Sunday, November 6, 2011

Cynics and other sons of bitches

Skepticism. It has been my experience that most people do not understand the idea of skepticism.

Skepticism is a way of thinking. It is a mode of behavior and a way to determine reality. Our determination of reality is what we use to make choices and determine action.

Skeptics question things. You say X, and I say why? You say Z and I ask how? Skepticism is something we practice any time we hear new information and any time we are exposed to opinions or hear news stories. A Skeptic simply actively practices this skill and hones it. Nothing more.

Critical Thinking is the snooty way to say skeptic. When given a fact we must look at it objectively. Well, as objectively as is possible. We all have biases. Big ones or little ones. We have all seen and heard things which we use to make thinking easier. We do, after all, have to make a crapload of determinations per day. Will the driver ahead of me swerve or go straight? What kind of person is walking up toward me? Are they threatening or docile? We make these split second determinations based upon heuristics. Heuristics are strategies using readily accessible, though loosely applicable information in the act of problem solving. This strategy has worked incredibly well for a few hundred thousand years. It has always been balanced off with what is called systematic thinking. This is a slower method of problem solving. It requires examination and deductive thinking. These two ways of thinking have allowed our species to reach the moon.

One acts like instinct and the other like logic. Those two systems have created a beautiful machine for reaching conclusions. These two systems have created human beings.

The world has changed in the last couple thousand years. I do not live my life in fear of mountain lions or bears. My ancestors lived in constant fear of theses kinds of horrors. These daily fears necessitate quality heuristic thinking. My ancestors needed keys, tools or mental markers that allowed them to make split second determinations in order to continue their genetic line. Evolution favored heuristic thinkers. Since we developed society we have been in a position to think and ruminate. Thinkers were as rewarded almost as much as reactors. Our history has been a battle between jocks and nerds (as John Hodgman of Daily Show fame has recently mentioned). We are all part Jock (Reactor) and part Nerd (Thinker). This is good. This worked well for most of human history.

Since about 1600, we have needed more contemplation and less gut reaction. We invented modern thinking. This is clear in the history of philosophy but became more and more necessary the better we got at science. Science is the ultimate in slow and deliberate thinking.

Skepticism is the regular every day expression of this kind of thinking. The skeptic examines facts as they are presented. Where did this come from? To where does this trend? Who benefits from this fact? Is there context? How is this fact supported? Lastly, is this believable? The last question is always about giving the fact (or argument) weight. Is this fact true? Probably not. But how untrue is it? Then you can give this weight.

A cynic is something different. A cynic may have begun looking for truth, like the skeptic. The cynic tried to see past the preconceptions which create poor instinctual deduction and see things objectively.

In their case they fell prey to the same small, Jock thinking. They found out that the world is full of lies and fraud. That is when the specter of heuristics comes back to haunt them. They see it all as lies and pointless crap. The cynic practiced skepticism for a while. Then, when it turned out to be hard they just stopped. They saw the world and all it's confusion and untruth and they decided that that was what the world was. They created a new system of heuristics. They created new markers and signs in their mind.

The cynic has seen so many movements fail that when a new movement arises they know, KNOW, that it will fail. Seeing people do stupid thing so many times, the cynic decided that people are just stupid and therefor there is no point teaching them.

They have developed new biases which are based upon the lies they had uncovered when they did skepticism.

I was thinking lately about peoples opinion of skeptics as cynics. This is not just a misunderstanding of what skepticism is, it is what some proclaimed skeptics are. Since my foray into the greater world of Skepticism I have met them, the Cynics. They infuriate me, "It will never work", "don't bother", "this is stupid." These are the things they say. They are nay sayers and haters. They try to put you down. They crush your dreams because they have the answers. They have become the autocratic authority that they started their journey to oppose.

Don't let them crush you or shit in your cheerios..............

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