The Beauty of Skepticism

The biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) was one of the most prolific and widely read authors of popular science in the twentieth-century. (Links to a few of his books can be found below.) In addition to authoring or editing more than twenty books, he penned the foreword to Michael Shermer’s 1997 book, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. That foreword is a clear and concise statement of the value of skepticism.

Gould begins by noting that the intellectual and moral need for skepticism arises because “Our patterns of thought and action lead to destruction and brutality as often as to kindness and enlightenment. In short, humans are capable of heartrending nobility and unspeakable horror. How then to save ourselves from violent crusades, witch trails, inquisitions, enslavement, genocides and holocausts? To do so we need both morality and rationality. For without reason

we will lose out to the frightening forces of irrationality, romanticism, uncompromising “true” belief, and the apparent resulting inevitability of mob action. Reason … is also our potential salvation from the vicious and precipitous mass action that rule by emotionalism always seems to entail. Skepticism is the agent of reason against organized irrationalism–and is therefore one of the keys to human social and civil decency.2

Reason is our most powerful instrument to combat irrationality in all its forms—psychics, young-earth creationists, faith healers, holocaust  and climate change deniers, Ayn Rand cultists, vaccination avoiders and all the other pseudo sciences and superstitions of our time. As Gould says: “Our best weapons come from the arsenals of basic scientific procedures–for nothing can beat the basic experimental technique of the double-blind procedure and the fundamental observational methods of statistical analysis.”3 The application of elementary scientific tools easily defeats almost all modern irrationalism.

Why then skepticism’s bad reputation? Perhaps because it is thought of as a debunking, nihilistic activity. Skeptics seem to take away the magical and mysterious explanations that we so enjoy. But skepticism does more than debunk—it offers a better, alternative explanation rooted in reason and evidence. As Gould concludes: “The alternative model is rationality itself tied to moral decency—the most powerful joint instrument for good that our planet has ever known.”4

I miss Gould’s voice.

The Mismeasure of Man (Revised & Expanded)


The Structure of Evolutionary Theory


The Book of Life: An Illustrated History of the Evolution of Life on Earth (Second Edition)


Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life


Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

1. Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, (New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1997) ix.
2. Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, (New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1997) x.
3. Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, (New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1997) xi.
4. Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, (New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1997) xii.

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