I think that I can pretty legitimately consider myself a skeptic now. I'm not really sure where or when it became a solid facet of who I am, but the other day in my Health and Wellness class I had a bit of an epiphany. I realized that where and when it happened are irrelevant - I really am a skeptic now. It happened like this...
I was sitting in class, taking my notes and generally doing what students are supposed to do, when I was stopped dead. My instructor for this class stated that nicotine - not smoking, not tobacco - nicotine will dramatically increase one's risk of heart disease. This wasn't stated with the caveat that scientists suspect this is the case, or that there is some evidence this may be the case. It was stated as an absolute and that absolute wasn't coming from my instructor, it came from the source material for the class. And the epiphany wasn't "now I can't simply trust that what I am being told in this class is the best understanding that we have, based on available evidence." It wasn't even "now I know that I can't trust that what I am being told in this class is the best understanding we have, based on available evidence, as apposed to assuming that what I am told in this class may be suspect." Because that was already how I have been approaching my education. Rather it was the realization that instead of my first thought being the former, it was the validation of my baseline skepticism and with that I realized that no matter how prone to credulity I am - to the point that I have often described myself as pathologically credulous, I am a skeptic now.
This is not to say that I am immune to the knee-jerk reaction that I have often had in the past, when I hear something that sounds good or comes from someone I trust and especially when it's something that I want to believe. I still have those momentary "this makes so much sense" kind of feelings pretty regularly. But instead of letting it go at that and getting on with my life, I don't just take it for gospel. If it is something that I care enough about to actually repeat, I do my best to make sure that it's accurate before I repeat it. At worse, I will repeat it with the caveat that I haven't verified this information yet - after all, I am not always able to verify something that may be relevant to people I care about. And of course it is always possible to verify something and still be wrong - I have done it and had the unpleasant task of then going back and admitting that I was wrong. I hate having to admit to mistakes, but instead of just pretending the mistake didn't happen, I just try very hard to make sure that I don't make mistakes. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean that I'm not still occasionally prone to being a raging asshole, but I sincerely doubt that my experience on the internets is going to cure that any time soon.
Here's how it's come together for me...
I've spent most of my life finding interesting and creative ways to deal with depression, bipolar and severe ADHD. Among them has been this tendency to construct fairly elaborate perceptions of reality, in my head. I haven't really gone into detail about this before and I think that now is probably a good time to really explain how this works - in part because I think that it is probably not all that uncommon in people who are prone to certain types of magical thinking. I know that it's not uncommon among people who are trying to manage affective mood disorders and/or severe ADHD without medication - hell, even with the meds it's hard to avoid.
When one's brain is constantly running at high speed - no stopping, no slowing - constant inundation of ideas, words, pictures and music, an unrelenting deluge - one starts to relish anything and everything that will slow it down. One of the best ways of doing this is to keep your mind distracted - make sure that it is so busy with something that it can't help but slow things down. One of the ways to keep the mind busy is reading - I read a lot as a child and I am a heavy reader as an adult. And when I read as a child - and even now on the rare moments I have to read fiction - I get completely immersed in what I'm reading. I can see the characters, hear them talking and just sort of float through the landscape that the story takes place in - a passive observer. Like watching tee vee would be if the action took place all around you in 3D...But that was not enough. I, like a lot of people like me, needed more. So I created my own perception of reality.
I was a Christian, when I was a child and my Faith became an integral part of my reality. I was quite able to make my reality quite pleasant. I made my god a god who loved and wanted to have everyone bask in his glory. There were rules and those rules meant that certain things needed to happen for people to be able to do that - so I became very adept at proselytizing. The consequences to the people around me were too grim if they didn't come to believe. I also was able to compartmentalize my perception of the people I interacted with as a separate entity from people I didn't. People I knew were People, while all those other folks were people, a group that included the sort of people who would unfortunately go to hell - people who committed crimes and did bad things - hypocritical things. Those folks only existed out there - none of the People in my life were like that. And within my reality, everything was either just, or when there were wrongs, those wrongs would be righted and justice would prevail. Justice had to prevail - every time, even if it might take awhile. And of course, I would be anything and everything I wanted to be someday. It didn't matter that I wanted to be many different people, where many different hats - I didn't just think - I knew that I would be all those things and more. This made things complicated, but complicated was good. My mind was plenty busy trying to sort out inherent and irreconcilable contradictions and things slowed down a bit - sometimes more than others. Inevitably, when things were moving too fast again, I would end up thinking about how a loving god could massacre so many people, or I would work on how I was going to be an artist, a bounty hunter, a pastor/theologian and work for the army - not to mention a dozen or so other things - all at once. Impossible my ass - I knew I would figure it all out with time. My god wouldn't make me this way, with these desires and abilities, if he didn't want me to use them - right?
After I was smacked in the face with massive hypocrisy and contradictions that I simply couldn't ignore and definitely couldn't process fast enough - that reality crumbled and I started forming a new reality. I became convinced that my god wanted me to have the sex - I wanted some and god provided a partner. I was also convinced that god wanted me to smoke cannabis - I want to get high? There's a friend with some weed. And I knew for sure that god wanted me to use hallucinogens - I mean he really, really wanted me to trip, trip balls and trip often. God totally made that clear the first time I took acid. Thus, with my gods blessing - his encouragement even, I embarked upon a remarkable journey of substance abuse, sex, music - anything and everything that would contribute to total sensory overload. Didn't matter that I was basically homeless, didn't eat everyday - I was alive and I was free to wander the world, playing music, getting fucked up and having copious amounts of the sex. Meanwhile, I needed to use even more of my brain to meet the challenge of a stream of brand new contradictions needing to be reconciled. And it worked. During most of my moments of sensory overload, I didn't even need to reconcile stuff and when I was pretty straight - there was plenty to keep my mind busy. Besides, if I wasn't engaged in sensory overload, I was usually seeking it, which also took a lot of brain power and energy.
And I got into woo. Way beyond the religious woo that I was inundated and really rather extraspecially nutty with. I became convinced that plants were probably a far superior form of the medications derived from them - it helped that that was pretty much the only medicine I had access to. Wildcrafting plants that can help with problems that I have was much easier than spending hours on end in the ER, which was the only other way I could get anything and even then, would be limited to the meds they could give me through the ER. I could have left it there, but didn't. Because the same folks who were so keen on telling me about various plants, were also keen on things like magical water with memory, energy healing, Ayurvedic medicines (my favorite containing a strip of silver foil I later learned was actually silver and lead), acupuncture, acupressure - pretty much if it was magical and mystical and wonderful - I was there baby! I wanted to believe the things that these folks had to say - especially when they could reasonably connect their woo to my cultural faith, Christianity. I can't begin to express how exciting it was when I discovered a group of hedonists like myself, who, like I did, believe that their god wants them to get high and screw. I wanted to believe, because it was just more cognitive dissonance with which to douse the flames of my brain.
Then something happened on the way to the lunatic fringe. I discovered these interesting websites called blogs. Instead of just reading things that validated the woo I was inundated with - leavened with the occasional article or book that contradicted it all, I was able to interact with people who had an interest in the things that I did - but who didn't buy into all the crap. And while I had some magnificently crazy ideas, I wasn't one of those folks who developed an inherent distrust of science based medicine or "big pharma." I have always had a fascination with science and also had a pretty fundamental understanding of what science is. I didn't buy into the woo assuming that scientists were totally mistaken - rather I just felt that they were probably a little too focused on the material world. I accepted most of what I knew science has to tell us about the material world. It's just that I was ignorant of what science really had to say about certain things and assumed that science was simply incapable of ascertaining what was happening in the immaterial world that I largely inhabited. But now I had the opportunity to engage with actual scientists, to learn what science has to say about many of the things that I believed. I was able to learn a great deal by simply asking the right questions and there were a lot of great people who were willing to answer my questions.
Now anyone who knows me will assure you that I am not the most humble of people. There are probably one or two people out there who would go as far as to say that I'm actually a little bit on the arrogant side. I would be lying if I said that I haven't been this way for a very long time. But I am one for mostly being careful about my arrogance. I am only arrogant about things that I am very certain of - like I said, I really hate apologizing or otherwise admitting I was wrong, so I try very hard to be right. When I first discovered the blogs, I was pretty damned arrogant about things like creating music, repairing houses and my understanding of the human mind. I also was pretty arrogant about my understanding of Faith and a few religions. This meant that I was very keen on mostly paying attention to what people who knew a lot more than I did, had to say about a lot of topics in which I was sorely misguided. And I read the things they suggested I read, because evidence is an important key to ensuring that what one is being told is true. Or as true as we can best ascertain it to be.
I am pretty damned arrogant about a lot more these days. I am arrogant about a lot more, because I am confident that when I make an assertion, it is based on the best evidence I have available to me. My level of confidence in any assertion I make, correlates directly with my confidence in the evidence that supports it. Whatever my initial reaction to things that others assert to me is irrelevant. It's what I do with that information after that's important and what I do with that information is why I am a skeptic now.
Given my penchant for psychology and my rather vast experience with a wide variety of magical thinking, I am going to write about magical thinking fairly regularly. I tend to think that there is some value in understanding why people engage in certain behaviors, especially when those behaviors often contribute to dangerous decision making. I can't say how regular it will be, but I am hoping to write substantively on this topic at least once a month.