Skepticism in the Superempowered Era 1 – “First things first”


Tim Roberts is the Founder/Administrator of Unsolved Problems. He self-describes in “A Brief and Almost True Biography” as follows: “I was definitely born lower-middle class.  Britain was (and probably still is) so stratified that one’s status could be easily classified.  You were only working class if you lived in Scotland or Wales, or in the north of England, or had a really physical job like dustbin-man.  You were only middle class if you lived in the south, had a decent-sized house, probably with a mortgage, and at work you had to use your brain, at least a little. My mother was at the upper end of lower-middle class, my father at the lower. After suffering through the first twenty years of my life because of various deleterious genetically-acquired traits, which resulted in my being very small and very sickly, and a regular visitor to hospitals, I became almost normal in my 20s, and found work in the computer industry.  I was never very good, but demand in those days was so high for anyone who knew what a computer was that I turned freelance, specializing in large IBM mainframe operating systems, and could often choose from a range of job opportunities. As far away as possible sounded good, so I went to Australia, where I met my wife, and have lived all the latter half of my life. Being inherently lazy, I discovered academia, and spent 30 years as a lecturer, at three different universities.  Whether I actually managed to teach anyone anything is a matter of some debate.  The maxim “publish or perish” ruled, so I spent an inordinate amount of time writing crap papers on online education, which required almost no effort. My thoughts, however, were always centred on such pretentious topics as quantum theory and consciousness and the nature of reality.  These remain my over-riding interest today, some five years after retirement. I have a reliance on steroids and Shiraz, and possess an IQ the size of a small planet, because I am quite good at solving puzzles of no importance, but I have no useful real-world skills whatsoever.  I used to know a few things, but I have forgotten most of them.”

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Something close to the heart for you: Skepticism. In particular, the idea of Scientific Skepticism. The former with a longer tradition in formal philosophy. The latter built upwards for the last few centuries as a natural part and consequence of empiricism and the scientific method. Obviously, the doubters have been around forever. However, there’s a sense in which formalization in philosophy and then through science truly gave hammer blows against non-sense ideas and practices. As a short preface, this comes from a proposal for an educational series on skepticism to Tim from me. He accepted. It’s a topic dear to his heart. For those who consider IQ highly valuable, Tim scored 45 out of 48 on the legendary Titan Test of Dr. Ronald Hoeflin. For those who don’t value it, Tim thinks taking IQ tests will or has become some niche activity akin to baseball card collectors. Something strange eccentric people engage in, at length, without much real import. Nonetheless, the purpose of this series is the spreading of scientific skeptic methodologies, sensibilities, and attitudes, not to be confused with cynicism. In an extensive interview with James Randi with me, he talked about Sylvia Browne and James van Praagh, as examples. There are many other concrete examples of frauds, purported psychics, and the like, in the world. So, maybe, we can work on establishing some first principles of filtering bad ideas, even basic attitudes behind skepticism. What would you consider paramount as a principle, even an attitude, about keeping away from bad ideas? George Carlin warned, “Kids have to be warned that there’s bullshit coming down the road.” This can be a good first pass filter, for example.

Tim Roberts: First things first, I object to being called a skeptic. Why? Because why should anyone be labelled, or put in a special category, just because they believe in the use of logic and rationality, and the examination of empirical evidence? Shouldn’t everyone be a skeptic?

But now, to your question. Let us first distinguish false ideas from bad ideas, since they may be subtly different.

There is a famous, but possibly apocryphal, story that the physicist Nils Bohr hung a horseshoe on his front door for good luck. But surely you don’t believe in such rubbish, said a good friend. Of course not, said Bohr, but they say it works whether you believe it or not.

This is a false idea, but not a bad idea.

People who worship the flying spaghetti monster are indulging in a false idea. But hardly bad, unless the monster starts telling them to do evil things.

Homeopathy is a false idea. The taking of homeopathic medicines almost by definition has no effect whatsoever. But if belief in homeopathy leads people to neglect treatment by conventional medical practice, this can be a very bad idea indeed.

Even true ideas can be bad. The injection of bleach into one’s body will indeed decrease your chance of dying from corona virus, because it will kill you through other causes. So it is a bad idea. A very bad idea.

The secret – though it is not a secret – of staying away from bad ideas is the ability to think critically.

Jacobsen: There has been a rise in the efforts of cynical actors to spread non-sense and magical claims. Or, at least, these seem more available for purveyance. What is a skeptical attitude towards claims and people coming one’s way? How does this differ from cynicism?

Roberts: Taking these two questions in reverse order: it is disappointing that some people confuse skepticism and cynicism, since they are far away from being close in meaning; indeed, there is a case to be made that they are almost opposites, since skepticism implies looking at ideas using rationality and logic, whereas cynicism implies having a predetermined opinion that some idea is bad or suspicious in some way, often because of the person or persons putting forward the idea.

It is in many people’s interests to put forward nonsense, of course. Primary amongst these are televangelists and others of their ilk. But the incentive to deceive occurs to a larger or smaller extent exists in many professions, from advertisers and salesmen, to politicians, and even to “respected” professions such as lawyers (were I to be a lawyer, I am sure I would prefer to be a defense lawyer, rather than a prosecutor; but, I regret, I suspect that I would have to lie and deceive far more…).

Dishonesty is probably a vital aspect of our humanity. Pity the honest person who comes across a new mother, and, upon seeing the newborn, is faced with the dilemma of retaining his honesty or exclaiming how beautiful the baby is. Or responding to a girlfriend, when she asks if her bottom looks big in her new dress. Or many other social occasions…

So some measure of dishonesty seems necessary for social lubrication. As a result, we are, or should be, compelled to treat every statement, every story, every idea, with a certain degree of skepticism.

Jacobsen: What is age-old non-sense facing young people, even in the information age with digital computers and easily accessible online information?

Roberts: Online information can be totally true, or totally false, or anywhere in between, of course. It is distressing to learn that the current school curriculum in most countries does not teach students how to make rational judgements about such information.

The best test by far is where one can ascertain a truth or falsehood without reference to any outside sources, either online or otherwise.

For example, suppose someone claims that 37 is a prime number. This is easily verifiable – or otherwise – without reference to any dogma. If one is unsure how to do this, then a few searches on how to do it should be sufficient.

Many other facts about the world are self-verifiable. What about some that aren’t? For example, that COVID-19 is a hoax? Or less contagious than influenza? Or spread by 5G? etc.

The best answers to these questions are to trace down research papers in reputable scientific journals. But most of us do not have the time or patience for this, and in any case, most such papers would be unreadable to the layman.

So we must seek something which is authoritative, but also understandable. And here, I must confess, I think Wikipedia is the most excellent resource. It is modern, and open to all, but because of its design philosophy, any falsehoods are normally removed or corrected within hours.

There are also websites such as whose total purpose is to dispel common myths by referencing reliable sources.

Jacobsen: How young should we start creating a culture of fact-checking following from a skeptical attitude about claims?

Roberts: A subject dear to my heart. The abilities to think critically, and to fact-check, should be taught in primary school, as soon as students have some degree of numeracy and literacy, perhaps around the age of 7 or 8. There can be no more important ingredient of a successful life than the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. Everyone should be imbued with the abilities to judge these critically.

For anyone outside of the U.S., the fact that some 40% of the population support a complete buffoon such as the incompetent, egotistical Trump is a sad indictment of the education system, above all else. It is a verifiable truth that much of his support comes from those who have few skills in critical thinking.

Jacobsen: Religion as a mass of faith and superstition and power continues onward in the world. Some even markedly taking a share of the world’s minds. If a young person was stuck or inculcated into such an upbringing, which is a lot, I am reminded of a video Q&A with Bill Nye. He was sincerely asked about escaping religion. This is a common problem. What is the way out of such an upbringing? What are some critical questions for elders and religious leaders, even peers, within such an environment?

Roberts: There is no difference between a cult and a religion, except for the number of followers. A majority of the world’s population are still today brainwashed as children, depending upon where they happen to be born.

Someone born in Memphis will most likely be raised as a Baptist; if born in Milan, a Catholic; if in Mecca, a Sunni Muslim; in Mosul, a Shia Muslim; in Moga, a Sikh; and in Mumbai, a Hindu – to name just a few.

Now, I make no judgement about the merits, or otherwise, of each of these. But to take just these six major world religions, their differences are of such a magnitude that at least five of the six must be, at the very least, misguided, and at most, just plain wrong.

And so it can be rationally concluded that one’s choice of religion is not a matter of logic and evidence.

But further, and this is important, it is not even a matter of faith.

Rather, it is an accident of birth. The vast majority of those who profess a religious belief have not made a rational choice, but instead followed the custom of their local peer group.

A few people, but very few, understand this, and renounce their religion later in life, and profess agnosticism or atheism. Far fewer still, easily less than 1%, will in their lifetimes convert from one religion to another.

So it can be concluded that our religion is an accident of birth. Nothing more, nothing less.

And the first step to escape, is a realization of this obvious truth.

As someone with whom I happen by chance to share a surname, Stephen Roberts, once wrote to a God-fearing correspondent: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

Jacoben: How does this all connect to the importance of real and robust critical thinking in education over several years?

Roberts: The ability to think critically is vital to any successful society. That is, one that has learned to live in peace, with decisions made for the benefit of all.

You are interviewing me because I have a high IQ. Regrettably, in my dealings with other similarly high-IQ individuals, I have seen little correlation between a high IQ and a high critical thinking ability. Indeed, almost the reverse. Extreme political views, and strong religious beliefs, and an acceptance of pseudoscience, ESP especially, seem to abound.

Give me a choice between conversing with others with high IQs, or those who can think critically, I will choose the latter every time…

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

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