I was a presenter at the JP Fitness Summit in Kansas City in 2009, where I spoke about the importance of exercising skepticism in your life, whether you’re a fitness expert or anyone else. You can read my first article on the topic here.
Here are some additional notes from my lecture at that event. I hope to be able to help readers understand the importance of relying on logic and how to do this more often in everyday life, and, in essence, how to think like a skeptic.
The Concise English Oxford Dictionary defines “logic” as the science of reasoning, proof, thinking or inference. In the structure of a logical argument, one or more premises leads to a conclusion (a conclusion that could be true even if the argument is invalid).
To sharpen critical thinking skills, it is important to identify logical fallacies. Here are some common examples…
- Ad hominem, or the attempt to tie the validity of an argument to the person making it
- Appeal to authority, or arguing that a premise is true because an authority said so
- Argumentum ad antiquitatem, or an appeal to tradition
- An appeal to novelty, meaning newer is better
- Shifting the burden of proof, or the claimant insists you disprove his theory
- Argument from personal incredulity, meaning I can’t explain so it can’t be true
- Inconsistency; an argument is sometimes true and sometimes not, depending on convenience
- Post-hoc ergo propter, or A preceded B, therefore A caused B
- Straw man, or arguing against position you created, a position that’s therefore easy to refute
- Cherry picking the evidence, or “counting the hits and forgetting the misses,” as one website explains it
Each one of us has an “ideological immune system,” according to Jay Snelson, a well-known social scientist. He says, “In day-to-day life, as in science, we all resist fundamental paradigm change,” calling this resistance an ideological immune system. According to Snelson, the more knowledge individuals have accumulated, and the more well-founded their theories have become, the greater the confidence in their ideologies.
It’s human nature to build up and “immunity” against new ideas that do not corroborate previous ones. Sometimes if we have vested interest it is hard to change our stance on a subject.
Admittedly, sometimes it’s better not to be vocal about your skepticism. There’s a concept called “practical skepticism,” or the notion that one can’t be skeptical all the time.
Here are some practical observations for the skilled skeptic:
- The need to believe, and serve others, are basic human needs
- In general, our expectations pretty much determine what we see and don’t see (magicians take full advantage of this expectation)
- Humans lie and BS (almost always with a vested interest)
- Under specific conditions, hallucinations may occur in healthy people
- Apply skepticism in a very cautious manner, especially when questioning religion, abortion, the death penalty and other provocative topics
- You can’t be skeptical 100% of the time; there are not enough hours in the day
- The skilled skeptic must learn when to keep their questions to themselves, if not you will have many enemies (be a “practical skeptic”)
- The majority of society does not understand science nor are they interested (they want to know what to think not how to think critically)
- Skeptics understand the rules of logic, the principles of experimentation, and what constitutes scientific evidence
- Human beings have a strong need for certainty, security and stability
- Human beings have strong social needs (although not all human beings)
- Human beings have a strong need for simplicity, for easily understandable answers to complex questions (humans are cognitive misers, they don’t like to engage in computationally-expensive thinking)
- Skeptics listen to other people’s ideas with an open mind
- Skeptics understand all knowledge is tentative
- Skeptics are aware of their own personal bias, and aware when their skepticism turns to cynicism
- Skeptics habitually question their own beliefs and the methods that were used to arrive at those beliefs
- Skeptics are educated on research methodology
- Skeptics realize science does not explain everything nor does it claim to
It’s not necessarily easy to retrain your thinking if you’re not yet a skeptic, but once you get started applying more logic and skepticism to the claims we all run across daily, you’ll get better and better at it. Fortunately there are many resources online and elsewhere to help.
Photo by Natalya Pemberton, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.