Saturday, April 23, 2011

Being A Skeptic

I found an article that helps to refine the argument I was trying to make in my earlier post, "Being An Idiot."

In his article, "Experimental Error: Forging A Head," Adam Ruben describes his experience judging a middle school science fair, at which one of the students presented a project on landfills.

In particular, she addressed the ongoing problem of the release of DHMO into the atmosphere.

In case you're unfamiliar with DHMO (or haven't yet clicked on the link to the article), it's an acronym for dihydrogen monoxide.

You might know it better by its chemical formula: H2O.

As Ruben notes, "Propaganda opposing DHMO cites the substance's presence in acid rain, use in naval warfare, and the fact that professional athletes can become dependent on its performance-enhancing abilities."

In short, it's a hoax.

What is perhaps more disturbing is that, when Ruben and his fellow-judges agreed to alert the girl to her mistake in order to spare her further embarrassment,
'the student looked at me and said, defiantly, "Well, that's what my research found, so ..."

She said "so" in a way that meant, "The Internet said one thing, and if you disagree, then I guess it's just a difference of scientific opinion, so how can I be expected to know what to believe?"'
This is what bothers me about the fact that so many people are branding each other "stupid" or "idiotic."

More times than I can count, I have witnessed someone on Facebook or YouTube or an Internet website or a blog who derides, denounces and lambastes an opponent for "stupidity" and "idiocy," and then posts a link to a website that is either 1) a scam, 2) a hoax, 3) in complete contradiction to the viewpoints that they've just espoused or, 4) highly misleading, if not generally inaccurate.

At times, I'm not sure people are even reading--much less reading critically and carefully--the information that they present and the links that they post.

That's a problem.

A case in point: I stumbled upon a blog post written by someone who attended the Tax Day Rally in Providence.  He was upset by the (inevitable) presence of various infiltrators.  One of them, he characterizes as a "pseudo intellectual earthy crunchy student from Brown University" and the others as "'we are as smart as Obama' Ivy League youngsters."

[On a side note, I would simply like to point out that, in my experience, the Brown University Republicans could show up at a pig roast at the Narragansett Gun Club, carrying Bibles and wearing mink coats, and someone would still refer to them as "those earthy crunchy Brown University students."

Not that the Brown University Republicans have ever or would ever do such a thing--I mean them no disrespect.  It's just that everyone always seems to use words like "earthy crunchy" and "liberal" and "granola" to describe Brown University students, regardless of their individual differences.] 

Anyway, the blogger comments on the fact that they confronted a girl who was carrying a sign saying, "I want to close all the libraries."  Apparently, the sign was her (admittedly quite lame) attempt to ridicule the Tea Party's position on the issue of federal spending.

According to the blogger, the girl was openly challenged with "the fact that the library system in America was invented by none other than Ben Franklin before there was an American government, and a hundred years before there was an income tax."

As the blogger notes, "When confronted with the logic that we didn't need taxes for libraries before, why do we need higher taxes now to keep them open, she just held her sign up in front of her face, turned around and walked the other way."


Here's the thing.  Ben Franklin totally started the first library in America.  Absolutely.  It was called The Library Company and it was established in 1731 by Franklin and several other members of a philosophical society called the Junto. 

They did this because they recognized the fact that books were expensive and therefore not generally available to people who weren't wealthy or members of the clergy.  By pooling their resources, they could amass a larger collection than they could ever obtain individually.

In 1774, the First Continental Congress relied on the use of the Library Company's resources.  So too did the Second Continental Congress in 1775.  Members of the Library Company were among the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

In 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were allowed to use the Library as well.

So while the library system was invented by Benjamin Franklin before the existence of the American government, it also played an integral part in the founding of the American government.

It was the belief of men like Benjamin Franklin and William Penn that books should be made widely available to anyone, regardless of wealth or social status, that the way to do this was by pooling collective resources, and that the library system had a fundamental role to play in American democracy.

As the Library Company's website notes, "50 subscribers invested 40 shillings each to start a library. Members also promised to invest 10 shillings more every year to buy additional books and to help maintain the library."

And the motto of the Library Company was, loosely translated, "To support the common good is divine."

For his part, after his experience at the middle school science fair, Ruben wonders, "When did skepticism become a bad thing?"

I would echo that.   For me, that's the question.

Not who's the biggest idiot (or group of idiots) in America.

I think that, when we brand others "idiots," we aren't being skeptical or thoughtful at all, even though that's what we may be telling ourselves. We're being arrogant and thoughtless.

If it's to function effectively, skepticism has to involve both questioning and humility--otherwise, it hits an epistemological wall ("how do you know for certain that anything is ever true, really?").

In short, if we're healthy, thoughtful skeptics, we try to resist the temptation to immediately succumb to our innate confirmation biases (see my post "Cynic's Cure" for a discussion of confirmation bias), and we don't automatically endorse the pressures of arrogantly assertive "authorities."

We investigate the details and the nuances behind and around the broad brushstrokes we so regularly see painted.

In short, we think.  And not just before, but also during and after, we speak.

In the end, that's what Benjamin Franklin would have wanted.  (Maybe.)


  1. Amen Professor,

    It's difficult not to wish for more civility in our discourse. And thank you for the history lesson on the 'The Library Company'. I consider myself a history buff, but had not been exposed to those details of the story.

    I sir, am indeed a skeptic. I have not read all of your posts so perhaps I missed the answer to my question, which is: 'did you feel similarly when the left was making much fun of President Bush for his pronunciation of the word 'Nuclear'?

    Regardless of your answer, to me, not being a huge Bush fan, it was a moment in time where I think I felt the same sentiments that you wrote.

    Can I just ask, what is with everyone running around calling everyone else "stupid"?  Or an "idiot"?  Or whatever other derogatory term they can think of to apply to other people's alleged lack of intelligence?
     I'll move on from skeptic and descend to cynic. The main stream media cried for civility after the shooting of Rep Gifford's in Arizona, but their real intent was to cast aspersions on their ideological opponents who had nothing to do with horrific event, and then when Wisconsin had their union demonstrations that appeared much more violent than any Tea Party event they dropped the calls for civility. I have to wonder if your post is not a similar Saul Alinsky exercise where you you accuse the other side of doing the dirty tricks that your side has been perpetrating all along.

    Alinksy? Meet Rommel
    You have demonstrated your deep knowledge of history so you know that the level of rhetoric, vitriol and even violence is nothing new in our history as a nation. In fact it was inflammatory rhetoric that caused John Adams to wrongly enact the Alien and Sedition Acts. It's been this way always.

    But hey, there is nothing wrong with dreaming about unicorns, rainbows, and fuzzy bunnies. They are nice too.

    I enjoyed your post, It was indeed thought provoking.

    For the record, I never called anyone stupid. In fact, I think it was the Brown students calling the Tea Party people stupid by putting words in their mouths that they do not believe in.

    One more thing. C'mon! They were earthy crunchy! Watch the video!



  2. Thank you so much for your thoughtful, detailed, and considerate comments on my post!

    Virginia Woolf once said that best thing we can do for one another is tell each other about the shape and size of the blind spot on the back of our heads that we all have.

    I was never a fan of Bush, so it's true, I was never one to run to his defense and I know that I laughed along with the left more than once during his presidency. You're absolutely right about that, and I thank you for calling me on it.

    At the same time, I see a (healthy?) disrespect for politicians as something very different from disrespect for private individuals and their personal ideas and ideals.

    I agree that the students from Brown should 1) not have tried to infiltrate the Tax Day rally, or 2) if they felt they needed to, they should have been ready to talk to the participants.

    Carrying lame signs and then scurrying away is, in my opinion, a sign of their youth. They need to learn to have the courage of their convictions, especially if they're going to take the step of acting on those convictions.

    At the same time, because I work with people that age all the time, I wish there hadn't been so much heckling going on. I think both the left and the right do a great deal to promote stereotypes about one another: I'd rather lose the stereotypes and discuss the issues.

    But I think that's the nature of crowds. People take "sides" and when they do, there's no chance of finding common ground.

    Personally, I have concerns and criticisms of Obama's presidency. I am extremely angry about the direction his environmental policies have taken (here I'm revealing my own earthy crunchy side), and I don't see that what he has done in that area has improved at all on what Bush did.

    The fact that he appointed (and has continued to support the appointment of) Jeff Immelt is another serious problem, in my opinion. It is not right that major corporations pay nothing in taxes, and even get tax incentives, only to ship jobs overseas.

    I also agree that the media stokes the fires: conflict sells. Face it: the sight of people sitting around a table, talking congenially and hashing out a compromise in which everyone gives a little and gets a little is never going to make the 6:00 news.

    I don't like the way in which our thinking about each others' political ideas and ideals is shaped by mainstream media.

    I agree with some of your observations about the coverage of Rep. Gifford's shooting. It was horrific, and it was very clear from early on that it had nothing to do with the Tea Party. But the phrase "Tea Party" always seemed to find its way into the evening news reports.

    That said, Sarah Palin's little map with the hunting targets was ... upsetting.

    And yes, I know politics is always marked by vitriol and rhetoric.

    But I don't think I could take a world of rainbows, unicorns and fuzzy bunnies. I'm a little too sharp-tongued myself for that. :-) But civil discourse shouldn't be a pipe dream.

    I did not mean to suggest that you had called the students (or anyone) "stupid"--I'm sorry if my post gave you that impression. It's something I see in mainstream conversations (books, Facebook, YouTube).

    One last thing: I noticed you have a link to Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here. Isn't that an amazing book? I read it about 15 years ago, and I remember being very unnerved by the parallels. I don't quite dare reread it just yet...

    Again, thank you for taking the time to respond to my post. I think this is precisely the kind of civil exchange that I wish we could see more of "out there."


Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."