Science and Skepticism

Lawrence M. Krauss

These are the times that try men’s souls.” This was true when Thomas Paine uttered these words, and they remain true today (though with a more inclusive gender reference). The fact that Donald Trump, a poster child of ignorance, duplicity, and hatred, could win the nomination of the Republican Party says a lot about the lack of talent leading that party, but it also says a great deal about the country. And what it says isn’t good.

I am writing these words after listening to a speech that was just delivered in North Dakota by Trump discussing global warming (“we will stop any U.S. government support for U.N. global warming studies” and “we will kill the Paris agreement”), coal production (“we will restore coal miners’ jobs”), and the environment (“we will end the EPA”). The speech has produced the intended reaction; I am upset enough to write about it. Of course, one should not read too much into these statements because Trump is notoriously disingenuous and will say whatever he can at that instant to appeal to any crowd.

Nevertheless, I have stressed in other writings that the real worry about Donald Trump is that he has no idea how ignorant he really is. To me, that is the real danger of allowing bloviating demagogues such as him to go on unchallenged. The man has clearly never questioned himself very much during his life, but, more importantly, no one close to him seems to have questioned his views either.

So, to leave the odious topic of Donald Trump, what I really want to discuss is the necessity of encouraging questions in all aspects of public and private life. This shouldn’t come as a surprise in a magazine about skepticism, but even here I don’t think it receives enough emphasis.

On the one hand, the religious mafia has effectively established a code of public discourse where it is viewed as inappropriate to openly question religious doctrine or even to ask rationally what evidence exists to underlie that doctrine. It may elicit some discomfort all around to ask someone why he or she might be voting for Trump in the upcoming election, but while political debate usually degenerates, at least the question is fair game. However, to ask people why they are Christian, or to ask whether Jews believe any of the Old Testament stories or whether they agree with the violent, hateful, misogynistic message of the scriptures that young people are forced to recite when they are Bar Mitzvahed, would be considered an inappropriate offense in polite company or on television.

But more important than even this is the fact that the nature of educating children in the twenty-first century needs to change. When I was growing up, part of the purpose of education was to provide basic information that would be necessary when we became adults. But in the current world, information as currency has dropped in value. Anyone with a smart phone—which nowadays is almost everyone—can Google any information they want.

But the information you get depends on the questions you ask, both to retrieve the information and after you get it. The Internet has no filter, which means we must become our own filters. This requires training, and I am worried we aren’t restructuring our educational system around that training.

Part of the problem of encouraging open questioning in the classroom is that teachers will not be able to answer all, or even most, of their students’ questions. But this is not a bad thing. Just as parents should be encouraged to openly state “I don’t know” when your children ask you questions, so too will only teachers who are comfortable with the material be willing to acknowledge their own limited knowledge. Following “I don’t know” should come the phrase “. . . but let’s see if we can find out.” This search will lead along various blind alleys, but that again is a good thing. Knowing how to discard distrusted sources and how to check to see if sources can be trusted is the key to making progress in this information age.

Which, to return to the odious New Yorker, is why people such as Donald Trump are so dangerous. When Trump was asked who he turns to for information or guidance, he answered, with a straight face, that he asks himself! He trusts his gut, and he also claims he knows a lot. But any person who never checks information beyond their own a priori beliefs—be they a billionaire businessman surrounded by yes-men and yes-women or an Iman who claims the Earth is flat and anyone who says otherwise should be punished—is a danger to progress in society, at least if anyone else follows him or her. The thought that such people might attain positions of political power, either in the United States or in the Middle East, is repulsive.

I don’t have a magic bullet for encouraging open questioning more broadly in society. If each of us practices this whenever we can in the public arena, it can’t be a bad example to set, which is why I am happy to celebrate this fortieth anniversary of Skeptical Inquirer. The example it has set for the past forty years should encourage all of us, and while I would hope SI wouldn’t be as necessary in the future, I suspect society will always be better if some journalists are willing to openly question prevailing wisdom. Thank you SI, and Happy Birthday!

Lawrence M. Krauss

Lawrence M. Krauss is Foundation Professor and director of the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University. He has published more than 200 scientific articles as well as a variety of general articles on physics and astronomy. Krauss has also authored several celebrated books, including Hiding in the Mirror: The Mysterious Allure of Extra Dimensions, from Plato to String Theory and Beyond and the best-selling The Physics of Star Trek. Krauss is the recipient of numerous awards, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s 1999-2000 Award for the Public Understanding of Science and Technology, and the Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize of the American Physical Society. He was nominated for a Grammy award for his liner notes for a Telarc CD of music from Star Trek.