In a recent article, I told a brief story about my discovery of Carl Sagan and how I admired his use of logic and physics to uncover the falsehood behind Velikovsky’s weird ideas. But it could have just stopped there. We all have experiences and encounters in life, but they don’t all result in evolving a life philosophy. And for me, there was a lot more. I’m going to talk about a few of my experiences in a later article.
But first, I just want to make certain that I’m speaking the same language. I find that when I use the word Skepticism (or Scepticism, if you are British), that people confuse the word with Cynicism. I want to correct that — you can be a skeptic or a cynic, or both, or neither one. They are not the same. A cynic is someone who tends to believe the worst in others. If a person approaches a cynic on the street and asks for money for bus fare, the cynic may automatically assume that the beggar actually has money, that he’s chosen begging because he is lazy, and can make a decent living just sitting begging on the street (I’m not making this up — I know a couple of people who believe this automatically). A cynic will assume, without evidence, that a politician that he doesn’t like already, is always lying, never stating what he really believes. Even if that politician says that the sun is going to rise tomorrow, you know for a fact that it won’t. If that politician says something, then the opposite must be true. The problem with that is that even a known liar is capable of telling the truth. The source of an assertion is not proof of its truth or falsehood. It might be evidence, but it’s not proof.
On the other hand, a skeptic will not make up his mind without evidence. That beggar — he’s not going to assume automatically that he’s lying about needing bus fare. It may or may not be true. But unless he actually sees the beggar continuing to beg elsewhere after he receives the money, or he actually sees that beggar get on the bus after receiving the fare, he’s not automatically going to make either assumption. When he hears those statements from the politician, he may say that ‘well that guy has been caught in lies before, so I’m not going to trust him. But that doesn’t mean that he’s lying now.
In other words, a skeptic doesn’t automatically believe everything that they hear or they read. A skeptic always wants to know more before he makes up his mind. He knows that almost nothing can be known to a certainty, but at the very least there should be evidence. And the more unusual the claim, the more evidence there should be before a skeptic will say, “Yes, that is probably true”, or “No, that is almost certainly false”.
I’ll give you an example. I have a weight problem, as do a lot of people. And I do my best to avoid sugar. I don’t mean that I’ve managed to totally remove sugar from my diet, because that would be nearly impossible, and undoubtedly unhealthy (you don’t want to cut fruit out of your diet, for example). But I’ve been criticised because I love my flavored waters. They taste sweet, and the labels claim that they have zero calories. But what they do all have is artificial sweeteners. And I was kind of gullible about this, and I TRIED to eliminate them from my diet, and stick with only drinking water.
But humans are complicated beings, and we are evolved to crave sweet things. And the result of denial is even greater desire for that which we are denying ourselves. And one day I just bought a bunch of sugared soft drinks. Willpower is a resource that we all have, and it can be used up. And mine got used up, and when it did, I was suddenly drinking even less healthily than I had before.
So what I did is I did some research, particularly the Science-Based Medicine website. That website talked about the origins of the belief that artificial sweeteners are unhealthy. And one of the things that it said was that there was NO evidence that any of the claims regarding the dangers of artificial sweeteners, in general are true. This is coming from a medical doctor, who has reviewed the studies. At one point, there were studies that showed that a particular sweetener, aspartame, in absurd volumes over long periods of time, had caused rats to grow tumors. BUT (and this is a very important but), in none of the studies involving human subjects, was there ever any evidence of a link between aspartame and tumors. So I went back to my flavored water. And since I’ve done that, I haven’t had another incident.
But there’s more… one thing that made me HIGHLY suspicious of the claims of the dangers of artificial sweeteners is that none of the people who told me to cut out artificial sweeteners EVER specified WHICH artificial sweetener. It would be like someone saying that you shouldn’t eat at restaurants because restaurants spread disease. OK… but all restaurants? Am I going to get sick every time? Or is it more dangerous to eat the lettuce from the supermarket (because, of course, that happens also)? And which diseases do they spread? One thing that being a skeptic does to you is that it creates a kind of intuition. Generalized, non-specific claims ALWAYS come from non-expert sources. They come from some guy who heard something but didn’t quite make note of the specifics. Furthermore without knowing the original source AND the actual details, there’s NO WAY you should trust such a warning. ‘Some guy’ may be a doctor, or a scientist. Or he may be a self-proclaimed expert. Heck, he may be me. And I’m nobody — you shouldn’t trust me, nor should you trust a celebrity, or a random clickbait website, even one professing expertise on a given subject. But knowing who to trust is something I’ll save for a future article.