Saturday, December 1, 2007

Dyspeptic's guide to disgruntlement

Have you ever heard something silly and thought, "Man, I dunno, that sounds kind of silly"? Well, then you need to get on board with the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe!*

Okay, I know that the name sounds a little pretentious, and, more importantly, I know you're thinking, "Skeptics? Well, shit, I know what to expect from them. Bunch of stuffy know-it-alls sitting around choking up the room with smugness and intellectual pretense." And I know that right now you're expecting me to make some sort of 'funny' comment like "And you'd be right!" or "Maybe that's true of me, but not everyone!" but I'm going to have to disappoint you. The SGU is really the kind of thing that podcasting - a technology I've been regrettably slow to adopt - was invented for.

Sure, they're a little heavy on repetition of the word "skeptical," but balanced against a weekly show that's charming, intelligent, thought-provoking, and entertaining, that's hardly a critical flaw. And you know what? I like "skeptical" (or "sceptical," if you prefer, you Anglophones). It's hard to talk about things like skepticism, empiricism, or, heaven forfend, materialism or atheism in American culture. To one degree or another, all of those words have been demonized, sometimes literally, to the point where you're as like as not to be viewed as a dangerous lunatic upon identifying yourself as any of them (outside of academia). Indeed, there are few accusations more poisonous to a public figure in American political rhetoric than "atheist," free religion guaranteed in our Constitution notwithstanding.

Try to set that aside, though. Recognize the visceral reaction you may have to these terms, examine it, and set it aside. Consider the word "skeptical" on its own merits, and not on whatever impression you may have of it from pervasive cultural media.

What's so bad about asking why?

Give it a try.

Those of you who know me (and I have a hard time imagining that any of you reading this don't) surely know by now that I've been skeptical of a lot of things for a long, long time. I won't claim that I've been an atheist skeptic since birth, because, well, I frankly didn't even think about that kind of thing until I was at least 8 or 9, apart from knowing, in a part of my mind, that Santa Claus was some kind of consensus joke that everyone surely knew wasn't real, but no one ever openly denied. I will say that as soon as relevant issues began coming to my nascent attention, I started questioning them, in a sort of childish, undeveloped way, and I never really stopped. Is it an intrinsic personality trait, then? Or did I just learn it early? I don't know. I do believe, now, that children can be taught critical thinking almost as soon as they can be taught language, and I think that I got a lot of that from my father. On some level, I think that gratitude for teaching me how to question things and how to start thinking is one major reason I always looked up to him despite rarely seeing him and despite all the many issues he's had in his own life.

There's a lesson there, I'm sure, about how children really do want to learn to be nerds if only you catch them early, but I'll save elaborating on it for another day.

* - for the less internet-comfortable (anyone who doesn't know what RSS is, this means you), you can also find and instantly subscribe to or download the podcast via iTunes with no more than a click or two

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