As I write this, it is 12/21/12 and I am currently not experiencing any sort of Mayan-prophesied apocalypse. Experts will tell you that the Mayans prophesied no such thing, but - as humans are wont to do - there were folks who built an urban legend out of scraps of misinformation and turned it into a whole big deal. And thanks to all that doomsday hoopla, civilization was cursed with one particularly crappy John Cusack movie. Now I don't personally know anyone who will confess to believing that the world was going to end today, but I do know a lot of people who believe many other things that I find difficult to swallow. From outlandish conspiracy theories to the existence of ghosts and little green men to ancient mythologies, I'm constantly surprised by what people are willing to accept without any substantiation.
Now don't get me wrong: I love stories of the supernatural and extraterrestrial - The X-Files is my all-time favorite television show. And like that program's protagonist, Fox Mulder, I want to believe. I'd give anything to have a ghostly experience or some psychic communication with loved ones from beyond the grave. But I have to admit to myself, that deep down, I'm much more like Mulder's partner Dana Scully, the skeptic, whose job it was to scrutinize all of Mulder's investigations and look for fact-based scientific evidence to explain their otherwise otherworldly encounters. I want to believe, but I don't - I can't, in good conscience, accept something outside the parameters of what we as humans have proven as fact.
I'm perfectly comfortable, however, that people believe things that I do not, but I have a hard time when people demonstrate the inability to process new information; acceptance of unproven things should not exclude acceptance of proven things. I also dislike when selfish people prey upon the personal beliefs of others, as with so-called "psychics" who use the practice of cold reading to take your money and tell you that your dearly departed loved one says that it's okay for you to move on. These kinds of behaviors make me very angry; I am a humanist and I believe that we should leave this world better than when we found it. And when I'm angry, I often seek answers that help me understand why things are the way they are. This summer I found solace in two books by fellow skeptic Michael Shermer: Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time and The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies - How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. In these books, Shermer discusses how the evolution of our brains helped us survive by becoming good at recognizing significant patterns in life - yet we're not particularly good at distinguishing between connections that actually exist and connections that have no significance. He also discusses how we tend to choose our beliefs and then actively select which bits of information we support them with, and which bits we actively ignore. These are fascinating reads and I suggest them to anyone whether you're a skeptic or not.
In the end, life is full of people who disagree with us, and we need to work hard to figure out a way to thrive among them. The world would be a boring place if we all believed the same things, but that doesn't mean we can't argue in constructive and productive ways, and it certainly doesn't mean that we shouldn't, like Mulder and Scully, always be in search of the Truth.
The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths