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Be Skeptical!

Everyone has some preconceived ideas. Before a topic is discussed or examined we usually have an idea of what we want the answer to be. For example, fundamentalist Christians will always start out with the idea that evolution is wrong and creation is right, many conservatives will have convinced themselves that global warming isn’t true before they hear any real evidence, and (yes, it’s true) most scientifically oriented people will believe conventional scientific knowledge is correct before seriously examining the alternatives.

In an ideal world we would always start with a “blank slate” and only decide what is true after looking at the evidence. Plus we would try to source the evidence from a range of credible sources. And we would accept that any conclusion we did reach was provisional and could be changed if new evidence appeared.

But few people think that way. In fact probably no one is capable of being totally rational and looking at all the evidence in a totally fair way, but that doesn’t mean that some aren’t a lot better than others.

If there was one bit of advice I would give people it would be this: if you hear some information that you really want to be true (maybe because it supports your political or religious views) then be very suspicious of it. In fact the more it supports your existing views the more suspicious you should be.

In an ideal world all information from credible sources would be treated equally but the type of information I mentioned above is more likely to be given greater emphasis by the individual which is why I suggest trying to equalise the situation by being especially skeptical of it.

So if you are a creationist and you see a news item which claims to have discovered proof of the Flood then be skeptical. If you are a global warming denier and a person claiming to be an expert shows statistics proving global warming isn’t true then be skeptical. And if you are an atheist and you hear someone has found absolute proof that Jesus didn’t exist then be skeptical of that too!

I have been a victim of this phenomenon several times myself. Before I became more familiar with the principles of skepticism and logical thought I accepted certain evidence without giving it sufficient critical examination. Then later when I used that information in a debate and my opposition showed it was untrue I looked like a bit of an idiot!

More recently I have been a lot more careful and my credibility in debates and arguments has risen as a result. More recently I have been a victim of the phenomenon more through the tedium of having to constantly show why my opponents are wrong.

Global warming deniers repeat the same old misinformation (for example temperatures haven’t risen since 1998) presented by people who claim to be experts (but almost universally aren’t) and I easily show how they are wrong. But a week later they will be back with the same claim again! As my old science teacher said: everyone makes mistakes but only a fool makes the same mistake twice. Be skeptical!

And creationists repeat the same old nonsense, for example there are no transitional fossils, but when I show them a list, including photos, they suddenly aren’t interested and change the subject. But they are back with another article by a “creationist scientist” a week later making the same claim again. Be skeptical!

And sometimes my allies can be almost as bad. They quote unreliable media reports about new scientific discoveries or simplify the real facts to support their pre-held beliefs. I know what they are saying is unreliable so I have to add a disclaimer to that effect. They should be careful about accepting information, especially from mainstream news sources, which supports what they want to believe is true. Be skeptical!

There are some things which are just so ridiculous that there is basically zero chance of them being true. Creationism would be an example. There are others which are well supported but still not well enough understood to be certain about. Global warming would be an example of that. And there are others where the basics are practically certain. Evolution and most other established scientific theories would be in that category. But everyone has a different idea of the veracity of their beliefs. They would be a lot more likely to have realistic beliefs if they did just one thing: be skeptical!

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