If you’re like me, then when you became a more open and active skeptic (what I like to call a “coming out” skeptic) you may have made the mistake of thinking that you were going to make yourself into the best skeptic ever. That is, you may have decided that you were going to aspire to being a really, really good skeptic and critical thinker on pretty much everything. I recall my eager embracing of this kind of “hyper-skeptical” attitude, back when I was a newly minted “out of the closet” skeptic.
But, as I have matured, I have adopted a more informed, nuanced, and realistic view of skepticism, both on a personal as well as a broader level. I have come to the gradual realization that while wishing to be “a good skeptic” in all areas, from the nuances of the alt-med vs. science-based medicine wars to issues related to various religious claims, is a laudable goal, but at the end of the day it is kind of unrealistic. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to comb through all the pseudoscientific, conspiracy-mongering, and woo-oriented claims out there and be totally prepared for them all.
This is why having a community of skeptics is so important: we each bring our own areas of expertise and activism to the larger group. I, for one, tend to focus on issues related to what I call physics-woo and topics related to pseudoscience and education (specifically areas such as the creationism-evolution issue). That way we can take the time to hunker down and focus upon a specific set of skeptical topics, while relying on the rest of our skeptical colleagues to cover other areas.
However, there is another reason why being plugged into a broader skeptical community is a good thing: because we are all human, and as such, despite our skeptical leanings we all have some aspect to our lives on which we are decidedly non-skeptical. As the magician Penn Jillette once summed it up: “Everybody got a gris-gris.” By this he meant that we all have some kind of gris-gris: a belief or superstition or viewpoint that is not supported by any kind of rational or skeptical analysis. And, many times, these gris-gris are things that are very important to us, yet we may not even think of it as such, and we can behave in decidedly irrational ways when confronted with the possibility that our gris-gris is just another silly belief unsupported by evidence.
And it is in these situations where being exposed to the wider community of skepticism is so useful. We can be confronted by our skeptical colleagues on an issue and have it pointed out to us that we are not really supporting our belief (our gris-gris) with any kind of rational argumentation and/or evidence. Sometimes our gris-gris takes the form of the thoughtless acceptance of a particular brand of item (from cars to skin cream), or the support of a sports team, or a particular religious belief, or affiliation with a political party. The point is that if we look hard enough, I’m pretty sure that every one of us can find at least one gris-gris that we cling to, evidence and rationality be damned.
So, for the sake of furthering the discussion, I would like to share with you two of my gris-gris. The first is that I am a strong supporter of President Barack Obama (and the Democratic party more generally) – I like to think that I have solid, rational reasons for taking this political position, but I have found that when I argue with others (such as at the JREF Forum’s political sub-forum) about political topics I can sometimes see the irrationality in some of my arguments that I so clearly see in those of my skeptical colleagues who take a different political view. And that bothers me – it bothers me to see that sometimes I can so easily slip into the very kind of sloppy thinking and bad argumentation that I criticize pseudoscientists and other purveyors of nonsense of engaging in. Of course, I see this as a good thing: it means that I’m looking not only at the arguments of others but my own as well.
My second gris-gris is much more personal and much more embarrassing, but it serves as a good example of the point I’m trying to make. Basically, I have a “lucky” coin that has a huge amount of sentimental value to me, and I carry this coin with me everywhere I go. In fact, I often catch myself reflexively feeling my pocket to make sure that it’s still there, probably simultaneously comforted by its presence and the knowledge that it hasn’t magically disappeared. I will go so far as to say that if I cannot find this coin to put in my pocket at the beginning of the day, I will drop everything to start looking everywhere I can think of to find it; a couple of times I have almost been late for work simply because I was tearing my house apart to find my “lucky” coin. And if I’m forced to leave home without it, I have cold sweats!
I know it’s a silly superstition, and I know there’s no rational reason to think this coin is “lucky” – but I still believe it. Why? Perhaps it is solely out of habit-forming behavior, or perhaps it’s because on some level it gives me comfort.
And I have made this confession publicly at skeptical events before, as a way of trying to seriously further the discussion about how we all have these gris-gris. Most recently was last month at Dragon*Con, where I once again shared my belief in my “lucky” coin during the Skeptrack discussion on “Education vs. Debunking”. The humorous thing about that situation is that it led to an impromptu skeptical intervention of sorts, when Margaret Downey stood up during the Q&A and asked if I would be willing to give up my gris-gris for one day (she offered to keep it safe for me). With much groaning and gnashing of teeth (you can hear it on the audio of the Skepticality podcast of the discussion), I reluctantly gave up my “lucky” coin to Margaret for a day at Dragon*Con.
At first I was really, really nervous about not having it with me, but eventually I started to feel a little bit better about not having it with me (though I honestly never stopped thinking about it). The next day, when Margaret and I met, I had my precious gris-gris returned to me, and things just seemed somehow better.
I suspect there’s a lesson in here somewhere, something about being able to give up our irrational beliefs and live a more skeptical, rational, and critically-thinking life. But then I also realize the fact that I still carry my “lucky” coin. Ah well, baby steps…
Matt Lowry is a high school & college physics professor with a strong interest in promoting science education, skepticism and critical thinking among his students and the population in general. Towards these ends, he works with the JREF on their educational advisory board, and he also works with a number of grassroots skeptical, pro-science groups. In what little spare time he has, he blogs on these and related subjects at The Skeptical Teacher.