SKEPTICISM


I spend a lot of my time online reading skeptic sites. Nothing warms my heart more than a thorough and vituperative debunking of some nonsensical belief, and the more vituperative, the better. There's simply no point in being polite about such things. Much as I enjoy seeing UFOs, creationism, Scientology and the like being cut apart by the cold steel of logic, I enjoy it more still when they are also lashed by the bullwhip of sarcasm. And let's face it, skeptic sites exist primarily for the enjoyment of skeptics. Some skeptics think they will persuade the woo-woos by putting the truth out there, but the truth won't persuade anyone. People believe whatever they're comfortable with. Appeals to logic will always fail; logic is not what attracted me to skepticism. It helps, after the fact, that logic is on my side, it makes me confident I've made the right choice, it's why I am still a skeptic; but it's not why I became one.

I wasn't always a skeptic. There was a time when I lapped up crap by Graham Hancock, I read real-life tales of the paranormal, I believed in horoscopes and numerology. I was an intensely superstitious child; I skipped over the cracks in the pavement, I was afraid of the dark. Life for me was a series of irrational rituals and talismans. In the terror of a moment, I could persuade myself that dire consequences would follow if I didn't play the right notes three times in a row, didn't land the apple core in the dustbin, didn't pray every night for the next two weeks. My continued well-being I attributed to these bizarre pacts I made with unseen forces, good and evil.

In fact, superstition put such a strain on me that getting rid of it was as much a practical lifestyle choice as anything else. Life is a chore when you believe you're only getting from one moment to the next with the aid of talismans, God, and ritualistic hoop-jumping. I felt infinitely better when I threw it all over my shoulder.

Ultimately, I became a skeptic for the same reason people cling to religion: I found it comforting. The world is a much less scary place when there are no horrors lurking in the dark, when everything has a rational explanation, when you aren't at the mercy of capricious demons and malevolent gods. Some people are terrified by the notion that we are alone in the world, that "this is all there is" and that our existence is essentially purposeless; but I found more terrifying still the notion of some supernatural entity that can violate reality at any moment, that is bending me towards its will, that has a purpose in mind for me, and a destiny. So I chose not to believe in it. The fact that there is no such entity was quite beside the point.

Skepticism was also something of an aesthetic choice. On the whole, I find truth more beautiful than bollocks. The real vastness of the universe, the real wonders of living things, are incalculably more awesome than the best tales spun by hucksters and charlatans. The writers who promote the irrational and the supernatural tend to be bad writers, their style just as poor as their content. What's more, I have a personal dislike of mystics, who tend to be frauds, flakes or hypocrites. As soon as I developed my own artistic tastes, I found myself turning against them.

Based on my own experience, I don't think you can reason with woo-woos. Which is not to say that I don't believe converting them is a worthy goal; I just believe you cannot separate it from a wider political goal. Much as I would like the whole world to be in the reality-based community, the fact is that most people, quite understandably, find reality so revolting that they prefer to live by the lies that make them happy. The real answer is to improve their reality enough so that the truth makes them happy. And until that happens, I fear the bullshit will always be with us.


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