The Holy Art of Skepticism
The Holy Art of Skepticism: Part I
Let us begin, in the first place, with the obvious conclusion that you know things that are not true.
Let me illustrate with a fun little game of musical fill-in-the-blank.
Shall we play?
“Give, said the little ______
Give, oh give! Give, oh give!
Give, said the little _______,
As it hurried down the hill.”
“I’m small I know but wherever I go
The _____ grows greener still!”
For those not in the know, Give Said the Little Stream is a classic Latter-day Saint children’s song that speaks of a kind little stream who makes the world a little greener wherever it flows. As Elder Maxwell—a senior leader in my church—once put it, the song is “certainly sweet and motivating, but not exactly theologically drenched.” A bit simple, to be sure, but universally known and beloved nonetheless—as such, the first and second blanks are likely easy to fill in.
And what did you say for the third blank? Did you say “the grass grows” greener still? If you did, you’re in good company! That’s what nearly everyone says.
More precisely, it’s what 82% of people say.
But, and I do not say this unkindly, you (and 82% of people who think like you) are wrong.
The correct lyrics are:
I’m small I know but wherever I go, the fields grow greener still.
(I am quite sure that some of you won’t believe me, so see here for the correct lyrics, and here for the write-up that taught me all of this as published in a report of the The Deseret Language and Linguistic Society Symposium, volume 26, issue 1, article 16, by one Peggy Worthen. If it makes you feel better, she didn’t believe it at first either.)
Now I’m picking something relatively safe and anodyne and not-at-all controversial because bluntly, I don’t think you’ll like it when I do. We’ll come back to it later. I say again, you know things that are not true. Let’s consider this foundational point number one, and as a mental anchor remember a cute little song about a stream that never once mentions grass.
Now, on to foundational point two. Were it only a matter of untrue knowledge, it would only be a matter of correcting flasehoods. I would teach you the correct version of things, and you’d update your priors, and we’d all be better off. I’m afraid it’s worse than that, however. Not only do you know untrue things—you are predisposed toward certain sets of untrue things.
This is foundational point two: you are not wired for truth.
Perhaps an example for the visual learners out there?
As you can probably guess, the center bar looks like it changes shade, but it’s the same color throughout. If you don’t believe me, cover the top and bottom with your hands. You can also make hand binoculars.
Alternatively, you can check out the animated graphic below.
(Shout out to moillusions for this great graphic. Find their post about it here.)
One more: is the dress black and blue, or gold and white? Look closely.
If you haven’t already heard of the saga of the dress, see the wikipedia article here. When #thedress went viral, people couldn’t decide whether it was blue and black or white and gold. (I see white and gold. It is actually blue an black.)
Perhaps this image (from the same wikipedia article) will help:
Even more clear is this mind-bending image from reddit.
Bryan Caplan is the author of The Myth of the Rational Voter. He makes an important observation: if we all have random wrong beliefs, then democracy is a great system. You might be too far to the left on taxes, and I might be too far to the right on foreign policy, but if our bad ideas are random, they’ll all cancel out when we head to the ballot box.
Except they aren’t random. They’re systematic.
We don’t believe a little to the left on some things, or a little to the right on others. We all believe things in predictable patterns, which we call biases. As one of Caplan’s most prominent (and empirically-supported) examples, we are not divided between being some of us optimists and some of us pessimists, but rather, we are nearly all of us wired toward pessimism. In the case of democracy, Caplan makes the point that we all suffer from make-work bias, from anti-market bias, and from pessimism bias. It’s not the mistakes that cause the problem, but the systematic predisposal that does.
Now, if it were just optical illusions you’d be forgiven for thinking that these are fun little party tricks. And hey, I love a good optical illusion as much as the next person, but that’s not the point. The point is that even when I know the optical illusion, I cannot unsee it. My brain interprets signals in a such a way that I see impossible things. even when I know better.
Even when I can see the strings, I cannot cut them.
By the way, there are entire subfields of economics, psychology, and communications that focus on the various ways we attempt to deceive—be it ourselves or others. Suffice it to say that the empirical research is not equivocal. We are really good at deception, and seem to somehow be susceptible to this kind of deceit because we were never wired for truth in the first place.
And what are wired for? At least in part, survival.
When it is the middle of the night and you see a shadowy figure on the chair in your room, your brain does not speak rationality and dispassion. It defaults to caution, and tells you that the shape is a threat—even when it is just laundry that you probably should have folded the day before. We have, all of us, awoken to a noise and made our peace (it’s been a good run, but now the murderer is here) only to drift off to sleep and awaken in the morning refreshed and none the worse for wear.
And I know all about this, and it still happens to me regularly. And as far as I can tell, it’s partly because, evolutionarily, I had an ancestor who was in a dark cave, and he and his buddy saw something in the shadows, and his buddy was like “it’s probably laundry I should have folded” and my ancestor was like “it’s probably something horrible” and it was my ancestor’s genes who made it out alive.
Perhaps the clearest example of these biases is to spot your blind spot. Our blind spots are not merely places where we cannot see clearly, but places where our brain tells us things that are not true. If you don’t believe me, find your blind spot sometime. You will find that your brain has been lying to you your whole life, and will continue to do so for the rest of your life. It is not a hole in your vision, it is a filled-in approximation (thanks brain) of what the brain expects is there.
And parenthetically, it’s super trippy.
(There are plenty of ways to find your blindspot—I prefer the wiggle-your-thumb method, but the above is pretty good too. This is the cross-and-circle method from visionaryeyecare.com: “Cover your LEFT eye and stare at the cross with your RIGHT eye. Now SLOWLY move towards the computer screen while still staring at the cross with your RIGHT eye. At somewhere around 10-14 inches from the computer screen – the black circle will disappear and the area where the black circle was…will now be all white – this is your BLIND SPOT.”)
You know things that are not true. In fact, you are systematically wired to see an inaccurate version of the world. One easy example is that you are wired for survival, not for truth.
And now to foundational point three: we tend to get really cranky when people challenge our beliefs—even when they are demonstrably false.
I mentioned previously that I’ve chosen examples with minimal moral valence. That’s on purpose. I choose uncontroversial examples—fun facts and optical illusions—precisely because they don’t matter. They’re fun. They’re silly. No one should feel guilty about saying “grass” when the right answer is “fields.” I don’t. I still sing it the wrong way.
I pick these examples of negligible moral weight because I intend momentarily to come to somewhat less uncontroversial examples. You likely believe far more harmful things than wrong primary song lyrics. My students certainly do.
I teach courses in education. Consider the number of my students who come to me believing that they are “left-brained” or that they are “INTJ” personality types, or worst of all, who consider themselves “not a math person.” (This last is particularly frustrating to me as a former math teacher.) These are common myths, and despite being repeatedly debunked, we still have to fight the good fight year after year of removing bad ideas from their heads.
Are you ready to get to the morally weighty examples?
(Graphic from sagepub.com. I don’t own the copyright for this, so my hope is that they won’t sue me because the whole point is that we really need to get the message out. Check out item 1.)
I mentioned visual learners earlier, and I have to admit to doing so tongue-in-cheek. Of all the myths they come to me with, perhaps the most pervasive is the learning styles myth: the notion that we are hard-wired as visual or kinesthenic or auditory learners. This is one of the most repeatedly debunked ideas out there—and also one of the most stubborn to finally die.
Now I happen to think that a belief in learning styles is detrimental (and I’m in good company) but it’s ultimately rather tiny. It’s still all ‘grass’ vs. ‘fields’ to me. It just isn’t all that important.
My wife believed in learning styles. (I did too, mind, but my wife has the better story.) She was in graduate school pursuing a doctorate in audiology. Her roommate was pursuing a PhD in educational psychology. Her roommate told her that learning styles were bunkum.
My wife, brimming with righteous indignation, replied:
“But. I. Took. A. Quiz!”
My wife’s response was not to update her priors, but to become *angry.*
Now perhaps you think my wife is unusually ornery or particularly stubborn. No dice. She’s forbidden me from ever giving long nauseating diatribes about how much I adore her, so suffice it to say that she’s on the easy-going and gracious side of humanity—and particularly in comparison to her cantankerous husband. That’s precisely why there is power in using her as an example: she isn’t flawed. She’s a rather above-average human, but she is still human. Even someone as deliberate and meek as she is got angry, because that’s what we do.
We don’t like it when people challenge our beliefs. Any of us.
(And while the point isn’t about learning styles, if you are unconvinced, here’s an accessible video to make the point. Yes, you learn better from visuals—we all do. But the learning styles myth has been repeatedly investigated and found to be a humbug.)
A _____ Dose of Skepticism
It’s a terrifying thing to teach.
Teaching is more than just imparting of facts. It’s a value-laden endeavor—perhaps the most value-laden of all endeavors. It’s nothing less than a transactional form of brainwashing: you pay me tuition, and I change the very way you see the world.
I don’t think teachers should take themselves too seriously, but it’s not understating things to say that it’s a weighty responsibility.
Well, I hope my students realize that they will be more prepared as teachers if they can spot and shoot down bad ideas just as easily as they can identify and hold to good ones. Education has a particularly nasty research problem, and I owe it to my field to try to raise an army of teachers who won’t buy what the fadists are hocking.
But I think the lessons go beyond just education students.
We now live in the age of conversational AIs who can pass the Turing test—who can beat the imitation game. If you thought disinformation was rampant before, just imagine deepfakes powered by algorithm generating believable text all being spread by a safe-sounding Twitter account.
We need, more than ever, to learn to be skeptical.
I hope that I’ve shown the need for it. One of the best bits of teaching advice I’ve gotten is this: if you want to sell lamps, don’t brag about their quality. Just give the sales pitch at nighttime. Show the need for what you’re offering, and let them figure out the rest.
Normally the next thing is to teach someone the skill of the thing. For time and space, I’ll have to trust you to figure out how to skeptical, as it were, on your own. I’ve given you the why, so I’ll have to leave it to you to figure out the how.
But there is an obstacle still in the way. If you see the utility of skepticism, but not the morality of it, you aren’t very likely to buy what I’m selling. Yes, a good bit of skepticism is pragmatically useful, and especially for teachers, but that’s a fair bit different from morally right for more than just teachers.
Consider the cultural clash involved in devout believers learning the ways of skepticism. A friend of mine, hearing me talk about this “holy art of skepticism,” asked me if I was sure I was doing students a favor by encouraging them on the skeptical path. Would I lead them to cynicism? Would I push them away from religion?
My friend asked two specific questions:
“Will skepticism drive students away from faith?”
“We always talk about a ‘healthy dose of skepticism,’ but who ever talks about when it becomes an unhealthy dose? How can we teach a healthy skepticism?”
The skeptical view has its excesses, and they deserve serious consideration—but let’s leave those for another time. For now, let’s interrogate only the first question.
The Faith of a Skeptic
The last thing I want is for you to buy someone else’s product but come to me for a refund. As such, a little brand differentiation is in order. What I am advocating is the same as what the typically-poetic Maxwell said rather directly:
“A commitment to truth requires the rejection of some things as well as acceptance of others.”
—Elder Neal A. Maxwell
Definitionally, what I’m proposing is no more or less than what the Russian proverb says: trust, but verify. As Abraham Lincoln said, “I must stand by anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.”
Is it appropriate for Latter-day Saints to think skeptically? No, it is more than that. It is morally necessary.
We Latter-day Saints have very little in the way of formal liturgy, but the one we do have is very clear that among our highest possible blessings is the capacity to tell truth from error.
There is a certain kind of courage required to believe true things—but it always runs in tandem with the courage to refuse to believe untrue things. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to conform to the ways of the idol-worshippers, was it their belief in the true God—or their stubborn refusal to bow to the idols—that was the true marker of their character?
Joseph Smith eventually created an entire theology—but what was the genesis of Joseph’s doctrine except Joseph’s choice to not believe? Consider that after he had one of the most glorious of all imaginable human experiences (seeing God, or theophany) that he went home and told his mother that he had “learned for himself that presbyterianism is not true.”
Jesus Himself is perhaps the best example. I can find no evidence that He ever rejected true teachings by the teachers of His time—but He made no apologies for rejecting the oral traditions that He did not believe. He was happy to go with them insofar as they were right, but not one inch further. He simply did not believe in what the authorities of the time were saying—and said so.
The Fourth Fundamental
Earlier, I explained three fundamentals of skepticism, namely;:
That you know things that aren’t true.
That you are wired to believe untrue things systematically, and
That we get cranky when people point such things out.
And now, I add a fourth fundamental:
There are those who would deceive you.
In 2018, The New York Times provided one of my all-time favorite articles, a little quiz asking you to spot the influence campaign. Basically, the quiz asks whether you can tell the difference between a Facebook group and a foreign disinformation group. And before I have my students take it, I ask how they think they will do.
They consistently affirm that others will likely get most of them wrong, and they themselves will likely get most of them right.
You should give the quiz a try.
In fact, most people can get one or two right, and a good number can get a majority. It is rare, however, for someone to get them all right. Each of us has puppet strings. There are those who would pull on them. You cannot choose to cut them—but you can choose to see them.
Skepticism is Little Red’s lesson upon meeting the big bad wolf. There are bad people in the world, and they would deceive you for their own purposes. Don’t be gullible. Check your facts, do your homework, and while it is impossible to totally protect yourself, at least try to make the thieves and the wolves and the sock puppets work harder to pull your strings.
There is good reason to be wary of this kind of doctrinal line-drawing. I am well aware of the effects of othering, drawing others outside the lines, and using the lines as weapons. My point is only that there are also dangers in the other direction: that a refusal to draw any lines ever may feel good in the short run, but will result in an utter mess in the long run. If we are not to be “tossed about by every wind of doctrine,” we will need something to anchor us—to keep us firm and true, and to keep us from drifting into dangerous waters.
We will need the capacity to hold to the rod, yes—but just as importantly, the capacity to heed not the voices of the great and spacious building—if we’re going to make it to the tree, enjoy the fruit, and not leave after having tasted it.
Equal Opportunity Skepticism
A student recently confided in me that she had been encouraged to be wary of her BYU-Idaho faculty. “Take what they say with a grain of salt.” I couldn’t agree more. I am left to wonder, however, whether the student would get the same advice about professors at other schools.
A student in the same class raised a concern recently. As a pedagogical exercise, one of the classes I teach is collaborating on a textbook. They are writing it together, and checking their work. My student was worried about the implications of reading a student-made textbook. “What if there are errors?!”
I laughed. “Good thing none of your other textbooks have errors!”
When I stopped laughing, I took a moment to clarify: I hope that you will read every textbook as skeptically as you would a textbook written by your peers!
Do you see the problem hiding in the background?
I asked ChatGPT a question and got a culturally-appropriate answer.
That’s our culture in a nutshell right there for you. We are to question everything.
Or, at least, that’s the slogan.
Color me, well, skeptical.
How would you fill in the blank? It’s just dripping with implication. Think of what sounds socially appropriate: “question religion!” and “question tradition!” and “question authority!” and somehow emphatically not “question feminism!” or “question socialism!”
There’s just such an implied directionality to it all. “Question everything that is implied by the term ‘question everything!’”
Here’s my list of how I expect contemporary culture might fill in the blank:
Be skeptical of authority.
Be skeptical of tradition.
Be skeptical of powerful people.
Be skeptical of key institutions.
Be skeptical of the portrayed goodness of others. It could be fake.
Be skeptical of the promise of the good life.
Be skeptical of religion.
Now compare that to a list of my own skepticisms:
I am skeptical of feminism.
I am skeptical that the good life is an illusion.
I am skeptical that an individual cannot make a difference.
I am increasingly skeptical of a random universe with no law or governor, precisely because I see a universe built on laws that are discoverable and comprehensible.
I am skeptical of those who yell “science!” as they roll their eyes at religion, but advocate for anything-goes family formation, and laissez-faire alcohol consumption. Unironically.
I simply cannot believe that politics will be our salvation. I am particularly skeptical of the grievance politics of either right or left, of so-called “woke” leftism, or the I-don’t-believe-in-identity-politics-except-when-it’s-white-identity-politics grievance-mongering of the right.
I just don’t think social media is all that good for us.
I am increasingly skeptical of the new gender and sexuality orthodoxy. I consider the idea of encouraging my children to question their orientation and gender to be playing with fire, and I consider traditional sexual mores to be increasingly obvious in their practical benefits.
I am skeptical that most powerful people are greedy. I’m skeptical that most people are bad people generally—and I’m on Twitter. The few people I’ve known who make it big tend to be really decent—kind, empathetic, and emotionally intellgient.
I am skeptical of conspiracy theories.
I love the glorious hope of technology and science—but cannot fathom a world in which science and technology will save us from our behavior.
I am increasingly concerned by a therapeutic worldview—the culture of “toxic” and “vulnerable” and “trauma” and “fixation”—that seems able to find problems, but unable to solve them.
I am increasingly skeptical of a world that decries nazism (rightly) but mocks anyone who is worried about communism.
My politics is showing, and I don’t want that to turn you off. My point isn’t about communism or feminism or anything of the things listed above at all—my point is to call out the implied directionality of skepticism. And when you take away the implied directionality, all of a sudden I find that skepticism is very healthy for faith indeed.
David Foster Wallace said,
There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.
When you point the gun of skepticism at religion, it comes away worse for the wear. But when you similarly point the gun of skepticism at the common culture, it fares far worse. Are there imperfect people at church? Absolutely. Are some of our heroes not as pristine as we might have once imagined? Yes indeed. But so are the American Presidents, and the CEOs, and the party leaders, and the activists, and the people you read about in history books, because, in the joyously-vulgar language of one of my favorite sci-fi characters, “anyone who had a statue built of him must have been one kind of a (terrible person) or ‘nother.” Omnidirectional skepticism gives you a sense of perspective, the realization that most people are flawed, and that most ideologies have holes, and that it’s still worth finding the good bits and celebrating them.
I am firmly in the “question everything” camp. It’s just that I actually mean it.
I’ve said before that my quibble with the “gods in schools” argument is very different from that of other Christians: I am not upset that God is not in schools (I am happy to teach my children all about God as needed) but rather I am upset that there are plenty of gods in schools that I do not want my children worshipping. I would love to have a school system that is pristine scientific inquiry—but that is not on offer these days. The real problem with religion in schools is that the cultural majority seems to think that their worldviews, rituals, norms, and eccentricities are somehow non-religious, but that mine are very religious.
When my friend worried that I might be leading students away from faith by preaching a gospel of skepticism, I told him—truthfully—that my skepticism has drawn me closer to my faith, not further away. More to the immediate point, I tend to find that people may be leaving faith, but they’re also converting to a secular religion—and skepticism of that secular religion is as good a safeguard for faith as any I know.
“That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive."
A Hero of Skepticism
There is a story of ancient date in which old scratch—the devil—is working his way to and fro in the earth, sowing seeds of discord and doubt, causing problems and raising hell, when some angels are sent from heaven to see how the inhabitants of earth are doing. They confront the devil, and ask what he is doing. “I am teaching the people,” Satan says. “And how is that going?” ask the angels.
“Very well,” he oozes, obviously pleased with himself.
And then, in a moment, his face contorts into a barely-restrained rage. He practically spits the next words: “Except that this man does not seem to believe what is being taught!” Note that it is not his willingness to believe true things, but his unwillingness to believe false things that truly infuriates his adversary.
The hero of this story is important to me. Suffice it to say that he is a role model—perhaps the prototypical role model, someone who knew he did not know much, but knew that something was amiss with what he was being taught. He was resolute, and willing to suffer all manner of indignity—but try as they might, the voices of the scorners and mockers could not make him believe in something that he simply did not believe in.
There is good that comes from believing the right things. There is good that comes from not believing untrue things. I pray that I may teach my children to be as stalwart as the man who makes Satan rage for his unwillingness to believe.