Tag Archives: belief

Being Wrong is Alright

21 Jul

by Benjamen Johnson

Part of being a skeptic is learning to admit you’re wrong. This can be a hard thing to do when everything else in your being rebels against the rational side of your brain — it just  doesn’t come naturally. Coupled with a society where hardly anybody ever publicly admits to being wrong because they are afraid it’ll cost them their job, family, political career, or even open them up a lawsuit, makes admitting you’re wrong that much more difficult.

Yet admitting and owning up to being wrong is a important process, it is one of the processes that makes skepticism so powerful. When is the last time you heard a true believer say he was wrong, without some sort of qualification like special pleading or moving the goalposts?

I’ll admit I’ve been spectacularly wrong on many occasions. To name a few, I was a global climate change denier, I was fooled by the anti-vaxer “too many too soon” argument, and I bought several wackaloon theories about ancient peoples being much more advanced much earlier than archaeologists said they were.

What were some of the reasons it was hard to admit I was wrong on these positions?

  • It disturbed my world view
  • It would effect what I was already doing or make me do something I didn’t want to do.
  • The truth conflicted with what my friends and family believe
  • I was suffering cognitive dissonance — ignoring evidence that did not fit my views

Let’s take the too many too soon argument. After my daughter was born, we got a list of the shots she would be receiving and each which visit. Carefully going through the list, I was somewhat surprised at the number. I just couldn’t see how sticking a kid with a needle that many times could be healthy for them. Many of the immunizations I agreed with, but I remember the Varicella (Chicken Pox) and Hepatitis B vaccines stood out as two unnecessary ones. The chicken pox vaccine especially flustered me. I remember telling my wife that we both had Chicken Pox, there’s nothing wrong with a kid getting Chicken Pox, it’s part of being a kid.

Of course my bias affected how I researched the topic. I found sources that backed my predetermined opinion and disregarded the sources that conflicted it. So what made me change my mind? It wasn’t an immediate change, in fact we continued with the vaccination schedule as laid out by the clinic, because I begrudgingly deferred to my wife’s judgment and just didn’t feel like fighting the system. As time passed I became less emotionally attached to the opinion and the conflicting arguments started to make headway into my brain.

What’s important is that I now freely admit I was wrong so I can learn from the experience. By examining the reasons I was wrong, I have tools to evaluate other aspects of my life where I’ve been less than skeptical. Being wrong yourself also helps you learn to become more sympathetic with other people who hold non-scientific beliefs. You realize that if you can make mistakes or be sucked into plausible sounding pseudo-science that anybody can.

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Sorry Mr. Ghost Hunter, Belief Is Boring

8 Jul

by Benjamen Johnson

On the way home from the Meetup last night I was scanning through the stations and found Darkness Radio on KTLK. In this episode they were interviewing people from Celebrity Ghost Hunters*. A few minutes into listening, I heard one of the interviewees say (I am paraphrasing): ” it was more fun to be a believer when investigating the paranormal.”

This reminded me of sentiments that skeptics hear all the time:

  • We take all the fun and mystery out of life by explaining things or debunking the paranormal
  • How can you have any sense of wonder in your life if you don’t believe in (insert deity or pseudoscience).
  • I feel sorry for you living with such a closed mind; it must be boring to know everything

Let’s take the last one first. The more I learn the more I realize how much that both I and science don’t know.  The ghost hunter who automatically assumes that a disturbance is caused by a ghost is the one who has closed his mind to the possibilities. At that point he isn’t investigating, he’s trying to shoehorn whatever “evidence” he finds into his predetermined conclusion.  No amount of evidence to the contrary will change his belief, whereas a skeptic will make conclusions based on the weight of the evidence, or more importantly if the evidence is inconclusive, he will say he doesn’t know — a real mystery. Which prospect sounds more exciting to you?

Next saying that a skeptic has no sense of wonder is a misunderstanding at best. Just because the skeptic doesn’t buy into metaphysical mumbo-jumbo doesn’t mean he can’t find wonder in things like medical progress or the ingenious methods humans have devised to measure our world. The fact that a being on a tiny spec of dust in the backwater of an insignificant spiral galaxy can resolve structure in other galaxies billions of light years away (and therefore billions of years ago) is mind boggling. And every time we do, we form more questions than we answer. Or take my dad having five of his arteries bypassed and getting up and walking around two days later — I marvel at the medical advances that have allowed us to take a death sentence to an almost routine operation in the span of a few short years.  Believing that a deity had all the answers didn’t cause these wonderful things to happen, people performing science did.

Again which do you think is more wonderful? A bird that evolved from a single-cell life form over millions of years defying gravity and soaring gracefully in the air or that some omniscient creator designed it to fly? Guess which has my vote.

To the first item and my main topic, skepticism doesn’t take the fun and mystery out of life, rather I find it is belief that does. Belief rarely adapts when new evidence is discovered.  It doesn’t leave room for a true mystery because it presupposes the solution. I’d say it’s even becoming more an more irrelevant with each advance in science. The real excitement is unraveling the mysteries of the natural world. The real wonder comes from how the complex environment of the universe and the biosphere emerged from a few comprehensible and relatively simple set of laws.

* I’m purposely not linking to any of these sites. I don’t want to increase their search rankings any further.