Skepticism is Lazy

Skepticism is Lazy

Why “Believing Everything You Hear” is the More Open-Minded and Valuable Approach

It’s been trendy for a long time to praise skepticism.

In politics, every side now accuses the other of (a) making up facts to support their positions, as well as (b) various forms of bias or even corruption.

One solution that is frequently proposed (typically as a way for the “other” side to become enlightened) is for people to be more skeptical. You’re encouraged to question what you read, hear, and see – to not take what you’re told for granted.

And this is also common outside of politics. Vegetarians and meat-eaters do the same, accusing each other of blindly accepting the misinformation they’re supposedly being fed by media, industry, government, or just convention. On questions of ethics, popular thought-leaders like Sam Harris commonly espouse the benefits of being more skeptical.

Despite all the praise, though, skepticism is likely the worst approach for (i) resolving differences, (ii) learning more, or (iii) expanding our thinking.

The Dark Ages and The Enlightenment (or Why Skepticism Might Have Once Been a Good Idea)

A thousand years ago, life was different in more ways than we can really imagine. But there’s one difference that is particularly relevant when thinking about why skepticism is lauded and why it’s no longer ideal as a general approach to thought.

During the “Dark Ages”, almost every human still clustered around a small group of other humans. Travel was reserved for a tiny fraction of humanity, and even then, it was fairly rare. Because of that, communication outside of small groups (villages, tribes, etc.) was also extremely limited.

If you had lived at that time, then you likely would have interacted with the same 100-1,000 people for your entire life, give or take a few strangers – which also means that you would only ever hear what your parents, family, friends, and other villagers told you. And those people ALSO heard nothing other than what their family, friends, and fellow villagers told them. The printing press wasn’t even invented until a little more than 500 years ago.

All of this means that – for your entire life – you were exposed to VERY LITTLE new information and VERY FEW perspectives.

The people around you agreed on 99% of things about life, politics, ethics, and the universe.

At that time (or in cases like that), being skeptical might be a good thing – or at least might have more positive qualities than it does now.

As a base, let’s assume that we generally want to (i) learn and make progress, (ii) expand our thinking, and (iii) resolve differences without resorting to violence. (Going deeper into the ethics of these goals would simply be beyond the scope of this article.)

Assuming that those are our goals, the broad question is whether or not skepticism is a generally positive intellectual approach.

Given that people of that time were exposed to relatively little new information or perspectives, it’s possible that skepticism would lead someone to question his or her own beliefs, even despite a general human tendency to attach to our own worldview.

In other words, a thousand years ago, questioning the very limited perspectives and information you were exposed to might allow you to arrive at new information or perspectives. (Even then, it’s a bit of a toss-up, since it’s ridiculously hard to think up new stuff on your own.) And if you could arrive at new information/perspectives, then that gets you most of the way toward (i) learning/progressing and (ii) expanding your thinking. As for resolving differences, it’s arguable whether skepticism was ever a great approach, since you’re much more likely to be skeptical of new information/perspectives, rather than your own.

The Enlightenment (or just generally the time that led from the “dark” ages to what we might call modernity) was all about being skeptical. And it worked out, because a few privileged men were finally able to (a) have the free time to think about stuff and (b) be in relatively close proximity to and start communicating with other people like themselves, who were also thinking and questioning more.

That confluence of circumstances meant that they could question things that were accepted by the overwhelming majority of humans. So they learned, made progress, and expanded their thinking. However…

We No Longer Live in the Dark Ages

In case you hadn’t noticed, things are MUCH different now. Actually, things were much different even 200 years ago. But since the dawn of the digital age, the context we live in has changed more than ever before.

In particular, you and I are exposed to ENORMOUS amounts of information and also RELATIVELY ENORMOUS numbers of different perspectives.

That change, alone, changes the entire calculus. Rather than getting us closer to (i) learning/progress, (ii) expanding our thinking, and (iii) resolving differences without violence, skepticism is now generally lazy and counterproductive.

When you’re exposed to only one viewpoint and little information, the easy/lazy thing to do is to accept what you’re told. Your brain grasps onto that information and perspective and builds a worldview around it. So long as you don’t question what you’re told, your brain doesn’t need to do much work, because nearly everything you encounter fits into your worldview. This was the case a thousand years ago.

By the way, I’m referring to “a thousand years ago” simply as an intellectual crutch. Any situation where people are still exposed to sparse information and perspective would be similar. Those examples are just much harder to find these days (perhaps in parts of North Korea, but even that is questionable).

On the other hand, when you’re exposed to vast amounts of information and perspectives, the easy/lazy thing to do is to reject most of the new information and perspectives, since so much of that information and those perspectives will not fit your worldview or beliefs.

We clearly live in the second scenario. (Filter bubbles move us backward a little bit along that spectrum, but even so, we’re still getting massively more information and more perspectives than even 10 years ago – let alone 1,000.)

For you, the hard (un-lazy) thing to do is to thing sympathetically – to try to believe and inhabit several different perspectives.

To think sympathetically requires you to embrace new ideas, perspectives, and facts that are outside of your worldview. Your brain must understand and reconcile divergent positions. It may even require that you sometimes hold contradictory beliefs.

One quick note: thinking sympathetically is NOT the same as simply being “tolerant.” Tolerance is a simple willingness to permit beliefs at odds with your own. Sympathetic thinking requires you to actually embrace those divergent beliefs.

Rejecting Skepticism is Vital for Learning & Reconciliation

The counter-productivity of skepticism is that you reject or disregard new information and perspectives. You never fully comprehend or inhabit alternative beliefs.

This might sound like the platitude of ‘walking a mile in someone else’s shoes,’ but it’s not about that. The point is not to empathize with where someone else is coming from or to psychologize their beliefs. Those things may or may not be valuable to do.

Rejecting skepticism is about sympathetical embracing and inhabiting new ideas, beliefs, and perspectives (not individual psyches).

That rejection is now the primary way you learn more, absorb and process new information, and think laterally from a variety of different perspectives.

When you generally approach thought and life skeptically, that approach changes what you see and experience (as do all approaches). In this case, it causes you to see and hear new information through a critical lens of questioning. And like anybody, your brain generally has a ready-made set of questions to apply.

For example, if you are an engineer or scientist, your first questions will typically beg for certain types of proof or certain authority of sources. That might seem innocuous – you might imagine that the biggest downside is that you don’t adopt certain beliefs as early as you could – waiting for proper proof. But those questions do more than that. They prevent you from thinking laterally about why/how new information might be true, which in turn keeps you from developing perspectives that might allow you to create new solutions in other areas.

It’s not that nothing can break through this framework, but the framework still shapes your experience.

On the other hand, if you think sympathetically, you approach each bit of new information or each new perspective in a way that is more curious. It’s likely not possible to approach anything with no bias or perspective. But you attempt to inhabit new ideas and beliefs, seeking to gain from them all that you can.

Thinking sympathetically does not require that you hold onto beliefs for any length of time. That’s a process that is organic and hard to quantify. What it does require is that you are able to hold a belief first, though.

Why Sympathetic Thinking Makes More Sense…

In a world where information and perspectives are abundant, you have 2 choices.

  1. You can choose to think skeptically. In this case, whenever you’re presented with new information or a new perspective, you’ll start from a premise of disbelief. This is a comfortable position, and people might even admire you for your “principles.” But because of your starting point, you’ll be necessarily less curious and unable to accumulate nearly as much new information or as many new perspectives.
  2. You can choose to think sympathetically. In this case, whenever you’re presented with new information or a new perspective, you’ll start from a premise of belief. This is an uncomfortable position, and people might judge you for “flip-flopping” and not sticking to your guns. But because of your starting point, you’ll be necessarily more curious and able to change and grow your thinking more. You’ll also be able to understand and reconcile more easily with others.

Without a doubt, skepticism is the easier choice. Our brains are not evolved to deal with so much new information and so many new perspectives. The easy thing to do is to stick mostly to what we know and judge the rest of it.

But if you’re willing to take the tougher route, sympathetic thinking is the far more fun and illuminating perspective.

2 Big Notes

When we’re discussing skepticism – we must necessarily discuss it as a GENERAL intellectual approach. And the reason for doing so is not simply academic. Our brains evolved to be efficient, partially to conserve energy, but also to be able to make potentially life-saving judgments without needing to start from “ground zero” each time. This is the reason we have emotions and various biases (confirmation, ingroup/outgroup thinking, etc.).

Because our brains are built this way, adopting an intellectual approach pretty much always means that we apply that approach somewhat indiscriminately. And I’m pointing this out because there are certainly times/situations where being skeptical still makes sense. For example, if someone tries to sell you a car stereo out of the back of an unmarked van, then being skeptical is likely a good approach for thinking about the legality/safety of that situation and transaction. And we probably want our kids to still be skeptical of taking candy from a stranger in a van on the street.

But even though there are situations where skepticism makes sense as an approach, that doesn’t mean it’s a good general way to approach thought and life. It’s the same type of question that we would ask about being combative or racist as general approaches to life.

Common Objection: Most people who praise skepticism will note that they’re encouraging people to question their own beliefs. And as such, they’ll argue that questioning one’s own beliefs allows a person to be more open to and curious about new information and perspectives.

That’s not wrong. But it misses two points. First of all, thinking sympathetically FORCES you to automatically question your own beliefs. If you’re constantly accepting and believing new perspectives and beliefs, then at least some will contradict your current worldview and beliefs. And as such, you’ll be forced to question your own beliefs to find a way to reconcile with new information. Secondly, as a practical matter, people are FAR more likely to question new beliefs rather than their own. So encouraging skepticism does little to practically help people question their beliefs.