The Importance of Being Skeptical

One of the things I pride myself on is being skeptical.

Although people sometimes confuse terms, skepticism does not mean “cynical” and it doesn’t mean “being an asshole”.

A true cynic distrusts everything new they see or hear, they’re intolerant to new ideas, and they’re pessimistic about everything. They’re not skeptics. That’s a positive trait. They’re the downers of the group whose self-righteousness tends to bring everyone else down, too.

To me, being a skeptic simply means that I try my hardest not to believe things unless I have a *really* good evidence to believe something is true.

Really good reasons do *not* include things like “Well, I read it on the Internet” or “It just feels right” or “It sounds legitimate” or even “I read/saw it on the news so it must be true.

This approach to life has proven useful in a variety of ways from the smallest (being fairly certain that the man with the East Indian accent who is calling from “Microsoft” to say that he thinks my computer – a Mac mind you – isn’t working is likely running a scam) to the biggest (my long-held personal view, reinforced after much thought, reading and consideration that there is likely no god.)

I was reminded of this value again this weekend when the media went wild (and then social media went wild) with a story about how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put a “snarky” reporter in his place with a “spontaneous” lecture on the meaning of quantum computing during a photo op/funding announcement for a Theoretical Physics Institute in Ontario.

The story immediately set my spider sense to tingling because the whole situation just seemed too perfect – the setting, the snarky reporter and then the PM just happens to have the perfect answer?  (To be fair, Trudeau did study engineering among one of his many majors over the years so it’s possible that cutting-edge computing technology is a personal interest of his?)

Whether Trudeau’s answer was legitimately spontaneous, accurate or something he’d memorized the night before, what I found frustrating was how so many media outlets (and friends on social media who should know better) passed along what appeared to very likely be a planned stunt, specifically designed to go viral while avoiding legitimate concerns and also managing to counter the popular perception that Justin Trudeau is an intellectual lightweight.  (If true, you have to admit Trudeau’s PR people are brilliant!)

Here are some facts that aren’t being noted as much in the gushing media coverage:

  1. Trudeau primed the media covering the event to ask this question by earlier saying “When we get to the media questions later, I have to tell you: I’m really hoping people ask me how quantum computing works!
  2. The reporter who asks the question references Trudeau’s earlier request by saying “I was going to ask you about quantum computing” before trying to ask a lot more timely question about ISIS.
  3. Trudeau’s explanation sounded intelligent (and perhaps it was a good answer for a lay person) but to actual scientists, his explanation was lacking (tellingly, an employee of the institute that just received the funding is the only scientist to give his answer a 9/10.)
  4. No reporter thought to dig a bit deeper (you know, do their job) by following up by asking: “Did you give that explanation spontaneously or did you prepare for it knowing the subject might come up given the location of today’s announcement?”

So again, I’m sure some will say my bias against Liberals/Justin Trudeau also plays into my skepticism here.

And I admit that may be true to a point.

But I hope I’d be equally incredulous if someone who was leader of the federal NDP, just “happened” to start giving a perfect answer about quantum mechanics during a photo op at a quantum mechanics institute.

But maybe I’m just being cynical. 😉

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