When I was a kid I believed in UFOs. Well, technically I still believe in them and so does everyone else. A UFO just means an Unidentified Flying Object, and everyone at some point has seen something in the sky and wondered what it is. What I really mean is, when I was a kid I thought Earth was being visited by alien spacecraft.
One thing which, to me, indicates intellectual maturity is being able to justify your beliefs. When I was four if you asked me why I believed in aliens I couldn’t have answered, probably wouldn’t have understood the question. By the time I was seven I might have given a more sophisticated answer, probably citing stories I’d heard, documentaries I’d seen and weird stuff I’d seen in the sky. In other words, I would have given evidence (albeit poor). Even though, honestly, the main reason I believed in aliens was because I wanted to. I still do. The discovery of any alien life would excite me.
Eventually, once I began investigating the evidence properly, I came to the conclusion that UFOs are highly unlikely to be alien spacecraft and that the accounts can be explained in other ways. But here’s the thing: given the choice, I’d rather believe that UFOs are aliens.
The thought of aliens is so unbelievably cool and profound I can’t responsibly sum it up. If I was allowed to choose what I believed, I would believe in alien visitors without a scrap of hesitation. But the really annoying thing is you can’t choose what you believe. I’ll say it again, in bold and centred for the people who only skim-read:
Belief is not a choice. Ever.
That’s not how belief works. As I’ve said in a previous post, belief is a coercive thing. You let the facts force your brain to a conclusion and sometimes that conclusion isn’t a nice one.
I would love to believe aliens visit the Earth, that global warming is a myth and that we can communicate with the dead via mediumship. All of those things would be wonderful and great and amazing and I want, so badly, to believe in them.
But I can’t because I’m a skeptic. I'm not allowed to believe in stuff I want. And it sucks.
Skeptics are people who check and make sure before they believe something. They’re the people who want evidence.
Oh, and a skeptic isn’t the same as a cynic by the way. Cynics are the people who assume (from the start) that the claim is wrong. Cynics don’t make very good scientists because they assume the outcome before the investigation.
Skeptics often get confused with cynics and that’s unavoidable. We both do the same things: question people and refuse to believe things they tell us. The difference is that a skeptic wants it to be true. Skeptics trust, cynics mistrust. I’m now going to put a sentence in bold just to confuse the skim-readers who will wonder what the main text could possibly say to justify it:
Bananas are more important than wolf-people
The biggest misconception about skeptics is that we enjoy being skeptical. And I know why. Skeptics come across as people who are trying to be impressive, ruin the party and look like the cleverest person in the room. This is another reason it sucks to be a skeptic: people think you’re trying to show-off.
Oh, and skeptics aren’t just people who refuse to believe anything unusual. Skeptics can believe in life after death, gods, monsters, magic and anything else you care to mention…if there’s evidence for them.
If you’ve ever seen those X-Files T-shirts with “I want to believe” on them, you know what skepticism is. The T-shirts don’t say “I believe”. And that’s the difference. Wanting to believe is different from believing.
So if we’d rather believe in the fun stuff, why do we question everything? Why not just give skepticism a rest and enjoy the stories? Wouldn’t that make us happier?
Well, yes it would. But there’s something even more important to someone who chooses skepticism:
It’s better to believe an uncomfortable truth than a comforting lie.
If you agree with the above statement, skepticism is definitely for you. But it isn’t a fun path to take. It doesn’t help you win more arguments, doesn’t make you popular and certainly doesn’t make you feel special or clever.
If, on the other hand, you don’t agree with the above statement then you can believe whatever you like! You can pick and choose the reality which makes you feel good. You can live in a world where wizards are real, supermarkets sell unicorn meat and leprechauns faked the moon landing. But please remember: skeptics aren’t disagreeing with you because they aren’t willing to believe. We are willing to believe, we just can’t live with ourselves if we do it in the absence of good evidence.
A short anecdote to finish. A while ago I was stopped by someone in my town centre who wanted to tell me about their religion. It happened to be a religion I am not a member of. This shouldn’t shock or offend you by the way; with over 4,000 religions in the world, you probably don’t believe in at least 3,999 of them.
The man in the street talked to me about his beliefs and I asked a few questions like “what made you believe?” and “what can you give me that will convince me?” The conversation went on for a long time and became circular.
I realised, long afterward, why he failed to convert me: he was trying to tell me about all the wonderful things his religion offered. How much peace it brought him, how happy it made him and how much order it had brought to his life. Good for you, I thought, but that doesn’t sway me away from my own religious perspective.
He made the assumption that I didn’t want to believe his religion because I was happier with different religious beliefs, that I wasn’t prepared or willing to accept his ideas. He thought he had to “help” me believe…actually what he needed to do was “make” me believe.
It occurred to me that many people who try and convince me of something fail because they take the wrong tactic: they try and tell me how awesome the belief is. Let me save you the trouble, I’m not interested in whether a fact makes me feel good or clever.
If you’re talking to a skeptic and trying to convince them of something there is only one approach you ought to take. Forget convincing us we’re damned if we don’t believe and forget convincing us we’re saved if we do. Forget convincing us your belief will make us happier or more fulfilled. Convince us of one thing and one thing only. Convince us your belief is true.
Jar Jar: Independent
X-files shirt: hottopic
Tom Cruise: Smashinglists
I love science, let me tell you why.