What if I Weren't a Skeptic?

by David Bloomberg

The title of this article may seem to be a bit of an odd question. However, let me assure you that I’m not going to go into a deep philosophical discussion here, just a short examination of the way both skeptics and non-skeptics think.

Let me first say that I consider it an honor to be called a "skeptic." I have seen it used as an implied insult by some, but to me it says that I am a critical thinker, and certainly thinking cannot be a bad thing (unless you’re a failed school board candidate, but that’s another matter [see "REALLity Check" in Vol. 3, #10 and "REALLity Checklist," this issue]).

But, getting back to the title of this article, what if I weren’t a skeptic? This is, in many ways, a difficult question to answer. It is kind of like Michael Jordan asking what if he were short, or a politician asking what if he were always truthful. I am a skeptic, Michael Jordan is rather tall, and politicians, well, never mind. For the remainder of this article, though, I’m going to consider a situation which actually happened to me and how I might have viewed it were I not a skeptic.

About a year and half ago, I strained or sprained (I never did figure out exactly which) my right neck/shoulder muscle. It was incredibly painful, and when it happened I felt like somebody was sticking an ice pick into my neck. When it didn’t get better after a short while, I went to a doctor, who put me on anti-inflammatory medication and sent me to a physical therapist.

I went to the physical therapist regularly for several months, until we determined that continued treatment wouldn’t get me any further. I kept taking the medication, which generally helped keep the pain down, for over a year. Finally, I caught the flu and had to stop taking the medication, which had to be taken with food and could add to stomach upset.

To my surprise, I wasn’t immediately hit by a wave of stabbing pain. I had some aches for a day or two, but then it subsided back to the same levels that I had while I’d been taking the medication. So, I’d been taking the medication for a while and it hadn’t really been helping.

But what does this do with being skeptical? This is where hypotheticals come into play. While I had my neck pain, I was urged by people who didn’t know me all that well to try numerous different alternative "therapies." What if I weren’t a skeptic? What if I had tried one of these unproven methods? What would I have found?

I would likely have found that after a day or two off the medicine, the pain subsided back to the level it was at while I was on the medicine. If I weren’t a skeptic, I might have seen this correlation as cause and effect. Cause: I went to an alternative practitioner. Effect: The pain went away, just like when I’d been using the medicine.

In fact, because I didn’t try one of these methods, I know that the pain subsided anyway. But I wouldn’t have known that under the hypothetical scenario above.

So, let me put myself into the shoes of somebody who is not a skeptic. This certainly doesn’t mean they’re stupid, but perhaps they don’t use critical thinking in all aspects of their lives. I think this is one reason "alternative medicine" survives and, indeed, thrives. Some symptoms simply go away as the body heals. If a person gets a worthless treatment, such as homeopathy, while the body is healing, it may still seem like that treatment did some good, as the person confuses correlation with causation.

Considering that I frequently see such confusion, perhaps it is one of the main problems skeptics must face. Consider dowsing: Did the stick point down because there was water there, or is it merely that there is likely to be water just about anywhere, if you dig far enough, and so there is a correlation instead?

I’m sure there are numerous such examples, and perhaps I’ll keep an eye on them in my life and make this into an occasional series. Certainly, if any readers have stories of their own, please send them in and we’ll relate them to the rest of REALL.

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