01 - What is scepticism?
What I would like to put forward is what I believe scepticism to be.
Some people seem to think scepticism means putting an impossible standard onto the thing you’re sceptical of, and the existence of a counterclaim is in itself proof that it’s correct. Others think scepticism means outright denial of the thing they’re sceptical of. Scepticism in the typical sense seems to be an opposition to an “other”.
Being sceptical of the “other”.
When it comes to scepticism, I think people get it almost half right. Is it sceptical as a liberal to instinctually doubt the claims made by conservatives? Yes it is. Is it sceptical as a conservative to instinctually doubt the claims made by liberals? I think it is, too. However, I do think people do not apply adequate or warranted scepticism on the “other” as a simple principle of tribalism (getting onto that later) and group bias.
A covid-19 vaccine gets made, tested, and given authorisation for emergency use in world-record time. Is it sceptical to be concerned with the potential issues with such quick safety testing? I think so. Is it also sceptical that when an alternative-thinker claims something is a conspiracy to doubt the claim and ask for evidence? Yes, it is.
The elusive self-scepticism
Scepticism is an attitude which you use to assess whether claims are accurate by questioning them on their merit regardless of who said it. The elusive second half of scepticism is being sceptical of “me”.
Using my examples above: Is it intrinsic as a sceptic and a liberal to be sceptical of claims made by liberals? Absolutely. Is it intrinsic as a sceptic and a conservative to be sceptical of claims made by other conservatives? Yes, it is. Scepticism is a method of scrutiny, which does mean being sceptical of the “other” but it also includes you. It includes your political narrators, your personal views, and your political opinions. To be more specific, it isn’t automatic doubt or denial, but it is the active questioning of information. Just because someone you agree with said it, or you already agree with it, doesn’t mean it’s true. Question it as if you were arguing against yourself. I would argue scepticism of the self is more important. If you’re going to be fooled by anything, it’s going to be by things that align with what you believe in.
Scepticism by nature doesn’t have anything to do with acceptance of a claim, but instead, is the application of questioning claims before accepting them. When an alternative-thinker says vaccines are toxic, it is because they have flatly ignored and rejected scientific claims without checking the evidence, and have accepted any and all claims to harm without questioning them. They have applied scepticism extremely harshly in one direction, and ignored it in the other.
This is why people claim science is on their side when it isn’t by sharing studies they haven’t read. They’ve heard “this study shows this” and have just accepted it. That isn’t scepticism. It’s why people want to have an opinion but are unwilling to examine the possibility of being wrong.
Scepticism is the buffer between us and accepting claims without evidence. Critical thinking to be the process by which you utilise this attitude effectively. Critical thinking is also something I think people generally don’t understand, so I will explain what I think it is now.
Critical thinking isn’t the idea of thinking for yourself. While you might read that and think “wtf are you smoking?” - hear me out. Thinking for yourself is good, don’t get me wrong, but critical thinking isn’t quite that.
To me, critical thinking is the process of equally and justly employing scepticism to the degree to which it is required on a case by case basis. It is the ability to analyse information and to spot flaws, find contradictions, gaps in logic, and detect biases. Importantly, it is an active and inquisitive process of looking at information honestly, objectively, and openly.
Not only that, but it is both the willingness and ethical incentive to represent the views of your worst enemy as strongly as your best friend in the interest of developing the most unbiased, informed, and balanced opinions you can realistically come to. It is playing devil’s advocate, it is switching positions with your opponent, it is understanding each other.
Finally, it is the acceptance of knowing that you don’t know everything, that you might be wrong on what you think you know, and that you have much to learn. But most importantly, it is being able to realise and admit when you’re wrong - even if you think you will humiliate yourself, because it’s the honest thing to do.
It is something which requires constant practice and active refinement. It benefits from self-reflection and acceptance of the unknown to prevent snap opinions. It can never be perfected, and will likely always be difficult. It is exhausting, but it is all so worth it.
People seem to think critical thinking and scepticism means raising the bar of expectations impossibly high on claims you don't agree with - it is not. It is applying equal scruitiny and critical analysis to all claims regardless of where they come from. When an alternative-thinker makes a claim about a conspiracy and responds with "do some research", "look it up", or "watch this video", or "listen to this person", you can be almost certainly sure they would not accept the counterpoint should the same rebuttals be made to their claims. If you're not sceptical of your own opinions, and aren't critical of things you agree with, then you're not a critical thinker and you're not a sceptic.
What I’ve written about can be thoroughly expanded upon many pages over but for the sake of this site, I will leave it here. This is the start of the critical thinking section: scepticism and critical thinking. Next, I will write about two things which are the antithesis of these things: ignorance and bias.
Next Page: Critical Thinking - Ignorance and Bias.