Daily Archives: December 29, 2013

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.