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Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

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.

  1. A business partner of mine once told me that “skepticism is the inability to reason well”, and I think that ultimately differentiates skepticism from critical thinking.

    The conference seems very interesting, though. I think everyone has to base their beliefs around something, so it would be interesting to understand the basic assumptions and “truths” accepted by these otherwise highly skeptical people.

  2. Theresa Frasch says:

    This was a great post Stephen. I liked your definitions and suggestions. I have been reading The Speed of Trust by Stephen MR Covey (the son of 7 Habits Stephen Covey). Here are some quotes from his book:

    (Ask yourself,)
    “Am I open to the possibility of learning new truths that may cause me to rethink issues or even redefine my values?”

    “Openness is vital to integrity. It takes both humility and courage – humility to acknowledge that there are principles out there you may not currently be aware of, and courage to follow them once you discover them.”

    I adopted my Theme for 2007 after being influenced by the strength of his words.

    “Be Integrated – I have integrity. I walk my talk. I am congruent inside and out. I have the courage to act in accordance with my values and beliefs. I am honest, not only telling the truth, but also leaving the right impression.

    I genuinely try to be honest in my interactions with others. I am open to the possibility of learning new truths that may cause me to rethink issues or even redefine my values.”

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  3. Dave, Your business partner was right. It was interesting how the skeptics at the conference thought conspiracy theorists were crazy. Yet, these theorists are also skeptics, wanting proof. Like I said, for the most part, the conference was excellent and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in expanding their mind.

    Theresa,Thanks for the kind words and for sharing your updated theme. It’s interesting how the words “integrated” and “integrity” are from similar origins, yet they are rarely used to mean the same thing. I love the concept of congruence. Although this is so hard for many to achieve, it may be one of the most important keys to success and happiness. Thanks!

  4. According to the article a critical thinker would ask “why?” and a skeptic, apparently, would not. Is there so much difference between what a skeptic might say first (e.g., “I question that, because…”) and “why do you hold that belief?” Admittedly the “why?” is more open-ended, but a skeptic has presumably logical reasons for questioning something illogical. Being curious why someone holds to illogic isn’t necessarily critical thinking unless it then leads to “I question that, because…” and a discussion ensues.

    In my experience, dogmatism and blind faith usually hold hands on the same end of the spectrum, opposite from critical thinking.

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