In 2014, I made a little project called The New Age Bullshit Generator. It resonated with a lot of people, including those that know how much they don’t know, and those that are proud of how much they do. The latter kind, surely more numerous, like to believe that they are critical thinkers: they’ve got an eye for bullshit that is just a little bit more trained than that of regular folk.
What they don’t know is that all of us have a little bullshit generator inside. Deep in the recesses of the mind, it works tirelessly, day and night. It runs not on electricity, but on the by-products of our evolutionary past: our cognitive biases and heuristics.
There are certain things we like: safety, certainty, consistency. We like things to be easy to understand. We like being proved right. We also like narratives, stories about the world that follow a predictable trajectory where right and wrong are clear-cut and we know exactly whose side to take. This way, our brains don’t have to put up with much resistance.
We want to be told that the brown-skinned janitor is a good, hard-working man who only wants the best for his wife and children, and that the wealthy white investor is an undeserving degenerate with skeletons in the closet. We want the underdog to either win or be utterly crushed, but anything in between leaves us cold. When it comes to opponents, we find it more satisfying to generalise than to consider that each individual is different. We prefer religion to be either a beacon of truth or an engine of hate, and its leaders either saints or sex pests. We want to live in a world that resembles Mount Olympus, where the gods are polarised caricatures: Gandhis and Hitlers, da Vincis and Kardashians.
We narrate ourselves into in-groups and out-groups: conservatives and liberals, multiculturalists and racists, New Agers and the closed-minded. Either you’re anti-Israel, or you’re anti-peace. Either you’re a victim of oppression, or you’re part of the problem. Either you’re an atheist, or you’re an idiot. “Either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists.”
Unfortunately, these stories that we tell ourselves have an irredeemable flaw: they are bullshit. But that doesn’t stop us. Once we’ve got our clutches on an idea that satisfies, our bullshit generators start humming and whirring away, producing the justifications we need to keep getting our fix. They keep us safe, certain and consistent.
Meanwhile, we reserve our skepticism for the other side. The generator can produce criticism like magic, in the most colourful and inventive ways. Righteous anger is not only gratifying; it can also act as a source of fuel, forming a bullshit feedback loop. On top of that, generators will feed off each other, supplementing their fuel supply with third-party bullshit. Hours of strenuous thinking are eliminated through simple copy-and-paste.
Such generated criticism feels like skepticism, but it is not. Real skepticism is not a set of beliefs, or a weapon to defend one’s own bullshit. It is a way of life, a lens through which to view the world. It takes priority over ideology. It requires us to actually say to ourselves, “On the other hand, I may be full of shit.” To a skeptic, no truer words could be spoken.
Realising this, you might be tempted to think that you’ve seen beyond the bullshit. Other people are stuck in their ideologies, but you, you’re on Team Skeptic; you’ve got things figured out. When you criticise other people and ideas, it’s simply an astute observation of the facts. On the other hand, you may be full of shit.
It’s like a Zen riddle. As soon as you think you’ve found the answer, you’re headed the wrong way.
Skepticism isn’t about arriving at a particular position. It’s a commitment to not being satisfied with poor evidence or reasoning, despite our natural inclinations. It’s an attempt to get closer to an unattainable ideal. Nobody can be skeptical one hundred percent of the time, but we can try to be.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying. Consider exercise, for example. Nobody spends every waking hour exercising, but every time we do it is a step toward fitness. People say, “I need to get fit,” but there is no end state of fitness you can reach that will release you from the need to keep putting on your running shoes. You just keep doing it, forever, because you commit to being healthy. It’s a lifestyle choice, not an achievement. And so it is with being skeptical.
The skeptical path is unforgiving. With everybody’s generators running, the bullshit never, ever stops. You can hide from it, but it will find a way in, and before you know it, your generator is rumbling back to life. Eternal vigilance is the price of staying unplugged.