Essay:The Skeptical Life Cycle
Many skeptics, fledgling rationalists and thinkers may seem to go through stages in their quest to find rational enlightenment. This essay is semi-autobiograghical - emphasis on the "semi".
- More or less everyone.
- You, aged 15, watching Strange But True? and thinking nothing of it.
This chrysalis like stage is the default for many humans, and from this a good freethinker or skeptic can be born. Here the person is generally unaware of the major issues of skepticism. Perhaps they have no idea that chiropractors actually practice their spine-tingling art on babies, perhaps they think homeopathy is just herbs like any other alternative medicine, and maybe their experience of UFOs and Area 51 is limited to a few bad documentaries used to fill in the slots TV can't fill with Hitler. To the unaware, creationism seems to be a joke, and vaccines just seem like the "done thing", and if told about it, they'd wonder why the hell anyone would be dumb enough to believe such nonsense, which leads us to our next section.
- That annoying git in your class who's just discovered Richard Dawkins.
- You, aged 17, reading Cracked.com articles on conspiracy theories.
Once you're aware of the issues, however, something seems to change. It's flipping a switch that says "wow, people really do think Barack Obama is a Muslim!", that says "wait, people are serious about those 9/11 conspiracies?", or that says "what, vaccines cause autism, is that true?". The shock and disbelief doesn't make a skeptic, although it lays the groundwork by promoting the curiosity required to read more. Perhaps at this point you could think that there's something to it, and indeed, the switch has another setting that turns you into a True Believer. Head down another leg in the trousers of space time, and your future self can be found on the streets with a megaphone shouting about the End Times and how all the fags are going to burn in Hell. But for the most part in the Skeptic Life Cycle, this path leads you to reading more by established scientists and thinkers, perhaps Bad Science by Ben Goldacre or Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland, or maybe some re-runs of James Randi's TV debunking or Penn & Teller's Bullshit! if you're more modern in your taste. But regardless of how, the skeptic is now awake and starting to think.
Mockery and insults
- Fundies Say The Darndest Things
- You, starting college, and your first online trolling experience.
The first step to skepticism is laid down by the disbelief that people could be so stupid - so the first port of call for any fledgling skeptic is to let everyone know that. This is mockery, it's the desire to call people idiots, irrational, morons, any word you can think of to ensure that it's clear you're right and they're wrong. This is where some bad habits can form if you're not careful, but it's a start.
- The League of Reason
- You, nearly graduating from college, shaking your head in disbelief that you once thought the moon landings were faked.
So the fledgling skeptic has made it clear that others are idiots. But with further reading something begins to niggle and wiggle in the back of that developing mind. It's a question that has always been there, but now it's time to air it out in the open: How do you know you're right? It's all well and good reciting your favourite talking head from TV or spreading whatever blog comes into your RSS feed but if you don't understand why something is wrong, there isn't a point. So the mockery is joined with some actual facts and reasons. Still keeping the "how can someone be so stupid tone", the stage of refutation at least includes some reasons why its stupid. Starting off with some links to blogs that you've read and eventually leading to a few memorised points and stock refutations. You're now well versed in the nonsense of creationism and have learned more about biology and evolution in a few months of refuting CreationWiki than you did in several years of High School biology.
- Quack Watch
- Committee for Sceptical Inquiry
- You, in the middle of a postgraduate degree, realising that all your socialising is now done at Skeptics in the Pub meetings.
By now the stock solutions and refutations are running thin. You discover the phrase "you can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into" and you think it's time to change track. Starting with merely modifying the stock answers, this eventually builds to reading actual science papers. Suddenly the skeptic is building up their own arguments, joining other groups, writing their own blog and regularly conversing with "famous" skeptics via Twitter and other suitably trendy media whatnots.
- Bad Astronomy
- Bad Science
- You, now allowed to put "Dr" on your credit card, spending more time writing your blog and booking tickets to TAM than doing actual work.
The skeptic, armed with the knowledge of how to spot quacks and scams, begins to seek out new things to go after. So what if it's a minor product that's sold less than 10 units and only in one obscure African country, it's woo dammit, and it won't go unpunished! Your blog begins to obsess about this one thing and you go after it hard. Finally, with that dead in the water the skeptic has arrived as the "go to" source for that particular product. It's validation that says it's all worth it.
Who knows, perhaps you even saved a life by putting someone off using quantum homeopathy to cure cancer.
- Penn and Teller
- James Randi
- You, old enough to know better yet young enough not to care, standing in front of a whole room of fledgling skeptics and willing to pass on the baton to the next generation.
At this point there's no need to just refute, you have to spread the word. You have to grab the megaphone and shout in the street. Organise campaigns, make phone calls, write to the government. All that can be done to keep the world free of UFOlogist cults, creationism and alternative medicine scams must be done, and leading the cause is the Evangelist. This skeptic has made it, probably with a book to their name, plenty of articles, and a small cult following ready to get down on their knees and, well, you know... Television beckons, publishers are banging on your door wanting more of what made you famous in the first place. This is a hard life, though. Other skeptics might be at your throat wanting to prove you wrong, or at least grab a section of your fan-base. Woo-pushers will be suing you and defaming you. Moderate newspaper columnists will call you a shrill for atheism and boring skepticism. But the pulpit is now yours, and you're ready to bring awareness to the masses.