Thursday, June 16, 2011

Contest Winner #3: by Mike Wagner

How skeptical must I be, to sit reading a page on skepticism and ethics and wonder at its legitimacy? It has appeared, as though summoned from the void by anonymous hands, to challenge readers to compete for a prize one can't even be sure exists.

The inspiration of poetic hyperbole aside, what trust should we grant to the author, or authors, who may be using us as proverbial rats in a maze of ethical study?

Therein the answer lies, posed by a simple question. What's the harm?

Does the reader stand to lose anything by testing the veracity of the author's claim? Will others be deprived of quality of life by the scenario presented by the author or by the reader partaking in the challenge? Do the benefits of testing the scenario outweigh the costs?

There is little to lose but time for me, the reader who submits the essay, and you, the reader who boggles at the tripe I lay upon your plate. The challenger may spend hours perusing the conjecture of hundreds or lose no time at all to words left orphaned in an unexamined Inbox.

And yet a lesson lurks in the time ahead. A deadline looms, and with it the confirmation or negation of at least one person's distrust. Of course, a third option may exist: that I, too, am in collusion with the challenger and you are simply the audience for an elaborate ruse played upon the digital stage. How will you know?

Skepticism may not provide you with all the answers in life, but the regular application of it may provide you with the right questions. Information moves through the populace like a virus, and such viral information (or memes, as coined by Richard Dawkins) may cause great damage without a vaccine.

The desire to question -- sorting the "bad", or false information from the "good", or correct -- contributes to the overall quality of the pool of data available and creates a herd immunity which prevents our most vulnerable from being infected with bad ideas. This reduces the harm inflicted upon the population, provided the questions are asked with the honest intent of seeking an intelligent, and intelligible, answer.

In the daytime talk show circuit one may find questions posed every day by smiling hosts, seemingly concerned with the well-being of their audiences. But the answers are often taken as authoritative, insinuated into the knowledge base of the audience, before others can challenge the accuracy of the claims made. Without a skeptical approach, little good is gained from this, and simple obedience is the rule of the day.

Skepticism, the practice of inquiry, would seem to be naturally ethical in practice. There may be theoretical scenarios in which one could explore a lack of benefit from seeking understanding, but is it truly to the benefit of all, or simply a reaction to the threat of a sudden state-change in the outlook of the mob? The most ethical practice of skepticism is to engage all, to invite questions from the moment they can be phrased, and to teach that an unwelcome answer should not be perceived as a threat to be destroyed, but questioned until such time as the evidence verifies or dismisses its claims.

So, when faced with the question of whether the site before me is real and whether the practice it engages in is ethical, I find the cost of the time spent in reflection and inquiry to be small, and the potential benefits to my financial well-being and suspicious nature substantially larger. Provided the deadline does not continue to slip forward into infinity, answers will likely be forthcoming, and the curiosity of visitors will be sated with a selection of ramblings such as this. Or not.

Investigation will occur. Inquiries will be made. Discussion will take place. And a lesson will be found in the experience:

Question everything. And learn to use a search engine.

1 comment:

  1. Hey This is such a cool blog!

    Brilliant idea for a contest, and wonderful winners! So glad you are doing this good work!

    I'm going to sign up to follow you. I don't have my own skeptic/atheist blog, I blog about atheism and skepticism on the Best American Poetry Blog, (I have a blog on that blog, Called "Jennifer Michael Hecht's The Lion and the Honeycomb" where I have put lots of posts about "Poetic Atheism" which I made up to mean basically what humanism means but I wanted it to be super clear I was an atheist, cause I am. Anyway, those posts are easy to find online if you are interested. Always great to find a new smart, fun, interesting place to read about skeptic/secular ideas and news and stuff. Love it!

    sincerely yours (in Doubt-in-Dogma and Faith-in-Friendship,)

    Jennifer Michael Hecht

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