Field of Science

Is skeptical thinking negative?

While leading a discussion about alternative medical therapies, the Phactor observed something to the effect of "Having a skeptical perspective keeps you from making such errors in thinking." One of my students then commented, "I hate being so negative. I hate approaching everything by saying "prove it"." Interesting. Is being skeptical widely viewed as being negative? Hmmm. Well, do you view being gullible as positive? In the discussion that unfolded the conflict arises with respect to personal testimony. Your friend/lover/parent/sibling/ tells you they XYZed and it cured their MNOs. Most certainly you do not respond by saying, "Prove it." You just have to think it. As a hardcore skeptic, the Phactor never doubts the sincerity of such advice; they are trying to help, and the best you can say is, thanks, I'll look into it. Only a couple of weeks ago, the Phactor suggested to a person in the 3d tier of our social circles that she "may have benefited from a placebo effect" and it resulted in a frostiness that lasted the rest of the evening. Later her husband told me on the QT that he agreed. So no need to be unnecessarily confrontational, although in this particular instance, after relating her treatment and cure, she asked what others thought. The correct response is to ask for a bit more wine, s'il vous plait.


mr_subjunctive said...

One-word answer: no.

Lest we forget, non-skeptics are just as quick to believe terrible things as that they've been cured of cancer, and for reasons which are just as sketchy.

*Living near a cell phone tower will give you cancer.
*Vaccines cause autism.
*The world is going to end in 2012 because the Mayans said so.
*Obama is a Muslim extremist who is planning to institute Sharia law in the U.S. and enslave all the white people. (Etc., because there are many many Obama conspiracy theories. My personal father believes Obama to be a socialist who is planning to put all U.S. commerce under the direct control of the government.)
*Also: Birthers.
*9/11 Truthers.
*(Some) Alien abductees.
*People who worry that having a houseplant in their bedroom at night will exhale enough carbon dioxide to suffocate them (a topic with which you have some personal acquaintance).
*People worried about secret rings of Satanist child-molesters.

The skeptical approach in the above cases is the positive, optimistic, life-affirming one. Kind of obviously.

The Phytophactor said...

Thanks for bolstering me; you need a reality check every now and then.

Dr Chips said...

In sales I have taken the approach that customers need to be convinced that the product I am offering will do what I tell them it will do, and the proof is often long, complicated, and requires thinking or effort on their part. I come upon some who are quite willing to accept what I tell them at face value, and stop there. These are buyers, too. They stun me. Where is that innate skeptical filter that I like to think we all have?

Is skepticism negative? No. Is it healthy? Yes. And necessary.

The Phytophactor said...

Yes, let's hope we don't run into any used chip salesmen who lack scruples when dealing with the non-skeptical buyer. And you ain't talkin' nickel or dime items either!