Skepticism is a Hard Sell But We Need More of It

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Skepticism is often a hard sell, and there are many reasons for that. It involves more work than the alternative. It is easy to accept something at face value and much harder to subject it to critical examination. It often means we learn we were wrong about something, and that may lead to embarrassment. Not everyone feels comfortable applying skepticism. Some never learned how to do so.

We also worry that people will perceive our skepticism as ruining their fun. Those who inhabit a world of magic might not want to give that up, even if doing so moves them closer to reality. Are we sure we want to poke holes in what others believe?

We Are Too Attached to Our Beliefs

But if we had to pick one thing that made skepticism a hard sell, it would be our emotional attachment to our ideas. In the extreme version of this, someone's beliefs are central to their identity. The notion of changing their beliefs is too threatening. If they did so, who would they be? Best not to ask difficult questions. The risk of losing oneself is too high.

Even milder forms of attachment can complicate skepticism too. We don't want to be wrong, and we are resistant to changing familiar beliefs. We've become attached to them. They've become comfortable, and they are what we know. This can make us reluctant to apply skepticism. Many of us aren't thrilled with change or uncertainty.

It is easy to be skeptical about what someone else believes. We often seem puzzled that they might not appreciate our skepticism. "I'm trying to help you. Why do you seem so angry?" This shouldn't surprise us, though, because it is much harder to be skeptical of our own beliefs. We may even be suspicious of those who seem skeptical of them. Are they trying to trick us? Why do they care about what we believe?

Promoting Skepticism

Since I regard skepticism as a good thing we could use more of, I'd like to help people learn to be more skeptical. Even more important, I'd like to encourage them to want to be more skeptical. But how should we sell skepticism? How do we show people it is in their interest to be more skeptical?

I'd say there are at least two things we'd want to build into our approach. First, we need to equip people with the tools and the know-how. I like to think of this as a form of empowerment. Skepticism requires effort, but it isn't hard. It is something we can learn. With practice, we can master it. The message we need to get across is the one Rob Schneider has shared in countless Adam Sandler films: "You can do it!"

Second, we've got to show people what's in it for them. What do you gain by being more skeptical? It is too easy to focus on what you risk losing (e.g., the approval of others). But there is much to gain. You make better decisions. You hold fewer false beliefs. You save money. You are harder to fool. You gain wisdom by knowing not only what you believe but why you believe it. You can do it, and you should do more of it because it benefits you.

Being Less Antagonistic

I debated whether to add this part but decided I'd better do so. There's at least one more reason that skepticism can be a hard sell. Some skeptics come across as too antagonistic, and this makes people defensive. Encouraging someone to question their beliefs works better when delivered without insults. Pointing and laughing, name-calling, and the like don't usually help. They have their place, but they can backfire.

A skeptic who wants to encourage critical thinking doesn't need to hit others over the head. Such a skeptic thinks more about planting seeds of doubt. What's the best-case scenario? The person who holds false beliefs begins to question them on their own. They apply skepticism themselves and change their beliefs as a result.

Skepticism vs. Hyper Skepticism

The final point I'd like to make is not to confuse skepticism with what some refer to as "hyper skepticism." They are not the same thing, not even close. Skepticism is the questioning attitude that underlies the scientific method. The skeptic starts by asking what is true and examines the evidence. We start from a position of "I don't know" and look at the evidence. We seek to base our beliefs on the evidence. Contrast this with the more common approach where we start with the belief and seek confirming evidence.

Hyper skepticism, which has become popular in some conservative circles, is different. It involves an antagonistic "trust no one" attitude. The core assumption seems to be that everyone is trying to deceive and manipulate you. Except, of course, for a particular authoritarian mouthpiece. This can be a Tucker Carlson, a Jordan Peterson, Q, or anyone with a YouTube channel. They accept anything the mouthpiece says and distrust all reputable sources. Whatever we want to call this, it isn't skepticism.