My first lesson in skepticism.
One day when I came home from high school my parents sat all of us down to tell us some exciting news about a new business venture they were getting into. A friend of theirs introduced them to it and was coming down to give them a presentation. You may already know where I'm headed with this. They did come visit and they did give us a presentation. At this point in my life I was starting to think about what I wanted to do for my career. Up until then it was pretty clear that I wanted to be a software developer, but now I was intrigued by the prospect of quick success (a.k.a. get rich quick). You probably already guessed that it was a Multi-level Marketing scheme. It was a company called Quixtar. I remember during the presentation in our living room, being fascinated by how this pyramid business structure worked. I never thought for a second it could be a scam as I'd never heard of an MLM before.
My dad allowed me to come along to some of their big seminars being held in Salt Lake City. I don't know how alarm bells didn't go off in my head when I went to these seminars. I suppose my mind was so filled with visions of dollar signs that I suspended my skepticism. After all, I still wasn't at all versed in formal logic and had no mental tools or prior experience to fall back on that would have told me to do more research. At least I can say I wasn't the only one fooled; I've always admired my dad for his rational disposition, yet even he was seeing visions of dollar signs dancing in his head. There was a point in time when we would get excited just listening to the promo clip on the Quixtar promotional CD they gave us. We listened to it at least a dozen times. It makes me wince to think about how strong the trance we were in was.
As we continued to go to seminars and consume motivational material, I continued to eat up every word. I was already making my post high school plans to become an "entrepreneur" as a Quixtar rep. My dad was a different story though. The more we went to those seminars the less interested he seemed to become. He was starting to see through the veil of bullshit that they were dangling in front of him. He no longer looked at the suits on stage with awe. He knew I was still excited and hesitated to share his skepticism, but I knew my dad well and I knew he wasn't as excited as he once was; I just didn't understand why. Looking back now it's extremely easy to see the parallels that organization had with organized religion. Those seminars, the motivational books and audio tapes, all of it was a giant distraction keeping you from asking the critical question: WHERE WAS ALL THE MONEY SUPPOSED TO COME FROM? It was very normal for people to get up on stage and shed tears of happiness for how much Quixtar was changing their lives. No joke, they would get up there and bear their Quixtar testimony!
My dad started to realize something. It was only a very specific subset of people at the very top of the Quixtar food chain that were making life-changing sums of money. After a while he realized how much money he was spending on their motivational materials, which they published constantly in great abundance. Those books and tapes were the Quixtar version of a bible. Every time you would start to question why you weren't making the kind of money they said you would, you would be directed to the table in the back of the conference hall that was filled with the materials you surely needed to freshen up on. It was a classic case of organized victim blaming designed to keep you, again, from asking the critical questions. My dad was beginning to see what was going on. Those people on stage weren't making money from enlisting sellers underneath them or selling Quixtar products. They were making money off that table of ridiculously overpriced motivational materials that thousands of people were buying up like hotcakes. Thousands of people duped into drinking the very expensive koolaid in the hopes that it will transform their financial lives forever.
Unfortunately, I wasn't as bright quite yet. I don't know if my dad was just embarrassed for having lapped up the professional bullshit for as long as he did, or if he didn't want to let me down so suddenly, but either way I went on believing he just didn't have what it took to make it in Quixtar. I justified my continued belief in the system all sorts of different ways. I told myself that my dad couldn't make it because he just didn't have time; he ran a business of his own and he just couldn't see the value in leaving that all behind to sell Quixtar trash. I had found my religion, I just didn't know it. It had a lot to do with my view of the business world at the time. I was in high school, but I was still a kid who lived at home. I had no idea what the real business world was like. I was excited to be part of something professional and lucrative. I spent the rest of high school convinced that I was going to dive hardcore into Quixtar as soon as I turned 18.
During this time a lot of skeletons were starting fall out of Quixtar/Amway's closet, yet I somehow managed to tuck my belief in the system behind a veil of ignorance that prevented me from acknowledging I had been tricked in a big way. It wasn't until my grandfather had heard enough about my ignorant rantings and wrote a letter pleading with me to re-evaluate my priorities and recognize the cold hard facts in front of me, that I begrudgingly began to open my eyes. I wasn't happy about it and I even resented my grandpa a tiny bit for crushing my Quixtar dream. I later told him that I was grateful that he gave me a proverbial slap in the face. He helped save me from throwing away time and money chasing an unrealistic dream.
It was a crushing blow when I finally had to force myself to let go of my Quixtar dream, but what I didn't know at the time was that it was my first really strong lesson in skepticism. People often associate the word "skeptic" with "cynic", but they couldn't be more wrong. Skepticism gets a bad name because it often results in "debunking" someone else's golden cow. More than once have I gotten into hot water because I expressed skepticism about something and offended someone. I constantly have to remind people that just because I don't believe their particular brand of BS, doesn't mean I have to think less of them as a person. But people get so caught up in what they believe that they forget that others don't have to believe or even respect it. My in-laws are a great example. My wife and I have lived with them for almost two years while saving up for a downpayment on a house. I disagree wholeheartedly with nearly everything they believe about god, religion, what happens after we die, etc. but I feel like we've gotten along with each other quite well and even have a healthy respect for oneanother. We've had our battles for sure, but it's never been about anything more than the typical growing pains of living together in the same house.
I didn't really know it yet after Quixtar was out of my mind, but the seeds of skepticism had been planted. My year in college was filled with alcohol, video games, and code so I'm going to skip over that portion of my life and fast-foward a bit. I left college to start my own web development business and I went to work for my dad's cleaning company full time. While cleaning new construction homes wasn't my favorite pastime, it meant that I got to spend a lot of time with my dad. We did a lot of things together during this time period. One of the things we did was try to start our own business called ReferralNetworX (RNX). It was a website where users could sign up for a monthly fee and start making new business contacts. It was my first big web development project and it was somewhat successful at first. The website never made any real money but what RNX did do was allow us to meet A TON of people in our local community.
My dad and I started going to all sorts of business meetups and chamber of commerce meetings. We got to know a lot of people and would hold RNX meetings to discuss business tips with like-minded people. It had its ups and downs and there are definitely some things I would do differently if we did it all over again, but it was a lot of fun nevertheless. One side-effect of this venture was that I became aware of a lot of the "woo" in the business world. Thanks to my Quixtar obsession I was well-protected against getting sucked into anymore pyramid schemes. This time I was able to observe them, ask questions, and learn more about how they worked without prancing around preaching about them to everyone I knew. I got to see it all. From MLM marketed "super juice" that worked because "quantum physics" to homeopathic cancer cures that "cure the problem at the source, unlike those allopathic remedies.", whatever that means.
The craziest part about nearly every single one of these pseudo-scientific products was just how passionate people we knew and respected would be about them. The first time I'd ever heard the word "homeopathy" was at an event called the Pleasant Grove Promenade which was kind of like a farmer's market in the park but for more than just food. We got to hang out with a couple of guys who ran a construction business and had a booth there. We'd known them for quite a while via RNX and they were really nice genuine guys just trying to make a living. This was also the same place that I got to have my first laugh out loud moment with pseudoscience, though I bit my tongue (literally) so as not to actually laugh out loud. One of our friends was telling me about some acai berry juice or whatever that he was getting into selling. Someone else had some at one of the booths there and I got to try it; it amazes me how well they can make a nasty tasting drink sell by dressing it up with bullshit, but I digress. I started asking one of the guys we knew how it worked.
I phrased my question pretty specifically on purpose so that the only answer he could give was an actual explanation of how the juice literally worked and what it did for your body. The only thing out of his mouth was "quantum physics." These were nice guys so I literally made my tongue bleed trying not to laugh. I had no desire to burst his bubble right then and there by being condesceding so I kept my mouth shut and changed the subject. I had nothing intelligent to say anyway, other than I thought his explanation sounded ridiculous and ignorant. It was shortly after that experience that his business partner dropped the next bomb on me by telling me he had the cure for cancer in his office. He began to explain to me that it was homeopathic, which according to him meant that it "treated the source of the problem" and that "allopathic medicine just treated the symptoms". This was the moment that led me to actually labeling myself a skeptic. I didn't know anything about what he was saying, but it just felt dubious. So what did I do? I looked it up.
I spent two whole evenings learning about alternative medicine from Google. I was fascinated by the amount of pseudoscience out there. I wasn't super scientifically literate but I knew enough about science to at least respect the methodology. I hadn't yet formed opinions about things like climate change or GMOs simply because I never took the time to learn. I'm at least proud to say that I never took a hard stance on things I didn't know much about. I quickly learned that homeopathy was just a fancy term for "non-scientific magical bullshit" and it intrigued me to no end that this stuff was so far-reaching. This was about the time I was starting to get into podcasts pretty heavily. I got obsessed with a show called Business Success Tips which was really starting to put business into a better perspective for me. I liked science but I didn't really know a ton of science myself. I decided that if I liked business podcasts so much that maybe there would be some good science podcasts.
Browsing the science category on iTunes was the beginning of a life-changing event for me. I know that sounds really stupid, but it's the truth. I found all sorts of awesome podcasts about tons of cool topics. The one thing I really admired about science-based podcasts was that most of them cited their sources in the show notes. I got really good at tracing the sources back to their roots, usually to the actual scientific paper published in a professional peer-reviewed scientific journal. I started to get an idea of how to weed out real science from bad and bogus science. It was a similar feeling to when I first discovered computers. One of the best podcasts I discovered (and still consider to be my absolute favorite podcast) is The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. The host is an extremely well-spoken neuroscientist who's understanding of science is incredible. The entire cast is very humble and when they explained things about the world, I understood them! I started realizing the power of science because of podcasts like that one.
They never once tell the listener to just trust them on something and they always cite their sources for any topic they discuss. Steve Novella pours his heart and soul into that podcast and I couldn't be more grateful to him. I had finally found the foundation from which I could build an understanding of the world I was born into. Listeners were encouraged to email the show with corrections and the hosts would happily and unabashedly acknowledge when they got something wrong. That. Blew. My. Mind. I had never experienced such genuine honesty from anyone before. They called themselves skeptics and they applied that skepticism to literally anything and everything. It wasn't the same as cynicism; they weren't just finding fault with everything they could. Every show was filled with awesome science news, and then because Dr. Novella was so well-versed in scientific scrutiny, he would examine the research in great detail and express his opinions about whether or not he thought the media got the story right.
Up until I discovered this side of myself, I always felt a little lost and indeed cynical. I encountered a lot of things that felt like BS to me but I never had the tools necessary to determine if they were. Even Google doesn't totally help demystify certain things if you don't have the critical thinking skills necessary to filter out the good science from the bad. It was my journey into science and skepticism that gave me those tools, and I've been sharpening them ever since. For once in my life I felt like I could be confident about my place in the universe. I didn't have all the answers to the big questions like "Why am I here?", "What happens after I die?", "What is the universe?" etc, and that really bothered me for a long time. My journey into religion only made me feel more lost because it became clear to me that religion didn't have any actual answers either.
My grandfather and I used to have a lot of arguments about such topics. I once told him I didn't know if I believed in a god at all and he told me I was a "fence-sitter" and made it abundantly clear that he thought that was a very bad thing. That conversation stuck with me for quite some time; it's likely that he doesn't even remember it because I never brought up that topic with him again. I felt bad for being a "fence-sitter" but I couldn't make up my mind about whether or not a god existed. All I knew for myself was that religion seemed to be full of crap and even if there was a god, it wasn't very likely that it was any of the gods they believed in. I tried looking into other religions periodically throughout my life but every single one of them seemed like a different version of the same thing. After realizing that I was a skeptic I started learning about things like formal logic and began to understand what a logical fallacy was. That was truly when the clouds began to part.
I suddenly realized that what my grandpa presented to me was a false dichotomy. I felt a wave of relief once I realized it was actually okay to be a "fence-sitter", as it were. Not forming opinions about things because you don't have enough information is one of the most important tenets of science. When you do form an opinion based on insufficient data you are, by definition, inserting your own human biases into that opinion. There's no way around that. Science doesn't have all the answers, and the great part about science is that it's okay with that! That's how science works. It's a self-correcting process that is perfectly happy to completely change its position on something upon reviewing new evidence. Religious people love to say silly things like "The bible isn't always changing like science books are." as if it's supposed to be a virtue that the bible never changes even in the face of directly contradictory evidence.
A skeptic is simply someone who, while maybe not a scientist (though they aren't mutually exclusive), understands formal logic, critical thinking, and has a healthy respect for the scientific process. As a skeptic, I am free to change my views when the evidence changes. If they determine the Earth is actually a few billion years older than they originally thought based on some newer more refined dating methods, then I'm free to incorporate that new evidence into my understanding. I'm even free to look at the evidence myself, and if I so desire then I can take the steps necessary to learn that field of science and seriously vet the research myself. That's the beauty of the scientific community. It's allowed to grow and build on the shoulders of those who came before them.
When a religious believer encounters evidence that contradicts a belief they hold, they can't simply evaluate the information and modify their belief accordingly. They instead have to either simply ignore the new evidence, or they have to justify it somehow. That's why people who read the bible constantly shift back and forth between thinking a passage is literally true and thinking another one is symbolic. When the bible says to cut off your wife's hand or sell your daughter to her rapist, that clearly flies in the face of modern morality. You're either forced to believe it, pretend it was meant symbolically, or ignore it. Since they think it's a virtue that their text is ever-unchanging (not quite true, but definitely more unchanging than science texts) they can't simply say "Hmmm, maybe we should just pull that part out of there and update it to reflect our more modern values."
It's equally true that, as someone who tries really hard not to have any "sacred cows", I am simply happier. I have no deep-rooted beliefs that would supremely piss me off if they were challenged by reality. I've worked hard to be good at ridding my mind of any stubborn garbage that is holding me back. Growing up I was a major homophobe. I didn't bully anyone or anything like that but I definitely didn't think of the few gay kids I knew as normal people. I always regarded them as though something was wrong with them. I wasn't even religious! I just adopted the attitude of most of my peers and didn't think twice about it. That is what it truly means to be a "sheep" right there. Later in life I was forced to do some introspection and ask myself what is honestly so bad about two guys kissing each other. I knew that it definitely wasn't something I cared to do myself, but I honestly had to wonder why it bothered me that two other guys were doing it. I'm proud to say that it was my self-skepticism that changed my mind. I didn't have any direct outside influence, other than the fact that it was a controversy in the public consciousness. When I was forced to say to myself that I honestly had no clue why it bothered me beyond the fact that I myself didn't want a boyfriend, I had to change my position.
If you read anything I post on Facebook then you know that I now fully support equal rights. I laugh at those who try to call me a homosexual for supporting equal rights. If I really were a homosexual and I'm clearly unafraid to tell others to stop being bigoted about it, then why in the world would I be a closted homosexual? I laugh because it's clear they don't understand their own logic. Instead of being an insult to me it immediately shines a light on their own homophobia.
Science is just a methodology. It oftentimes will have nothing to say on matters of morality or other purely social concerns. There are cases where science can inform an opinion, but never does it take a stance on such abstract concepts. Science is about learning about the material world we all experience and it exists solely because so far this material world has yielded consistent results. Skepticism is more of an ideological perspective with a healthy respect for science. As a skeptic I often take scientific principles and apply them to those things that science can't actually comment on. My skepticism is just a label that embodies how much I value my critical thinking skills. It's weird to say considering that I've only been a self-labeled skeptic since my early twenties, but my skepticism has definitely become a fundamental part of who I am, and I've been much happier for it.
I don't have all the answers, and I'm okay with that. I will continue to learn as much as I can during the one lifetime that I know for sure that I have.