Saturday, December 10, 2005

A little healthy scepticism

In some circles being described as a sceptic is an insult but I’m proud to be one. I’m proud to be seen as someone who questions what I’m told and who doesn’t just believe what is said by someone who claims to be in authority. I know that this means I sometimes come across as awkward and difficult to persuade but I defend my approach passionately. I really believe that scepticism is healthy, useful and powerful starting point.

So what use is being sceptical? Why should we bother?

Firstly, what is a sceptic? The Oxford English Dictionary describes a sceptic as a “person inclined to doubt accepted opinions”. My view is that we should continually doubt what is accepted. If in the past nobody had been brave enough to question the beliefs that the world was flat, that the Earth circled the Sun and that powered flight was impossible where would we be now?

However I don’t think that these are issues of the past and reserved for the great philosophers and scientists. I think every one of us today needs to be sceptical about so many things. There are so many issues we face, so many new threats that deserve critical thought and so many liars, cheats and fraudsters that want our attention, our faith and our money. The best protection we have against all of these is not the government, not new laws and not just hoping they’ll go away. Our best defence is our ability to make rational decisions based on critical thought.

Some examples? In the last few years we’ve seen a huge rise in the number of churches registered here in Botswana. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, some of them are doing good work to help people sort out their lives, giving them a moral code and acting charitably. The danger is those that are not quite what they seem and who’s pronouncements don’t stand up to rational examination. Take the so-called Church of Scientology. This is a group that refuses to state their real beliefs, claiming that they are secret and that threatens to sue for breach of copyright anyone who publishes their beliefs. It’s a group that claims to have solutions to all of life’s problems, including mental illness, warfare and hunger and that claims to be able to cure people of drug addiction with record-breaking success rates. It all sounds good but unfortunately none of this stands up to even a simple examination. Their solutions are nonsensical, the science they claim proves their claims is completely unfounded and their success rates have only ever been disproved. Every one of their claims can be shown to be false with a little rational thought. A few moments of scepticism shows them for what they are.

Then there’s The Family, a fringe so-called Christian group that advertise in the press and have a habit of giving out balloon animals in shopping centres. Just another well-meaning, if eccentric group? Well, aren’t they the group founded by David Berg who actively encouraged sex with children? This is the man who boasted of having sex with his granddaughter and suggested that laws against defilement were a “tool of the devil”. Before signing up for their particular brand of belief shouldn’t any sensible recruit would do some research, ask around, search the web or visit a library? Regardless of their charitable work would any right-minded Christian want to be associated with them?

At a far more benign level I do feel obliged to ask why it is that we believe that a visitor to our country managed to conjure up rain on demand when we all knew that rain was coming anyway. Why did he leave it until he must have known rain was coming? Why didn’t he come in the dry season and command the heavens to open? THAT would have been impressive. That might actually have challenged my scepticism.

It’s not just so called religions that should be considered carefully. Look at companies like Amways who operate what they politely call Multi Level Marketing schemes. The promises made are seductive but as soon as you apply a little thought to the way they operate you realise that the vast majority of people who sign up will lose money. Yes, the agents may generate some income but the average figures from the USA show that although the average Amways agent earns $700 each year from the scheme they have to spend $1,000 to achieve this. So it costs them $300 but they end up with a bathroom full of soap so I suppose they do OK. However surely if people gave it some serious thought before signing up they’d realise it simply isn’t going to work?

The bad news is that the list seems to be endless. There’s no end to the list of people and organisations that prey on gullibility. How often do we read about con artists who make money by selling property or cars that they either don’t own or simply don’t exist? Who in their right mind would part with cash having never actually seen the car or it’s blue book or having never seen the property or it’s documents? However it seems to happen again and again.

My point is that we are faced with challenges and threats that may seriously damage our finances, our mental health and our family relationships. Surely these decisions require us to exercise some critical thought? Some serious, critical thought?

So what exactly am I suggesting people do?

Well, all it takes before falling for a scam, a con-artist or a cult group is to engage our brains. Think carefully about what you are being told or sold and ask just how reasonable it is. Remember that there is always a rational explanation for events, even if we don’t yet know what it is. As they say, there really is no such thing as a free lunch. The guy selling you a solution to all your problems, a miracle cure or a business opportunity you can’t afford to lose is almost certainly a fraud.