Essential Skepticism

I’ve always considered myself a skeptic, but have been a little fuzzy on how to explain to people what that means. Certainly I have a set of beliefs and convictions but always try to stay open to new information that may cause me to revise them. And I’ve certainly changed my mind about things over the years.

In a new joint project between the Huntington Post and the TED organization1, the editor of Skeptic Magazine2 addresses that question of what skepticism is and what being a skeptic means to him.

Skepticism is not “seek and ye shall find,” but “seek and keep an open mind.” But what does it mean to have an open mind? It is to find the essential balance between orthodoxy and heresy, between a total commitment to the status quo and the blind pursuit of new ideas, between being open-minded enough to accept radical new ideas and so open-minded that your brains fall out. Skepticism is about finding that balance. Here is a definition of skepticism:

Skepticism is the rigorous application of science and reason to test the validity of any and all claims.

He continues on to talk about having a “Baloney Detection Kit”, inspired by Carl Sagan, “which consists of a list of questions to ask when encountering any claim”. It’s a good list but certainly not a new idea.

I first encountered the concept of “crap detecting” in Neil Postman’s wonderful 1969 book Teaching as a Subversive Activity3. And he borrowed the idea from Ernest Hemingway who told an interviewer that “to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.”

Here in the internet age, Howard Rhiengold carries forward the concept and preaches that the skills of crap detecting are even more important as we rely on the web for information.  

However, whether you call it “crap detecting” (my preference), “baloney detecting”, or simply skepticism, I agree with Postman’s view that this is an “essential survival strategy and the essential function of the schools in today’s world”.

At least it should be. The centerpiece of every curriculum should be to help kids understand how to question the world around them, not in a cynical way or simply to be contrary, but to clarify for themselves what is worth their time and what is crap.


1 This association may give the Post a little more credibility but I’m not sure it enhances the reputation of TED.

2 One more publication I didn’t know existed.

3 The book is still in print but you can download the full text from here (pdf).

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