Sunday, June 15, 2014

How-to Guide to be a Skeptic

Being a true skeptic is pretty difficult, and I see people making a great many mistakes in it.  So here's a how-to guide on getting to the truth.   It's not just about checking sources, recognizing fallacies, laying the burden of proof on the correct party, and believing when verified.  Those are a big part of being a skeptic, but by far from a complete list.

I guess we should first discuss what a skeptic actually is.  Many have the misconception that a skeptic is merely an asshole that just won't listen to reason.  That's pretty hilarious, because a skeptic is asking for exactly that; reason.   A true skeptic merely wants proof of claims in order to believe, and it's not an unreasonable request.   If you want me to believe something, than please, by all means, give me a viable reason.  It's a way of thinking that categorizes information in a logical and strategic way.

The main reason that skeptics have a bad rap is because liars, con artists, and other smooth talkers want people to buy their bill of goods without question.  Skeptics get in the way of that, so they are demonized and vilified.  In essence, skeptics do a great service by keeping people like this in check.   Here are a few examples of philanthropic skeptic organizations.   Charity Navigator verifies the legitimacy of charitable organizations so that you know you're donating to a good cause.  Most charities are scams, and organizations like these protect you.   Another is Snopes that works hard to debunk and call to light internet rumors that are not true.   Politifact works diligently to dispell any falsehoods when it comes to politics.  As you can see, skepticism is very valuable, and ultimately works to your advantage.

What skepticism is not, is calling bullshit on everything that disagrees with your pallet.  Skepticism is not pessimism, or predicting the negative.   Skepticism is not being an asshole.  Skepticism is not assuming someone is wrong until they prove it.   These are common mistakes that many would be skeptics make.   So let's get started.

The first thing a good skeptic needs is humility, and to understand that he/she is not perfect.   Faulty personal perception can greatly inhibit a person's ability to find the truth, so before you even entertain the idea of examining someone else's position, you need to be prepared.   Here are some ways of thinking that you need to watch out for in order to keep your own mind in check.  They are called Cognitive Distortions, and I'm going to give two examples of each one with skepticism and dating.  Everyone is a skeptic when it comes to dating, so it will be easy to relate.

1.  All or Nothing / Black and White:  Very few things in this world are one or the other.   Completely right, and completely wrong are most always sought in every argument, but very rarely is everything so one sided.

With relation to being a skeptic, this usually gets in the way when completely dismissing an entire subject because one or two of the opposing supportive statements are wrong, disagreeable, or unproven.   The correct course of action there would be prove the supporting statements wrong, and ask the opposition to remove them from the argument.   If the argument fails, than it fails.  But it might still have value.

With relation to dating, this usually occurs when you dismiss someone simply for 1 or 2 red flags.   He/She is not right for me because of X, or Y.   'He/She talked over me last night a few times, so obviously he/she's a control freak, and I better run for the hills.'   Or the reverse.  'He/She likes the same band as me, so we're obviously meant to be.   It must be true love.' 

2.  Overgeneralization / Labeling and Mislabeling:  Nothing is more devastating to skepticism and critical thinking than making hasty generalizations with insufficient evidence.

With relation to being a skeptic, this usually happens when the point of view being presented is dismissed for the wrong reasons.   For example, a liberal skeptic is much more inclined to completely dismiss a conservative argument merely because it's conservative.   Or a conservative dismisses the liberal argument for the same reasons.   'After all, they are usually wrong, so they are probably wrong about this.'   That's not critical examination.

With relation to dating:   You stereotype your prospective date without knowing anything about them.  'He's a jock, and most likely just wants to get down my pants.'   'She's a barbie girl; hot but probably no brains'.  // Little does she know that Mr. Jock is a gentleman with a passionate heart, and Ms. Barbie quick to the quip, and has a 4.0.  

Overgeneralizing is finding a reason to dismiss the claim without actually finding a viable reason.  It's just making stuff up without sufficient evidence to back it up.

3.  Filtering/Disqualifying the Positive:  Focusing on everything you disagree with, and discounting the rest.

With relation to being a skeptic, this does nothing to find the truth.  Every point needs evaluation.  Seriously, please don't cut corners.

With relation to dating, a person either completely overlooks any faults on the other person, or only focuses on the faults.  "This person is wrong for this reason, this reason, this, and this."   Yep, he/she's gone.  I'm sure he/she had some positive attributes, but they aren't being weighed.   Just an instant throw away.

4.  Jumping to Conclusions / Mind Reading / Fortune Telling:  Making predictions without substantial evidence.

This happens way too much with having a debate.  Predicting what will happen if the opponents view ever came to fruition without evidence usually ends up with a slippery slope fallacy.  It also happens when you tell someone else what they are thinking, and then telling them they are wrong.

With relation to dating, assuming it will end badly, so not even giving it a try.  'Well, it's probably going to fail anyway.'  Or, 'I'm going to move someday, so getting involved is a bad idea'.   Then there is assuming what the other person is thinking, and acting on that without even discussion.   I'm sure you can see the problematics with this way of thinking in relation to dating.

5.  Magnification or Minimization:  Giving greater weight or too little weight to any particular argument.

With relation to being a skeptic, it can be challenging to give the correct portion of value to any given statement or claim, but please be diligent in trying.  Salesmen do this a lot when saying that their product is the best ever, and they maximize the crap out of little features.   "Look, this little do-hickey turns 30 degrees like this.  It'll cure your cancer."   You don't want to be an unethical salesman, do you?

With relation to dating, this way of thinking destroys relationships.   He/she checked someone out, and then jealousy rages.   Or with minimization, someone cheats, but it's explained away, and then festers.

6.  Emotional Reasoning:  Declaring something to be true because you feel a particular way.

With relation to skepticism, just because you disdain something doesn't make it false.   Or because something makes you happy, doesn't make it true.   Being objective takes a little practice, but if you can realize how your feelings are affecting the argument, than you can adjust for equilibrium.  I love cake, therefore it must be good for you.  That's an extreme example with an obvious flaw, but makes the point.  A little more subtle; I'm scared of being mugged, and therefore going outside at night is dangerous.   Statistically, the odds of a person getting mugged is the exact same whether or not they are afraid.  Those odds are pretty low, but you can take steps to protect yourself, and make yourself a harder target.

With relation to dating, a lot of things are overlooked simply because of emotional reasoning.  'I feel that I am unattractive so he/she probably thinks I'm unattractive too.'  

7.  Should Statements:  Declaring what should happen before weighing all the options, or considering another person's point of view.

With relation to skepticism, it's obviously an instant dismissal without evaluation.  The complete opposite of skepticism.

With relation to dating, if you make all the plans without considering the other person's point of view, you're going to have a bad time.

8.  Personalization:  Making it about you.

Being a skeptic while assuming someone is doing what they are doing specifically to cater to or defy you will influence you in a bad way.   Your brother wants to get a drum set, and you automatically think it's specifically to annoy the crap out of you.   Maybe he just likes percussion, and hears rhythm wherever he goes.

With dating, being self absorbed will get you single really fast.   Or assuming negative things about yourself because of the actions of your partner.   'He/she suggested the Salad Palace, so he/she must think I need to lose weight.'   Maybe he/she just likes a good salad.

9.  Blaming:  Making it about them.   The opposite of personalization.

If you are trying to be a skeptic, but assume the other person has their view out of narcissism is just another excuse to dismiss.  Just like it's not all about you, it's not always about them either.

With relation to dating, assuming the other person is responsible for all the problems causes a pretty huge disconnect.

End of List

These are all examples of Cognitive Distortions, and doing your best to avoid these ways of thinking will prevent you from being fallacious.  We all make these mistakes, and the best way to avoid them is to be aware of them.   Memorize, and try to catch yourself whenever you make these mistakes in your thinking.   This can take a month or two.   The best way is to keep a journal on you; a little notepad of sorts, and write down whenever you have an unsubstantiated thought.   "My co-workers were a little standoffish, and my immediate thought was that they were displeased with me.   Maybe I'm not working hard enough, or maybe I'm working too hard.  Maybe I made a mistake.   All fallacious as I am jumping to conclusions.  Perhaps they were just busy.  There is no conclusive evidence that anything is wrong."   Writing down each faulty thought and analyzing it will help you to focus your thoughts in positive and constructive ways.

This is just one exercise in Cognitve Behavioral Therapy which has many health benefits including, but not limited to, a drastic improvement in depression.   We're simply utilizing it for balance before critiquing someone else's work.

So now, are you ready to examine and critique another person's viewpoint or claim?   Not quite.   Most people skip the last section on self evaluation, and go straight to the next part which are fallacies.   They completely dismiss their own faults, and try to find faults in other people.   So once you have the cognitive distortions nailed down, you need to keep your own fallacies in check, and be able to recognize the fallacious arguments given by others.

This list is very large, and will take quite a bit of time to study.   I would recommend studying one fallacy per day, and finding at least 10 examples of it.   Then do the list 3 times.  This will take couple of months, but that's OK.  It's called self betterment.  I'm not going to go through examples of each fallacy because very few people know about cognitive distortions, but almost everyone knows about fallacies.  Granted, most do not adhere to them, but they know about them.

List of fallacies.

CONGRATULATIONS!!  Now you are ready to critique other people.  You've examined yourself, and gotten familiar with fallacies.   So now all you need is a method of Skepticism.   There are a few different types of critical thinking, and feel free to go it your own way, but I prefer the Scientific Method.  It works for everything including debates, sales pitches, politics, shopping, personal arguments, relationships, and so many more.   So long as you can utilize it correctly.


Reiterated; This works with just about everything, especially skepticism.   If anything doesn't pass this sort of scrutiny, than it's not worth adopting.   Let's examine a vacuum cleaner salesman's pitch, shall we?

Frank comes to your door, and offers to shampoo, and clean the carpets in one room completely free of charge.  All he asks is that he can show you the product while he's doing it.  Fair deal right?  You're under no obligation, so you agree, and set a date.   Frank comes back with the Super Sucker 4000 (Thank You Jeff Daniels for the inspiration by making your movie Super Sucker.  I've honestly never seen it, but I'll buy it just because I pilfered the name.), and it's an awesome vacuum, or so Frank says.   Frank gives his spiel, and it's only $2,000 dollars.   Pretty Spendy, and is it worth it?

Well, let's scrutinize.

  • Is this vacuum worth $2,000?
  • Studying, there are various types of vacuums out there from $60 to $3,000.   The mechanics are pretty much the same on most, and some are made more cheaply than others.   Customer reviews are an immense help.  
  • I already have a vacuum that works just fine, and not only do not need to spend money, but I believe that $2,000 for this particular vacuum is a complete rip off after researching.   (You can obviously end here after the hypothesis for this particular example, but for the sake of the example we will continue to the bitter end.)
  • You're skeptical, and you relay your concerns to Frank who just brushes them aside.   So you challenge him to a vacuum off with several other different types of vacuums.   May the best vacuum win.  
  • Worked like a charm.  Come to find out, this mega super duper vacuum is just a plain old vacuum, and one that cost $250 (Which is fairly expensive for a vacuum) completely decimated Frank's vacuum, and even looks to be built better.)   
  • Now we put together all the data for the experiment, and present it to all the participants.  Sorry Frank, you came in 4th.   
  • It's all for naught as you already have a great vacuum, but you've decided which one you're buying when that breaks down.   

And there we have it.  Skepticism at work.  You just stopped yourself from getting screwed for $2,000.

There are things to keep in mind while being a skeptic.  The first are compassion and empathy.   Anyone you critique honestly believes their way is the best way, and respecting that will go a long way.  Leaving them unchecked is not respect, but supporting their ignorance.   But you can present your findings in a way that shows respect.   I personally prefer the Feedback Model that most businesses use.

Admire Accomplishments, and give credit where credit is due.  Compliment them on where their presentation is good, and acknowledge the positivism of what they are doing.  Offer your criticism, and lastly your altered presentation.

Yes, I cut a few things out of the feedback model for being a skeptic.  The more respect you have from the person you're critiquing, the more input you will have from them.   An argument on the internet should follow the previous paragraph, but critiquing your nephew on his plan to get involved in a pyramid scheme will have a lot more input, and you can use one of the Feedback Models on their website much more effectively as he will contribute a lot more.

Next up is success.  Success in changing someone's mind when being a skeptic can vary depending on what, who, and why you are critiquing.   If you challenge someone's religion, there will be a very low rate of success.  If you're in a boardroom brainstorming on various business plans, options, and models, you will look like you know exactly what you are doing because you will be, and the success rate will be very high.

Please bare in mind that if you challenge someone's core beliefs, there is a very long learning curve.   What makes perfect sense to you, and even if you present it in an easily understandable format, it may still be completely dismissed.   For example, an indoctrinated religious person most oft times, have spent their entire lives learning and living their belief system.   If you want to challenge that, you need to be patient as it will take a very long time to make that learning curve, and they have to want it themselves.   This can take years.  Also, please don't be a dick.  If you challenge someone's religion, and if they walk away from it, please be supportive when they sink into a deep depression after losing a very important part of their lives.   Remember, compassion, and empathy.

You can also use your skepticism for small things in life like business meetings, dealings with clients, co-workers, customers, and various other things, it will help you tremendously on being fast, efficient, and one hell of a team mate.   People will trust you to get the job done, and done right.   The more you build this reputation, the more you will get the sensitive projects.  If you incorporate compassion and empathy into your system of skepticism, you will also be on quite a few short lists for promotion.

You are a strong person, so please don't let anyone pull the wool over your eyes, and don't let your friends get taken advantage of.   You have the tools available to you, and you can be a wonderful person in employing these various tactics.   You don't have to be a staunch, dismissive jerk to be strong.   That's not really being strong either, it's merely protecting yourself with ignorance.

Instead, be a skeptic.

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