Growing into skepticism

As children we are in a constant state of exploration. We turn over rocks, look under cushions all the while asking the adults around us “why”? We humans are born with a natural curiosity about our surroundings. At an early age we begin learning by listening, looking, touching, smelling and tasting. Sometimes the experience is pleasant and other times painful. Interestingly, this process of growth happens alongside of our very active imaginations. Our ability to fantasize, to create stories is practically a super power but consider too our ability and desire to discover the truth around us. What a fascinating process is this process we call “growing-up”. But we're not just on our own in this exploration. We share our world with other children and with adults which are a part of the mix and influential.

Let's pause for a moment to consider the role of adults in the socialization of children. From infancy we are fully dependent on adults, usually our parents – they meet our every need. From bathing to feeding to everything in between. They warn us about dangers such as hot stoves and tend to our burns when we ignore such warnings. Our parents (and close extended family) are key in our early intellectual development. From learning colors to shapes, numbers to the alphabet, they are our teachers. But they do something else: they introduce us to myth as truth. From Santa Clause to Jesus, from ghosts to tooth fairies, it is from our parents that we are started down the path of irrational belief in the supernatural. It is a strange contradiction and just a part of the larger process of cultural transmission.

Just a couple years ago my father's mother died. I was able to visit her in her final days an saw her just moments after death. There were no children present to see the distress of my father, aunt and my mother. But days later, at the funeral home, there were children around to see her laid out in a casket, her shrunken 93 year old body which was no longer their great grandmother, but a sort of shell that only slightly resembled her. What might they think? The adults in the room made it clear that Rose had gone to heaven to be with grandpa. The children saw their elders cry steadily at the loss of her. As for myself, I don't mourn much at the loss of my elders. She was 93 and lived a good long life. She was ready so she stopped eating and drinking. Then she died and was no more. Simple. With the cessation of brain activity and other bodily processes the entity we knew no longer existed here or anywhere else. But most of the other adults in my life preferred to tell themselves (and those around them) that she lived in heaven now. A fantasy of course and just another example of how we are taught delusion by our elders.

There's much about our Universe that we do not understand and human tendency is to fill in the gaps of knowledge with comforting stories. Whether the mystery is the nature of stars in the sky, our origins in the cosmos, or what happens to us at death, plenty of mysteries exist have been “explained” by such things as religion. The alternative, also a part of our culture, is the rejection of myths and the acceptance (if only temporary) of gaps of knowledge with the understanding that in time and with scientific pursuit, those gaps will be reduced. But this alternative, this rejection of comforting myths means confronting our mortality which is, for many, a difficult thing. It's bad enough when our elders die in older age, but what about the difficulty of our children dying? Such loss is certainly not easy and the idea of heaven is, no doubt, a great comfort at such times. Everlasting life for or dead loved ones, young or old, might be what we want, it might comfort us, but there is no evidence that life after death exists.

Which brings me to an important question for any aspiring skeptic: can a skeptic hold onto a belief in a “higher power” or deity? Ultimately I think not. At its very core skepticism is about critical thinking and the examination of arguments for logical validity as well as the quality of evidence presented. Skepticism, as a component of modern science, is a method which leads to reliable conclusions but is not itself a conclusion or knowledge. This is not to say that those who believe in a deity cannot be skeptical in many other areas just that such a belief is not evidence based and ultimately not something that holds up to skepticism. The same might be said of any other supernatural or paranormal belief.

For much of my adult life much of my thinking lacked the level of skepticism I aspire to today. For a variety of reasons, starting at the age of 19, I did begin a process of critically examining many of my previous assumptions. I'd never accepted Christianity but I had not rejected the notion of a deity so spent many years exploring the world's religions. But, as I recall the process, it was more like window shopping or watching a movie. I wasn't being critical so much as looking around for something that seemed to fit. I never settled on anything. At some point it came to feel as though I was shopping for something I didn't really need but rather thought I should have because others did.

I also began examining the political, cultural and economic systems of the United States and ultimately rejected what I had previously accepted as “right” or “correct”. I concluded that much of what I was taught by my parents and by the public school system was far too biased. This process was a bit more meaningful than my search for a spirituality or religion in that I had actual facts to consider. The world had been presented to me one way and I found that the presentation was not truthful. Even this though was tricky. Sociology, history, economics, and agriculture are all human created systems of knowledge which attempt to understand human cultures and practices and as such are open to bias in both data collection and interpretation.

Regardless of the context, I was not yet operating with full awareness of what it meant to be a skeptic. Much of my belief system during my 20s and 30s was based on what felt good, seemed environmentally sustainable or socially just. In some cases I'd done my homework on particular issues and had come to solid conclusions based on the evidence I'd examined. But my standards and my effort fluctuated and I had the bad (and lazy) habit of accepting as true propositions on which I had not done the due diligence. More often than not my position was, at least in part, a reaction to the status quo more than a fully developed understanding.

One interesting aspect of how skepticism is practiced and developed is the connection it has to our worldview. I suppose that in practice skepticism should be a process which stands apart of our worldview but it can be difficult to separate out. Let me share an example. As an anarchist generally opposed to global capitalism I continue to struggle with issues such as GMOs. I generally trust the process of science based on peer reviewed journals but I also understand that science is a tool which can be used for a variety of purposes. I do not, however, trust multinational corporations which have a long and demonstrated history of putting profits before science and before the public good, can I trust Monsanto and other multinationals involved in bio-technology? Can I trust what they say about the safety of their technology? If I cannot trust them who do I trust? How do I reconcile this apparent conflict of interest? My current answer as that some questions will remain open for me as I attempt to understand the science and the surrounding issues.

In the age of social media, most notably Facebook, the need for critical thinking and skepticism has never been greater. As of May 2013 Facebook reported 1.11 billion people using the site each month. Anyone that has used the site knows that it is commonly used to share articles. Whether the topic is GMOs, vaccinations, climate change or any number of other issues, it is certain that much of what is shared is not fully understood by those sharing. On the issue of health, medicine and “alternative” medicine I regularly see articles posted from sites that are, almost exclusively, bunk. I've gotten in the habit, when I have time, of debunking them and will continue to do so. Not that I expect to make much of a difference in the vast flow of misinformation but because it is good practice to do so. Even more, I greatly enjoy practicing skepticism. I'd like to be a part, even a small part, of helping create a culture of skepticism because a skeptical, scientifically literate society is one which is likely to be more rational.