The Illogic of Skeptics  

Posted by Tony Hays

One of the things that I have done over the last twenty years is to teach basic writing at universities and community colleges. Hand-in-hand with that goes the task of introducing students to critical thinking and the research process. I've always hyped the virtues of being skeptical, of not taking things at face value, of looking at evidence and drawing your own conclusions. But then over this past weekend, I happened to surf onto a couple of the more prominent websites run by skeptics, and I realized that skeptics break faith with the critical thinking they claim to personify, and in a big way.

A basic tenet of critical thinking and the research process is to eliminate, as much as is possible, any research bias. When you enter into a project with a bias, you consciously or subconsciously seek out evidence that will support your position. Let's say you've always been intrigued by the legends of Robin Hood and you decide to write about that. If you already believe that Robin Hood existed, and you don't check that belief at the door, you are going to discount, disregard or downplay any evidence that strengthens the proposition that he was but myth.

Here's the thing. Skeptics approach their investigations automatically disbelieving. They demand to be presented with scientific, sustainable evidence before they will concede defeat. And they never concede defeat, or at least a cursory journey through their websites and magazines did not find such an instance. Besides having entered into the project with a pre-existing bias, they have another handicap – as avowed skeptics they have a vested interest in never being convinced that Robin Hood actually existed. How can they be a credible skeptic if they allow themselves to be convinced of anything. Thus, they never seem to have enough evidence to push them over that precipice, and they cloak their stubborn, biased brand of skepticism as critical thinking.

What they are not, in essence, are skeptics. Rather, they classify more closely as contrarians, always taking the opposite viewpoint, the negative side of any question. So, for these researchers, Lee Harvey Oswald will always be the lone assassin of JFK. Robin Hood will never be more than a myth dreamt up centuries ago. UFOs will never exist. King Arthur will never be more than a figment of Geoffrey of Monmouth's imagination. Ghosts and the paranormal do not exist.

We're humans, and we are susceptible to all the flaws and foibles that humans are heir to (to paraphrase Shakespeare – but wait a minute! He didn't exist either!) It is nearly impossible to eliminate all bias or prejudice from your research efforts. But it is a goal that we should never stop pursuing.

I don't have any problem with folks who try to argue that their point is a valid one, as long as they use facts and evidence to support their position and they acknowledge counter arguments. But don't cloak your bias as critical thinking when you start out violating a major tenet of the research process.

Okay, I'll climb down off my soapbox.

This entry was posted on Monday, February 8, 2010 at 6:15 AM . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Unfortunately this "It's true because I want it to be true" way of thinking, not to mention its companion "This source agrees with me so it's the one I'll accept as gospel," are behind the similarities of many historical novels. Examples: Anne Boleyn was a whore, Catherine of Aragon was a saint, Catherine Howard was a simple minded child. Rarely do novels deviate from these characterizations. they all seem to be drawing from the same research. So stay on your soapbox Tony. Make your students question and explore the world around them. For that matter, make them stretch the boundaries of their own minds. Do your part to create a new generation of thinkers. Now I'll get off my soapbox.

February 8, 2010 at 4:05 PM

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