Strategies to Improve Skeptical Thinking

Jamie Hale

Mr. Hale, why are you so skeptical? Why do you have a negative view of everything? Do you believe anything? 

I hear these types of questions—from both students and my colleagues—on a regular basis. These questions seem to imply skepticism is a bad thing instead of a valuable tool and a key part of critical thinking. Skepticism isn’t new; it has existed for at least thousands of years. It dates back to Plato’s academy 2,500 years ago (Shermer 2002). Skepticism is an approach to claims, and it is inherent in the scientific attitude. In the college courses I teach, I encourage students to be skeptical about my claims as well as those made by the textbook and other authorities. It’s okay to question authority. In fact, good science values require rejection of authority when evidence doesn’t agree with authority claims. “One of the great commandments of science is, ‘Mistrust arguments from authority.’ Too many such arguments have proved too painfully wrong. Authorities must prove their contentions like everybody else” (Sagan 1996). 

People are sometimes confused about the difference between the terms skeptic and cynic. Skeptic is derived from the Greek skeptikos, which means “inquiring” or “to look around.” Skeptics determine the truth value of claims according to the level of evidence. The individual’s reputation, authority, or credentials do not make the claim correct. The evidence determines whether the claim is correct. Skepticism is a method used to question the validity of a particular claim. Concisely put, skepticism requires evidence for a claim to be accepted as fact (or tentative fact). Cynics don’t like information that contradicts their belief system. They reject ideas based on dogmatic views and exhibit adherence to doctrine over rational inquiry. Evidence is not a concern for cynics. Cynicism is drastically different than skepticism.

The following question illustrates the confusion people have when distinguishing skeptical thinking from cynical thinking. I was asked this question in an interview about my book Knowledge and Nonsense: The Science of Nutrition and Exercise: “Do you have any concerns about some people saying this book promotes a cynical approach to the fitness industry?”  

My answer was “No. The only people who will make this claim are people who are not willing to look at truth and people who promote quack science. Fitness skepticism (this includes the health, nutrition, and supplement industries) is an approach to claims that investigates reason to any and all ideas. Skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a claim might be true. When I say I’m “skeptical,” I mean that I need to see valid evidence before believing a claim. Cynical on the other hand means taking a negative view and not willing to accept valid evidence for the claim. I think skepticism is healthy and should be promoted in all fields” (Hale 2020).

This type of confusion is common within the fitness and other industries. Questioning authorities or asking for evidence can be viewed by some as rude or too critical. Too often people are resistant to the ideas promoted by skeptical thinking; perhaps they fear what skepticism may reveal.

In 2009, I gave a presentation (seminar and exercise session) at the JP Fitness Summit in Kansas City. The Summit featured some of the top minds in the fitness industry. Topics included various types of information related to fitness and nutrition. My presentation addressed a topic that was new to the venue: Fitness skepticism focused on how to apply skepticism to the fitness industry. Some of the participants seemed to have a hard time with this line of thought. Skepticism is rarely if ever mentioned in discussions about fitness. Learning to question and look for evidence could save fitness enthusiasts a great deal of time, money, and embarrassment. I started my presentation by talking about what it means to be a fitness skeptic. A fitness skeptic requires evidence for claims before accepting them as true; a fitness skeptic applies reason to any and all ideas promoted by the fitness industry or ideas promoted by anyone making fitness claims.

To my disappointment, my presentation wasn’t well received. I have conducted a lot of seminars involving different types of audiences, and I have learned to read cues that indicate listeners are not enjoying the talk. The level of disinterest was evident within the audience (although a few enjoyed it). The organizer of the event cut my talk short, and there were a lot of comments such as “I didn’t see how this was related to fitness,” and “I thought this was supposed to be about exercise?” and “Skeptical thinking has nothing to do with choosing a workout.” 

I told one of my colleagues who works at a fitness magazine about the negative feedback, and he wasn’t surprised. He said something along the lines of “People don’t want to hear they should be skeptical; they would rather hear what they should think and what they should do.” I suspect not wanting to think too hard is an attitude held by many. There is a plethora of evidence from the field of cognitive science showing that humans are cognitive misers; they don’t like to think hard (Stanovich et al. 2016). 

Modern Skepticism

Socrates asserted that “All I know is that I know nothing.” This type of statement indicates it is important to always practice some level of skepticism but does little to help us develop our skeptical thinking skills. Having questions or being inquisitive is the root of skeptical thinking, but it is not enough if the objective is to evaluate the evidence. The tools for good skeptical thinking are not often mentioned when discussing skepticism. Modern skepticism is concerned with applications of scientific thinking. Skepticism from a systematic evidence evaluation process is embodied in scientific methods (Shermer 2002). “A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent that it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions” (Shermer 2002). 

That quote offers a valuable overview of what it means to be skeptical. Skeptics should remember that quote, think about it, and recognize it as a central tenet of modern skepticism. Michael Shermer points out that unbounded, excessive, or pure skepticism should be avoided, as it may be self-defeating. If you are excessively skeptical of everything, this means you are skeptical of your own skepticism. This type of unbounded skepticism may lead to infinite questioning, resulting in indecisiveness. You need to establish a stopping point and ask at what point you decide the evidence is strong enough to form a belief or make a decision.

Improving Skeptical Thinking

To improve skeptical thinking, become familiar with the works of top-notch skeptics such as James Randi, Michael Shermer, Benjamin Radford, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and so on.  

Recognize the term ideological immune system. In everyday life, as well as in science, we all resist fundamental paradigm change. Social scientist Jay Snelson calls this resistance an “ideological immune system.” According to Snelson, the more knowledge individuals have accumulated in a specific area, and the more well-founded people feel their theories have become, the greater their confidence in their beliefs. Skeptics and non-skeptics have formed ideological immune systems.

You can’t be skeptical all the time about everything; it requires too much time and excessive resources. Strive to be a practical skeptic and invest your energies into questioning claims and assumptions you deem most important.

Consider an alternative explanation for something you have always believed. Try to look at it from the other side—think of the opposite claim or argument. Gather all available data, and try to argue against your own belief. 

Recognize the influence of expectancy effects and how they influence what we do and don’t see (magicians take full advantage of this expectation). Expectancy effects have been shown in a great range of areas, influencing physiological, behavioral, and cognitive outcomes.

Educate yourself on the rules of logic (deductive and inductive), the principles of research, statistics used in research, and reliability and validity concerns regarding scientific evidence. Recognize converging evidence (evidence from various methods and from various researchers converge at a point) as the top level of evidence.

Realize there are varying degrees of certainty, but no absolute certainty. Beliefs are tentative; they are subject to change, and they change according to the level of evidence supporting them. 

Don’t fall prey to bias blind spot, when you recognize that others are biased but fail to recognize your own biases. There is a huge body of research indicating humans are susceptible to a range of conscious and unconscious biases (which reflect bias without awareness of the bias).

Those are just a few suggestions that may help with building skeptical thinking skills. It is important to strike a balance between skeptical thinking and thinking with an open mind. Carl Sagan said it best: 

If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish useful ideas from worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost.” (Sagan 1987)      

 


References

  • Hale, J. 2020. 2019. In Evidence We Trust: The Need for Science Rationality and Statistics. Winchester, KY: MaxCondition Publishing. 
  • Sagan, C. 1987. The burden of skepticism. Skeptical Inquirer 12(1): 38–46. 
  • ———. 1996. The Demon Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark. New York, NY:  Ballantine Books.   
  • Shermer, M. 2002. Why People Believe Weird Things. Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. New York, NY: Owl Books.
  • Stanovich et al. 2016. The Rationality Quotient: Toward A Test Of Rational Thinking. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.   

Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale is a college instructor, and he is associated with Eastern Kentucky University's Cognitive Neuroscience Lab and Perception & Cognition Lab. He has published articles and books on a wide range of topics. Jamie is the director of www.knowledgesummit.net and author of In Evidence We Trust: The need for science, rationality and statistics. His future articles will address models for improved scientific thinking, popular myths, and rationality in terms of cognitive science.