The Virtues of a Skeptical mind

Convince me with data

The Problem

Some of us are a distrustful lot: we were taught never to trust anyone (including our shadows).

Problem is: this is not true. In most cases, we as humans are loaded by our own values, a set of principles that inform our biases.

So when we are told never to trust anyone, it is usually those in authority: and this is an interesting chain by the way.

  • As citizens, we never trust our government that it is telling us the truth.
  • The government itself tells us never to trust more powerful governments than itself:
    • Citizens are told never to trust the West, as it is responsible for oppressing us; (The very thing the government will be doing to us!)
    • To never trust some international institutions because they are extensions of the Western governments’ designs on the world.
    • Etc.
  • Churches tell us not to trust claims by other churches, and their worldly institutions.
  • Children tell each other not to trust adults.
  • And so on, and so on.

So in short, he that tells you never to trust anyone wants you to trust him as the source of information! In some cases, it seems that he or she who has power is never to be trusted. Their actions are motivated by something else other than your own good.

This is of course how conspiracy theorists gain currency with their stories. But the problem to be addressed by this post has to do with how we have to be skeptical in the face of all claims we are bombarded with by our friends, public figures, journalists or even some researchers.

In this year, which marks the beginning of the third decade in the 21st century, we are in the era of Big Data. This data is easy to find from various sources, including online, offline databases and traditional data banks. Yet the lure of soft news, social media gossip and rumour mill are too strong for us.

Don’t trust claims without data

As Deming states, “In God we trust. All others must have data."1 It means that any claim made by a fellow human being must not be taken as gospel truth until it is backed by some data. This post is there to only help you as a student to not only wait for assignments to apply your critical skills: instead, it helps you face the society and its barrage of claims.

The major advantage of engaging in academic discourse is not to strive for good graces, but for reliable conclusions. This can only be done when you do not put your faith into someone’s opinion, unless they show you their data.

The starting point for any conclusion that should guide policy formulation is data: without it, we are living to regret the day we gave in to an elder’s conviction of what is right or wrong and to a friend’s convincing line of argument.

If you have to arm yourself, why not take some basic statistics lesson and be able to unpack all those results published in a number of peer-reviewed journals? This way, though those journal articles may seem to be boring, you are gaining a skill to investigate claims in the public arena.

While we can be skeptical with research, at least we are certain that most academic researches are carried out in a systematic way, and peer-reviewed before consumption. Your skepticism in this regard is informed:

  • You may disagree with some findings, perhaps because of the methodology used;
  • You may question the drawing of inferences from the researcher’s own data.

But when it comes to mass media, you have to be skeptical.

This has nothing to do with distrusting the art of journalism per se, but with how the news article had been prepared and published.

Another area where one needs to be skeptical is when you use findings from another population to make conclusions about another. For example, “Studies have found that 25% of Caloweans would have gray hair at 40”2

While this may be based on actual findings, yet trying to say that “Yeah, by 40 I would have gray hairs because of this study” is misplaced.

Perhaps for the Calowians, this is true, but not for your own population.

Most studies collect samples using predefined groups (populations) for which they would like to infer their results to. So for any study,

  • Find out its population;
  • Find out how its sample was drawn;
  • And the conclusions and implications of the study in regard to that population alone.

Being skeptical does not mean It’s a lie

It just means you want to be careful. You aren’t convinced yet until you see the source of some conclusions.

Research is not a blackbox or magic: you can do it. You can verify someone’s claims. So until they gave you reason to trust, do not.

Even with your own research, show the steps you took to reach your conclusions. Make your research reproducible – meaning that someone else who may be skeptical can verify for themselves and find out how you came to the conclusions you made.

Otherwise, make it a habit to regularly read around research articles, even in disciplines that may not be your specialty. Simply visiting Google Scholar today, and typing a topic such as “Covid-19 Papers” may give you some fascinating reading.

Otherwise, until next time, ….. bye!

  1. Hahs-Vaughn, D. L. and R. G. Lomax. (2020). Statistical Concepts - A First Course. Routledge. ↩︎

  2. I just made this up: no demonym that I know of exists with that name. However, a lot of published research with “Americans”, “British” etc. is often cited when decisions about local populations are made. ↩︎