I consider myself a skeptic. I generally take very little at face value and I research any project I work on or item I purchase. Let me tell you a story of what happened when I decided not to be skeptical.
Many moons ago, I had a freshwater aquarium. It was a nice 55 gallon aquarium and I (stupidly in hindsight) sold it when I moved. Anyway, I was visiting the LFS (local fish store) and a H. plecotomus catfish caught my eye. Now, in reality the plecos are just one species out of the hundreds of the family Loricariidae. These are the famous ‘sucker-mouth’ catfish of aquariums world-wide.
Normally I don’t like plecos, but this one was special. I’d never seen anything like it. It was almost solid black. Not dark grey, not charcoal, but black. It was covered in tiny gold (not white, not yellow) spots. It had a lyre tail, which means that the upper and lower tip of its tail fin extended well past the end of the fin. It was $9 and only about two inches long.
So I ask the sales guy, whom I respected up until then, about it. “It’s one of the small ones,” he said. He called it a ‘gold spot pleco’. It was the only one and I was quite infatuated with the thing, so I bought it. I brought it home, got it established in my tank and started to investigate it.
First I found that there were dozens of Loricariidae called ‘gold spot’. But none looked like mine, except for being sucker-mouth catfish. So I got my camera and snapped a few close-ups and put them on some forums to see what some Loricariidae experts could tell me.
Turns out I had (and several people on multiple websites agreed) an Acanthicus adonis. My favorite quote of the article I linked to is “A single adult male can easily be the most dominant fish in a 1000 gallon aquarium” and the adult size of “39.4 inches” was quite troubling as my entire fish tank was only 36” long.
Oh crap! See what happens when you aren’t skeptical?
To me, skepticism means to question everything. If you watch a commercial, question the claims. If you listen to a speech, question the claims. If you read an article, question the claims.
We have an amazing tool in the internet. We, as individuals, can do a stunning amount of research on virtually any-topic, in no time. I can frequently debunk the claims in the chain e-mails my dad sends with less than 5 minutes effort on the internet. I don’t just want tires for my car, I want the best possible tires for my car, so I research them. I don’t want a hotel for my vacation, I want the best possible hotel for my vacation.
Do you think of these things when you hear skepticism? If not, why not? Yes, there’s philosophical skepticism and scientific skepticism and religious skepticism, but it’s all the same thing. If you question whether god is real, why don’t you question if your printer is the best one for you? And you get to define ‘best’.
The other part of skepticism though is finding experts you can trust. We can’t know everything about everything. But I have a list of people whose thoughts I trust and whose claims I have verified. When they speak, I listen. I may remain skeptical of their claims, but I know that they are more likely than most to be correct.
The other side of the coin is I also have a list of people who, if they claimed the sky was blue, I would double check them. It’s a shame that it must be so, but it is. People lie… or are stupid, which in terms of their claims mean the same thing. When they speak, they are more likely to be wrong.
To me skepticism isn’t a philosophy or a world-view, it’s a lifestyle. One that I’ve come to after a long time. I find it to be very useful in my life. Everything from making a purchase to deciding who to vote for can be improved with a little skepticism.
Let me give you another example of how just a little skepticism can change you. It starts small, one question and you suddenly see the massive benefits. Now you think you can do anything.
I grew up in Southeast Texas, oil country. My father worked in a refinery and my grandfather worked in a refinery. If you know anything about the South, you know that there are three kinds of people. There are Ford people, Chevy people, and Mopar people. That’s changed a lot recently with ‘world cars’ and Ford factories in Mexico and Toyota factories in San Antonio.
Anyway, when it came time for my wife to get a new vehicle, we went to the Ford dealership. We were both raised as Ford people. The fact that she was raised Catholic and I was raised Southern Baptist wasn’t as big a deal as that our parents both drove Mustangs.
We drove an Escape. It was a nice vehicle. Then we went down the block (right past the Chevy place because all Chevys are crap, everyone knows that) and saw that the Hyundai place had a small SUV and was having a big sale. Back then, money was tight and a sale was a sale. We drove it. Just a 5 minute drive and there was no comparison, the Santa Fe drove better, rode better, was larger, faster, more comfortable, quieter, everything about it was better.
That wasn’t the first time I really questioned things, but it was the first time I questioned my upbringing. Since then I’ve discovered that I prefer Pepsi to Coke (and my grandfather just rolled in his grave), I prefer Ben and Jerry’s to Blue Bell (rolling faster) and I prefer Japanese food to Mexican food (full blown tornado now).
It’s truly amazing the things we DON’T question in our lives. I talk about products because it’s easy to see the benefits. Instead of being loyal to a company (or a philosophy or a belief structure or even a food) be loyal to yourself. Maybe there are better products, thoughts, and thinking styles out there. It’s up to you to be skeptical about everything. Who knows what you’ll find?