In this post, I decided to do something a bit different and write about my personal background rather than debunking woo, explaining a logical/scientific concept, or any of the other things that I usually do on this blog. The embarrassing reality is that I wasn’t always a skeptic, far from it, in fact, and I think that my journey towards skepticism (a Fallacy Man origin story, if you will) may be helpful and instructive both for people who are currently on a similar quest for truth, as well as my fellow skeptics who are endeavoring to teach science and critical thinking. Because of my background, I have an atypical perspective on things that I hope will be both enlightening and encouraging to others. Therefore, I will explain my background, as well as directing several comments specifically to those who reject “mainstream” science (as I once did), as well as comments to my fellow skeptics.
Note: although this is specifically about science, it all applies to political topics as well, and people on both sides of the political spectrum should consider it.
I was raised in a very conservative Christian home, where I was taught to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, including young earth creationism (i.e., evolution is false, the earth is 6,000 years old, Noah’s flood was a real historical event, etc.). Nevertheless, I’ve been interested in science for as long as I can remember (particularly paleontology and zoology), and if you had asked the 8-year-old me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have passionately told you that I wanted to be a scientist. As a result, my parents furnished me with a multitude of books, but they were always given to me with a caveat. Namely, I was told to ignore all of the sections on evolution, and in addition to the actual science books, I was supplied with numerous books from Answers in Genesis and other creationist organizations so that I would learn the “truth” about the history of life and wouldn’t be led astray by the devil’s lies (that is literally how evolution is viewed among my family members).
I want to pause for a moment to make two quick clarifications. First, I am not attacking religion. As I have repeatedly stated, this blog is about science, and my posts only deal with religion as it relates to science. So, if you want to both believe in God and accept evolution, the big bang, etc., then I don’t really feel the need to debate you here (that isn’t to say that discussions about the existence of a God aren’t worth having, but simply that they aren’t within the scope of this blog). Second, I want to be clear that I am not attacking my family. Although I now disagree with them on a great many things, I still love and respect them. I appreciate the home that I was raised in, and I appreciate the fact that my parents really did foster my love of science by buying me tons of books, chemistry sets, microscopes, etc., putting up with me converting the back yard into a “dig site,” letting me bring home all manner of animals as pets/study subjects, tolerating me dragging home dead animals to dissect/reassemble their skeletons, etc. (I was a strange child, if you haven’t figured that out).
Getting back to my origin story, by the time that I graduated high school, I was thoroughly vested in young earth creationism. I was also extremely argumentative (a trait that I’ve never outgrown), and I was quick to pick fights over evolution. Indeed, I was one of the people who would get on the comments sections of blogs like this one and viciously defend creationism. I even wrote my high school senior term paper on why evolution wasn’t true, and in my college freshman speech class, I gave a speech about why abiogenesis wasn’t true. I got A’s on both assignments, and at the time I thought that my arguments were rock solid. Looking back, however, I can see the numerous scientific inaccuracies and logical fallacies that I was committing.
Although creationism was probably my biggest scientific blunder, it was far from the only one. I also denied anthropogenic climate change (although less adamantly), and was seriously mistaken about many other more minor aspects of science. Vaccines and GMOs were never hot topics in my household, so I didn’t know much about them at the time, but given my gullibility and inability to think critically, I am quite certain that I could easily have fallen for anti-GMO and anti-vaccine propaganda as well (indeed, I have a relative who is still a young earth creationist and still denies climate change, but he is now also opposed to vaccines/GMOs and believes in all sorts of woo).
The point of all of this is simply that going into college, I was as far from a skeptic as I possibly could have been, even though I was very interested in science. Now, you may think that I’m about to tell you that during college I took a bunch of science courses and they opened my eyes…but you’d be wrong. During my freshman year, I was quite impervious to facts. I was a biology major, so my freshman schedule included a zoology course, during which evolution was a frequent topic, but rather than seeing the errors of my ways, I clung to my misconceptions. Indeed, I was the type of student that you see on Youtube videos debating professors when the topic of evolution comes up, and I was totally deaf to their facts and well-reasoned arguments.
So, if science courses didn’t make any difference, then what did? The answer may surprise many of my fellow skeptics/scientists. It was a philosophy course. During the first semester of my sophomore year, I took an introductory philosophy course, and that class literally changed my life, because it did something invaluable: it taught me to think critically. It taught me the rules of logic and how to tell the difference between a good argument and a bad argument. It exposed my biases and made me realize just how blind and arrogant I was being. That course provided a revolutionary light bulb moment that has literally shaped my entire life since. It gave me my raison d’être. It was my radioactive spider bite, my exposure to gamma radiation, etc. I distinctly remember sitting in my dorm room feeling simultaneously empowered by the logical tools that I was being given and horrified by how gullible I had been.
Following that course, there was no going back. I wanted more. I wanted to get better at critical thinking, and most importantly, I wanted to actually understand the way that the universe worked. I was finally willing to challenge my views, and that is exactly what I did. I took more philosophy courses to hone my logical skills, I started actually listening to professors and considering their arguments, and I started questioning everything. I took each of my core views and for the first time in my life, I critically examined them. I actually tried to find problems with them, rather than blindly defaulting to the counterarguments I had been raised with, and if I’m honest, it was not easy or fun. I suffered many sleepless nights and spent months reading, studying, debating, and talking to people on both sides of each topic, but unlike every previous debate I had been in, I was trying to learn rather than trying to win. It was a slow and painful process that cost me friends and strained my relationship with my family, but it was worth it, because one by one nearly all of my core views crumbled. I suddenly could see the problems with the arguments that I had always used, and once I saw them, I couldn’t ignore them. As a result, I made a 180 degree turn on almost everything. My views on science, politics, ethics, religion, etc. all changed, and I emerged as a skeptic.
After that transformation, I continued to try to learn, both professionally and personally. Professionally, I went on to earn a Master’s degree in biology, and I am currently approaching the half way mark for my PhD. Personally, I continued to read and study as much as I could about skepticism, logic, and critical thinking. This ultimately lead me to join the skeptic movement and start the blog that you are currently reading. I often have people accuse me of being a paid shill (I make no money off of this, btw) or some other such nonsense, but hopefully you can now see that I am actually doing this because I care about this. I am deeply indebted to the philosophy professor who opened my eyes, as well as to the skeptic blogs, websites, books, etc. that helped me when I began wrestling with my views and beliefs, so the least that I can do to repay that debt is to join in the fight.
With that in mind, I want to do several things in the remainder of this post. First, I want to speak directly to the creationists, anti-vaccers, climate change deniers, naturopaths, etc. who read my blog. Second, I want to provide some advice for my fellow skeptics, and finally, I want to offer a brief word of encouragement to the other people who devote their time to defending science and teaching critical thinking.
To the creationists, climate change deniers, anti-vaccers, GMO-activists, homeopaths, naturopaths, conspiracy theorists, etc.,
I want to encourage you to embark on a journey of discovery like I did. I understand how you think and why you hold the views that you do, because I used to be one of you. I realize that you are not consciously dismissing facts and that you truly believe that the evidence supports your position, because that is exactly how I felt. I really thought that I was right, and it seemed totally reasonable to me that the entire scientific community was involved in some sort of massive cover-up to avoid admitting that they were wrong. It seemed totally rational to me that everyone who disagreed with me was ignorant, biased, or corrupt, and I never once thought that I was denying science. Rather, I thought that the facts were on my side and I was simply one of the few people who was enlightened enough to see the truth. Further, I thought that I truly was fact checking. I had convinced myself that I had actually looked at both sides and was rationally assessing the facts, and that deluded self-conviction led me to 100% surety that I was right, when in reality, I was totally wrong. All the belief in the world doesn’t make something true, and no amount of personal conviction can change facts. So I encourage you not to fall for the same cognitive biases and pitfalls that once ensnared me.
In hindsight, my errors are obvious. I was engaging in what is known as motivated reasoning. Creationism and many other views were core convictions that I held. They were fundamental parts of who I was. As a result, any time that I was faced with evidence against them, I would subconsciously issue a red-alert and raise my mental shields. I would find some way to convince myself that my opponent’s arguments were false. For example, when I encountered evidence for evolution, I would immediately go to sources like Answers in Genesis, find an article or argument that agreed with me, then cling to that as evidence, even if it was total nonsense. I was so biased and so committed to creationism that I could not see my errors, and totally nonsensical creationist claims seemed to make perfect sense to me. I can distinctly remember particular debates where I used one creationist trope after another, my opponent soundly defeated every last one of them, yet I walked away feeling victorious. That’s what motivated reasoning does, and it is extremely dangerous. It prevents you from ever realizing that you are wrong, no matter how clearly wrong you actually are.
My point is simply this: I understand you. I know that you aren’t stupid, crazy, uneducated, etc. I know that you really think that you are correct, but you aren’t, and you will never be able to see that until you are willing to be wrong. Now, you might respond to that by insisting that you have actually carefully considered both sides of the situation (I would have said exactly the same thing), but have you really? I hadn’t. Actually think about this for a minute. Have you actually tried as hard as you can to disprove your own views, or have you simply looked for evidence to support them? As useful exercise, I want you to consider what it would take to convince you that you were wrong. In other words, what piece of evidence would be sufficient to discredit your view? If you can’t think of any reasonable evidence that would make you change your mind, then you have a very serious problem, and you are almost certainly engaging in the same type of motivated reasoning that misguided me for years.
To my fellow skeptics,
First, I would like to offer some constructive criticism. It is very, very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that skeptics are somehow special. It is easy to write off everyone else as crazy idiots, but that type of thinking is both wrong and unhelpful. If you honestly think that you are somehow vastly superior to everyone else, then you need to get over yourself. We all have flaws and cognitive biases, and we can all be led astray by misinformation. For me personally, my past is a constant and painful reminder of just how susceptible I am to cognitive biases and motivated reasoning. I am admittedly speculating here, but I really don’t think that I am an exception, and I think that under the right set of circumstances, anyone could be duped by pseudoscience.
On that note, I want to state explicitly that skepticism vs denialism isn’t about being smart. My IQ did not magically increase when I rejected creationism, nor was my brain’s computing power boosted. I was the same flawed idiot that I was before. The only differences were that I was willing to be wrong and I had been taught the necessary logical tools to tell whether or not I actually was wrong. In other words, it is easy to think that the people who disagree with you are crazy or stupid, but most of them aren’t. Most of them are perfectly sane people who are capable of being very rational in most aspects of their life. So intelligence is not the problem. Rather, the problems are biases and an unwillingness to be wrong. Those are difficult things to correct, and denigrating the people that we would like to convert (so to speak) isn’t helpful. To be fair, I have been guilty of this myself on multiple occasions, because it is a very easy trap to fall into, but I think that it is important the we acknowledge the flaws in this approach and try to keep our arrogance in check.
Having said all of that, I want to conclude with a few brief words of thanks and encouragement. Being a public skeptic is time consuming, frequently unpleasant, and often seems pointless, but it really does make a difference (at least it did for me). I cannot begin to express my gratitude for the women and men who wrote the skeptic books, blogs, websites, etc. that helped me to shake off my biases. Similarly, I am indebted to the people in forums, chat rooms, comment threads, etc. who took the time to debate me and point out my errors. You all have made a tremendous difference in my life, and it is a debt that I can never repay. Also, here again, I don’t think that I am an exception. There certainly are some people who will never change their views, but there are also people who are willing to challenge their preconceptions and embrace new ideas, and public skeptics do an incredible public service by taking the time to reach and help those people. So thank you all, and keep up the good work. This is a battle that is worth fighting.