Being Skeptical of Initial Skepticism

Benjamin Radford

Q: Have you ever been skeptical about a finding or assertion, then did your own investigation only to have your conclusions further corroborate the initial assertion? If so, can you provide any examples?

Mike D.

A: There are—or should be—many times in a person’s life when their initial skepticism about some claim or other was proven wrong, and skeptics are no exception. Being skeptical is merely asking for good evidence for an assertion, not knee-jerk doubting nor dismissal.

Deciding whether to be skeptical of a claim involves initially gauging its plausibility, which is in turn informed by research, expertise, and personal experience. A folklorist would find an urban legend about a hook-handed killer less plausible than would the average teenager around a midnight campfire. The subjects I’ve been wrong about tend to be, not surprisingly, those outside my area of expertise.

The plausibility of a claim is also determined by a person’s beliefs and worldview; an atheist will find miracle claims far less plausible than would a devout Catholic, for example. And of course, it depends on the nature of the assertion; for example, the claim that New Mexico is the fourth largest state by area is plausible (but incorrect), while the claim that psychics predicted the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic is inherently implausible (and also incorrect).

My initial skepticism has been incorrect many times. An example can be found in this very column; I got a query asking, “Sylvia Browne stated that most people die within three months of their birthdays; is this true?” I was skeptical at first, but after a bit of analysis I found that she was right and replied:

Browne is correct that most people die within three months of their birthday. While Browne probably dispensed this factoid as a bit of quasi-mystical wisdom gleaned from her informants on “the other side,” the issue really comes down to science and statistics. Part of the answer depends on how strictly and specifically you wish to interpret the question. Counting three months (or ninety days) to the minute of a person’s birth will of course give a relatively narrow window, though most people (including Browne) probably begin counting from the target person’s month of birth. This allows for three months before the birth, the month of the birth, and three months after the birth, for seven out of twelve months. Since this range covers well over half the year (just under 60 percent of it), the chances are somewhat better than 50/50 that a given person will die within three months of their birth, just as Browne stated.

I’ve also been wrongly skeptical of mundane topics. For example, I find it inconceivable that patients fall asleep in a dentist chair while having one or more people drilling, scraping, flossing, and undertaking quasi-industrial endeavors in a person’s open mouth. I find dental work uncomfortable and occasionally painful, and I can’t imagine being so relaxed and comfortable that I would nod off into peaceful slumber during such an ordeal without being literally put to sleep by the dentist with anesthetic.

However, I recognize that my experiences may not reflect those of others and that anecdotes are not data. I didn’t doubt that it had ever happened, of course. I just assumed it was very rare. I didn’t commit, publicly or privately, to a position on the matter; it was more a curiosity, but it’s fair to say that I was skeptical. To quantify the phenomenon, I did a bit of informal investigation. I searched the internet for any information on the matter. I asked my dentist and dental assistants the next time I went in for a cleaning how often they experienced it firsthand. I also posted a query to my (nonrepresentative) sampling of 2,145 friends on Facebook. I was surprised to discover that it was far more common than I had expected (though according to my dentist, it’s most common among night-shift workers).

There are other examples as well, ranging from initially implausible (non)presidential tweets to surprising news stories. The claims I typically investigate are by their nature extraordinary. A mundane claim may be true or not, but I’m not likely to investigate it (or profess some measure of skepticism about it) unless there’s some reason to do so. Often I’m less skeptical of whether something happened than I am of a specific assumption or interpretation of why or how it happened. I’m not skeptical that a door may have swung open on its own or that someone may have heard an odd sound in an empty home, but I may be skeptical it was caused by a ghost.

Questioning other people’s assertions and assumptions comes naturally, but questioning our own is much more difficult. Nevertheless, as the aphorism notes, “When an honest man discovers he is mistaken, he will either cease to be mistaken or cease to be honest.”

Benjamin Radford

Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author, co-author, contributor, or editor of twenty books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits (2018).


Q: Have you ever been skeptical about a finding or assertion, then did your own investigation only to have your conclusions further corroborate the initial assertion? If so, can you provide any examples? —Mike D. A: There are—or should be—many times in a person’s life when their initial skepticism about some claim or other was …

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