“Listen to me, don’t believe me. Trust but verify.” Former United Nations weapons inspector Scott Ritter’s final remarks got me thinking almost as much as the actual interview on the tragic war in Ukraine. I consider myself a skeptic who tries to analyze all my consumed information, and hope you do too. But how honest is our selection of news? How critical are we towards ideas from people we respect and look up to? These are crucial questions we need to ask ourselves if we want to be skeptics.
Ritter makes a case for using the information you gather as merely a foundation for your knowledge and to test its validity rather than blindly trusting. Test, test, test. Test the theory, the data, the sources. Test even what you consider reputable sources, the ones you trust. Even when arguments seem obvious, if possible, test them. Do they hold up to real-life events? Does unbiased evidence support the arguments? Is there any validity in the counterarguments?
Look, nobody said it would be easy being a skeptic. Being honest is demanding, and challenging your idols can be heartbreaking. Somewhere during the process, you might feel you’re betraying them or maybe even yourself. However, honesty and skepticism are essential to avoid a dogmatic spiral.
When dogma meets tribalism
Dogma is defined as “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true”; for instance, an idea presented as an undeniable truth. If you’re a person that accepts principles as true without questioning them, then you, my good friend, are dogmatic. Whether for or against vaccine mandates, for or against censorship, blue or red, you are dogmatic if you hold the authority narrative as accurate without question.
It goes without saying that dogmatism is the polar opposite of skepticism and critical thinking. Yet, dogmatism is highly prevalent and even more so during difficult times, such as pandemics or wars. Threatening situations and fear tend to elicit emotional thinking and anxiety-reducing behaviors, such as denial.
During difficult times, tribalism – an evolved part of human behavior – shows its true face. In short, tribalism can be described as a strong loyalty to a social group (or several) a person identifies with and belongs to, an in-group. We all show behaviors of tribalism in our everyday life; for example, you cheer for that football team of yours that never seems to win a match, or you don’t get “what’s the deal with the other sex” (you know, the age-old Venus, Mars comparisons).
But our Us-vs-Them mentality dials tribalistic thinking up a notch during emotional and threatening situations, and our arguments and actions turn more ferocious. It’s then interesting to note that we, somehow, always end up being the good, well-meaning, and reasonable protagonists and they are usually the lost ones and seven soleless villains at times (Welcome to Hollywood!). But why is tribalism so prevalent during challenging times?
Your tribe’s ideas and arguments offer order in the chaos of horrible situations; they keep you safe and mentally organized within your social structures. It’s a survival instinct, really. Unfortunately, the same tribalistic mentality also makes you more waterproof to arguments and views against you and your tribes. In fact, the more people challenge your tribe, the more you tend to defend your group.
During difficult times, dogmatism and tribalism find each other, clasp hands, and walk into the dark forest of ideas. Anti-vaxxers will only listen to ideas that confirm their groups’ beliefs without questioning the arguments. So will climate-change deniers, flat-earthers, and Russian Tiktokers.
You probably have a “dogmatic” problem as well
But how about the rest of us? We sure must be the “rational” and better-functioning bunch. We certainly must be immune to or spared from dogmatic tribalism by default. Right? I’d check again if I were you. I may sound like a broken record by now, but nothing is binary, and things are more complex than they seem.
For example, today, you might wave off all ideas of an anti-vaxxer and label it as “absolute BS”. You follow the main narrative and ferociously defend it, only to realize one day that while some – or even most – of your ideas may be correct, others may be inadequate or even corrupt and cannot explain the whole picture. If you ever reach this realization – and many don’t – you find that the medium you trusted and constantly referred to somehow got something wrong. Now you have to find and replace the missing piece of information. While most people would find a way to neglect that missing piece, you’re a skeptic, and since the old piece doesn’t slide in perfectly, you feel duped. What happened to the original piece?
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should burn your idols and start doubting them by default. It means you should treat them as who they are: humans who make mistakes and have biases. It means that, even if you agree with your sources most of the time, there’s a chance they misinterpret information, miscommunicate something, or simply guess, say, 1 percent (or maybe even only 0.001 percent) of the time. Not much, but it’s a percentage that can dent your repertoire of knowledge.
On top of that, keep in mind that if the narrative you trust is too simplistic or black and white, I’d be suspicious of the information’s adequacy. Again, this is not necessarily a sign of deceitfulness or manipulation but a reminder to research the data further.
Resisting misinformation – a good first step
Let’s flip the script now and imagine being the conveying part of a dialogue or presentation; your beloved Youtuber, journalist, or celebrity. Wearing these shoes, how willing would you be to accept your precious ideas being scrutinized under a microscope once you’d shared them with an audience who respects and looks up to you? Or, let’s put it like this: how many of your idols admit that their knowledge of a particular topic or subtopic is limited or ask you to double-check their claims? I think not many.
So, whether you agree or disagree with Ritter’s views on conflicts and geopolitics, you have to, as a skeptic and critical thinker, respect his final pledge to the audience of the interview, a unicorn in today’s climate. Why would he ask you to research his claims? Why is he shooting himself in the foot? In my opinion, it’s the right thing to do if your goal is to help people become active analyzers of news and resistant to misinformation. Even if being tested and proven wrong may hurt – because it does hurt – it’s the honorable thing to do and will help your long-term goal.
Next time you consume the views of a trusted profile, newspaper, or other platforms, you can try an internal version of the Socratic method. Challenge your ideas with further questions and expose the biases you or your source may have. If they pass the test, go on with your life and spread your newfound gospel (or, hey, keep asking questions).
Just some food for thought on a very general topic. I’ll dive deeper into these topics and analyze them in future posts. For example, should you be equally skeptical towards scientific news as you’d be towards other topics, say, a politician’s points of view?
Let me know in the comment section below or on our social media platforms if you agree or disagree. Also, feel free to like and share if you reached this paragraph and think you enjoyed the information. I’ll also leave you with a cute picture of a dog. It’s your reward for being curious: