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Why We Must Always Be Skeptical

Why skepticism matters -- not just in science, history and other academic pursuits, but in everyday life.

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But it's a discipline that pays off: in specific pragmatic results, and in the broader, deeper, less obviously tangible areas of personal connection and fulfillment.

Here are a few examples of what I mean.

Letting Go of Glucosamine

I have a chronically bad knee. There are some things I do that make it better, but it's always going to be at least somewhat messed up. And one of the things I used to do for my bad knee was to take glucosamine. I kept hearing that glucosamine increased the production of lubricating fluid in the joints, which sounded nifty, and some of the early medical research was promising.

But then further, more thorough research was done... and the results were conclusive. Glucosamine doesn't work.

You'd think I'd have been pleased to hear that. A rational reaction would have been, "Well, good. It would have been better if the stuff actually worked -- but at least I don't have to waste my money on snake oil anymore. Since it doesn't work, of course I'd rather not take it."

But I was extremely disappointed in this outcome. Upset, even. And at first, I was very resistant to accepting it. I liked feeling like I was doing something about my bad knee. Especially something so easy. It was comforting. It gave me a feeling of control. It helped me not feel so helpless. And I had convinced myself that the stuff worked. (The placebo effect can be powerful indeed.)

So my first reaction was to reject the research. My first reaction was to repeat my "Early research is promising" mantra, to drown out the "This stuff doesn't work" mantra the universe was now presenting me with. My first reaction was to stick my fingers in my ears, pretend I hadn't heard anything, and keep doing what I'd been doing.

But because I was beginning to identify as a skeptic, and was getting involved in the atheist/skeptical movement, I just couldn't do it. I couldn't keep trying to persuade people to reject the wishful thinking of their religious faith and take a rigorous look at the lack of good evidence supporting it... and still embrace my own wishful thinking about glucosamine over the evidence staring me in the face. Not if I was going to live with myself. That's the thing about cognitive dissonance: once you become aware of it, rationalizing it becomes a lot harder. And that's the thing about the cognitive errors skeptics are always yammering about, errors like confirmation bias and hindsight bias and the clustering illusion and so on: once you start noticing them in others, they become a lot harder to ignore in yourself. I couldn't do it. I had to take my bottle of glucosamine, accept that it had been a waste of money, accept that it had all been a waste of money for years, and pitch it in the trash.

Why was this a good thing?

Why was it good that I gave up doing something that made me feel happy, something that gave me comfort and a feeling of control?

The most obvious answer is that I didn't have to spend my money on the stuff anymore. That's a very good argument for skepticism generally: of all the arguments against credulity and blind faith, Not Getting Taken By Con Artists is definitely high on the list. But in this case, that was a minor concern. Glucosamine was relatively cheap. I spend more money every day on useless things that make me happy. (Decaf coffee and cable TV both leap to mind.)

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