On Doubt

I adopted the phrase “question everything” as a mantra of sorts in my late teens. I never really went through the standard-issue “teenage rebellion” phase, so I focused my angst into a spiteful, cynical wad of doubt. Jaded and sarcastic, I felt that “questioning everything” somehow left me on a sort of moral or intellectual high ground; I was smarter than everyone—especially most adults.

Since then, I’ve only gotten dumber. That is to say, I’ve only gotten better at recognizing my own ignorance—probably to a fault. It’s certainly not easy to admit ignorance to your peers, and even harder to admit to yourself, but I think this recognition is very important. Not just to maintain a (very necessary) sense of modesty, but to allow for opinions that conflict with yours to have any chance of entering your brain.

In recent times, this mantra of “question everything” seems to have really taken on a life of its own, for better or worse. I’ll argue worse.

What I’ve learned since my teens is that simply being doubtful or contrary doesn’t actually have much of a benefit. I still vehemently advocate questioning things one feels don’t “add up”. But doubt is supposed to yield something. The act of doubting or questioning something should spur investigation. Social media is absolutely choked with people doubting, and even worse still, the doubters’ opinions are all-too-often laced with poison and flaming vitriol.

People see a news headline and instantly make up their minds as to the validity or invalidity of the content based on their cognitive bias, living their lives through a sort of tunnel vision of their decided narratives. I feel that social media has made it all too easy for people to barricade themselves into separate sides of the room, painting a thick, white line between themselves and anyone they disagree with. And make no mistake about it, this phenomenon crosses any and all political or religious affiliations. I think that everyone has been guilty of blindly spouting or sharing things that fit their narrative—myself included.

The most obvious (and thoroughly depressing) example would be the recent bloom of people who believe the Earth is flat. I sincerely hope I never have to bring these people up again, but right now these folks are just the shining example of ignorance in the face of abundant evidence—both historical and empirical—to the contrary. Groups such as the Flat Earth Society believe, in a nutshell, that our planet is inexplicably flat, and that any and all video footage or photographs of the Earth as an oblate spheroid have been doctored. It is, in their collective opinion, all part of an incomprehensible (and wholly illogical) conspiracy theory perpetrated not just by the United States government, but also every other world power with a space program, and also by anyone who’s ever been at a high enough altitude to see the obvious curvature of the Earth’s horizon.

Footage from the International Space Station? Pfft. Obviously Photoshopped.

Revolutionary video capture from SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch? Yeah right. Keep drinking the Kool-Aid, sheeple.

Extensive, mind-melting mathematical calculations that calculate escape trajectories and orbital transfers? FAKE NEWS!!!

And so, the subject is dismissed with the wave of a doubting hand. No further evidence is required, and any prompts for evidence will fall on deaf ears. My rebellious teenage mantra of “question everything” has been hijacked by those who may not fully understand the philosophy behind it.

I guess my point is that I’d like to encourage everyone to do their research, especially if you are taking a hard stance on a social or political issue. If it’s something important to you that you really believe in, why not get the facts? Healthy debate is a good thing. People ganging up to tout their shared entrenched views and scream their throats bloody at an opposing group of people ganging up to tout their opposing views...isn’t.

In this age of mass gas-lighting, disinformation, misinformation, fake news, false claims of fake news, shouting matches, and echo chambers, doubt simply isn’t good enough any more. Sometimes there needs to be an autopsy. And often enough, you can get out your calculator and test something all by your damn self.

Doubt shouldn’t end a conversation. It should begin one.