Five habits of the skeptical mind
By Nicholas Covington
Article ID: 142
In my journey of skeptical thinking, I have gradually realized the quirks in human thinking that so often lead me astray. I want to share these habits of good skepticism so others may have a better chance of finding truth.
1) Your belief will not change reality
I have noticed a tendency to gravitate towards beliefs which I want to be true. These beliefs don’t always match the facts, and are not borne out by sober investigation. We have a strange superstition that we seldom recognize: sometimes we think that choosing to believe something will actually make it true.
Members of cults will often deny strong opposing evidence in order to keep their membership. UFO believers will often not abandon their beliefs even when confronted with more down-to-earth explanations that explain the facts just as well or better than the alien hypothesis. People think that simply choosing to believe something will make it true.
Belief never makes anything true.
2) Look for the best overall explanation of the facts
Some people advocate one position because there is some evidence in its favor. Others advocate an opposite position for the same reason – they see evidence to do so. Most of these disputes can be settled by asking a very basic question: when we consider all the data, each hypothesis, and the simplicity of each position, does one hypothesis stand out as stronger?
Here’s an example: there is currently a debate in the scientific community over whether birds evolved from dinosaurs or from some other group of reptiles. While the dino-bird enthusiasts can cite an impressive list of feathered dinosaur fossils and similarities in bird and dinosaur anatomy, the dino-bird opponents undermine those links by citing a few small but significant differences between dinosaurs and birds.
Another example is the creation-evolution controversy. Creationists often explain away the results of radiometric dating. They say that radiometric decay rates were faster in the past, without realizing that faster decay rates would have radioactively fried every living thing on Earth.
A third example is the geologic column. Creationists say that even though sediments that form layers of rock would usually take millions of years, there was a great big flood that must have been responsible for creating it.
When you view the debate this way, it really isn’t hard to see that the old Earth hypothesis simply and comfortably explains the facts, while the young Earth hypothesis offers strained and complicated explanations for the most straight-forward data. When we take a bird’s eye view of the issue and compare which explanation is the overall best explanation (in terms of simplicity, explanatory power, and so on) answering the question is simple.
3) Use authorities carefully
If someone cites an expert in order to persuade you of something, be cautious. Does the quotation simply assert an opinion, or does it try and demonstrate the reasoning behind its assertion? Is the expert in question really an expert? Numerous creationists, such as Kent Hovind, claim to have credentials when in reality they do not. Is the expert’s opinion representative of his field? Anyone can find a certified medical doctor who will promote some quack healing treatment, and so it is always good to know if the expert’s opinion is considered fringe within his own field.
4) Don’t confuse a possibility with a probability
People often try and prove things to an absolute certainty. Or they refuse to give up a belief until it’s disproven with absolute certainty. Very little human knowledge is literally 100% certain. Thinking in terms of absolutes can often be impractical, because a lot of human knowledge (besides conceptual knowledge such as ‘one plus one equals two’) relies on weighing a claim with the doubts we may have about it.
Yes, technically it is possible that man never went to the moon, but it is not plausible to suggest that so many human beings are being so dishonest in such an incredible conspiracy. It is far more plausible that they are simply telling the truth, that there is no conspiracy, and that we did go to the moon.
5) Dissect your thoughts
Whenever you hear an argument for something, try and distil the argument into its most concise form. If you write the argument down as a syllogism, it’s easier to spot a fallacy. A syllogism is type of argument that contains a major premise, a minor premise and a conclusion.
Here’s an example:
- All roses are flowers.
- Some roses have thorns.
- Therefore, some flowers have thorns.
Formulating a syllogism puts all possible assumptions and fallacies right out in the open. This allows you to logically track the process of an argument to ensure it makes sense.
These are just a few habits that I’ve learned over the years, and they have greatly strengthened my thinking. What have you learned that has made you a better thinker?