Taking the doubt out of Skepticism

Skepticism and a desire for real proof was essential for the progress of our science and technology. But from my life experience skepticism can go right off the rails.  This inspired me to write an article for “skeptic.com”, but their editor told me that though it was good, it wasn’t suited for them.  My father then joked that I should make a site called “rejectionist.com” where I would be the editor and would accept good but rejected articles from elsewhere.  Anyway, in the cause of saving this worthless 🙂 rejected article, I put it here in this blog.  I don’t include my life experience in it, but instead some lessons of that experience that I thought about for a while. So here (drumroll…) it is.

Imagine you live in 1860, and someone tries to convince you that one day there will be flying machines weighing over a million pounds, and carrying more than 300 people over the ocean and beyond. Chances are you would not believe it, and for good reasons. You will see that birds have to be light to fly (an Ostrich is earthbound), so anything as heavy as an airplane could not fly.
But you would be wrong, and that would be because there would be advances in the science of aerodynamics, plus new manufacturing abilities in the 20th century.

A recent example of misplaced skepticism in science was after Daniel Shechtman’s discovery of “quasi-crystals”. Dr Shechtman had to fight a fierce battle against established science to convince others of what he had first seen in his lab at the National Institute of Standards and Technology – formerly the National Bureau of Standards – on an April morning in 1982.

Under the microscope he observed that the new crystal was made up of perfectly ordered, but never repeating, units – a structure that is at odds with all other crystals that are regular and precisely repeating.
Dr Shechtman himself is said to have cried “Eyn chaya kazo”, which translates from the Hebrew as “there can be no such creature”.

…For years, Dr. Shechtman reports, he was “ridiculed” and “treated badly” by his peers.

In fact, he was later told that he was a disgrace to his research group and asked to leave.

He now has a Nobel Prize, but we should consider the basic point here. Something that seems impossible, can become possible.

In a prior article on the Skeptic site, (What Would It Take to Change Your Mind? by Peter Boghossian) the author gives an example of a related point. He writes that “a student insisted Obama was a Muslim. When I displayed a series of pictures of Obama drinking beer on the projector, he instantly and emphatically responded, ‘Those pictures are photoshopped!'”

The logic that the student is using is this. He starts from a strong belief that Obama is a religious Muslim. Any contrary evidence must then be false. Therefore, since religious Muslims cannot drink alcohol, and the picture shows Obama drinking alcohol, that picture must be fake, and the way to fake a picture is via “photoshop”. It’s logical, if you accept the premise (though if the student had more imagination, he could keep his premise and find other explanations such as: “the beer is really ‘near-beer’, which is sold in many pubs for people who don’t want alcohol”, or “Obama may have had a questioning period where he tried out a weakened form of his religion, only to return to it full force later.”)


You should be able to consider alternate explanations, whether your starting premise is right or wrong. If you are skeptical of some assertion, and can come up with three incorrect alternate explanations, when the fourth one that you did not think of is correct, then you will come to the wrong conclusion as well.  So oddly enough imagination becomes important when deciding something is true or not.

And there is also the question of information dismissed as fringe and extreme.  Our current president, Donald Trump, called into question Obama’s birth certificate, and then backtracked and said it was valid. In general, the media did not take the birth certificate story seriously. However, there is this mystery:

David Solway, a Canadian writer, writes that “All Obama’s vital documents are sequestered: his name change, baptism and adoption records, Noelani Elementary School records, Punahou School financial aid or school records, Occidental College financial aid records, Harvard Law School records, Columbia senior thesis, record with Illinois State Bar Association, and his law client list, medical records and passport records, among others. He has also suppressed the marriage license of his parents. His backdated Selective Service form remains unexplained and his Massachusetts Social Security Number appears to be invalid.”

So there are circles within circles here – just when you thought it was safe to be humorously skeptical of this whole episode, some questions do get raised. Life is short, and we don’t have the time to run after stories that sound extreme, and yet….

Let’s try another thought experiment.
You live in the 1950s in California, a reliably Republican state at a time when social mores were very different. Would you believe that within your lifetime, there would be a ballot initiative to say that marriage cannot be between two men, or two women, but only between a man and a woman? My mother was born in the 30’s, and she tells me that she would never have believed the culture could have change so radically so quickly.

In fact, “in California, left-wing activists targeted donors to the state’s Prop 8 ballot initiative, which supported traditional marriage. They combed through campaign finance records, and put the names and addresses of Prop 8’s donors on a searchable map. Citizens on this list had their cars keyed, their windows broken, their small businesses flash-mobbed, and their voicemails and emails flooded with threats and insults. Some of them even lost their jobs…”

My point here is not whether gay marriage is good or bad. My point is that since we know the cultural change took place, there must be facts about cultural malleability that few would have recognized just a few decades ago.

An example that combines lack of imagination with fringe scenarios is this one:
There were two genuinely concerning outbreaks of anti-Semitism in the past presidential campaign between D. Trump and H. Clinton. The first involved anti-Semitic e-mail and Internet attacks against Jewish journalists critical of the Trump campaign.
The second was a series of bomb threats called into JCCs around the country.
Naturally some Jews drew some dramatic and alarmed conclusions.
But then there was an investigation.
The JCC threats were the work of a demented Jewish Israeli/American teenager.
Even weirder, the Internet attacks originated from fewer than 2000 sources, half of them in Ukraine or Russia.

So, people who were beginning to convince themselves that there was a new and rising threat to them in the United States, based on what seemed to be strong evidence, had not thought of these wild scenarios that happened to be true.

Remember, we are talking what is real, not what is plausible.  The two are not always  the same.



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