Posts this month
I have long tended to think of myself as a skeptic. But I have also long been puzzled what this means exactly. Because on the other hand, I also consider myself open minded. And isn’t it a bit of a contradiction to being at the same time a skeptic, implying one has a bias toward disbelief, and also being open minded, implying one has a bias toward belief. But over time I came to understand skepticism and open mindedness as actually two sides of the same coin. Both are really aspects of the philosophy of doubt (also called fallibilism sometimes). Doubt is also the essence of the scientific method one might say. As one of my heros, Richard Feyman famously expressed it:
Learn from science that you must doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.
- Richard Feynman
“The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1999),” Pages 186-187. Based on transcriptions from an interview made in 1981.
So skepticsm is simply doubt applied to belief new ideas. It means that one is careful to believe them to quickly i.e. to maintain a healthy dose of doubt about their truth. And open mindedness is doubt applied to disbelief in new ideas. It means that one is careful to disbelieve them too quickly i.e. to maintain a healthy dose of doubt about their falsehood. And since conventional ideas are often in conflict with new ideas, being skeptical about a new idea is typically equivilant to being open minded about the conventional view being true. And vice versa, being open minded about a new idea is equivalent to being skeptical about the conventional view being true. Again, simply two sides of the same coin.
So, that’s theory. Actually most, if not all people claim to be skeptics (and open minded). At least that’s good in the sense that they understand the right philosophy. It means we are living in the post middle age, scientific, enlightenment culture. But then when you hear what some people actually have to say, and what the believe, often they don’t seem to practice what they preach. Well, that’s one of those puzzles about the human mind, which I will leave for another time.
For now, let me give you some practical examples, in which I believe I have healthy, skeptical (or open minded, depending on context) views. Of course, in case you disagree with one or more of these examples, you will likely accuse me of being an open minded skeptic only in theory
Have you ever heard the expression that when you read something in the newspapers about which you happen to be knowledgeable, or to which you were a witness, you will find it to be full of mistakes? Well, it’s often true. Although I would not go so far as to say you can’t believe anything if it’s printed, I think you should always keep in mind that reporters are not always very accurate in their reporting. And that’s not only due to the fact that reporters are sloppy or biased because of their political views, it is also due to the fact that sources are often not reliable. Take for instance the CNN reporting about the gulf war (1991). Almost all of their battle information was taken straight from the pentagon and passed on to the public. Obviously the pentagon would have some interest in providing the media with biased information, especially if some of the facts would be bad for their reputation. Always be weary when information comes from only one source. And be especially weary if information comes from the Internet, which contains just as much valuable information as it does nonsense.
In the end my definitive cure from some belief in paranormal phenomena (based on several personal accounts from trusted people) was James Randi’s book Flim Flam. Randi is a magician who has exposed many a faith healer, mind reader, spoon bender, etc. In each case such people were shown either to be naive believers in powers they didn’t turn out to have or not so naive competent users of magical tricks. As of now nobody has been able to claim the million dollar prize Randi organized for a demonstration of a paranormal phenomenon under scientifically controlled conditions, although many have tried. The Skeptical Inquirer, a monthly publication of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, publishes interesting and high quality articles exposing paranormal would-be’s. in addition interesting articles appear in this magazine which are skeptical about such diverse things as satanical sects, multiple personality disorder, mass hysteria and hypnosis.
Pollution does exist, of course, and it is good that people take measures to combat it. But I do think that stories about pollution are grossly exaggerated. I do not believe in apocalyptic predictions regarding the destruction of the world. Also, I question the motives of many environmental activists. Protection of the environment is a sorry excuse to combat economic growth and wealth, the real agenda of left wing green activism.
The Y2K bug (this was written around the middle of 1999)
Although this is a true computer program problem, I do not believe in predictions of economic collapse or other apocalyptic disasters. Although some companies will have to work very hard in the beginning of 2000 to combat some remaining millennium problems, I do not believe regular consumers will notice it at all. This is, in my opinion, simply based on a series of misconceptions:
- the myth that all computer programs contain the millennium bug
- the myth that almost everything depends on computers
- the myth that a lot of software depends to an important extent on the date
- the myth that computers of companies are connected to each other on a large scale
- unawareness about the fact that it has always been daily business of businesses to solve technical, logistic and organizational problems
- unawareness about how flexible people operate within businesses
- unawareness of how fast people solve problems under pressure
- unawareness about the fact that the most important flexible software problems have been or will be solved before 2000
- unawareness about the tremendous invulnerability of the market
- unawareness about the capacity of people to convincingly argue incorrect theories
By the way, I do believe in the possibility that Y2K panic could result in a run on banks.
You can catch a cold because of cold
This is just plain nonsense. As proof of this I offer the fact that people always return from skiing trips in such a healthy condition.