From Whence Came My Skepticism?

For those dedicated readers (I know there are a few of you), I would think it’s pretty clear by now that I’m a big fan of skepticism. If not, let me be clear: I like skepticism. One could even argue I’m downright conservative on this score, in the William F. Buckley tradition of standing athwart the path of ideas and yelling STOP! I prefer that new ideas be examined, that evidence be scrutinized, and that we accept only that which has met a reasonable amount of inquiry. It’s a good way to be sure that what we’re dealing with is an accurate reflection of the world around us and allows us to make pretty accurate predictions of the consequences of our actions.

But where does this particular feeling come from?

In my case, it’s because I love knowing how things work.

I think I’ve mentioned this before. Here it is. I like to understand the mechanics of things, the way they were built and their meaning in a larger context. This has a number of side-effects, though, not least of them being that I am forced to do massive amounts of research on a thing just to satisfy my need to understand its complexities. It’s that research that leads me to a greater understanding of the world around me and whatever-it-is’s place in that world.

What I’m saying is that the search for knowledge produces nuance, which I believe encourages skepticism.

So, what do I mean by “nuance”? Well, let’s use an example.

You walk into a room and see me loudly arguing with somebody. What’s your assumption? Probably that that person and I don’t like one another. It’s a pretty straight forward assumption based on what you see.

New dimension: you’re informed that that person and I are friends and often have spirited discussions. Ok, well now it’s more likely that we’re just having another spirited discussion in a friendly way (for us).

Another new dimension: I just found out that that person has only maintained a friendship with me in order to convert me. Let’s say to Scientology, because it amuses me to think of somebody sneaking into my room at night to audit me in my sleep. What’s your read on the situation now? Are we friends or enemies? Most likely it’s not that binary. I probably still feel affection for this person and am deeply hurt that they were using me to try and bolster the numbers in their cult. A part of me probably resents and even hates them because of that. There is a complex interplay of emotions going on that can’t be summarized in simple terms. Recognizing that is nuance.

Similarly, the deep exploration of a subject also gives us a greater appreciation for it. Being skeptical makes me (and other people) like things more. Want examples?

Let’s look at this week’s The Big Picture in which MovieBob does a New Critical and arguably Reader-response deconstruction of The Beverly Hillbillies. No, I’m not kidding. MovieBob’s argument, and it’s one I agree with, is that he doesn’t understand why people think that close reading of texts is somehow a bad thing or that some texts are too simplistic to bother with a close reading of. He puts the lie to this attitude by looking at a classic, but ultimately silly television show.

Think about it. About half the jokes in The Beverly Hillbillies are focused on the idea that the Clampets don’t get high scale living, and filter their behavior through their upbringing. They aren’t stupid, per se, but they don’t understand the extravagance around them. One of the examples that Bob gives is the classic “fancy eating table,” which came with “pot passers and meat stickers.” This table is the pool table, and the pot passers/meat stickers are various types of pool cue, but coming from a life where everything is utilitarian, the idea that a table of that size and extravagance could be used for nothing but a game, or that you could have a vast amount of land and not use it to raise livestock, or that you could have a huge kitchen with so much empty space and not put something useful like a bathtub in there, was just outside of the Clampet mindset. This becomes important when you see that the show came out at the tail end of the 50s when the idea that your success is measured by what you can buy (the famous “keeping up with the Joneses” idea) was prevalent, and The Beverly Hillbillies rather subversively skewered that mindset.

Does this mean that The Beverly Hillbillies was a purposeful attack on consumer culture? No, not at all. But that there is that dimension makes the show more interesting, and almost lets you in on some sort of inside joke when you watch it, making you a participant in the humor rather than just an observer.

How about another example? Dave Weigel has been doing a series of posts about progressive rock that analyses its origins, significant moments in the genre, how it affected music and the national consciousness, etc. Check it out, it’s a great series. But more importantly, it gives you an insight into the mind of those who make the music, it draws you in and provides the practical application of hard-won knowledge.

Another example? How about the argument in David J. Skal’s brilliant book The Monster Show that the advent of the slasher flick is an important aspect of the horror movie cannon not because of its popularity alone, but because it explored a new dimension of fear for being made primarily by Vietnam vets who were trying to replicate the sense of life as hanging from a fragile string that could be cut anywhere, any time, for no particular reason and in unimaginably gruesome ways that they felt in the war? Or that horror movie trends tend to mirror national fears, so that you have gluts of movies on repeated themes, from nuclear threats in the 50s to killer spawn stories during the era of thalidomide babies?

How about my suggestion that the Joker also always reflects cultural fears (I’ll go into detail in another post if people wish, but a quick i.e.the Nicholson Joker mocks yuppies and threatens to expose them for frauds rather than sophisticates, the Ledger Joker is undeniably a terrorist, etc.)?

Even my music/comic/movie posts are responding to questions of why I happen to like something and why you should as well. Just knowing something is good will allow you to enjoy it, but knowing why it’s good allows you to apply those lessons to other things and find more you enjoy.

This also applies to science and math. Try reading a Neal Stephenson novel (any of them will do, but I recommend the Baroque Cycle or Cryptonomicon) and tell me you don’t come away from it convinced that math is the coolest thing in the world. He does this by explaining what math can do, giving us characters who understand the complex interplays of numbers and how they tell us things about the world around us.

Want to see the beauty of the universe? Read Carl Sagan or Neal deGrasse Tyson. What made these two men popular is that they both have (or had) the ability to show people that the wonder of the world isn’t hidden in abstract mysteries, but rather in acquiring knowledge. The work involved in skeptically examining something and distilling what is most likely to be true makes that knowledge valuable.

Skeptical inquiry leads us to close reading which gives us a greater appreciation of those things that we encounter. I somehow doubt that I would be quite as skeptical if I could somehow understand things without having to learn about them in depth first, whereas there are people for whom the joy comes in merely questioning assumptions. Regardless, the result is that I am able to better appreciate the world around me because I see everything that goes into it.

The cliche goes, “Ignorance is bliss.” Ironically, this lacks nuance, but if we are to take it at face value I would say that it is entirely wrong. Ignorance is mildly comfortable, perhaps, but hiding what is possible in order to make something seem better by comparison is cheating.

Complexity is beautiful. Complexity that appears flawless is grace. Being able to see all of the pieces interact is closer to an understanding of grace than any theologian will ever provide because there is far more to know than can be distilled into simple concepts. And I am happier for having the smallest glimpse of it.

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