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Skepticisms and Thinking For Yourself [Trenchant Edges]
Welcome back to Trenchant Edges, a newsletter about fringe culture and the people who make it.
I’m your host Stephen, and today we’re delving into two of my favorite topics: Skepticism, how rhetoric about skepticism plays out in the wild, and how all this differs from skepticism.
If you want, you can still book a time to talk with me via zoom. I’ve opened up a couple more weeks for these conversations if you’ve looked at the schedule with frustration before. And, of course, you can always bug me if you don’t find something that fits with your schedule.
Also, if you reply to this email it’ll go to my personal email. ;-)
The Universal Solvant
Skepticism is one of the most powerful tools in any human’s arsenal. It can be more powerful than armies and weapons because applied with skill and a little luck, it can allow a person to see past the weapons to the intent of the people making choices.
We can view skepticism on a kind of spectrum.
On one edge you have total trust and on the far side, you have total distrust.
Every place in the spectrum comes with serious downsides if applied in the wrong context.
We can add a vertical axis here depth/superficiality to clarify the different ways skepticism can be applied to ideas.
Superficial Skepticism gets you things like New Atheism, dollar store rejection of the trappings of a religious or cultural group without really addressing the underlying issues with it, and repeating many of the same cultural practices that make certain communities so toxic.
Superficial credulity gets you people who think tabloids are honest publications. It’s usually harmless if embarrassing to the person doing it. It can aid and abet bad ideas but rarely drives them.
Depth Credulity is when someone takes some set of ideals really seriously and it can drive some really bad outcomes for actual people, who are held in lower regard than the abstractions so dearly held.
People deep in this category have a quality called Zeal, an intense faith in their own rectitude and we call such people zealots.
Depth Skepticism can get you nigh-unreadable high abstraction naval gazing that might be really profound or meaningless if any could parse it in the first place.
Each quadrant also has positive qualities. Superficial credulity keeps you from picking fights about local gossip. Superficial skepticism keeps you out of research rabbit holes that might take days away from more important things. Depth Credulity can help you get through difficult situations and Depth Skepticism can help you understand why you were behaving harmfully and do better.
This kind of graph exists parallel in its own context. Someone might be highly skeptical of claims of magic, but utterly deny the reality of discrimination by race, gender, or sexual identity.
The hardest part of skepticism is that it can be exhausting and time-consuming. Everything can be fractal out towards examining everything else.
To borrow a phrase from Oscar Wilde:
Garbage In, Garbage Out
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
-Walt Whitman, A Song of Myself
I’ve been listening to a lot of a certain kind of right-wing conspiracy theorist lately for a project, which included the first episode of Bill Cooper’s nightly shortwave radio show, The Hour of the Time.
Cooper, author of the book Behold a Pale Horse, and father figure to the likes of Alex Jones was a “Militia Theoretician” and conspiracy theorist prominent in the 1990s.
After the air raid sirens and barking dogs of his opening track began he explained that his radio show was different from anything you’d read or hear anywhere else because he’s going to tell you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
He then explains that you shouldn’t trust the mainstream media or other radio people or newspapers or even him. That you should listen to everyone and decide for yourself who’s right.
Let us juxtapose this 1993 claim with the two poles of response to the Covid-19 vaccine & safety situation:
Trust the Experts/Trust the science
Are you really going to trust those lying liars? Wake up sheeple!
We can already see Bill pulling towards the latter.
Now, Bill Cooper is a man with an agenda. He’s broadly a John Bircher: Pro-capitalist, anti-communist conspiracy junkie, pro-2nd amendment, and anti-feminist, university education, and “globalists”.
At the time of his broadcast, it was chic to call this the New World Order. A kind of willful misunderstanding from a September 11th, 1990 speech George HW Bush gave to congress about collaboration with the USSR to try and mediate an end to Sadaam Hussein’s “aggression” in Kuwait.
A clear sign of a pivot away from Reagan-era talk of The Evil Empire and towards a brave new world of peace and harmony between the two superpowers.
It’s wild to me that this son of a nazi collaborator’s words to signal that the USA was clearly increasing in international power as the USSR’s collapse continued has been taken by the far-right as a secret international communist plot to destroy the United States and take all of our guns.
The “New World Order” always was a declaration of the extension of the American Empire to global hegemony. What they used to call the Washington Consensus.
Anyway, I digress.
The point is that a certain kind of skepticism is suggested by Bill and I am skeptical of that skepticism.
See, Bill doesn’t really offer much in the way of method to know who’s right. He just speaks authoritatively and insists he’s done his research.
All of this is adjacent to the Problem of Expertise, which is the question of how you know someone has actual expertise without being an expert yourself. And it’s a thorny question without really solid answers.
Bill’s suggestion is to listen to everyone and trust no one. Which is a slick rhetorical move up there with, “Trust me, I’m a liar.” By playing the, “I’m a liar” card before anyone else accuses you of it, you say something true, which emotionally feels more trustworthy even though logically you’re admitting you shouldn’t be trusted.
Without an exploration of biases, standards of evidence, and a discussion of the methodology for determining fact from fiction, listening to everyone and deciding for yourself becomes, “Reinforce your biases” in practice.
I don’t know if he’s conscious of it but it’s a clever move.
It also positions his audience as the very smart reasonable people who are willing to listen to all sides and draw their own conclusions and not the foolish, ignorant, and doomed sheeple.
Thinking For Yourself
I’m an autodidact with a great deal of personal contempt for institutions that claim authority over the production and verification of knowledge.
My skepticism is very much extreme. And pointed at my self as much as anyone else. Well, actually, quite a bit more.
I say all of that because I’m very familiar with the limitations of my point of view and the very real harm it’s done to my life. I committed to “Know Thyself” ruthlessly a long time ago and while I don’t regret this decision, I get why it’s rarely followed.
Trying to understand everything for yourself is a constant, ongoing, frustrating process that leaves a person unsuited to most stable contexts. And it’s hella time-consuming.
And you can’t actually verify very much for yourself. It takes a long time to dig into the foundation of a subject, let alone to excavate what’s under it and reduce it to whatever underlying reality is there, and then to build up consistent and comprehensive ideas on the actual ground.
So it’s no surprise that most people prefer to find something with existing foundations to throw their weight behind.
It’s taken me the better part of a decade to figure out how to balance my own well-being with generating a context where I can work in the world. And thank all of you, especially my subscribers, for being part of that.
I say all this because the net result of all that is what I know is that all methods of acquiring knowledge are provisional. There are lots of things to stumble on or miss or otherwise just not do well.
Skepticism is an ongoing project and must be somewhat regularly applied to itself and the project in order to remain coherent.
It’s easy to think yourself into a dead end.
Or worse, into a political project pushing against the direction you want to go.
I’m not saying telling people to think for themselves is a bad idea, it’s just dangerous and incomplete.
Naive realism, the assumption you can believe what you think and feel, underpins a great deal of harm in the world. And anyone who pushes others towards it is up to no good.
The opposite, of course, is also a problem. Doubting everything leaves no room for anything else.
So we must be gamblers, making the best decisions we can ongoing.
Questions to build some more community discussions here
What’s something you’ve regretted your skepticism about?
How do you know what to be skeptical about?