In Praise of Skepticism


Well, it happened again.

I choose an important and timely topic — the importance of maintaining a healthy skepticism — but, in the course of putting the post together, I veer off into another land. Could that have been what happened to Lewis Carroll?

Plans were to introduce you to my favorite British philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell, with his essay “On the Value of Skepticism,” and my favorite American philosopher and astro-everything scientist, Carl Sagan, with his Baloney Detection Kit.  I even had that great Carl Sagan meme with which I’d open.

Alas, my rabbit hole sprang open before me as I read the small treatise “You Can Get Sucked Down an Airplane Toilet!” by Paul Mason at my local elementary school (subtitled, Fact or Fiction Behind Urban Myths).

Following on the heels of our rather serious “How to Stay Informed in the Age of Fake News,” this was too good to pass up.

So this week, we’re focusing on ways in which fairy tales, myths, old wives’ tales, dire warnings, fake news, etc. have wormed their way into our lives.

It goes back to God in the garden of Eden, for heaven’s sake.

Remember the story?  God put Adam and Eve in the garden with only one rule, “Don’t eat of that tree or you’ll die!”   A dire warning for sure.  They ate the apples, got tossed out of the garden, then lived to have a couple of kids. How old they were when they died is something I actually googled.  I’ll leave that to you.

Dire warnings from the political arena are legion.  “WMD” comes to mind as does “Gulf of Tonkin.” Need I say more?

Here are a few closer to home. See if you recognize these (with thanks to Paul Mason for collecting them and more).

Don’t go in the water for an hour after you eat or you’ll die!”

Don’t pee in the pool; there’s a dye in it that’ll turn your pee bright red. (You’ll die of embarrassment?)

Don’t eat the seeds of the apple, or the pear, or the peach for sure. A tree will grow out of your nose!  (Though, I guess, you won’t actually die.)

Yes, our parents (and grandparents) had a way with words.  Even those who love us sometimes try to scare us into conformity.  What were the ones you heard growing up? Did you hear the one about what happens if you swallow your chewing gum? Have you tried the recipe for cooking an egg using two cell phones? These and more are there for the reading in Paul Mason’s entertaining book.

Mark Twain, in an essay from 1882, “On the Decay of the Art of Lying,” wrote, “Everybody lies — every day; every hour; awake; asleep; in his dreams; in his joy; in his mourning.”

Before you get depressed, let me introduce you to clinical psychologist Paul Ekman, who’s been studying this stuff for a few decades. Dr. Ekman (the character that prompted the TV series Lie to Me) distinguishes between high stakes and low stakes lies.

High stake lies are those “that the police and the FBI and insecure spouses are trying to catch. They are the lies of the criminal, the terrorist, the philanderer, the embezzler, and what the cops call ‘bad guys’.”

Low stakes lies include, “Politeness, for example, or praising the host for a dull dinner and conversation, flattery, and so forth. No one really expects to be told the truth in those situations.”

  • “It’s nice to meet you.”
  • How are you? “Fine thank you; how are you?”

And what of the lies we tell to bring magic and whimsy into our lives?

  • A man in a bright red suit will slide down the chimney and put expensive presents just for you under this tree. 
  • The tooth fairy, Jack Frost, Mr. Sandman. 

How do you differentiate between “high stakes” and “low stakes” lies? How can you be certain it’s not a slippery slope? 

Next week: November 22

12 Responses

  1. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    I always know your thoroughly researched posts will inform and entertain me. This post does both. And what an interest “hook.” I’d read a book with that title too.

    About myths you ask: What were the ones you heard growing up? As a pre- teen, I remember worrying that I may get pregnant if I swallowed a watermelon seed. Actually, on our last visit to St. Augustine I saw a very pregnant woman with a tee shirt that read: “See what happens when you swallow a watermelon seed.” It was a great photo op, but I resisted asking – ha!

    How do I differentiate types of “lies.” I consider the source – and the circumstances. Great post, Janet!
    Marian Beaman recently posted…Wordless Wednesday: Imagine a MoodMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      That’s a great one, Marian. And probably worse in those days than having a watermelon vine growing out your nose!

      Thanks for your support.

  2. Carolyn
    | Reply

    Scepticism thrives in most of my family, probably because our background is Scottish Presbyterian. I recall my father being in Khartoum, Sudan, in the summer and saying he had to test the saying “You could fry an egg on the pavement, it was so hot”. He got the egg and fried it. Well, it was worth the test as the temperature was 100 in the shade and “there ain’t no shade”. I concur with Marian- see the source and the circumstances – and then engage the brain

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I’ve never before known someone (who knew someone) who actually tested that adage out. I love the image. Thanks.

  3. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Janet, great topic. As I read it, it occurred to me that perhaps there is yet another category of lies that is even more serious than the “high stakes” lies that we recognize as criminal. That is, the lies we tell ourselves, and that other people tell us, that cause us to rationalize behaviors that destroy and kill and marginalize other people and the planet. Lies that rationalize wars and wipe out species and justify discrimination and oppression. As near as I can tell, these lies are deep and prevalent and almost never get prosecuted, despite having the highest stakes, and toll, of all. Thanks for giving me a good contextual framework from which to view this.
    Tim Fearnside recently posted…The Other Men and Women Who Fought and Died for FreedomMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      You are absolutely on to something very important, Tim. Thanks for bringing that in. It’s important enough to warrant its own extensive conversation.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      In rethinking your original Comment, Tim, I’m reminded of that old T-shirt saying, “Denial: It’s not just a river in Egypt.” I believe you’ve defined denial here as “Lies we tell ourselves that help us rationalize…” — a good definition. In the therapy I once did with survivors of various stripes, I held that denial is actually protective of something; it serves a function and once that function, that protection is no longer needed, “reality” can set in, painful as it might be. So, in this context, I wonder just what is being protected by this denial?

      Are we on the same page or have I veered off? Any chance you might want to take this up on your blog? I’m booked through December. 🙂

  4. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — Who could possibly resist reading a book titled “You Can Get Sucked Down an Airplane Toilet!” I’ve just marked it as “want to read” in Goodreads.

    The myth I was told is, “DON’T TOUCH A FROG OR YOU’LL GET WARTS.” (Can you guess what I went out and did?)…
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…Optical IllusionMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Oh yes; I remember that one. I’d forgotten. Thanks.
      The book is a hoot and a half, especially when read with a local third grader and we talk about each one. I’m actually only half way through. I’ll finish it up after the holidays.

  5. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    A lot to think about, Janet.
    Marian’s comment made me laugh. I don’t ever remember believing those types of myths–but then I guess I must have believed in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.
    Tim makes an excellent point about the more-than-high stakes lies that are told to rationalize wars and such. It is interesting, too, how some people will continue to believe such lies even when shown the truth.
    Merril Smith recently posted…A Day in the Forest: Yeats ChallengeMy Profile

  6. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Thanks, Merril. Glad you stopped by. It’s always good to hear your voice here.

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