Skepticism as an Anitivirus

I went to a movie with some friends the other night and afterwards we fell into a discussion on alien life on our planet. One of us brought up that an ex defense minister of Canada believes there are E.T.s living among us. What’s curious is I found myself taking up the position of the skeptic. Apparently something I do. A sort of devil’s advocate to friendly discussions. Perhaps this is because of the way I was raised, at least in part, but I think there more to this going on.

We live in a world of belief. We see things and apply belief to them. If you’ve read Michael Shermer’s rather wonderful The Believing Brain, then you’d know that belief is our default mode to understanding. Rationalization comes later. We literally believe things, and then rationalize them, not the other way around. And this is true for everyone from the most ardent scientist, the the most delusional religious zealot. The only difference between them is not the way they approach what they believe, but how they prove to themselves the things they believe.

Let me unpack this a little bit. Both the scientist and the zealot will disbelieve things that run contrary to their understanding of the world. This is understandable. If I tell you the moon is made of green cheese, you will disbelieve me, because this information is counter to what you already believe. But what if I tell you something that is untrue, but is similar to what you already believe? That’s where we run into trouble. Again, its not just you or me, but all of us. When we get information that is similar to what we already believe to be true, we are far more likely to accept it as true. And, heres the important part, when we get information that proves false something we believe to be true, we ignore it, or we try to tear it apart, usually via a whole host of false arguments. We say the author slept with his cats (which is called an ad hominem), or the author obviously didn’t consider the intergalactic aliens (a red herring) or we claim the author cannot be correct because no “real” scientist would make such a claim (a no true scotsman), or a whole host of other logical fallacies.

My problem isn’t that people believe in things, or that belief is dangerous (belief can be dangerous, but it can also be helpful). Its that we believe too easily the things we like, and believe too dubiously the thing we do not. Belief than becomes a way to keep our ideas consistent, but not necessarily correct. There’s no built in system to determine if what we believe to be true is actually true. From the inside our own heads we cannot tell.

Worse still, when we’re exposed to information that is close to what we belief, then we are prone to spread it around. Think of an idea as a virus, and our brains as their hosts. If you’re brain is infected with the belief that X is true, you will pass on this notion to other brains. But only those brains who believe similar ideas will be susceptible to your virus. So brains that believe X is false will probably not get infected, but brains that think X might be true could get infected. Again, this is not bad in the main, but there is no way to determine if what we’re spearing is true of false.

(as an aside, this is the whole idea behind the concept of memes. The idea was that ideas spread like viruses, passing on their information. Since ideas don’t have genes (that is, they don’t replicate with genetic material) the way to explain them was to develop the ideas of memes. A meme being the genetic material for ideas, sort of like dna.)

So what we have are all these beliefs being passed around, with no way for the those infected with these beliefs to tell if their beliefs are true or false (or in-between. Assuming everything has to be true or false is yet another logical fallacy called a false dilemma).

What’s interesting to me is what doesn’t get passed around as easily: Anti-belief. By this I mean the entire logical structure needed to eradicate a belief. For instance, If I say Global Warming is a hoax, I’m not passing around the proof that climate change is not real, rather I’m passing around my belief that it isn’t. In other words, I’m nearly passing on my belief. Anti-belief does not come in an easy to digest packet that is readily consumable. Moreover anti-belief is highly specific to the individual. The information that may cause me to no longer believe that X is true will more than likely be different for you.

So what does one do when presented with belief? Especially when we are constantly bombarded with belief, and have to work hard to find anti-belief. The only solution I can think of that we can do as individuals is to attempt to disbelieve every belief we encounter. That is, to be skeptical. Mind you, this is much easier to do when we’re exposed to things we don’t believe already, and much harder when exposed to things we’re more susceptible to. But still the only way to stop being infected with some beliefs is to attempt to not be receptive to any belief.

Does this work? What do you believe?