Category Archives: Skepticism

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.

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 on some educational matrix. 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 regarding education states in the American south will be near the bottom. (They will be near the top on measures of violent crime, 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.