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Skepticism: A Double-Edged Sword? A Philosophical View

Blinded by the truth by Lorraine Daley

After a long day of working as a slave/intern at a prestigious university on the other side of the country, I came home to my summer sublet, plopped down on my rented bed and called my mother. The usual small-talk ensued, recounting my long day of data coding and having to walk miles in the humidity due to my car-less summer situation. With every day that passes, I feel tremendously more educated, skilled, tired and accomplished; so why do I feel so utterly dumb and fraudulent sometimes? I blame my mom (and, mom, if you’re reading this, I promise this will turn out to be a compliment if you just keep reading instead of gasping from shock while instantaneously shooting me an angry text message).

My mother and I have a genuinely supportive and balanced relationship. We share an abundantly inquisitive and ever-questioning nature, but where I primarily defer to science for explanations, she will often rest within faith. I am not necessarily referring to religion, although that can be regarded within this context. What I am talking about here is the on-going battle between skeptics (question everything) versus believers (accept some unexplainable things and move on). This conversation betwixt my mother and me somehow moved towards discussing clutter in the home or workspace. She was quick to reference Feng Shui and how firmly she believes that she cannot be happy in an area where the furniture, colors and light are not arranged to her liking. Being the skeptic, I started to laugh it off and retorted with, “Are you sure it’s Feng Shui and not just the idea that you’re an interior designer that designates your happiness with a place?” I tried bestowing upon her the pseudo-science of Feng Shui and even though she listened to me earnestly, her response was something along the lines of, “Well, whatever, Feng Shui or not, I know that when my place is arranged just so, I am much happier. And if my place is cluttered, my mind is cluttered.” I stopped arguing. Why would I argue with her on that, when she has already decided it is so, and if it makes her happy? Why should I try to show my mother that her happiness more than likely stems from some other causal nature? I was satisfied that my mom was able to find a way for her to analogize her happiness via Feng Shui if that’s what makes her feel good. Besides, I cannot earnestly say that I disagree with her.

Here’s where my belief-system comes out to play: I believe we must choose our battles. We must know when to question and when to stop questioning. I believe the question we really need answered is to decide our ultimate desire: Truth or Happiness? I refer to the two as being mutually exclusive because if either are “ultimates”, it appears to me we cannot have both. If we yearn for Truth, then we risk never being truly happy, because we will not be pleased by every answer we seek; with every Truth comes beauty and/or despair. If our ultimate desire is Happiness, we risk not ever knowing the Truth because we might rather turn a blind eye to answers that may not please us. Who hasn’t heard the phrase “ignorance is bliss?” What do you think? Given the choice between happiness or truth, what would you choose (although I am quite certain of most of your answers considering the biased reader sample of this site)? Do you think we can truly have both?

I am proud of my skepticism and I doubt I will ever stop questioning, but I have begun to know when it is best to hang up the critic’s coat and when to leave it on. If the end result of some pseudo-scientific claim is seeing a loved-one’s smiling face, I don’t understand why I would try to take that away from them. If their specific belief isn’t hurting anyone–and that essentially could be the vital argument against beliefs–I would rather shut my mouth and respectfully bask in their faith-driven happiness; perhaps even share that faith and enjoy the quiet repose it brings with it.

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The Detrimental Effects of Critical Thinking

Everyone has their own beliefs about the world, whether they be about the existence of God, a correct stance on abortion, or what best product to clean a kitchen table. Some of these beliefs are grounded in knowledge and reached through critical thought, while others stem from an extensive list of biases originating from the physical and mental pasts of our brains. As it sometimes happens, beliefs reached via the latter pathway can be untrue, and even have a chance to do damage. One major goal of skeptics, of “Woo Fighters”, is to teach critical thought so much of this needless damage never occurs. But what damage are we causing with our critical thought?

Dreams

"1001 Dreams" Book

This past Cinco de Mayo I visited Olvera Street, a historical part of Los Angeles. To celebrate this day each year events are held, music is played, food is served, and dozens of temporary shops open in between buildings to take advantage of tourists. If you go into one of these shops, you’re done, because you’ve already seen everything the other shops have to offer. While I was there I took a few pictures of some items I found interesting. The first of note is a book titled 1001 Dreams, which claims that symbols and objects in any person’s dream represent objective meanings. And for the low low price of whatever this book cost, you can use this information to become rich or fall in love or something.

Healing

Candles with the power to heal!

If that’s not your thing, you can purchase magical candles. The one to our left claims to release “dis-ease” with universal healing energies. It’s also tall and purple, so it’s probably more likely to look ugly than cure cancer. Or maybe you would like a candle in money green, one capable of “the money I need, the universe will send, opening the path to wealth without end.” We could use some money right now, maybe we should get some of those. Or you can simply buy one of the pink candles for love. If you decide to buy one of these products, you’re probably not going to unlock the secrets of the universe, become rich, or fall in love. But you’re probably not going to kill anyone either. You’ll just be out a few dollars, and that’s just a matter of opinion. Maybe that dream book has some really cool pictures inside, you don’t know. But what am I missing out on, what are we missing out on by making fun of what these products promise to offer?

Maybe quite a bit. In a recent paper titled Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance, researchers found that the “inconsequential creations of irrational minds” were actually quite consequential. I don’t want to bore you with the details, or maybe I want you to read the article, but the gist of their conclusion was that good-luck superstitions people hold have tangible benefits over a lack thereof on the performance of many tasks. So these “useless products” might actually help. This small fact is no reason to abandon the spread of critical thinking through current and future generations, however, it is important to have a strong understanding of why many people do not think critically, and fall into cognitive traps. These strange beliefs subsist because they are not useless to us at all.

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But wait, before you go!

For the last half of June, The Woo Fighters are raising money to attend The Amaz!ng Meeting 8 hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation. Many have already contributed, and any donations towards sending the next generation of skeptics to TAM8 are wildly appreciated. Thanks!

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