Before I dive into the issues with skepticism in health and medical sciences, I think it is pertinent to first discuss what a skeptical thinker is, as well as the challenges to becoming one. Skeptics are undoubtedly a pillar in the search for truth. They challenge the findings or knowledge others accept as a way to determine the truth. We need skeptics, and we need more people to think skeptically.
How do you become a skeptical thinker?
Becoming a skeptic is a seemingly easy task, accomplished by thinking critically and analytically about a particular subject and requiring the claimant to provide strong evidence of their claims. Unfortunately, many people don’t have the skills of critical and analytical thinking, as it is not an intuitive practice. Part 5 of this series is dedicated to strategies on how to train yourself to think critically and analytically, so stay tuned. Becoming a skeptic takes work, learning skills, and practice, and as such, there are great variations in the quality of skeptical thought. In many ways, developing critical thinking skills takes time, practice, and perseverance, in the same way as, for example, maintaining an exercise routine or keeping a healthy diet. Similarly, once the habit is lost, the effort needed to get back on track is orders of magnitude more challenging than sustaining the good habit once it is established.
We live in an age where we have quick access to delicious but calorically dense foods in obscene amounts and obesity rates are soaring. We also live in a society where our movements can be minimized and forced physical activity is almost nonexistent. Importantly, our society is set up to minimize required thought, a fact that is not frequently pointed out. Multiple factors contribute to this phenomenon, from structured education requiring little more than memorization and recital, to multi-tiered media consisting of shallow programming, spoon-fed and opinionated news, which also shorten the time needed for our attention leading to shortened attention spans as a trained response. Televised news segments, articles and even paragraphs are becoming shorter. Reporters seem to gravitate to either promoting a set of opinions and positions dictated from a company line or to showing a “balanced” perspective of two – yes, only two – opinions, even if one of the opinions is asinine with no base in fact or reality. The world isn’t binary, and its issues are typically complex.
Critical Thought: Food and Exercise
Both diet and exercise cultures exist to promote health. Large segments of the population adhere to these cultures, often with almost cult-like fervor. Unfortunately, proper assessment of what constitutes a healthy diet or a healthy workout regimen requires careful thought and analysis. Extremes in both fitness regimens and diets marketed as healthy, and often as the “only true healthy option,” can be just as damaging to our longevity and well-being as a sedentary lifestyle supplemented with fast and processed foods. These false gurus peddling the “one true way” desire to command an ever-increasing audience and so they will work their hardest to discredit all competitors. In decades of study, with tens of thousands of publications, there is no consensus on a “single” healthy diet or a “single” healthy eating plan. Likewise, there is no consensus on the best dietary and exercise regimens amongst top athletes or centenarians, either. The fact is that there are many ways to eat well and remain fit. While some of these gurus started with noble intentions and believe what they say, many created carefully crafted marketing schemes. The former can also be dangerous, as the gurus are typically surrounded by “yes men,” impeding their ability to reflect and question their own motives, positions, and conclusions before sharing them with their audience. This is also true for skepticism. Many skeptics launch ad hominem attacks at their opponents, discrediting everything said, rather than debating and considering each individual point.
Learn to Think Critically: Your Interest in Diet and Exercise Requires It
While a significant percentage of the population maintains at least a mild interest in healthy eating and exercise, largely motivated by the mirror and scale, as well as by the media’s influence, far too few take up the task of learning how to think. I reject the notion that inherent intelligence is the issue, as I have seen myself and many others enter the peaks and valleys of cognitive ability. Ironically, the thought leaders in our times have often fallen back to telling their audiences what to think and not how to think. Even supposed skeptics who pride themselves in dissecting bullshit and thinking critically and analytically often come across as preachers as their audiences grow.
Many of the more popular “skeptical influencers’ from both sides of the war (alternative and mainstream) which I have discussed in past blogs, and will continue to throughout this series, have even taken up the habit of sharing their friends’ works without doing their due diligence in fact checking. Even worse, they fall into the habit of defending their allies’ positions without carefully and critically analyzing them. The volume of articles they churn out criticizing everything and anything is mind-numbing and is also a symptom of ‘ultracrepidarianism’ that has been previously discussed in my blogs and interviews in the past.. I will say that virtually all of these skeptics will share articles, charts and techniques to encourage their followers to think, and I applaud that. However, despite this noble act, they then tear down their progress by churning out far too much content than they can manage, all the while influencing a large following to take it as fact. This is a separate issue and has more to do with business and satisfying Google algorithms, or perhaps simply ego. That said, the business goals or ego driven desires they are attempting to satisfy comes at a high cost; it undermines their very purpose and supposed intentions. Perhaps, with an audience and an income, concessions are made and these individuals have slowly lost their way. They may even be oblivious to it – it is likely that they have all started with noble intentions (or if not all, most).
For those of you who wish to pursue expanding your minds, shed the shackles of society and contribute to the advancement of humanity, and embrace the advancement of our thought and procedures, I leave you with these parting words:
“It is the business of the very few to be independent; it is a privilege of the strong. And whoever attempts it, even with the best right, but without being obliged to do so, proves that he is probably not only strong, but daring beyond measure. He enters into a labyrinth, he multiples a thousandfold the dangers which life in itself already brings with it; not the least of which is that no one can see how and where he loses his way, becomes isolated, and is torn piecemeal by some Minotaur of conscience. Supposing such a one comes to grief, it is so far from the comprehension of men that they neither feel it, nor sympathize with it. And he cannot any longer go back! He cannot even go back again to the sympathy of men!”
- Friedrich Nietzsche
In the pursuit of skepticism, we can maintain no true friendships and no true allegiances, as we cannot allow loyalties and emotions to cloud our thought. This inherently human trait in desiring to defend our friends and allies has led to the chaotic state of skepticism in society. Even though a large portion of what I write could potentially upset many whom I consider friends, good customers. etc, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Over the coming weeks I will dive into tearing down some of the “skeptical” arguments made by both “labeled skeptics” and the “alt-med skeptics,” acknowledging where good points are made and where arguments fail to pass criticism.
Next Week: Mainstream Skeptics