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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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A better answer is that I was no longer doing something useless that made me feel like I was making a difference... so I started looking more carefully at things I could do that weren't useless and that might actually make a difference. It wasn't until I stopped taking glucosamine that I started pushing my doctor -- hard -- about getting me a proper diagnosis for my knee, and getting me some freaking physical therapy. I'd asked her about it before and gotten vague, half-assed answers... which I'd accepted, since I was soothing myself with the delusion that glucosamine was making things all better. Once I accepted the harsh reality that my knee was not getting all better, I was motivated to take action that might actually help.

This is a point I make a lot about skepticism and caring about evidence. Good information about reality helps us make better decisions about how to act in that reality. It helps us understand which causes are likely to have which effects. And the reverse is true as well. Decisions based on bad information are no better than guessing. Worse, in some ways, since we're more willing to let go of decisions we know were based on guessing. It's like people in data processing say: Garbage in, garbage out.

Facing harsh reality can be... well, harsh. It's not always fun. And comforting delusions are... well, comforting. But that doesn't mean they'll make us happier in the long run. Does believing in God or the afterlife give some people comfort? Sure. Believing that global warming isn't real gives some people comfort, too. That doesn't make this belief useful or good. For the people who believe it, or for society as a whole. If you get mad at people who stick their fingers in their ears and say, "I can't hear you, I can't hear you," about global warming... why do you think that's an appropriate way to think about God?

And then there's the broader, deeper, "connection with the universe" personal fulfillment stuff. But I'm going to hold off on that for a moment, and talk about one more pragmatic effect skepticism has had in my life.

Weight loss.

No, really.

Lose Weight Now, The Skeptical Way!

A little over a year ago, my bad knee started to get very bad indeed. It went very rapidly from "having to be careful getting in and out of cars" to "having serious trouble climbing hills and stairs." It was a very upsetting experience, one that made me feel intensely helpless: my knee was getting worse, much worse, potentially cripplingly worse, even though I'd been doing everything I could to take care of it.

Well, almost everything.

Everything but lose weight.

I was, at the time, about 60 pounds overweight. And if you accept nothing else about the evidence connecting health problems with weight, at the very least you ought to accept that extra weight is hard on your joints. It's just simple physics.

But I was also, at the time, deeply persuaded by the more extremist wing of the fat-positive movement that (a) being fat had no connection whatsoever with health problems, and (b) weight loss was essentially impossible. It is embarrassing to admit how much I let myself be deceived by denialism. I was stuck in confirmation bias, wishful thinking, all of it. I had pored over the trickle of studies suggesting that the link between weight and health was minimal, and ignored the mountain of research demonstrating that the link was both real and serious. I had pored over the statistics on how roughly 90 percent of all people who try to lose weight fail, and ignored the stubborn reality of the roughly 10 percent of people who do succeed.

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