Skeptical of the Skeptics: Questioning Conventional Wisdom

April 1, 2009

A few weeks ago, a new aquaintance told me that his wife had looked up my work on the Web. They had read my articles and columns, and were impressed by my investigations and research (or at least they politely faked it well). They liked the Bigfoot work, the ghost investigations, this and that—- but there was one exception, for his wife anyway. As he explained, "My wife says you don’t know anything about girls’ self-esteem."

He was referring to the research and articles I’d published about body image and self-esteem (many of them can be found at LiveScience.com and doing a quick Google search). I had concluded that the popular idea that many or most girls and young women have low self-esteem and body image problems because of the media was almost certainly not true, or greatly exaggerated at best. I wasn’t offended by the comment that I didn’t know anything about the topic, as it’s to be expected when you challenge a belief so widespread, something that so cuts against the grain of conventional wisdom. We hear it over and over in the media, that thin models and actresses are causing anorexia, and legions of women constantly struggle to be a size 2. When someone comes along and says it’s bullshit, who you gonna believe?

The problem is that my articles and columns were not opinion pieces; my facts, figures, and conclusions came from published, peer-reviewed medical studies, research—- and perhaps most importantly, surveys of girls themselves. The references are right there for all to see in most of the pieces; I’m simply reporting what experts in the field have reported. If my interpretation of the data is wrong, or my facts are off, I’m perfectly happy to have my errors pointed out to me. But to say that I don’t know anything about the topic because  the research I’m reporting on doesn’t jibe with the popular view strikes me as odd and raises interesting questions.

If I’m wrong, does that mean that the majority of the tens of thousands of surveyed girls and women are lying or mistaken when they say that they have good self-esteem, don’t see Barbie as a role model, and for the most part aren’t trying to lose weight? Perhaps the dozens of studies got it wrong, but it seems more likely a case of, "What you’re saying goes against what I’ve been told and my personal experience, so it must be wrong." Yet, hopefully as we all know, what we are told (especially by the media) is not always true, and our personal experiences are not a reliable guide to reality (ask any schizophrenic). Instead, scientists rely on well-controlled studies, research, and surveys to find out about the world.

Reality is not an opinion poll, and if an idea, claim, or assertion goes against the commonly accepted wisdom, it should not be dimissed out of hand but instead examined more closely. It is possible that the polls, surveys, studies, and research are wrong (or that I have gravely misinterpreted the data), and that I am wrong about the issue of body image and self-esteem despite many years of research on the topic. If so, then the truth will come from close, skeptical examination all the evidence—- not a summary dismissal. Unfortunately, few people take the time to closely examine their beliefs, instead relying on knee-jerk acceptance or rejection based largely on how well the new information fits their pre-existing beliefs. It’s not enough to simply say, "I don’t believe that," a skeptic should be able to say   why he or she doesn’t believe a claim. Otherwise, it’s not a debate about evidence, it’s an argument about beliefs.