“We do not teach how to think. This is a very serious failure that may even, in a world rigged with 60,000 nuclear weapons, compromise the human future.” Carl Sagan, The Burden of Skepticism (1987).
In his essay, initially published in the Skeptical Inquirer magazine, Sagan elegantly describes the value of healthy skepticism in science and society. The number of nuclear weapons has reduced since his writing (to about 13,000). Still, his ideas remain highly relevant for our thinking and society: We must develop healthy skepticism to enhance individual, societal, and global conditions.
The essay encourages us to develop healthy skepticism with curiosity to understand the world based on evidence and reason. When embraced as a responsibility, skepticism leads to more informed and intellectually honest perspectives, discussions, and solutions. Some of the questions the essay highlights are:
How do we balance skepticism and curiosity?
Why does skepticism matter?
Why are people bad at skeptical thinking?
Carl Sagan (1934–1996) was an American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, and science communicator. He significantly contributed to popularizing science and making complex scientific concepts, including scientific thinking, accessible to the public.
The Burden of Skepticism introduces us to skepticism using the seemingly mundane action of purchasing a used car. When negotiating, we could trust the seller’s good faith or presume they have reasons to deceive. According to Sagan, such negotiations will cause some degree of confrontation between us and the seller. Still, it’s a price we’ll pay to improve our chances of a fair deal.
Few of us would blindly trust a used-car salesperson, an approach that doesn’t require advanced education to develop. Reflexively, we’d ask follow-up questions, do some background research, and nonchalantly kick the car tires before signing a contract and spending our hard-earned money. In other words, we’d be skeptical.
Unfortunately, we often fail to apply the same level of skepticism in other areas, for example, towards advertisers, politicians, and the media. In these instances, we seem to avoid applying our skepticism. The same is true for certain popular belief systems, which we accept without much questioning. “You’re not supposed to ask. Don’t apply skepticism to this issue. Don’t think. Buy.”
Why we fail to think skeptically
Sagan explains this failure to question beliefs or belief systems with unfulfilled needs, whether medical, spiritual, or interpersonal connections. These are commonly unfulfilled needs in the US and other developed societies. According to French mathematician and scientist Henri Poincaré, “We also know how cruel the truth often is, and we wonder whether delusion is not more consoling.”
Apart from these internal triggers, Sagan blames the educational system and media for our shortcomings. These institutions are reluctant to offer the population the tools to question established narratives. He claims the reason for that is that it’s “the business of skepticism to be dangerous.” It’s one thing to have a skeptical attitude to question outrageous – and somewhat obvious – pseudoscientific claims, such as mediators and horoscopes. However, well-developed skepticism also challenges established institutions, beliefs, and belief systems, including political, economic, and religious dogmas.
All these factors that prevent us from developing and applying skepticism are still prevalent almost 40 years later. Students learn to memorize facts, and media consumers receive easily digested, non-critical news that repeats established narratives.
Teaching critical thinking, curiosity, and skepticism is possible, but these practices often shine with their absence during the school years.
Sagan asks, “How will we negotiate a very perilous future if we don’t have the elementary intellectual tools to ask searching questions of those nominally in charge, especially in a democracy?”
Apart from these, he blames the scientific community for failing to popularize science (although I believe this particular trend has changed since 1987, a lot thanks to Sagan and colleagues). Still, I should add that the responsibility of science communication still requires attention but from a different angle than merely its popularization.
Then, how should we approach new information and ideas without limiting ourselves to never-changing information bubbles?
The Burden of Skepticism and the proper balance
The Burden of Skepticism encourages us to question ideas and demand evidence before accepting beliefs. It gives us a free pass to patiently wait for evidence rather than go with our gut feelings.
However, observant readers may have noticed the inherent conflict between the two primary ideas of healthy skepticism: questioning existing beliefs and being open to new ones. Ignoring either of these ideas can lead to significant problems. Pure skepticism can hinder us from accepting and learning new ideas while treating all ideas as equally valuable can lead to gullibility.
Great scientists who adhere to the scientific mindset solve this puzzle by processing new ideas internally and externally. At first, we process new ideas mentally by turning them inside out as we “criticize them ruthlessly.” Eventually, a few of these ideas proceed to the “external” processing phase, where the scientific community evaluates them. Through a long process, traditionally held ideas get replaced by better ideas, and it’s common for scientists to let go of old beliefs and accept mistakes. In this regard, the scientific method is powerful for understanding the natural world and distinguishing between credible and dubious assertions.
By contrast, we rarely find this honest change of mind in religion, politics, and sometimes media. Imagine a politician admitting their core ideas were wrong all along. (Although, let’s be honest, ego can also affect scientists, who, after all, are humans.)
Why does The Burden of Skepticism matter?
The Burden of Skepticism is part of Sagan’s broader efforts to promote scientific literacy and critical thinking. It encourages individuals to approach information with a questioning and open-minded attitude, fostering a culture where evidence and reason guide our understanding of the world. The essay remains relevant in discussions about science, skepticism, and the public understanding of scientific principles.
The Burden of Skepticism points out beliefs and belief systems where we can and should use skepticism. To simplify Sagan’s arguments, we can categorize them into levels of beliefs based on how they impact us.
Dealing with a used-car salesperson is a situation where most of us naturally apply skepticism. Such interactions impact us immediately, and the win vs. risk assessment is clear. “If I blindly believe this person, I might lose [enter something dear to you].” A skeptical approach to similar interactions seems to come almost naturally to us.
Disbelief in pseudoscientific ideas (and, to some extent, advertising), such as healing stones and channeling (communication with the spiritual realm), represents a different category. Belief systems within this realm create needs based on emotions and other unfulfilled needs. We can acquire skepticism towards these through general education.
Questioning established narratives, such as religious, economic, social, political, educational, legal, and media institutions, is more challenging, even when we suspect doubtful claims. These beliefs have formed systems that shape us directly and indirectly from the day we are born. They appear evident and necessary to our values; we cannot imagine alternatives to these beliefs. Beliefs like “Of course, we live better lives than them.” To approach these beliefs and belief systems skeptically, we require practice and training, including in critical thinking and philosophy.
There are probably other, better ways of categorizing beliefs and how to approach them differently, and our views on these situations may overlap. Still, I hope these categories can serve as a starting point to break down situations requiring skepticism. It also allows us to reflect on the different types of skepticism, especially toward established narratives. Public skeptics within the scientific community have done a great job highlighting the issues of the two first situations described above. However, unfortunately, skepticism towards established beliefs and institutions lags – not all, of course.
Few people question normalized belief systems we’ve grown up to accept and embrace. Our internal criticism tools often lack practice, and we’re often tempted to make decisions based on our gut feelings. Scientists have vast training and experience applying healthy skepticism, including introspection and embracing critique. Use these skills. I invite more people to learn and teach these skills.
Sagan says it best: “Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.”
Image with Carl Sagan (featured) used from Public Domain CC0 via pxhere.