Thursday, January 16, 2014
The Road To Skepticism
Like a lot of kids, I was pretty damn gullible. For longer than I care to admit, I believed in Santa Claus, Ghosts, Bigfoot, and a large, benevolent, central government.
It wasn't so bad when I was a preteen, as it really wasn't my business to make any major decisions about life, and I didn't have a lot of influence on anyone.
However, in my early teens I was introduced to some rather esoteric pseudoscientific ideas. Being a voracious reader at an early age and having teachers trying to be hip and cool (a direct result, no doubt, of them attending college during the later half of the turbulent sixties, but that's causality, and that's a discussion for another time), books were recommended to me that were a little off the beaten track for a 13-year old.
I absolutely fell in love with just about any alternative view of science and what we know about the universe that is imaginable - ESP, the Bermuda Triangle, telekinesis - it was all captivating to my very young, comic-book stimulated mind.
The Roots of Coincidence, a book written by Arthur Koestler in 1972, came my way via a seventh grade English teacher - well, sorta. Darkness at Noon was the book the seventh grade English teacher gave me to read, as I had already read The Gulag Archipelago and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (both, of course, by Solzhenitsyn), and as is usual for me to this day, when I read one good book by an author, I try to search out every book they wrote and read them too in the hopes the other books will be just as good.
And I loved Darkness at Noon, so of course I set out to read anything else Koestler had written, and that's how I found The Roots of Coincidence. That book intrigued me, fired up my imagination, and got me interested in the paranormal.
Since there is quite a bit about what I came to learn is referred to as Pseudoscience in The Roots Of Coincidence, you wouldn't be far off in assuming that I had become quite the New Ager by the time I was sixteen. Hell, I was reading the National Enquirer at the time as if it was gospel.*
I remained a devoted student of all things paranormal up until I chanced upon a copy of The Skeptical Inquirer in the base library during the first year of my enlistment in the USAF.
The Skeptical Inquirer was a game changer as far as how I approached...well, just about everything from then on out.
Now, I'm not going to claim that I was instantly savvy after reading that first issue - it took a few decades, actually, and is still somewhat of an ongoing process. But that first issue - that was Diogenes hitting me in the head with a freakin' huge lamp.
Time has taken from me what it was exactly I had read in the magazine - about all I can remember is that the magazine was digest size, and the cover was in black & white (this was when printing was fairly pricey for small organizations who did not have the benefit of large volume). I do remember reading a statement in the magazine - "An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof".
Up until reading those six words (Often attributed to Carl Sagan, actually stated by CSICOP co-founder Marcello Truzzi), just about anything that I came across that seemed even remotely possible or even slightly credible, I swallowed whole. Those six words turned on a light that, while still not as bright as it should be, beats the hell out of the darkness I'd been thinking in previously.
I'd finally grasped what my mom had been trying to tell me every time she said "Don't believe everything you read in the papers."
As I stated previously, it has taken me a few decades to become reasonably skeptical on a regular basis. The advent of the Internet has made it easier than ever to research dubious claims, but for reasons far beyond the keen of my intellect, I still find myself being taken in by an occasional claim of extrasensory or psychic ability.
Fortunately, it's still not my business to make any major decisions about life and I still don't have a lot of influence on anyone, so the world is relatively safe from my foolishness.
*That's a little joke, BTW.