The Course of Reason

False Skepticism

July 12, 2011

The Outreach Director from the Secular Alliance of UI, Jessika Griffin, warns of false skepticism.

This post originally appeared on the Secular Alliance of IU's blog.

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.


About the Author: Jessika Griffin

Jessika Griffin's photo
Jessika Griffin is a fourth-year student at Indiana University studying public management and legal studies. She is also the president of the Secular Alliance of IU. Jessika was raised Catholic but has almost always lacked belief in a god.


#1 C.J. Wilton (Guest) on Tuesday July 12, 2011 at 11:12am

Another term for false scepticism might be 'gnosis' or 'gnosticism' those who believe in hidden knowledge and get a thrill out of espousing conspiratorial interpretations that subvert that of the popular.

Some might think that this is a little insulting to those who espouse neo-gnosticism, following the sect of Christianity hunted to extinction by the proto-orthodox and later catholic church; but as that theology calls upon the same kind of secret knowledge-beyond-evidence type claims it is perhaps worth the insult.

If we move quickly, we sceptics could make a meme of this new definition, that will give us a convenient label for people who are apt to believe claims like that of Zeitgeist and the Da Vinci Code. It need not be pejorative, simply an acknowledgement that a person has adopted an alternative and polarised doctrine or dogma, with an equal lack of critical thought as that of the populist orthodoxy.




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