place. You can find some of the most intelligent ideas and some of the most fantastically stupid ideas. Lately, the internet has been providing more of the latter. My response hasn’t been what I’d like it to be. For over ten years I’ve been studying conspiracism, science denialism, and political polarization. The Covid-19 pandemic has cranked all those things up to 11 and it’s been affecting me. I’m snarky, irritated, and discouraged.

My dissertation is about why people believe misinformation and disinformation. Based on my own research, I should know better by now. It’s human nature to fall for bullshit.

In an attempt to correct course, I’m going to try to make a positive contribution to the internet instead of futilely shaking my fist (like I’ve been doing). Every few days, I will write a short post to help people reason better (and to remind myself!).

This is tall order for all of us. We are currently in a tornado of information. On the best of days, it’s really hard to sort out the good from the bad information. But, most of us are also experiencing some degree of anxiety, emotional irritation, fear, anger, or general malaise. This makes it doubly hard to examine information carefully and think clearly. I’ve failed plenty.

Critical Thinking and Reasoning Better

Whenever I can, I avoid the phrase critical thinking. It’s been co-opted by too many groups and rendered meaningless. As most people use it, it means “believe the things I believe.” This is in stark contrast from its original meaning which is more akin to good reasoning. Good reasoning is a process, not a set of beliefs. It is a way of thinking. This is the first thing I want you to grasp. We are on a life-long mission to learn how to think systematically. We are largely unconcerned with particular beliefs. More than what you believe, what matters is how you arrived at those beliefs. What was your thought process that led you to assent to that belief?

The Goal of Good Reasoning: Knowledge

To avoid going down a philosophical rabbit hole, I’m going to define knowledge as Justified True Belief. On the way to knowledge there are two possible pitfalls: We can be overly skeptical and we can be overly credulous. Somehow, we need to find a balance.

We can think of the problem this way. In pursuing knowledge, I have two goals: I want to avoid believing false things and I want to believe true things. It turns out that our way of pursing one of these goals affects how we do with the other. We cannot achieve the one without affecting the other. Let me illustrate.

Suppose my goal is only to avoid believing false things. There’s an easy way to do this. I can be hyper-skeptical about everything I see and hear. No matter what someone says or what I experience I can come up with some reason for disbelieving it. If someone claims X, I can just say that maybe they’re lying to me. After all, it’s possible. Or if it’s my own sensory experience ,maybe I was just dreaming, hallucinating, or I’m in a computer simulation. No matter what I read, am told, or experience, I can always come up with a way to doubt it. And–success!–I will have succeeded in avoiding all false beliefs. The problem is I will probably also end up failing to believe things that are true which means I can never obtain knowledge. Doh!

Let’s go the other way. Suppose I want to make sure I haz all the true beliefs. An easy way to do this is to believe everything anyone tells me. If I believe everything I hear, read, or experience then I’ll have all the true beliefs. Success! However, I’ll also have a bunch of false beliefs and no way to distinguish the true from the false. Doh!

Most of us adopt a strategy somewhere in between. But notice that the more skeptical you are the more you increase your likelihood of avoiding false beliefs but you also decrease your likelihood of acquiring true beliefs. Zealously avoiding false beliefs comes with a cost. Similarly, the more trusting/credulous you are, the more you increase your likelihood of acquiring true beliefs but you decrease your likelihood of avoiding false beliefs. Joyfully filling your head with everything you see and hear has a cost too.

The truth is we are all both the skeptic and the fool. In some situations we’re all extremely skeptical. But in other situations we simply accept what we’re told. And what’s more, this flip-flopping of attitudes isn’t always unreasonable. Some claims and sources merit a skeptical attitude while others can reasonably be accepted without too much concern.

When your mom says that she’s going to call you at 5pm, your response isn’t “I’m not going to believe you unless you give me absolute proof that you will call! Nice try, Mom!” Similarly, if someone says that outer space aliens are controlling use from the moon which is actually a space station (yes, people actually believe this) then, hopefully unlike a small number of people, you will ask for a lot of good evidence before you believe it.

A big part of good reasoning is figuring out when and with whom to be skeptical or open.

How do we do that?

Every few days I will write a mini-lesson on one or two methods of thinking and habits of mind to help us find that sweet spot.

Stay tuned!

For my open access critical thinking course go here:

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