I recently went to a “skeptics” convention in Las Vegas. When I checked in, it looked like I was signing up for a Star Trek convention. There were some, well, interesting people. In total, there were 800 attendees discussing skepticism in all areas, from psychic abilities and conspiracy theorists to environmental concerns and biases of the media. There were some top notch presenters, including big names like Penn & Teller, Matt Stone and Trey Parker (of South Park fame), Adam Savage (from the MythBusters). They were all great. There were radio personalities, scientists, professors, authors, paranormal debunkers, and so many more.
This was my first time to this event. The conversations (in the class and late night in the bar) were fascinating. No topics were taboo. And opinions were flying. What become apparent to me was that on the whole, the group could be described as “dogmatic atheist libertarians.” Some had moved from skepticism to cynicism, no longer remaining open to new perspectives. Although there were many parts of the conference that resonated with me (most in fact), I had some perspectives that ran contrary to the herd. I liked to tell people that I was “skeptical about skepticism.”
Skepticism is defined in the dictionary as: the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism.
This feels awfully negative to me.
To me, skepticism should mean “critical thinking.” It implies remaining open to any possibility, while not accepting things at face value. It is about applying science and reasoning, recognizing the limitations of those disciplines. To do this, you must avoid both dogmatism and blind faith – two opposite ends of the spectrum. What is the difference between dogmatism, blind faith, and critical thinking?
If you are in a conversation with someone and you are dogmatic, you will immediately shoot down any perspective that is contrary to your own belief. Your knee-jerk response is, “No.” You go on the offensive and put the other person on the defensive. This does not help further the conversation.
Conversely, if you blindly accept what others say, your immediate response is “Yes.” You become a sheep following the herd. You don’t question the other person’s perspective. Again, this does not help further the conversation.
The critical thinker would ask, “Why?” “Why do you believe that to be true?” Try this with friends, colleagues and family. You will find it opens up a whole new level of conversation. This is where true learning and dialogue take place.
I encourage you to apply critical thinking to all areas of your life. This is an incredibly useful skill to learn, and one that few people practice. I believe that critical thinking combined with creativity, leadership, and social skills are the cornerstones of a successful and passionate “goal-free” life.