The Benefits of Skepticism

Do you trust people?  How well do you trust them?  I ask this because, really, I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t make it through life without giving people your trust.  But the question is, who do you trust, and for what?

I’ll give you an example of a time when I was younger, maybe 23 or so, when I was a bit more trusting.  I was on vacation in Acapulco, and during a long hike to an outdoor market, I met this attractive young German woman, maybe also in her 20s, or early 30s.  We spent some time walking and shopping together, and at some point she mentioned to me that she had been unable to cash a check at her hotel, and asked me if I could cash a check for her.  As I said, I was trusting and we had spent sometime together, and I enjoyed her company, so I cashed a check for her for $100.00.  I didn’t even take the time to look at the check after she gave it to me.  Then she asked me what I was doing on Monday, so I told her that I was planning to visit Taxco (a really pretty silver-mining town  up in the mountains).  I told her how much it cost, and she said ‘why don’t I join you then’, and I said sure!, of course!.  This was someone I wanted to spend more time with, so why not?  We were getting along so well, I thought.

The next day, she didn’t show.  As the time for my departure neared, I decided I’d try to call her at her hotel, but she was not listed as a guest there.  So I immediately thought I had gotten the hotel name wrong.  I found one that had a similar name, but she wasn’t there either.  So I went alone, feeling depressed.  Still overly optimistic, I tried to deposit that $100.00 check, and of course it bounced.

I’ve thought about that incident quite often now.  I realized that I had been conned.  I was so gullible that I hadn’t even looked at the check, which had some other woman’s name on it, a “Mr. and Mrs.” from a Midwestern state.  I’m not a stupid person, but I really felt stupid.  I came to the understanding that I didn’t make a mistake because I was stupid, but because I was too trusting.  This was someone that I had known for no more than an hour and already I’m trusting her with my money.  She seemed trustworthy, she was nice, she seemed to like me, we were having a good time, and I realize that that’s how con people  work.  They gain your confidence, and they are very good at it.

It’s how a person like Bernie Madoff was able to convince people that he actually could make them a lot of money.  He mostly victimized fellow Jews because there’s this psychological affect that says that people tend to empathize more with those who they see similar qualities in.  Those qualities can include religion, but also nationality, race, politics, and so on.  Most of us simply WANT to trust other people.  And USUALLY that’s a good thing.  But it’s also a way that people can take advantage of us, telling us things we want to believe.  Madoff was everyone’s best friend, and he was so good at gaining people’s confidence that his victims were introducing their own friends to Madoff.

My point is not that you should never be trusting.  My point  is that maybe you should use a bit of skepticism.  Maybe I could have saved $100 that afternoon.  I might have said that “I don’t feel comfortable giving you money, having just met you” — that would have been the smart thing to do.  And those people who Bernie Madoff tried to take advantage of, if they had been more skeptical, maybe they would have been more skeptical of the unbelievable earnings that the guy was claiming for his clients.

Now, it’s not just con men who may tell you things that just aren’t true — very often people actually believe the untruths that they tell you.  My own mom used to tell me that if I didn’t dress properly before I went out, that I’d catch a cold.  She really believed that. But it actually isn’t true.  Colds are caused by a virus, which means that if you catch a cold, it’s probably more likely that it happened when you were indoors with someone else who carried the virus.  Maybe that person sneezed on you, or on your food, or wiped their nose with their hands, and then handled the food that you ate.  And thus, you caught a cold.  Most people with a child in public school will tell you about how the kids keep sharing their colds and flus and passing it on to their families and so on in a vicious cycle.  How do we know this?  We know  because we have science to thank for that knowledge.

The importance of understanding how disease is transmitted is essential to our well-being.  We learn to cover our noses and mouths when we sneeze or cough, because we don’t want to spread whatever it is that we have.  It’s a social obligation — don’t make your friends and family, and even strangers sick, if we can avoid it.  But the fact that our own mothers told us things that aren’t true (falsehoods that we took for fact, and possibly spread to others, like a disease would spread), how many other things that we hear are actually true?  And isn’t it important in many cases that we actually understand how the world REALLY works?  In the case of colds, it directly has an effect on the quality of life of us and our neighbors — you don’t want people sneezing on you, we want our cooks and waiters to wash their hands before serving you.  But similarly, we want don’t want to be afraid of ghosts, if ghosts don’t exist, or foods, if those foods are actually safe.    There’s enough real stuff out there that we really should be avoiding, that worrying too much about fake stuff costs our attention to.

Back in 1983, there was a newspaper article published in Durand, Michigan.  It included the following:

Dihydrogen monoxide:

  • is also known as hydroxyl acid, and is the major component of acid rain.
  • contributes to the “greenhouse effect”.
  • may cause severe burns.
  • contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape.
  • accelerates corrosion and rusting of many metals.
  • may cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes.
  • has been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients.

Despite the danger, dihydrogen monoxide is often used:

  • as an industrial solvent and coolant.
  • in nuclear power plants.
  • in the production of styrofoam.
  • as a fire retardant.
  • in many forms of cruel animal research.
  • in the distribution of pesticides. Even after washing, produce remains contaminated by this chemical.
  • as an additive in certain “junk-foods” and other food products.

This was on April 1st, April Fools Day, and was meant as a joke.  In fact, it was published in the April Fools Day edition of the newspaper, and never intended to be taken seriously. If you haven’t figured it out yet, Dihydrogen monoxide  (aka DHMO, or Hydric Acid) is H2O — in other words, water.

Since the initial joke, though, there are people who keep falling for this.  Politicians have agreed publically to support the banning of DHMO.  After hearing that there is DHMO coming out of their faucets, people have complained to their water companies, who simply insist that their is no danger.  49% of candidates for a Finnish Parliamentary election said they would support restrictions on the use of Hydric Acid.  In California, there was a proposed ban on the manufacture certain foam containers when it was revealed that DHMO was an intrinsic part of the manufacturing process.

So what makes people fall for things like this?  It’s fear — fear of anything that sounds too technical (when I told friends about the DHMO hoax, one young woman, very seriously asked me ‘why are you calling it DHMO’, and thought I was somehow at fault for making it sound scary.  But no, that scariness is in people’s minds.  I did not make it scary. Everything in the above quote about the dangers of water is true.  But we don’t ask the right questions.  That DHMO is responsible for many deaths every year is true (it causes car accidents and drowning).  But how does that translate into being afraid of it in our junk  foods or coming out of our taps?  It shouldn’t.  We don’t ask the right questions.

Knowing that we are talking about water makes it easy because we are all familiar with water in our every day lives. But we don’t ask the questions about all of the many other things that people want to avoid or get rid of.  Some stuff IS deadly  (you don’t want to drink bleach, and some places, bleach is being sold as a cure).  But there’s a lot of stuff that we eat every day that doesn’t actually kill us, that people call poisons.  Wouldn’t it be better if, before we panic about that stuff, that we ask the right questions about it?  And shouldn’t we want to know what the scientific consensus is (if there is one)?  Shouldn’t we figure out, BEFORE we do something stupid and ban water, just how dangerous something is, and put that in the proper perspective to every other thing that we eat every day and does not kill us?

It all comes down to trust.  Don’t trust what your mom told you, because she might be mistaken.  Don’t trust what Dr. Oz or Oprah says, because both of them have a very poor record of spreading untruths and recommending products that simply don’t work.  Trust, but verify what your doctor tells you — he’s just one doctor, and he can be mistaken, or he can be receiving money from a pharmaceutical company, so verify that what he’s telling you is not a mistaken or outdated idea that he believes in out of habit.  And doctors are NOT scientists.  What you want to see is an actual consensus of scientists — particularly independent scientists.

It’s vital to know what is and is not true in this world.  It may or may not save your life. But it certainly can save you from a lot of stress.

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