Science, News & Critical Thinking.

Being a skeptic can be tricky, who should you trust?

Open your mind, You new-age freak!

I remember when I thought that being a skeptic was a bad thing. Watching the X-Files as a kid, I always thought Scully was a stick in the mud and Mulder was by far the star of the show. Granted, this was just a TV show, but at the time I wondered why Scully couldn’t believe her own stupid eyes! There were space aliens, CHUDS, vampires, teens with super-human speed—the list of extraordinary things goes on and on; yet she always approached every investigation with a grain of salt, and the end of every episode her findings were “inconclusive.” Understatement of the century!

I was a just kid when I watched that. I bought into it hook, line, and sinker. I loved paranormal investigation movies and read all the books of mystery: The Healing Power of Pyramids, Bermuda Triangle, The Search for Atlantis, How to Increase Your ESP, etc. It all seemed perfectly reasonable to me that such things exist. But as I got older I found that no matter how much I exercised my pineal gland, I couldn’t read minds; no matter how many cups of milk I put into my pyramid, I never got yogurt. My reality had become vastly different from my beliefs, and all I had to show for it was a sore forehead and an unlimited supply of sour milk (with or without maggots).

What happened? Why are there so many books and TV shows dedicated to these things if they don’t actually exist? I think I can sum it up in one simple phrase.

Everybody loves a good magic act.

Penn & Teller are awesome for this reason. They give enough of the process away in their stage show to let you know that you’re witnessing a “trick” or some slight of hand, but they still capture the whimsy of the crowd by keeping some of their act a secret. Magic is all about control and deception: if done in an innocent fashion for entertainment purposes, it’s very cool. Unfortunately, with this in mind, it’s not so cool that purveyors of magical thinking know full well what “magic” is all about and have perfected many ways to control and deceive you without your knowledge and/or consent.

I suppose the best general rule to follow in order to make sure you’re not being taken for a ride is to ask questions. If something doesn’t feel right about the line someone is feeding you, just keep asking questions until it makes sense for you. If it doesn’t make sense, you’re probably getting swindled in some way and should probably graciously back away.


There are no “100% risk-free” opportunities that only come along once in a lifetime that you can’t live without. A lot of these ‘opportunities’ require you to make split-second decisions regarding your finances. If you feel pressured to make a purchase to hand over your cash or credentials for a service you don’t understand, or don’t remember applying for, then you’re probably about to become a trophy on some con artist’s wall.

Watch out for conversational ‘shotgunning’

Beware of people who talk too fast and don’t listen to the responses to their questions — they’re ‘shotgunning.’ This line of attention control makes it impossible for you to keep up, but they seem to know what they’re talking about by the sheer amount of drivel they’re spilling. Only after their rant, when you have a moment to go over the glut of information and misinformation they’ve fired your way, will you be able to discern what they were talking about and what their arguments were really full of. These conclusions often come too late to act on and usually after you agreed with the person just to shut them up. When confronted with people like this, it’s best to back away slowly. Unless you can fit a word in edgewise and you’re really familiar with their arguments, you stand a good chance of getting owned when attempting to debate or rationalize with them.

So who should you trust?

You, ya turkey! We don’t live in a dictatorship. We should be able to look into anything we want, especially if it’s going to cost us our health or life savings. If something in your life comes into question, look into it. Is there a way for you to test the claims a group, corporation, or product makes? Absolutely! Get creative, ask for a demo, look at public forums, look into suspect industries, see what your peers are saying. Is there consensus, or is there a huge divide between the claims mentioned by the parties in question and the actual people using the products and services of interest? If so, ask questions. And keep asking questions.