Faith is killing us. I don’t mean faith in God. I mean faith in demigods.
For the purposes of this article, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in God or not. If you are a person of faith, then it’s sinful to worship false gods. If you’re an atheist, it’s unreasonable. Both viewpoints work.
Merriam-Webster defines faith as a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” My preferred definition comes from American philosophy professor Dr. Peter Boghossian: “Faith is pretending to know things you don’t know. ” The vast majority of our discourse in 2020 is on autopilot. We’ve outsourced our reasoning to politicians, talking heads, political parties, and ideologies. What does Bill Maher or Rush Limbaugh have to say on this? If Rachel Maddow is for it, I’m against it. Orange Man Bad. Etc.
Are You a God?
I think we are entering a dangerous phase. We are creating demigods out of scientists. We are pretending to know things we don’t know because we’re uncritically accepting conclusions they draw or models they create. If we’ve learned anything from COVID-19, it’s that scientists can be wrong. They’re not gods and they’re not even demigods. They’re not infallible and they’re not incorruptible.
Let me be clear. Just because scientists can be wrong doesn’t mean they are wrong. And even if they are wrong, it doesn’t prove that you are right. Valuing science is a good thing. Promoting it to demigod status and accepting a human’s conclusions without skepticism is reckless.
But none of that is particularly interesting, provocative, or insightful. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of that. It’s the well-worn path on the carpet leading into your bedroom. You don’t even see it anymore. I’ll complete the cliche by including a 32-year-old music video.
Here’s the Interesting Part
At least it’s interesting to me. I’d like to know if it interests you:
How do we get out of this?
The answer has two components; the solution and the sale. First and foremost, you need something that will fix the problem. Second, you need to sell that solution to people.
I submit that the solution is skepticism. Again, nothing earth-shattering here. Healthy skepticism is essential to any search for the truth. The scientific method is rooted in testing the null hypothesis (or at least it used to be). It’s much easier to disprove a hypothesis than it is to prove one. That’s why null hypotheses are so valuable and useful. Sadly, their use is in rapid decline.
Once more, I find Boghossian’s methodology useful. He offers a simple tool for testing faith and employing skepticism by asking the question, “What evidence would it take me to not believe something?” For bonus points, then see if you can find that evidence. I’ll warn you, it’s not a pleasant process. Cognitive dissonance is discomforting and confirmation bias is very soothing.
So how do we sell this unpleasant solution?
Andrew Breitbart famously said, “Politics is downstream of culture.” It was a brilliant observation but not broad enough. I would argue everything is downstream of culture. If you want to change the world, change the culture.
How do you do that?
You make something “cool.”
Dean Kamen’s FIRST competition is the poster child for accomplishing this. His model for this was sports. He reasoned that world-class scientists and engineers should be as famous as world-class athletes. And so he endeavored to turn engineering into a sport. In 2019, FIRST programs reached 575,000 students and recruited 300,000 mentors, judges, and volunteers who invested over 20 million hours. Students created 51,000 robots and received over $80 million in scholarships. FIRST participants are 51% more likely to declare a STEM major. That’s the power of “cool.”
MAKE SKEPTICISM GREAT AGAIN™
Supposedly, the 60’s counter-culture revolution was all about skepticism, especially when it came to government and institutions. Today, those same people seem to worship government and institutions with a fervor and devotion that would make Richard Nixon blush.
Nobody is immune from this in any political party or ideology. Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, progressives, libertarians, anarcho-capitalists. We’re all prone to falling into a cultish devotion to leaders, groups, and ideologies. Skepticism starts at home. Use skepticism and null hypotheses to challenge your own beliefs first.
Be skeptical of your leaders. Be skeptical of scientists. Be skeptical of reporters. Be skeptical of talk show hosts. Be skeptical of YouTube celebrities. Be skeptical of that study that confirms your bias. Be skeptical of your friendly neighborhood blogger.
Social pressure is still one of the most potent behavior motivators we have. Let’s make it uncool to pretend to believe things you don’t know. Let’s MAKE SKEPTICISM GREAT AGAIN™.