This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
Not just in science, or history, or other academic pursuits where rigorous devotion to the truth is crucial. Why does skepticism matter in everyday life?
When I write about atheism — especially when I write about how the religion hypothesis has no good evidence supporting it and is almost certainly not true — there’s a response I get surprisingly often: “What difference does it make whether it’s true? Religion makes people happy. It gives people comfort in troubling times. It offers a sense of purpose and meaning. It lets people tolerate the idea of death without being paralyzed with terror. Why try to take that away from people? If it’s useful, who cares whether it’s true?”
My typical response to this… well, my first response is always dumbstruck head-scratching. To me, the idea that the truth matters is self-evident, and it seems bizarre to have to defend it in debate. And I am truly baffled by what people even mean when they say they believe something without necessarily thinking it’s true. (“You keep using that word ‘believe.’ I do not think it means what you think it means.”) But when my head-scratching is over, my typical response has been to write high-minded defenses of the philosophical and indeed ethical necessity of prioritizing the truth over our imaginings about it. Coupled with passionate love letters to the universe that would make Carl Sagan blush.
I want to talk about skepticism as a discipline.
(And since I’m writing here about skeptical rigor, I’ll be rigorous myself, and say right off the bat: This piece is very anecdotal. I’m writing largely about my own experiences, and my observations of other people. It’s not as if I have double-blinded, peer-reviewed, replicated research showing that a skeptical life is a more satisfying life. In fact, there is research showing that a few very specific kinds of self-delusion, such as having a somewhat higher opinion of yourself than is strictly warranted, are essential to mental health. A topic for another piece.)
See, here’s the thing. Lots of people who defend religious faith, who defend believing in God or the supernatural with no good evidence, insist that they only ever do this with religion. When it comes to everyday life — health and money, work and love, what car to buy and what food to eat and what city to live in — of course they base their decisions on good evidence. Of course they don’t believe whatever they’re told or whatever appeals to them. Of course they’re willing to let go of ideas when a mountain of evidence contradicts them.
But I know — from my own experience, and from what I’ve seen — that this is simply not the case. I know that it’s not so easy to believe whatever you find comforting in some cases… and then question, or challenge, or let go of your beliefs in others.
But it’s a discipline that pays off: in specific pragmatic results, and in the broader, deeper, less obviously tangible areas of personal connection and fulfillment.
Here are a few examples of what I mean.
Letting Go of Glucosamine
But then further, more thorough research was done… and the results were conclusive. Glucosamine doesn’t work.
You’d think I’d have been pleased to hear that. A rational reaction would have been, “Well, good. It would have been better if the stuff actually worked — but at least I don’t have to waste my money on snake oil anymore. Since it doesn’t work, of course I’d rather not take it.”
But I was extremely disappointed in this outcome. Upset, even. And at first, I was very resistant to accepting it. I liked feeling like I was doing something about my bad knee. Especially something so easy. It was comforting. It gave me a feeling of control. It helped me not feel so helpless. And I had convinced myself that the stuff worked. (The placebo effect can be powerful indeed.)
But because I was beginning to identify as a skeptic, and was getting involved in the atheist/ skeptical movement, I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t keep trying to persuade people to reject the wishful thinking of their religious faith and take a rigorous look at the lack of good evidence supporting it… and still embrace my own wishful thinking about glucosamine over the evidence staring me in the face. Not if I was going to live with myself. That’s the thing about cognitive dissonance: once you become aware of it, rationalizing it becomes a lot harder. And that’s the thing about the cognitive errors skeptics are always yammering about, errors like confirmation bias and hindsight bias and the clustering illusion and so on: once you start noticing them in others, they become a lot harder to ignore in yourself. I couldn’t do it. I had to take my bottle of glucosamine, accept that it had been a waste of money, accept that it had all been a waste of money for years, and pitch it in the trash.
Why was it good that I gave up doing something that made me feel happy, something that gave me comfort and a feeling of control?
The most obvious answer is that I didn’t have to spend my money on the stuff anymore. That’s a very good argument for skepticism generally: of all the arguments against credulity and blind faith, Not Getting Taken By Con Artists is definitely high on the list. But in this case, that was a minor concern. Glucosamine was relatively cheap. I spend more money every day on useless things that make me happy. (Decaf coffee and cable TV both leap to mind.)
A better answer is that I was no longer doing something useless that made me feel like I was making a difference… so I started looking more carefully at things I could do that weren’t useless and that might actually make a difference. It wasn’t until I stopped taking glucosamine that I started pushing my doctor — hard — about getting me a proper diagnosis for my knee, and getting me some freaking physical therapy for it. I’d asked her about it before and gotten vague, half-assed answers… which I’d accepted, since I was soothing myself with the delusion that glucosamine was making things all better. Once I accepted the harsh reality that my knee was not getting all better, I was motivated to take action that might actually help.
This is a point I make a lot about skepticism and caring about evidence. Good information about reality helps us make better decisions about how to act in that reality. It helps us understand which causes are likely to have which effects. And the reverse is true as well. Decisions based on bad information are no better than guessing. Worse, in some ways, since we’re more willing to let go of decisions we know were based on guessing. It’s like people in data processing say: Garbage in, garbage out.
Facing harsh reality can be… well, harsh. It’s not always fun. And comforting delusions are… well, comforting. But that doesn’t mean they’ll make us happier in the long run. Does believing in God or the afterlife give some people comfort? Sure. Believing that global warming isn’t real gives some people comfort, too. That doesn’t make this belief useful or good. For the people who believe it, or for society as a whole. If you get mad at people who stick their fingers in their ears and say, “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you,” about global warming… why do you think that’s an appropriate way to think about God?
And then there’s the broader, deeper, “connection with the universe” personal fulfillment stuff. But I’m going to hold off on that for a moment, and talk about one more pragmatic effect skepticism has had in my life.
Lose Weight Now, The Skeptical Way!
Well, almost everything.
Everything but lose weight.
I was, at the time, about 60 pounds overweight. And if you accept nothing else about the evidence connecting health problems with weight, at the very least you ought to accept that extra weight is hard on your joints. It’s just simple physics.
But I was also, at the time, deeply persuaded by the more extremist wing of the fat-positive movement that (a) being fat had no connection whatsoever with health problems, and (b) weight loss was essentially impossible. It is embarrassing to admit how much I let myself be deceived by denialism. I was stuck in confirmation bias, wishful thinking, all of it. I had pored over the trickle of studies suggesting that the link between weight and health was minimal, and ignored the mountain of research demonstrating that the link was both real and serious. I had pored over the statistics on how roughly 90% of all people who try to lose weight fail, and ignored the stubborn reality of the roughly 10% of people who do succeed.
Until my bad knee started to get worse. And I faced a choice: Stay stuck in my denialism, and slowly deteriorate into a steady loss of mobility until almost everything that made my life valuable was gone… or face reality, the harsh reality I’d been avoiding for years, and lose the fucking weight.
I had a very dark night of the soul. Or the soul-less, I guess I should say.
And I got up from my dark night of the soul-less, and decided to lose the weight.
And the degree of success I’ve had so far, I owe to the discipline of skepticism, and to prioritizing reality over what I might want to be true.
Also, because I’d been reading skeptical blogs and journals, I was familiar with the skeptical criticism of the fat-positive movement’s extreme denialist wing: the wing that’s moved way past the sane and reasonable manifesto of “Society has an unhealthy fixation on an overly rigid and overly thin physical ideal, and needs to accept a wider range of healthy and beautiful body types” (a manifesto I am entirely in agreement with), and into the crazy realm of “Weight loss is completely impossible, utterly pointless, and seriously harmful, for absolutely everybody.” Because I was able to recognize denialism in other areas — evolution denialism and global warming denialism and AIDS denialism and vaccine denialism and whatnot — I was able to see it in the fat-positive movement’s refusal to accept any link between weight and health.
My weight loss hasn’t just improved my knee, by the way. It’s improved my overall mental and physical health, in ways I would never have imagined. It’s improved my feet, my asthma, my sleep. My libido. My energy. My alertness. My mood.
All of which dovetails into another discipline I’ve been practicing: the discipline of being present in the world.
And which brings me — at last — to the broader, deeper, less obviously pragmatic, “connection with the universe” personal fulfillment stuff I keep teasing you with.
What A Wonderful World
But I think you get the idea. And there’s an entirely different way that prioritizing reality over wishful thinking has affected my life: a way that’s a lot less tangible than losing weight or saving money on glucosamine, but is in some ways far more intense and profound.
It has to do with feeling intimately connected with the universe.
And prioritizing hard evidence over wishful thinking — prioritizing what is true over what I want to be true — is an essential part of that practice.
But when it comes to objective questions of what is and is not true in the world outside our heads… we need to be skeptical. And we need to be disciplined about it. We need to prioritize good evidence and critical thinking over ideology and preconception. We need to not accept propositions without good evidence. We need to let go of conclusions when the evidence doesn’t support them. We need to care about reality more than we care about what we want to be true about it.
Reality is a harsh mistress. She demands our honesty. She demands our work. She demands that we give up comforts, that we let ourselves feel pain, that we accept how small we are and how little control we have over our lives. And she demands that we make her our top priority.
And we can’t let her in unless we’re willing to let her be what she is.
And the discipline of skepticism is essential to making that happen.