Skepticism is usually a misunderstood concept. Essentially, a skeptic withholds his belief in something new—let’s call it an idea, but it could be a theory, an opinion, an insight, even a claim for an event or an experience—until the evidence supporting the new idea is so overwhelming that the skeptic would be a fool not to believe. At which point he is supposed to lend his belief to the new idea. At least, that is what
Under Merriam-Webster Online‘s Full Definition of Skepticism, the first definition is “an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object,” a description that I have never heard a skeptic express.
That is followed by 2a: “the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain.” This is closer to mine, but it implies that “true knowledge” (is that redundant? can it be defined and understood?) can never be certain, which, if so, can never be known to be so, no?
Then we get to 2b: “the method of suspended judgement, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics.” The mention of “suspended judgement” makes this closer to my definition, but not close enough.
Better yet is this definition from the Skeptic website, which represents Skeptic magazine (available at most well-stocked newsstands): “Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, that involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions.”
This is very similar to my working definition above and comes from people so skeptical they formed an organization so that they could hang out together and not believe in creationism, Area 51, flying saucers, clairvoyance, astrology, etc. , in unison.
Check out their site, Skeptic.com, but if you hold anything out of the ordinary close to the chest, be prepared to be challenged . . .
Also, know this: skepticism and pessimism are not synonymous!
I am a born skeptic. I read things and, when statements made as factual aren’t, a red flag goes up in my brain and I begin to ratiocinate and discriminate. The cognitive dissonance of others seems obvious to me (although my own may be invisible to me). And untruths spoken in the belief that the ends justify the means are like those tests that determine color-blindness: the hidden stands out.
I just thought that I would say that as a preface to the piece that follows.
Everybody lies about something to somebody sometime
For my older readers, I tried to make the sub-title above a take-off of Dean Martin’s #1 hit of 1963, Everybody Loves Somebody. (Go ahead, sing it to yourself: “Everybody loves somebody sometimes. Everybody falls in love somehow.”). But I couldn’t do it and keep what I wanted the sub-title to say. Oh, well.
It should not come as any kind of surprise to anyone when I say that everyone lies about something to someone at sometime—whether actively by lying, or passively by omitting necessary information. But most of our lies are NOT intended to harm anyone.
For example, common lies for us guys are, “Honey, I really like your new haircut,” or “Wow! Those are really great shoes.” (“Of course, they’d be even greater if they strapped around you ankle and had four-inch heels.”) These are harmless, meant to make someone else feel good about themselves. Some people call these white lies.
But when lies of any kind are told by people in a position of responsibility or power to influence someone else, it’s different. When a speaker lies to persuade his listeners to do wrongful deeds or even do things that are not in their best interest, those lies take on a different meaning.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor
One of the Ten Commandments, this statement has a variety of specific meanings based on Hebraic, Catholic, and Reformation interpretations. Not telling lies is usually a part of each interpretation.
Jewish law based on the Torah lists 613 Mitzvot, or commandments, including eight (570-577) related to honest testimony in judicial procedure.
Christians read that “According to the New Testament, Jesus explains that obedience to the prohibition against false testimony from the ten commandments is a requirement for eternal life. According to Jesus, false testimony comes from the sinful desires of the heart and makes people unclean.” (Wikipedia)
So, for Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Episcopalians, lying is a sin of some sort. In the Muslim religion, the act of lying is more complicated, as lying to a non-believer to advance the cause of Islam is not only permitted but encouraged.
Lying, lying by omission, and not telling the truth
The primary definitions for the word lie (to lie and lying)is “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive” and “to create a false or misleading impression.” (Merriam-Webster Online) I don’t think those definitions surprise anyone. As stated, lying is often considered a sin.
Lying by omission is defined as “when an important fact is left out in order to foster a misconception.” It is also known as a “continuing misrepresentation.” (Wikipedia). Lying by omission is nonetheless an act of lying and is therefore often considered a sin.
Not telling the truth can mean lying, or it can be a truncated version of “not telling the truth when you know the truth”—which is a form of lying by omission. Not telling the truth is often considered a sin.
Of course, not telling the truth when you don’t know the truth—when you believe what you are saying, despite it’s being erroneous or fallacious (“a false or mistaken idea”)—is merely speaking in error. In this case, not telling the truth would not be considered a sin, although exceptions exist in stricter biblical and canonical interpretations.
There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics
This statement was popularized in the US by Mark Twain, who apparently attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli, despite there being no written evidence of the former British Prime Minister ever having written or said such a thing.
The common interpretation of the statement is to be cautious of the use of statistics to prove an otherwise weak argument. In other words, it is a caveat against trusting statistics one does not understand. And statistics taken out of their proper context can indeed be both persuasive and baffling—and many people would rather accept them as meaningful than appear baffled!
Statistics can easily persuade the innumerate listener
The inability to understand what statistics mean as a persuasive element in an argument or discussion takes on greater meaning when innumeracy is taken into account. To be innumerate is to be “marked by an ignorance of mathematics and the scientific approach.” (Merriam-Webster Online)
The inability to do everyday math has become, to some observers, of epidemic proportions in America. Figuring the most basic division problems like a 6% sales tax or a 15% tip can be daunting and embarrassing.
In 1975, I was hired by my best friend Jack to be his Assistant Manager at a McCrory’s store in South Norwalk, Connecticut. He informed me that hiring new employees to work under me would be a huge problem because of how dramatically schooling had plunged in the pervious few years. He said that many recent high school graduates could not even figure out a 10% discount without a calculator. The problem has escalated in the intervening years.
To be kind and place some perspective on innumeracy, it plagues most of us in some manner at some time. The insightful and funny statement that “The most powerful force in the universe is compound interest” is attributed to Albert Einstein. While it appears that he may never have uttered those words, that it is believable that he did should shine a light on the situation and the dangers of numbers in the hands of the ignorant.
To ratiocinate or not to ratiocinate
I often hear the accusation that modern American public schools do not teach students the ability to discriminate, to recognize distinctions, to ratiocinate (a wonderful word that means simply to reason, but reasoning is often anything but simple).
While I am sure there is a way to prove that accusation, I am not going to spend the considerable amount of time necessary to do so. It certainly seems that the level of ingenuousness, of naïveté (why not naïveness?), of downright simplemindedness—I am avoiding calling anyone stupid—has risen substantially since I graduated from public schools in 1969.
And these traits seem to be rising in the age of the cellphone as the replacement for both one-on-one, face-to-face conversation and book reading.
The continuing misrepresentation of facts by a certain breed of pundits
While researching the above, I stumbled over a political website where the author’s opening paragraph consisted of two lines—a question and a statement:
Question: “Remember how outraged liberals said they were when they learned that three al-Qaida bigwigs were waterboarded?”
Statement: “If so, you may wonder why liberals haven’t been more vocal about the vague criteria the Obama administration uses to justify killing American citizens suspected of terrorism.”
The question is rhetorical and the answer is, of course, “Yes.” Unless, of course, you are a low-information voter, who seem to be the author’s assumed audience. Actually, these voters should perhaps be called low-information readers . . .
Now, the rhetorical question can be a useful means in making a point, provided that the listener understands that the question is, in fact, not intended to be answered. Many people are confused by this bit of verbal swordplay. Here is one good definition:
“A rhetorical question is a figure of speech in the form of a question that is asked in order to make a point. The question is posed not to elicit a specific answer, but rather to encourage the listener to consider a message or viewpoint. Though classically stated as a proper question, such a device may be posed declaratively but implying a question . . .
Though a rhetorical question does not require a direct answer, in many cases it may be intended to start a discussion or at least draw an acknowledgement that the listener understands the intended message.” (Wikipedia)
The statement above (“why liberals haven’t been more vocal”) appears to be intended to mislead those very readers/voters as, of course, liberals have been quite vocal in their outrage at Obama’s actions in the Middle East!
There are websites and petitions—I swear I sign at least one a week that is sent to my email address from various organizations of do-gooders—and letters to editors, all condemning Obama’s actions and calling for an end to it.
And it’s all readily available for anyone’s perusal. All you have to do is look—of course, then you MIGHT have to tell the truth to your readers . . .
For example, today (November 5, 2013) I typed “petition to stop bombing Afghanistan” into Google and got over 160,000,000 results. That’s one-hundred-and-sixty-million! Of course, many (most?) are responding to variations on those words but nine of the first twenty ARE about Afghanistan.
Several others in the top twenty listings concern the seemingly endless planning of the bombing of Syria. I believe we can assume there are MILLIONS of such calls for an end to these killings on the internet at this moment. Which means that liberals are quite vocal about their disgust with Obama’s actions and that puts the lie to the aforementioned question/statement!
The protests of the war-on-terror will not be broadcast tonight
Much of the above would be unnecessary if the SCLM (So-Called Liberal Media) did a better job of covering the many anti-war-on-terror demonstrations around the country. Hell, if they simply covered them at all more people would realize that many people who voted for Obama are out in the streets making their disgust known.
Needless to say, few conservatives can be found among those anti-war demonstrators, something that the author of the rightwing website quoted above will never discuss when he is asking such rhetorical questions.
Why waterboarding is not torture (ho ho ho)
The author then goes on to defend waterboarding because, according to his understanding of various laws and principles, waterboarding is not torture. He cites Merriam-Webster Online to define torture as “the infliction of intense pain (as from burning, crushing, or wounding) to punish, coerce, or afford sadistic pleasure.”
So, being a stickler for these sorts of things—like accuracy in quoting respected sources—I looked up torture in his stated source to see how accurate he was. And he is 100% accurate—if you don’t count the four definitions that precede the one he chose to cite. Here are those first four definitions of torture in the order in which they are listed by Merriam-Webster Online:
The act of causing severe physical pain as a form of punishment or as a way to force someone to do or say something.
Something that causes mental or physical suffering; a very painful or unpleasant experience.
Anguish of body or mind; agony.
Something that causes agony or pain.
Oops—not the same! In three of the four definitions, “mental suffering,” “anguish of mind,” and “agony” are cited. So, his definition of torture is a form of lying by omission—not telling the whole truth with the intention of misleading his readers. (A sin?)
So, here is the example that our author is setting with his argument: if you can ignore the primary and secondary definition of a word—any word—and just skip to the meanings of lesser importance, you can probably win ANY argument as you can put forth ANY reason for justifying ANY action.
To hell with the Nuremberg Trials and the Geneva Convention
Our intrepid author—and I am intentionally not naming this author—then cites US federal law and its definition of torture, which would seem to make his point. But he ignores the fact (and the precedent) that the US-led Nuremberg trials considered waterboarding of POWs during WWII to have been torture and sentenced Japanese waterboarders to prison.
Also, waterboarding is torture under the code of the Geneva Convention, to which the United States is a signer. And to which we expect others to abide by during times of war.
So, again, we have a variation on lying by omission—not telling the whole truth to mislead others.
Lying is ubiquitous—it is part of the human condition
All of the forms of lying are used in government, in business, in politics, in love and sex. It is up to the listener/reader to learn to discern the difference between that which sounds probable and that which sounds improbable. Unfortunately, when one is prone to being an ideologue, such discrimination, such ratiocination, is all but impossible.
It is up to each and every American to work on exercising and developing and honing his bullshit detector.
Hence we have here in America the only large, organized group of people who don’t believe in man-caused global climate change. We have the only large, organized group of people who don’t believe in evolution, but who do believe in creationism. We have the only large, organized group of people who consistently vote against their own economic interests by falling for such wedge issues as abortion, gay marriage, illegal immigrants, etc., instead of using their own God-given common sense. Oh well, as someone once famous once said, “So it goes . . .”