Practical Skepticism is about ME

By Steve Cuno

I’m feeling self-absorbed today. I want to talk about how skepticism helps me, me, ME.

Don’t get ME wrong. I concede that not just I, but the whole of humankind stands to benefit from a skeptical approach. Here are four examples:

Example the First: Skepticism saves me money.

I had a favorite brand of barbecue sauce. Whenever it chanced to set foot in my mouth, my taste buds greeted it by standing up and singing hymns. One day I picked up a considerably cheaper brand, just to compare. Sure enough, it proved not as good. But thanks to skepticism, I knew a thing or two about how easily we fool ourselves. I wondered, “How would James Randi test this?” I took out two spoons and poured a dollop in each. Good so far, except skepticism had also taught me the value of a blind test. How was I going to manage that on my own? Here serendipity intervened. I received a phone call. By the time the call ended, I couldn’t remember which spoon held which sauce. I sampled them both … and could taste no difference. My taste buds now stand and sing for Brand X, and my wallet joins in.

On another occasion, I was running errands with a friend when he ducked into a so-called nutritional products store. He emerged a few minutes later with a handful of bottles and $50 less in his pocket. Thanks to some skeptical knowledge, I recognized the product names and knew that none of them performed as claimed, or, if you will, as claimed in large type and disclaimed in small. My friend would hear none of it. That was his privilege. I came away grateful that skepticism protects me from spending good cash on worthless products.

Example the Second: Skepticism rescues me from unproductive arguments.

A friend asked why I didn’t like a certain politician. I listed my reasons. Red faced, he flung out his arms and said, “You think [Opponent’s Name] is better?” This threatened to drag a political conversation, which I can enjoy, to the end of the continuum marked “fruitless political argument,” which I cannot. In a rare moment of pausing to think, I heard a voice in my head, saying, “Name that logical fallacy.” False dichotomy and non sequitur came to mind. I went with the latter. “The question was why I don’t like him,” I said, “not how he compares to his opponent.” My friend frowned, which didn’t surprise me, and changed the subject, which did. Pleasantly.

Over lunch, a business acquaintance told me that she couldn’t imagine how “all of this” (she said, taking in half of the world with a sweep of her hand) could have come about without a divine assist. I knew from prior experience that dipping into evolution would lead only to frustration, for her religion had poisoned that well for her some time ago. I recognized in her comment the argumentum ad ignorantiam. I said, “That doesn’t prove there’s a god, but it says something about the limits of imagination.” She admitted she hadn’t thought of that. In the long run she did not embrace evolution, but in the short we were able to finish lunch in peace.

Example the Third: Skepticism (may have) spared me a heart attack or two.

I asked my internist about the possibility of a prescription antidepressant. Knowing, thanks to skepticism, to beware opinions from experts outside the bounds of their expertise, I asked for a referral to a specialist.  My internist brushed aside the referral request and suggested St John’s Wort. Ah, but I had read about St John’s Wort; I knew it appeared to have some antidepressant effect, but, because it was unregulated, I would have no assurance of purity or consistency of dose. More important, I recalled that it had a nasty reputation for inhibiting “… the impact of over half of prescribed medicines.” That last point was no small matter to me, since each night I take a tiny mauve-colored pill that keeps my blood pressure from going through the roof. Did my tiny mauve-colored pill fall within the dreaded “over half of prescribed medicines”? Beats me, which is why “may have” appears in the above heading, but I didn’t care for the odds. I sought out a specialist who steered me in another direction.

Example the Fourth: Skepticism introduces me to great friends.

Thanks to skepticism, I have lucked into some great friendships. Through attending The Amazing Meeting, corresponding with skeptics from afar, and showing up each month at our local Drinking Skeptically (yes, even in Salt Lake City), I get to know fascinating people I would not have met otherwise. All of them broaden my horizons, validate my passion for facts-not-fancy, and provide me a much-needed respite from ambient nonsense.

Enough about me, me, me.

At the risk of betraying the self-absorption with which I began this piece, I admit broader application. If skepticism benefits me personally, surely it does you and others, too.

Is your skeptic toolbox well-stocked?

Is your skeptic toolbox well-stocked?

A version of this piece was published on the JREF Swift blog on 4 Feb 2014. Used with permission.

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