Why Be Skeptical?

According to my old American Heritage Dictionary (2nd College edition, 1982), a “skeptic” is a person “who instinctively or habitually doubts, questions, or disagrees with assertions or generally accepted conclusions.”  This seems to come close to what I have in mind when I support the view that students should be taught to be skeptical as a part of teaching students to become critical thinkers.

However, this definition is a bit too weak.  Someone who only questioned “assertions” or “conclusions” would be a half-assed quasi-skeptic, at best.

A basic aspect of critical thinking is learning to analyze thinking into its components.  There are at least eight different components of thinking (See The Analysis & Assessment of Thinking http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/the-analysis-amp-assessment-of-thinking/497 ):

  1. Purpose of the thinking.
  2. Questions we are trying to answer
  3. Information we need to answer the question.
  4. Interpretation and Inference or conclusions we are coming to.
  5. Concepts or key ideas we are using in our thinking.
  6. Assumptions or ideas we are taking for granted.
  7. Implications and Consequences of our thinking.
  8. Point of View we need to consider.

A critical thinker not only habitually doubts and questions conclusions (element number 4 above) but also habitually doubts and questions the purpose behind a bit of thinking, the question(s) driving a bit of thinking, the information used in a bit of thinking, the concepts used in a bit of thinking, the assumptions in a bit of thinking, the implications of a bit of thinking, and the point of view taken in a bit of thinking.

 Why be skeptical?

Nobody should be skeptical just because they are told by me or by a teacher or by a parent that they should be skeptical.   I believe there are good reasons why people should be skeptical, especially if they are interested in knowing and believing what is true and what is reasonable to believe:

  1. People are often dishonest, deceptive, or have been deceived by others.
  2. People are often irrational or motivationally biased in their thinking (e.g. egocentrism, sociocentrism, wishful thinking, superstition, and sexism).
  3. People have natural tendencies to think illogically, even when they manage to avoid being irrational or motivationally biased in their thinking (e.g. hasty generalization, post hoc fallacy, confirmation bias, false dilemma, errors based on the ‘representativeness heuristic’, belief bias (“When one’s evaluation of the logical strength of an argument is biased by their belief in the truth or falsity of the conclusion.” See article on Cognitive Bias: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_bias )
  4. Most of what people believe, they “learned” from others (parents, teachers, pastors, friends, books, magazines, television, movies, newspapers, blogs) who are usually not experts in, and not well-informed about, the topics that they were talking about. Misinformation is a widespread cultural phenomenon.
  5. The truth or the best solution to a problem is often difficult to figure out, even when everyone involved is thinking logically, rationally, and being honest (which is almost never the case).
  6. Skepticism works, especially in relation to trying to understand nature and how natural processes work.  Science works by challenging claims, assumptions, and theories, and by demanding carefully gathered facts and data to support claims, assumptions, hypotheses and theories, and by subjecting scientific arguments, hypotheses, experiments, and theories to skeptical peer review.

Do you agree that these are good reasons to be skeptical?

Please feel free to suggest  some other good reasons to add to my list (or to challenge one or more of these reasons).


“It is now some years since I detected how many were the false beliefs that I had from my earliest youth admitted as true, and how doubtful was everything I had since constructed on this basis…” 

Rene Descartes,  Meditations on First Philosophy,  Meditation I.