Stupid Skepticism

I’m going to start this by using a pretty ridiculous example so bear with me. The serious stuff is coming later. If a fat man, lets say Jonah Hill circa War Dogs, walked up to you and told you he could do five hundred pushups I’m willing to bet that you’d be skeptical. Why would you be skeptical? Well, he’s a pretty fat dude so you wouldn’t expect him to have any athletic ability, never mind the ability to do five hundred pushups. The thought process is simple. You are given a proposition. The evidence overwhelmingly says that the proposition isn’t true thus you are skeptical of the proposition. For any hypothesis or proposition to have the potential of being true it must have evidence to back it up. If you want truth, follow the evidence wherever it leads you. This is the backbone of critical thinking.

A skeptic is a person that uses critical thinking to deduce the validity of a hypothesis, opinion or proposition usually starting from a position of doubt. At its essence, skepticism is the process of attempting to find truth by utilizing evidence. As such evidence must taken a whole and should not be cherry-picked to justify preconceived conclusions. Some people have the belief that skeptics can’t be religious or believe in anything beyond the material world. That couldn’t be further from the truth. A skeptic can be deeply religious or an atheist. The difference is that skeptics don’t have blind faith. Their faith and beliefs are due to their independent rationalization of evidence.

For example, in recent times scientists have hypothesized that, based on studies and analysis, religion is part of human nature and our brains are hard wired to believe in God. For an atheist, such as Professor Richard Dawkins, this presents evidence that humans have an ingrained vulnerability to be indoctrinated into believing false religious beliefs. I would say that this correct up to a point, however, as a believing Muslim my faith is strengthened by hearing such a hypothesis as Muslims belief that humans have an ingrained inclination towards religion and a belief in God, known as the ‘Fitrah’ in Hadith literature. Thus from the same evidence two individuals can draw very different conclusions. However, not all evidence is so ambiguous. There are some propositions that have evidence overwhelmingly stacked against them, as there are some propositions that have evidence overwhelmingly supporting them.

Unfortunately it seems (at least from where I’m standing, I don’t have any statistics to back this up) that in recent time there has been an explosion in the number of people who are skeptical of overwhelming evidence while at the same time being accepting of outlandish ideas and crackpot theories, i.e. stupid skepticism. Instead of using evidence to find a rational and supported conclusion, a stupid skeptic is a person who will have a preconceived conclusion that they might back up using cherry picked pieces of evidence. The most amusing (and down right hysterical) example stupid skepticism I can think of is ‘Flat Earthers’, who as the name suggests believe that the earth is flat. Their evidence is that the earth looks flat so it must be flat. All pictures of earth taken from space are considered to be part of a global ‘round Earth conspiracy’ by world governments. I’ve never had the pleasure of actually meeting a ‘Flat Earther’, but if I did I’d like to buy them a plane ticket for a really long flight. Once the plane is high enough, I’d shove their head in front of that tiny window and say, “Look! You can see the curvature of the earth you nitwit.”

While ‘Flat Earther’ might be stupid skeptics, they’re harmless. That doesn’t mean that all stupid skeptics are. Such irrational forms of thought have very real consequences on our lives, our health and the future of our planet. The evidence is overwhelming that anthropogenic climate change is largest looming problem facing the human race today. However many influential stupid skeptics have doubted the evidence either because of sheer ignorance or a clash with their personal agenda. Its not often that Exxon Mobil and Greenpeace agree of something. The fact that they agree that anthropogenic climate change is real just goes to show that there is no debate.

This form of skepticism has also threatens public health. When was the last time you heard of someone getting polio or smallpox? If you’re reading this I’m will to bet never. The reason for that are vaccines. “In 1940, there were more than 60,000 cases and 3,283 deaths from diphtheria in the UK. By 2002, vaccination had almost eliminated it – there were just two deaths from diphtheria between 1986 and 2002.  Before the 1950s, the UK had an average of 120,000 cases of whooping cough each year. After vaccination, between 2000 and 2011 there were fewer than 1,500 cases each year.” The disastrous idea that vaccines poison, kill or cause autism (ASD) has led to the rise of the anti-vaccination movement. There is no evidence to support any of their propositions. The World Health Organization estimates that 17.1 million lives were saved between 2000 and 2015 due to vaccinations.

The reason I choose not to brand all ‘anti-vaxxers’ as stupid skeptics is that I know among them are the parents of children that passed too early or the parents of children with autism. Such a traumatic experience can render all argumentation and evidence as pointless. The mother of a child with autism will inevitability look for a reason. They might choose to not vaccinate any of their other children. As such it makes it even more important that the majority of the population gets vaccinated in order to protect such a family. When a large enough part of a population is immunized against an illness, those not immune are more protected as the likeliness of outbreak has been dramatically reduced.

I find it peculiar that one of the most important methods used to determine the validity of a proposition, debate, has inadvertently (at least in most cases) been an enabler of stupid skepticism. There has no shortage of television news debates which bring on two ‘experts’ to debate issues such as climate change or vaccines causing autism. They are presented in manner that gives equal weight to both arguments. This has been done with the belief that every story has two sides. While that might be true it is more important to know that one side may be true and valid and the other side may be false. Presenting both with equal weight is to misinform the public by giving falsehood the same reverence as truth.

Ultimately we have to ask, how should we deal with stupid skeptics? To attempt to argue or debate with them can ultimately prove to be futile, as I have reiterated numerous times, their positions are not based on evidence but rather by cherry-picking evidence to fit a preconceived notion thus leaving no room for fact to prevail over fiction. Could the solution be to end stupid skepticism by improving the educational system? Systems of education are often not places of knowledge and learning but rather places of wrought memorization done to pass an exam. In school you are made to dress in a uniform, obey figures of authority and memorize without thought. I will never forget, during my undergraduate studies, completing an exam and receiving a decent mark for it while actually understanding close to nothing about the subject matter. To suggest how to reform educational systems to encourage critical thinking is a question beyond me. Argumentation and the educational system (in its current form) aren’t the answer. What is? I don’t know.