Being Skeptical: Reserving Judgment and Benefitting from It

To be clear on the issue of SKEPTICISM

This is a repost from something I published back in December, 2009.  Though it has relevance for today the term “skeptic” has become too familiar with climate deniers.  Let me make it clear here that these are not the skeptics this posts focuses on.   In fact they are not real skeptics but are instead, as Naomi Oreskes calls them, Merchants of Doubt.  Skepticism is healthy when there is little evidence to make decisions on.  When 97% of climate scientists say that recent rapid rates of global warming is “very likely” the result of man’s activities, to be skeptical of this borders on the moronic.




An old Chinese adage states that “A skeptic is not necessarily wise but a wise man is skeptical”. Well actually it’s not an old Chinese saying; I just made it up. But the value of the comment is worth discussing.

I’m prone to being skeptical on most things.   I wasn’t always like this.  Time has developed this sense after being disappointed in outcomes over the years that just didn’t materialize as I was led to believe or hoped for.  But the wisdom of my choices, or lack thereof, had a lot to do with the outcome. Hasty decisions with pre-set expectations often fell short. Time has also shown me that there are few absolutes.  Being skeptical is a healthy response to most unfamiliar situations, especially on issues that can transform over time.  Marriage, buying a new home, relocating for a new job and choosing to have kids are likely examples of this.

A hasty choice based on gut level feelings or the mood of the moment may come back to haunt you in ways you could regret. Being skeptical encourages you to give pause before making final decisions. It demands that you weigh all of the factors that you can gather in a reasonable time-frame before acting on it or opening your mouth before saying something you cannot take back. This isn’t to say that skepticism is always inaction. It’s the precursor for informed action

When difficult or costly choices confront us, you want to avoid buyer’s remorse from any impulse buying. Similar responses can also be associated with our social and political decisions. A dose of skepticism will help us evaluate what has the best value for our hard-earned money or who best to align ourselves with on this or that socio-political issue. Beware though of those who make a living in “helping” us come to a decision and not necessarily one that serves our best interests.

Marketing and Human Choices   marketinginfluences

A whole new industry known as Marketing has arisen to battle and defeat our innate skepticism. Though it has existed in obvious commercial form for perhaps nearly two centuries, it has reached a level of sophistication that has a good understanding of what we do and don’t want. It also knows what can be enhanced to distract us from more practical considerations like price and usefulness or what serves our best interest in the long haul.

Skeptics are the bane of consumer capitalism. They not only make it difficult for salespeople to draw them in to their web but are capable of encouraging others to stay away from the dangerous precipice of needless purchases. Marketing is neo-corporatism’s response to consumer skepticism. It has become an art form for those who would diminish our income for basically useless items or convince us that our understanding of the facts are lacking. When all things are equal, more often than not, their loyalty is to the stock holder and their profit margins.

As a student of social behavior I’ve learned that there are essentially four human wants and desires that influence our behavior; all are directly related to our personal vanity.

• Increasing our wealth & power

• Enhancing our social standing

• Improving our personal appearance

• Attaining Sexual gratification

Altruism and abnegation, or self-sacrifice, are also characteristic of human behavior but they are clearly not wants or desires nor frequently engaged in compared to the others. They are intended to serve outside interest, unless however one is willing to stoop so low as to employ or feign either of these to gain one of the four vanities mentioned above.


It’s a Science  consumerexploitation

Marketing researchers have spent fortunes on research to develop sales techniques that will exploit our wants and desires in the hopes of making their product attractive enough to loosen our clutch on our earned income or persuade us to join the “right” side of some social or political battle. We all need certain goods and services to enjoy a reasonably happy and healthy life. But many products are manufactured solely for the purpose of expanding and maintaining a consumer oriented economy. Consumerism and saving  (i.e. putting our money away for long-term needs rather than frivolous spending) are diametrically opposed to each other.

Our high-tech industries have devised ways to track us as we shop to make purchases and have created devices to mark our path after we have made the purchase. If you are not familiar with this technology, type in “RFID tags” in any web search engine and read up on the latest capabilities to monitor your every consumer move. Though it has greater utility in other fields its potential for privacy invasion with regards to our shopping habits raises concerns about our privacy rights.

But I digress. The psychological manipulation that is hard-wired into advertisement these days is out to convince you that a certain brand will enrich your life in some form. The intent here is to tap into that subconscious level we all have that desires to be “enriched” and put us above the mundane.

It is probably safe to say that no advertisement media employs full-blown deceptions.  Company’s want to avoid any unethical charges that would diminish their products profitability. There is always an element of truth contained within the ads the public sees or reads about. But read the fine print disclaimers on TV ads (you’ll have to use the pause button if you own a DVR recorder) to capture the sense that all is not true with what you are being sold.

Shampoos are basically a solution to keep our hair clean but can some really make us that more attractive so our love life will improve dramatically? No doubt that “beautiful people” get the most attention in society but unless there is something of substance under that veneer, lasting relationships are not very likely.


Selling Our Public Servants  wealthyobligation

People are also marketed to make them appealing or likable to the public. Political strategists use clever tactics that serves the nascent arrival on the political scene in their hopes of ousting the incumbent. How much more appealing one is when presented as a “Washington outsider” or “someone who shares our values”? On the opposing side however the market strategy is to sell the incumbency using the “experience and consistency” imagery that many voters seek. We are easily convinced that he or she who brings home the bacon for their constituents has greater value. Unfortunately, many a bacon-provider has also accumulated a little pork for their own private storage from those neo-corporate sponsors who fund their campaigns.

It’s also popular and sometimes necessary to use the negative side of human wants and desires to promote a public servant. Where there is little substance to offer the electorate, a candidate can avoid scrutiny by portraying his or her opponent as “dishonest and unethical”. Raising one’s virtues while claiming your opponent lacks them is an effective marketing strategy when special interests are being personified by unqualified candidates. We’ve all seen the ads where newbies were portrayed as being ineffective to serve a district’s needs while old-timers are cast as representing special moneyed interests more than those who sent them there.


Being Skeptical Doesn’t Mean We Quit Learning.

So how do we make reasonably sound decisions? In his many travels Gautama Buddha passed through the village of Kesaputta, now referred to as Kesariya, a small city in Bihar, India. The people of Kesaputta, known as the Kalamas, welcomed the Buddha to their town and then sought his advice on how to deal with all the many wandering holy men and ascetics that passed through their village, giving their version on how life should be lived and being critical of others.     Here was the Buddha’s advice to them.

“It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.'”

Ultimately life teaches us how best to deal with a given situation. But most situations are not constant. We risk missing what life teaches us by accepting the so-called conventional wisdom of another time as permanent solutions. Being skeptical is a part of the process of learning. Our “monk” is the variety of resources available to us in our quest to learn, to understand. If you seek only one perception you miss the wisdom that exists in a dynamic, multi-faceted, multi-cultural world.

Beware though!  There is a downside though for being too skeptical. As commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George McClellan lost to Robert E. Lee in the spring of 1862 during the Seven Days’ battles, because “he was sluggish, hesitant, and timid.”  The consumer that holds out too long can miss a genuine and honest good deal and the citizen who never votes because “they’re all crooks” are typical of those over-dosing on skepticism.  Things are usually not what they appear to be at first glance but being too reluctant to come to a decision could result in losing out on a valuable sale or rejecting a worthy candidate that could do a better job serving your legitimate interests.

It may be a cliché for some but I still find utility in the statement that “If it appears to be too good to be true, it probably is”.  Always consider the source of information who is urging you to choose one thing or person over another. You know yourself better than anyone else. Most decisions done in haste because someone is prodding you along are usually regrettable when the facts reveal themselves later. Don’t always trust your first assessment but don’t hold onto the notion that the ultimate truth will always be revealed either. Be skeptical but listen to the monk.



“Any subject or mode of knowledge that does not serve the instrumental needs of capital is rendered disposable, suggesting that the only value of any worth is exchange value.”  – Henry A. Giroux

6 responses to “Being Skeptical: Reserving Judgment and Benefitting from It

  1. Somehow the words of “W” kept ringing in my ear as I read this: “go shopping!” Such wisdom in our time of crisis! 😮

  2. I liked that very much, no sceptism from me! The arguments on climate change are weird, though. There is no doubt that the climate is changing, even if we don’t agree about the cause, surely we should be doing what we can to alleviate people’s lives? Or do these ‘sceptical’ politicians just believe we shd sit about until the sky rains potatoes?

  3. the more I learn, the more I realize that humans are controlled by mental forces that we are mostly unaware of. It causes us to believe what we want rather than what the evidence shows. Skepticism is of course a good way to check oneself. It is all too easy to accept certain things and when that happens, it’s probably because we want to rather than that the evidence is so clear…Good post.

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