Skepticism is the tendency to doubt the information presented to us. Intelligence is the ability to be skeptical when it matters.
The publisher of Skeptic magazine Michael Shermer gave an excellent TED Talk on perception recently, analyzing the tendency to see patterns all around us. ‘Why do we make sense of things in ways that have meaning to us, even if there is no meaning?’ he asks in so many words.
The answer lies in our evolutionary history. Programmed to survive in an unpredictable and hostile world, we learned to recognize patterns in all phenomena. Those of us who chose rightly, especially in the presence of threat, survived. Those of us who didn’t, became lunch. Or crazy.
The tendency survived throughout the ages, granting us the ability to see things that may not be immediately apparent. We have become discerning creatures. The gift of foresight is nothing other than acute insight, made better through practice and passed on from generation to generation.
Too much of it though can be counterproductive. Seeing things where they don’t exist may hamper our lives. Thinking there is a predator behind every piece of fluttering grass may make us too jumpy and unable to function properly. Seeing conspiracies in every event can take the joy out of living.
See for yourselves.
Pretty self-explanatory and illuminating, isn’t it?
Yet notice how the talk does not receive a standing ovation, customary to TED Talks, despite the fact it was extremely informative.
It is hardly surprising. When you’re too close to the truth, revealing something disturbing, people don’t like it. They may appreciate the insight and applaud the revelation, but deep down they reject it. They prefer to believe they are still in control, despite what the information tells them. They project self-confidence by holding back their enthusiasm, applauding just enough to be polite but not enough to validate the content of the unnerving data.
Or is it just me, seeing patterns where there are none?