False Skepticism

by Jessika Griffin

Yesterday at my place of work, business was very slow. I was working at the deli line, and as a customer’s sandwich was in the toaster oven my coworker struck up conversation with him. First you should know that my coworker is studying philosophy, and has a lot to say about everything. Eventually (meaning after the longest 5 minutes of my life) the conversation got to where the customer said he had just watched “Zeitgeist: The Movie” and had “learned” so much. If you haven’t seen Zeitgeist the movie, you can learn more about it on the Wikipedia page. You can watch it for free around the internet if you really really want to, but I promise you that it’s garbage (don’t take my word for it, of course!).

I’ve heard many times from people that Zeitgeist had “opened their eyes” and so on. What’s interesting is that even though this movie provides absolutely no sources, and is provably wrong on just about everything, it gained attention from what I will call “false skeptics”. The movie makes the viewer feel like they’re being skeptical, when really they’re just believing everything it is claiming because the claims in the movie differ from common theories and ideas on the subject matter. I believe this is a problem. Skepticism does not simply mean questioning what is popular opinion, but you must also question alternative theories and claims.

Who else loves definitions as much as I do?! Here is the Merriam Webster definition for “skepticism”:

  1. An attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object
  2. a) the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain
    b) the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics
  3. doubt concerning basic religious principles (as immortality, providence, and revelation)

The one I like best, and that I feel represents the skeptic community best is “the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics”. Specifically for “suspending judgment”.

Let’s not forget the words of Bertrand Russell: “If it’s true then you should believe it and if it’s false than you shouldn’t. And if you can’t find out whether it’s true or false then you should suspend judgment.”

It is always important to question the validity of claims, and of the people making the claims. So remember to be skeptical of everything, not just the things with which you disagree.

Jessika is a third-year student at IU studying health administration and legal studies; she is also the outreach director for the Secular Alliance. She was raised Catholic but has almost always lacked belief in a god.

3 responses

  • Dark Star said on July 10, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Also, it’s not sufficient to only satisfy your own skepticism but you must collaborate with the best experts in the field and understand ALL the relevant data and questions.

    Consider someone pondering the flatness of the Earth, they look around and judge that it seems very flat so it’s reasonable to assume it’s flat. Here they have only satisfied their own limited skepticism but excluded the vast amount of data from others.

    Along this path many false starts may be considered and sometimes, what turns out to be on the surface as false can be true once fully understood and investigated. First let me say that I have NEVER seen Zeitgeist but I’m familiar with some of the concepts and ideas relative to religion, as discussed through other writings. But I would say that while Zeitgeist may very well be wrong on many points there are some overall themes that are probably more accurate than not and possibly some details.

    For example, the commonality of portions of the Gilgamesh epic with portions of the Bible and their relative dating. There is no direct, absolute evidence that these themes were directly copied – but there are two hypotheses to consider:

    (1) Gilgamesh and the Bible were written completely independently and every similarity is purely coincidental
    (2) The authors of the Bible were familiar with the Gilgamesh epic and it uses those themes

    There is fairly decent evidence for (2) and absolutely none for (1). I wouldn’t say that (2) is absolutely proven, but it stretches credulity to assume (1) give the facts. But the fact is that we can probably never know very much history with any level of accuracy, the details and facts get lost.

    Here is a summary of Gilgamesh http://public.wsu.edu/~dee/MESO/GILG.HTM

    But I ABSOLUTELY agree with you that we MUST be skeptical of things which appear true. But that doesn’t mean that all such things are unworthy of investigation (e.g., history of religion) nor that we should assume our present understanding of such things is especially accurate.


    On the 911-side I am not informed well enough to say.

  • Edward Clint said on July 10, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    We must, too, be prepared to leave skepticism out, at times. This is articulated well by Thomas Kuhn in his book/paper The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Skepticism as an ideal shares space with pragmatism. The medical researcher trying to cure cancer is not producing papers which prove evolutionary theory, cell theory, or the genetic basis of heredity. These must be assumed, as if they were absolutely true, even though they aren’t, because if you don’t do that then you can’t do research- any research.

    Ingersoll’s words are sound but not always helpful because we don’t know what category to put things in. Does a high fat diet cause heart disease? This was considered factual until recently. It wasn’t controversial. Until around the 1950’s geophysicists were sure that the continents never move.

    Skepticism is hard. Harder than anyone imagines.

  • Jonathon Dunrobin said on August 9, 2011 at 9:50 pm

    You know – I am skeptical of skeptics because skepticism can be a form of escapism or even mental laziness; See where does faith come into skepticism or doesn’t it. Remember faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen. Discuss that in a skeptics forum!!!!

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