Thursday, June 30, 2011

Contest Winner #5: "The Ethical Obligations of Skepticism," by K.O. Myers

There is an inherent power in holding a skeptical worldview. Skepticism adapts tools of reason and weighing of evidence, designed and refined by science, and applies them to everyday life. It’s arguably more likely than any other to get us close to something resembling objective truth. But becoming a skeptic also turns intellectual rigor into an ethical responsibility.

I believe that skepticism, conscientiously applied, obligates us to do two things as consistently as possible: to apply the rational, reasonable thought process to our own lives, and to acknowledge, both in ourselves and in others, the cognitive pitfalls that make complete rationality practically impossible.

Declaring oneself to be a skeptic is an assertion of identity. It’s a claim to membership in a cohort of people from all over the world, who justifiably (most of the time) pride themselves on being intelligent, rational individuals. But embracing skepticism is also an endorsement of a particular worldview. It’s a statement that conclusions based on reasoning and weighing of evidence are in some way better than conclusions reached for emotional reasons, or belief in the inerrancy of a source or doctrine. If you’re going to make that statement, you have an obligation to live it as best you can.

The other obligation of becoming a skeptic is to honestly acknowledge the limitations of the organs that allow us, as individuals and as a species, to apply that reasoning in the first place. Our brains are wonderfully complex machines, capable of amazing feats of cognition. They’re also woefully inadequate at processing a lot of basic information about the world. Probability confounds us. Cognitive biases derail our attempts at rational examination. Emotional stimuli bypass reason altogether, spurring us to act without anything that remotely resembles thinking.

A central part of the practice of skepticism is trying to learn about the ways that our brains fool us. I’m convinced that knowing those irrational shortcuts exist obligates us not just to minimize their influence on our own lives, but to be cognizant and understanding of their influence on others. It’s common knowledge that nobody is completely rational all the time. If you’ve paid even the slightest amount of attention to the blogs, podcasts and social groups that cater to your interest as a skeptic, you should know something about why nobody is rational all the time.

You have an understanding of the problem that is alien to most of the people you meet, and a kit full of tools to patch holes in your cognition that many of your peers don’t even know they need. You have an advantage, a power, that sets you apart from ordinary mortals. And while you didn’t come into your abilities on the fangs of an irradiated arachnid, that power still comes with a concomitant responsibility.

The core of wielding your power responsibly is having reasonable expectations about the behavior of people who haven’t had the advantage of your circumstances. It’s remembering that you’ve stumbled into the same cognitive quagmires that lead others to faulty conclusions, and keeping that in mind when you engage with them.

Skepticism has a long tradition of a sort of rational philanthropy. Of investigating scams, educating consumers, and protecting the public from charlatans who would exploit them. Calling yourself a skeptic doesn’t mean you have to be Harry Houdini or James Randi. By endeavoring to live a reason-based life, and by treating those who don’t have the benefit of our insights with a modicum of respect and compassion, I believe that any skeptic can assume the mantle of that tradition, and fulfill their ethical responsibility to the principles that are its heart.


K.O. Myers is the founder of Grassroots Skeptics and senior producer/editor of Skeptically Speaking.

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