Read an Excerpt
Why You Should Question Everything
By Guy P. Harrison, Kevin Hand
Prometheus Books Copyright © 2013 Guy P. Harrison
All rights reserved.
STANDING TALL ON A FANTASY-PRONE PLANET
Generally I like to assume that it's not smart to generalize and make assumptions. Too many things fall somewhere into that broad abyss between black and white. Since you are reading this book, however, I'm going to go out on a limb and make two guesses. One, I'm willing to bet that you are a human being and, two, you live on Earth. If I'm right, too bad for you. Whether or not you have realized it, your address and your membership to the human species have condemned you to a life sentence atop the crust of a spherical madhouse. Through no fault of your own, you have been born into a world teeming with good people who mean well but to one degree or another are deranged, deluded, and just plain wrong. And most of them are eager to lure you into the fog with them. But wait, there's more.
There is also no shortage of bad people who don't mean well. They trade in lies. Their goals may include harming you, exploiting you, taking your money, or all three. Unfortunately, you can't hide from any of these people. Some days it's the dishonest ones who come for you, and other days it's the sincere but mistaken ones. Sooner or later they will find you; they always find you. In fact, many of them are in your life right now, no doubt. They live in your neighborhood. You go to school with them. You work with them. Sometimes they are close friends. Every family has at least a few. You could try to run, but to where? No place is safe because they are everywhere. No city, no society, is free of them. Again and again they will reach out to you. They have a million methods and a trillion techniques. Their ideas can be like microbial parasites, requiring only the smallest crack or opening to squirm in and take over your brain. Join us. Pay us. Give us your time. Buy this. Trust this cure. Pay us now, please. Think like us. Be one of us. Believe us. And don't forget to pay us.
When they come for you, the easiest thing to do in the short term may be to hand over your brain or your wallet, and then march quietly into the swamp of muddy thinking like a good little drone. The long-term consequences for you may be harsh, however. Perhaps some people are so weak and so passive that assimilation really is their only option. Fortunately, this is not the case with you, I'm guessing. You would probably like to hold onto your brain, money, health, and dignity. Am I right?
I wish this book were absolutely universal in appeal, but it might not be the best fit for everyone. Therefore, let's address a few basic points early to make sure that this book is right for you:
If you like the idea of spending a lifetime stumbling back and forth between a variety of unproven claims and strange beliefs that are almost certainly not true, then stop reading this book now.
If you think it would be really cool to waste thousands of dollars over your lifetime on bogus miracle cures and absurd products hawked on infomercials, then you need to immediately put this book down and step away from it.
If worrying about things that don't exist and cannot harm you sounds smart, then run as far away from this book as you can. Hurry, it might attack you!
If being intellectually smothered within a group or organization that discourages thinking and forbids asking meaningful questions sounds comforting and reasonable, then buy as many copies of this book that you can afford and then burn them all. As they are burning, be sure to chant something. The words don't matter, anything will do.
I'm sorry if you now feel that this book is not for you. But at least your path in life is clear: Trust everything anyone tells you. Live by a creed that says any claim that feels good and sounds good must be true. Forget reason and always go with your heart. Who needs facts when your gut speaks to you? Never second-guess anything. Never doubt, never question, and never worry about things like evidence, proof, logic, or that obnoxious thing called science. That's it; you are ready to live a dream life. Before you begin your journey, however, please close this book and slam it against your forehead ten times. This will give you good luck. Trust me.
Still here? Then it can only mean one thing: You are ready to think! You must be the kind of person who likes the idea of standing tall on Planet Crazy with eyes wide open and a revved-up thinking machine, just like a twenty-first-century human should. You want to be good at spotting scams and recognizing worthless products for sale. You want the ability to see through hollow words and dishonest promises virtually every time. A safer and more efficient life sounds good to you. You are ready to put up a fight against all those barbarians at the gate who are determined to invade your skull. Their mission is to use and abuse you with counterfeit claims and fake philosophies, but you are going to be ready for them.
THINK LIKE A SCIENTIST
The most effective antidote for bad thinking is good thinking. The best way to make con artists vanish is to see them. The best way to silence crazy claims is simply to listen to them with a sharp brain and then ask the right questions. It is important to look at wild claims and hear incredible sales pitches with deliberate effort. You can't be passive about this. Crooks and kooks love finding a brain with a wide-open doorway and nobody standing guard. Respond to extraordinary claims in a way that is similar, in spirit at least, to how a scientist would investigate a new, exotic illness found in redwood trees or newly discovered microbial colonies in the bellybuttons of Latvian fishermen: observe, research, hypothesize (think up ideas), ask questions, experiment, and share your ideas and conclusions about it with sensible people. Rinse and repeat.
Thinking like a scientist is not that difficult. Young children can do it. Old people can do it. High-school dropouts can do it. It doesn't require you to memorize the periodic table of elements or to understand quantum physics. Thinking like a scientist in this context only means that you maintain a healthy level of curiosity and doubt. You aren't afraid to ask questions and request evidence, and you don't draw conclusions about things until you have very good reasons to do so. You also must be willing to change your mind if your conclusions turn out to be wrong.
The bad news is that the people with weird, unproven claims outnumber you. They may have popular opinion, tradition, and the always-attractive lure of lazy thinking on their side. You may think common sense, the laws of nature, and logic would constrain these people, but they rarely burden themselves with such concerns because theirs is the domain of the make-believe where rules are invented or discarded as desired. They might also cheat by appealing to emotion and tickling your soft underbelly. They might tell you that their way is warm, comforting, exciting, and meaningful while the skeptic's world is cold, lonely, boring, and empty. Don't believe such lies.
Deciding to think like a scientist is the hard part; doing it is fairly easy. The mechanics are simple and straightforward: Proof comes before belief. Nothing is ever beyond question or revision. But don't be fooled, this is a lifelong war and every day is a battle. Irrational thinkers and their crazy claims never go away. You can never declare victory and let down your guard because there are always more nearby who are looking for another mind to infect. Dismantle one of these brain-snatching beliefs with your skepticism, and ten more are ready and waiting to take its place. Annihilate one hollow claim with reason, and twenty more rise up. The best you can do is hold them off in a siege that never ends. And through it all, you need to stay positive, to hold onto your humanity. You can't allow yourself to become frustrated and bitter and begin to pull away from your fellow humans. That's not good for you and not good for the world. Excluding the liars and con artists, people who believe in bad ideas are victims of bad thinking, that's all. Despising them or giving up on them is not constructive. I've been promoting and writing about skepticism for many years, and I have dealt with some of the most idiotic and depraved lunacy imaginable, and yet I can still say without hesitation that I love people. They frustrate me and disappoint me to no end, but I still love them.
Now for some great news: You are already a skeptic and a critical thinker. You're halfway there. Whether or not you recognize it, you apply skepticism and critical-thinking skills every day. We all do because everyone is a skeptic to some degree. Think about it—nobody believes everything. For example, if some guy tries to sell you a candy bar that has already been opened and you don't recognize the logo on the wrapper, you probably wouldn't just do the deal and start chewing without giving it some thought. Even if he promises you that it is one of the best-tasting candy bars in the world by far and he's offering you a super-special, once-in-lifetime price, you aren't going to bite on the deal or the candy bar without first doing some critical thinking, right? Even if he further tempts you by adding that it has special probiotic-homeopathic properties guaranteed to detox and revitalize your spleen, you still would likely hesitate. You would assess the claim that it's a great candy bar. Then why haven't I ever heard of it? You would try your best to analyze the condition of it. It's open. How do I know a used candy bar is safe to eat? The phrase, "too good to be true," might come to mind. You would wonder about the claims he made. What in the heck does 'probiotic-homeopathic' mean? And why does my spleen need revitalizing, anyway? You probably also would consider anything you know about the seller's character and reputation. What do I know about this guy? Is he honest and reliable? Is he an expert on spleens? Did any of his former customers die of food poisoning? Regardless of who you are and how desperate for candy you may be at that moment, you are likely to ask a few direct questions about the candy bar's appearance, mysterious brand, low price, and medicinal properties before buying it. Even if you were desperately hungry, you probably would request a small sample of the candy bar for a quick sniff or taste experiment. See? You're a skeptic. You think like a scientist. But it's not enough to reserve your skeptical powers for encounters with suspicious candy bars only.
None of us automatically believe, accept, or buy every story, claim, and product that comes along. We think. We ask questions. We routinely use our brains to protect us from making bad decisions and allowing ourselves to be misled by incorrect information and outright lies. This is skepticism in action. But while virtually everyone may become a world-class skeptic when faced with a stranger who wants to sell some funky candy, what happens when a trusted friend tells you that she saw a ghost, says she had a horoscope hit right on the mark, or asks you to buy memberships in a group that promises personal peace and financial wealth? How would you react when an authority figure, someone you may have looked up to for years, insists that they have just the medicine you need to feel better? It's only $99.99 and it's "natural," so it can't possibly hurt you, he says. Are you a world-class skeptic during moments like these, too? Or does something cause you to dial it down? This is what happens for most people. They wouldn't buy a used bike without inspecting every inch of it and test-riding it. But they might buy into a hundred different outrageous claims without blinking, based on little more than feeling or a friend's word. It happens every day. But why? Why wouldn't you want to be skeptical about everything, not just from candy bars to bikes, but from healthcare products to horoscopes and beyond? Skepticism is too reliable and too valuable to leave on the shelf. Use it everywhere and every day.
WAIT, WHAT IS SKEPTICISM?
Before we get too far down this road, let's make sure we know what skepticism is. Skepticism and science are really the same thing and work pretty much the same way. Skepticism is just about having a healthy dose of doubt and using reason to figure out what is probably real from what is probably not real. It means not believing you know something before you can prove it or at least make a very good case for it. Skepticism is nothing more than thinking and withholding belief until enough evidence has been presented. It also means keeping an open mind and being ready and able to change your mind when new and better evidence demands it. Proven doesn't mean forever. A good skeptic thinks about the source of a claim and how well it ties in with what we already know about nature and people; and, most important, a good skeptic resists the temptation to make up answers to important questions. Saying "I don't know" is not uncomfortable for a good skeptic. It's routine.
I think of skepticism as science in action. It's the scientific process modified and personalized for everyone to use in everyday life. Why should professional scientists be the only people who get to think straight? We civilians have just as much a right to use rational thinking as they do! I imagine my own skepticism to be something like a personal force field that protects me from invaders. It's like a balled-up fist that punches out bad ideas aiming to do me harm. Who wouldn't want that? If your skepticism force field is powered up and calibrated correctly, then the crooks, time wasters, crackpots, and creeps who want you to join their crazy clubs or buy their junk tend to bounce right off. Sometimes it's dramatic and they get torched like a fly nose-diving into one of those electrified bug-whackers. Most of the time, however, you barely even notice their failed attempts because they are so weak and silly. But if your skeptical force field happens to be weak or turned off from time to time, it can be a very different story. The infiltrators will slip right in and proceed to infect you with their nonsense. Don't miss the seriousness of this. The quality, strength, and consistency of your skeptical thinking will likely have a direct impact on your safety, success, and quality of life. Doing your best to stay free and clear from bad ideas and bad people who would take advantage of you should be a top priority. We may not have to worry about giant prehistoric cats eating us anymore, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of other predators looking for you.
Your skepticism can also be either purely selfish or strictly humanitarian in nature. It's up to you. But either way, skepticism is the wise choice. If one wants to make the world better, safer, and smarter, skeptical thinking is the way to go. Why should me-first divas waste one second of their days on nonsense beliefs when it would mean less time to be selfish and self-centered? Become a good skeptic for the betterment of our species, or do it for yourself and to hell with the world. Just make sure you do it. If you aren't sure which camp you belong in, don't worry. Most good skeptics probably have a bit of both in them. I know I do.
NO OFF DAYS
Being a consistent skeptic can be the difference between life and death. The moment we let down our guard is when bad things come rushing in. Ceasing to think independently, analyze relentlessly, and ask the relevant questions is a big, fat green light for bogus beliefs to raid your inner sanctum. Don't underestimate the importance of this. It's tempting to dismiss the threat of bad beliefs as nothing more than fringe silliness about silly people, nothing much to do with you. But this is deadly serious and none of us are ever in the clear, thanks to the brains we are blessed/cursed with. For lack of skepticism and ignorance about how the human brain misleads its host, many millions of people suffer needlessly every day. Millions throw away money on garbage ideas and rip-off products. Millions sacrifice irretrievable hours, days, and years of their lives on hollow claims. As we will see later in this book, many people die prematurely as a result of their weak or inconsistent skepticism.
Sadly, most people turn off their skepticism at the very times they need it most. Everyone may be skeptical to some degree, but the unfortunate reality is that most people are just not on their toes when it counts. All they probably need is a minimal amount of knowledge about critical thinking and a little encouragement to live more reason-based lives. This is why I write books like this. It's why I do all I can to promote science and reason. For me it's a moral issue, and a big one at that. I can't look at all the madness and suffering that comes from weak skepticism and do nothing about it. This is a gigantic problem that doesn't get the attention it should. For example, you aren't likely to see many, if any, big media news reports on the global cost of gullibility or how much violence, poverty, and death is tied to the failure of the world's families and schools to produce critical thinkers. Nonetheless, whether or not we acknowledge it, the kind of weak and inconsistent skepticism that is typical of people today is a massive drain on humanity and a constant source of suffering. It hurts countless individuals while simultaneously slowing progress and undermining prosperity for all, yet it is unrecognized and unspoken of by virtually everyone everywhere.
Excerpted from Think by Guy P. Harrison, Kevin Hand. Copyright © 2013 Guy P. Harrison. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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