On Belief and Skepticism

My very bright youngest daughter told me about a matrix in which our home state of Washington ranked 49th out of the 50 states, nearly the worst state in the union. Naturally I was skeptical since the American south ranks lowest on virtually every educational measurement, and most other measures of well-being. Of course I didn’t tell my daughter I didn’t believe her, but that I would be very surprised if Washington ranked so low in some such matrix. It turns out that my daughter was correct and here is the source:

“Washington is the nation’s No. 1 STEM economy and has the highest concentration of STEM jobs in the United States. Yet, the state ranks 49th out of 50 states in the mismatch between the skills required for available jobs and individuals with those skills.”

In retrospect what I should have said was “since you are very bright and read a lot and since there are so many different measurements that can be taken there is probably some measurement by which any given state ranks first in the middle or last.” Perhaps I expressed too much confidence that I was correct. (Interestingly though, this measurement says more about how many high tech jobs there are in the Seattle area than anything about the state’s specific educational shortcomings.)

Still skepticism is important in a world in which people are so credulous—it is the basis of critical thinking. I can’t accept something someone says because I like or even love them. Claims stand and fall on the evidence. In this case, if you have background beliefs about the education in the US, you will know that on virtually any measurement the American south will be last. (As they will be near the top on measures of violent crime, measures of racism, divorce, and church attendance.) Without a healthy skepticism we will believe virtually anything, ignoring our obligation to only believe things for which there is good evidence. And that’s because our ideas affect other people. So the reason I am a skeptic is not because I want to irritate people. I am a skeptic because I want to know what’s true. I have a truth fetish. If we don’t care about the truth we become credulous, encouraging others to lie to us with impunity. So many of the world’s troubles are caused by lying, and believing the lies told to us.

2 thoughts on “On Belief and Skepticism

  1. I empathize with this exact scenario. I too am a dedicated skeptic, but find it difficult sometimes to “disagree without being disagreeable”. Many people I disagree with most fundamentally are the ones I love most profoundly. Do you maintain close relationships with people holding drastically different beliefs? It’s hard to separate the person from the ideas they hold especially when there is so much vested emotionally in those ideas. I hate the idea of “agreeing to disagree” . Im not going to dance around the issue; We are adults and honesty is important. How do yo approach these relationships?

  2. As far as “disagree without being disagreeable” I suppose that’s a matter of attitude. So you can disagree in a disagreeable manner, but you can also disagree in a non-disagreeable manner. I don’t think you can disagree in an agreeable manner, since that would imply you were agreeing. So the best is to voice your disagreement with the ideas expressed, but not personally attack the person who expressed those ideas.

    As far as having relationships with people who hold different views this certainly can be done. There are people in the most intimate lifelong relationships who disagree about politics, religion and other subjects. Still I think its easier to have good relationships if you at least share some values and beliefs in common, and in fact I believe that marriages for example are more successful between persons who have similar personalities. (Although I’m not sure about this.)s

    It is hard to separate people from ideas they hold. If I’m progressive and someone is a fascist; or if I’m an agnostic and someone is a biblical literalist that’s very hard to overcome. In such cases it would be really hard to say “she is ok, but she is absolutely insane because she’s a biblical literalist and that involves holding contradictory ideas at the same time as well as believing things that conflict with well-established truths of modern science.” And you are correct, people certainly have a lot invested emotionally in their ideas, which in large part explains why they are so resistant to changing them, even in the face of good reasons to do so.

    I think the best you can do is to decide when its worth it to enter into a polemic when you feel the truth is being distorted. At one end of the spectrum you should certainly not allow the truth to be distorted. For example if someone says that asians are inherently inferior to my racial group and we should go kill them all then that’s clearly something to challenge. If they say that it is generally colder in Florida and than Minnesota and they are really attached to that idea then it probably isn’t such a big deal to disagree with them, even though they are mistaken.

    Now suppose I encounter a gravitational, germ, or evolutionary theory denier. In such cases I should be willing to enter into a polemic because any educated person knows these are well-established scientific ideas. Furthermore to deny them might entail someone’s jumping off a building and thinking they’ll fly; not washing their hands before handling food, or counting on last years flu shot to work this year. (Yes viruses evolve quickly.) Of course you probably won’t change their minds since so many persons are willfully ignorant.

    Now suppose you encounter a climate change denier. You can tell them that the intergovernmental panel of climate scientists now claim with 98% certainty that humans are the main cause of global climate change. But you probably have to leave it at that. The fact that they are mistaken when they don’t believe in it, (and arrogant to think they know more about the subject then the world’s experts), probably doesn’t matter that much. True you might convince them not to vote for a climate change denier, but one vote isn’t that significant anyway and their mistaken view is unlikely to change anyway.

    Of course if someone is getting upset or violent then you should agree with anything they say. After all Galileo recanted the Copernican view of the solar system in the face of the Catholic Church’s threatening his life. (Bruno had been recently burned at the stake for advocating such a view.) But among friends–and if someone is willing to kill you over your beliefs they shouldn’t be your friend–I think you just have to decide how serious the issue is and take each case on an individual basis.

    I will say this; as I get older I let a lot more slide than when I was young. And again that’s because you rarely change people’s minds because of the emotional attachment they have to those ideas as you mentioned earlier.

    But when someone says: “let’s start another war,” or “let’s deny people health care” well those are claims that hurt a lot of people. And if that doesn’t matter then what does?

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