One crucial aspect to thinking skeptically about questionable claims is that you are aware of the way we can so easily and regularly fool ourselves. Our brains do some odd things that mess with reality. I plan on highlighting some media that are really eye-opening and should be on your list to experience as a practical skeptic. I’ll start with two of my favorite books.
Two concepts about human behavior and function that will make your jaw drop as you comprehend their effects on yourself and others are the way memory REALLY works and the practice of cognitive dissonance.
We hear stories from people everyday about what they observed and experienced. If you are in any sort of career that involves diagnosing or investigating, you have heard stories that just CAN NOT be right. Something is off. Are these people lying? No, they aren’t. They are remembering and relating the story to you suitable for the circumstance. It’s what humans often do, especially when we feel we might help or persuade. There are many occasions where a “fact” related to you by a person can be checked and found to be totally false. Memory is not a video tape, it does not record events as we assume it does. It’s pliable, changing and will evolve to suit our social and emotional needs. (Ahem, Brian Williams.)
This book by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, Eyewitness Testimony, is a classic. I recommend it very highly. It’s a very readable account of her academic testing of human memory. It’s fascinating. She is able to show that our memories are not at all what we think they are. Relying exclusively on memory and subsequent “eyewitness testimony” might work OK in every day life but in court cases, for example, it is fraught with peril. Please check this book out. You may find it in your local public or college library as well as new and used copies. Give it to law enforcement officials or true crime aficionados that you know.
The second, very readable book on human foibles is by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. I enjoyed reading this book so much except for the fact that I saw myself in the pages. It’s called Mistakes were made, (but not by me) and is about cognitive dissonance, or what gymnastics your brain does when you are faced with information that is in conflict with what you already accept. For example, what if you, a government official, have tenuous information that a country is harboring weapons of mass destruction and you put in motion plans to find them expending huge amounts of money and manpower to do it. It’s nearly impossible to ratchet back the plans even when information suggests you were abysmally wrong in your original premise. You go on justifying. A more everyday example is how people will defend a product that they paid a right tidy sum for as marvelous. They will insist it works better than the cheap version. The more you pay for something (with money or emotion), the more you like it and will defend it. That’s how we roll, often way off the track.
Buy these book and pass it on to your friends when you are done. You may not change your own behavior but you will be more informed about human psychology and this will surely help you make more sense of people.