One of the most difficult aspects of being a skeptic is resisting the cynicism that can feel inevitable under the weight of nonsense that manages to remain accepted in the public conscious. Whether it’s conspiracies about vaccines causing autism, climate change being fake, or Hillary Clinton being an all-powerful she-devil who still managed to lose a perfectly winnable election, I think any skeptic can be excused from just wanting to scream and shout and demand that the universe does a do-over.
And yet, we must resist the urge to be cynics.
Because it’s easy.
Anyone can be a cynic. You just have to not care. You also don’t have to actually do anything, which is a good way to protect yourself from expending energy, but not a good way to help create the world you want to live in.
But how do you maintain your skeptical streak without falling into cynicism?
Here’s some strategies that I’ve found useful:
1. Remember that nonsense isn’t new
There has always been conspiratorial and magical thinking. People protested the small pox vaccine, burned “witches” at the stake, believed demons were controlling their lives, and entertained every possible explanation for every possible event.
And yet the world moves forward.
We’ve got a robot on Mars, cures to terrible diseases, and the collective knowledge of the human race conveniently located in our mobile phones.
There’s no guarantee that what’s happened before will happen again, but find solace in the fact that anyone who has stood in the path of science hasn’t remained standing for long. Almost inevitably, it seems, the truth wins.
This isn’t an excuse to feel content with the world as it is, but it is a reminder that, no matter how slowly the world changes, it’s still changing, and usually for the better.
2. Don’t worry about the true believers
If someone believes they were abducted by aliens, or are being followed by secret government agents, or that reptilian overlords rule the world, there’s very little that can be said to change their minds. If you try, they’ll dig their heels in deeper.
Your attention is better spent on fence-sitters: people who haven’t made up their minds and could still sway in either direction. These are not the sort of people who read skeptic blogs though, so the challenge is figuring out how to reach them.
3. Accept irrationality
When you encounter something blatantly illogical or hypocritical, the incredulity you feel can be one of the most infuriating things in the world.
“How can someone believe these two contradictory things at once?!”
But the mistake on your part is assuming that there’s some logic embedded within every belief, and if you just ponder their belief deeply enough you’ll discover that, in some way, it kind of makes sense. That’s simply not the case though.
People are irrational, hypocritical, and contradictory, and most of the time they simply won’t care because they’re not interested in talking. They just want to shut down the conversation. If they’re people on the Internet, there’s also a decent chance they’re just trying to rile you up, which makes questioning their irrationality all the more fruitless.
4. Consider your attention
In a world where Donald Trump is the President of the United States, it’s easy to confuse “being a skeptic” with “being addicted to drama”.
If you find yourself endlessly engaged in the latest, breaking scandal though, consider where your attention lies and why your attention is moving in that direction.
Are you making a carefully considered choice to pay attention to the drama?
Or is it just a distraction?
I often find that, the more I have something important (yet difficult) to focus on, the more my brain seeks the instant gratification of a charlatan getting debunked. I get to feel the warm glow of justice without having to do anything myself. My version of skepticism becomes nothing more than indignant procrastination, which only succeeds in training my brain to further crave the resulting hits of dopamine.
5. Accept when it’s not your battle to fight
When I first read about bloggers like Food Babe who bank on the pseudoscientific fears of their readers, I wanted to do something about it. I wanted to write blog posts, create videos, and ultimately inform people about the truth: that vaccines are not dangerous, that genetic engineering doesn’t change the nutritional value of food, and that just because a chemical sounds scary doesn’t mean it’s toxic.
But the problem with people like Food Babe is that they’re non-experts trying to talk about complex topics, so if I were to throw myself into the fray, I’d be doing exactly the same thing I was criticising. My intentions were good, but I’m no scientist, and to speak on scientific matters would only result in me regurgitating what I’d heard.
In the end, I simply accepted that my energy was better spent elsewhere, leaving the reigns in the hands of far more qualified individuals.
6. Make the most of your strengths
You don’t have to debunk nonsense to be a skeptic. I’m hopeless at arguing, for instance, and if I attempted such things, that would actually be a disservice to the cause.
Instead, figure out how you can harness your abilities to contribute to the skeptic’s cause. If you rock at making signs, for instance, attend some protests, or if you’re earning big bucks at work, put aside some extra funds for causes you believe in.
If you consider what you’re great at, you’ll likely realise there’s a way you can harness that skill to make a difference in a less direct — but no less important — manner.
7. Understand the nature (and power) of belief
Skeptics like to believe that they’re rational beings and that non-skeptics aren’t trying hard enough. But such thinking is arrogant and wrong. Belief is more natural to us than skepticism, and it’s been that way since the beginning of our species. Reading books like The Belief Instinct and Why People Believe Weird Things were eye-opening in this regard, making me aware of my own fallibility and leaving me less flustered at the irrationality that I see in others.
8. Learn to debunk properly
If you’re planning on debunking nonsense, make sure you’re doing it properly by reading The Debunking Handbook. The book is a fantastic (and completely free) resource that clearly explains how to correct misinformation without invoking “the backfire effect”, which is where attempting to debunk something causes someone to believe the misinformation even more strongly. As you’ll see, most arguments against misinformation are fundamentally flawed in their design.
9. Don’t fool yourself
An unfortunate spiral that skeptics can find themselves in starts with the belief that, just because they consider themselves a skeptic, they surely can’t be fooled by misinformation. They gain confidence from being rational in one area of their life and assume that rationality will automatically carryover between all areas of their life. Being a skeptic becomes such a core part of their identity that they see themselves as a rational person and, therefore, anything they believe must also be rational. It’s the same circular logic that gets people wrapped up in any sort of nonsense.
To avoid this fate, remain skeptical of yourself.
Take note of when you’ve been wrong about something and don’t brush it off as “just a mistake”. It’s easy to assume our successes are completely our own while our failures are anomalies, which causes us to undervalue the times we’ve been blind to reality. Avoid this trap or you’ll find yourself in a dangerous (and unhappy) place of confident ignorance, which is precisely what skeptics set out to avoid.
10. Develop your emotional intelligence
This is definitely one of those “do as I say, not as I do” sort of points, as I am one of the least emotionally intelligent people on the planet. Human interaction is always awkward to me and I’d have a much easier time talking to people if they were part-computer. But humans are emotional beings and, no matter how rational we consider ourselves to be, facts don’t change our minds as much as they should, so if you develop a fiery arsenal of cutting-edge facts that you plan to weaponise as a means of ridding the world of nonsense, you’re going to have a bad time.
Facts do matter, but they need to be packaged in a way that is sensitive to people’s sensitivities, so if that’s something you struggle to achieve, it’s a worthy pursuit. (I’m guilty of trying to brute-force facts into people’s heads and I have plenty of anecdotal evidence that it doesn’t work.)
11. Take breaks
In a world where every device is connected to the Internet, it’s possible to fill yourself with an endless stream of outrage at people who both willingly and unwillingly spread nonsense. This, as you can probably imagine, isn’t healthy. There is value in encountering nonsensical beliefs — one of those beliefs might not be as nonsensical as you first think, after all — but don’t let yourself be consumed by the rage.
Give yourself the weekends away from the computer, stop hate-following people on Twitter, and spend more time on /r/wholesomememes.
You don’t get any brownie points for being the most agitated skeptic in the world, so the moment you’re drained by the endless sea of gibberish that floods the world, step away from it. It’s not like it won’t still be there when you’re ready to come back.