Warm up your bullshit detectors!

Last updated 03/18/07.

Published on: December 1, 1997

The quintessential problem of modern, information-rich society is readily diagnosed by Sturgeon's Law: 90 percent of everything is crap.

The good news is that while the truth may well be impossible to know, it is easy to learn what's probably false. There are a large number of methods and heuristics for discerning false claims, and we've all used them. Skepticism is the basis of most of these techniques.

It's incredibly important not to be gullible. Single instances of gullibility not infrequently are matters of life and death, earthly salvation or ruin. Gullibility cannot be countered by mere learning, because there is a continual arms race between the deceivers and static defenses of their potential prey. "Don't buy swamp land in Florida" doesn't protect you from the myriad other scams that can be invented. The solution is to empower the laity with skepticism. That basic assumption that there ought to be good reason for us to believe something, else we might be fooled.

So what's the big deal? Everybody applies skepticism. Well, we can't be born skeptics. We have to start trusting: there is too much to learn in too little time to continually test everything we are told. Skepticism is an art that we start learning young, and can improve in for a lifetime. And like any other skill, we can benefit from improving it.

Like most new media, the first to get to the web in force have been the pornographers. But right after them come those determined to advance their causes with the aid of the gullible. They can be as benign as P. T. Barnum ("there's a sucker born every minute"), or as awful as the latest suicide cult. Search for yourself: think of ANY religion, pseudoscience, snake oil, fad, or other nonsense and look for it using the search engines. They got to the web before almost anybody else. Their evangelical literature lays in wait for the next gullible mind to come along, sometimes long after the initiators of the fraud are gone.

There is a rich literature of skepticism out there, both specific and theoretical. However, it is so widely dispersed that few people encounter it or are even aware of it. Nor does it provide the financial incentives for promotion that frauds offer. Still worse, until recently it has been relatively hard to look up skeptical examinations of claims. But that's rapidly changing on the web. There are now numerous excellent sites that will provide quick entry into the community of skeptics on a wide assortment of subjects.

Most of us believe in some false claims at some time of our life, much as we contract various diseases. If our skeptical immune system works well, we may suffer very few ill effects from exposure to these pathogens. However, unlike our immune system, our minds are capable of using skepticism to reject the bogus long after the initial infection. Think about the beliefs you've rejected over your lifetime. Think about the beliefs you currently hold that are unorthodox. Chances are that a fair number of them are outright false in part or whole, and you could discern which if you spent some time. Let me help you here.

Skeptics are often reviled by those who profit from promoting questionable beliefs. A skeptic isn't doing his job unless he receives some abuse. One of the mildest examples is the claim that skepticism is "negative", and many are trapped on the defensive saying "It's NOT". I like Robert Ingersoll's response: "The destroyer of weeds, thistles and thorns is a benefactor whether he soweth grain or not." Counter image omitted.

Copyright 2001 by Mike Huben ( mhuben@world.std.com ).