08 March 2010


Carl Sagan
astonomer, astrophysicist, author

"It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.)
"On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish useful ideas from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all."
From "The Burden of Skepticism,"
Pasadena lecture, 1987,
as quoted in Why People Believe Weird Things
by Michael Shermer, 1997

I'm sure almost every one knows someone who is, as Sagan puts it, "open to the point of gullibility." I have several friends who forward every email they receive, convinced it is true, despite my repeatedly referring them to urban myth websites. They believe in astrology, pyramid power, and believe Sylvia Brown communicates with the dead. One friend paid over $1000 for an electrical device that was supposed to eliminate arthritis pain. When she got no results, instead of deciding the product was defective or even a scam, chose to believe that it was her particular type of arthritis that was the problem.
I think we would all like to believe in miracles. Wouldn't it be nice if we could communicate with our dead parents? Wouldn't it be great if an electronic device could relieve all our pain? It would be great if we could pop a pill to cure any ailment, read our horoscopes to know the future, or feel better after rolling a few crystals in our palms? And it would be just lovely if all we had to do was pray to Jesus to resolve all our problems.
But most of us use our reason to determine what is probable or not.

On the other hand, most of us know someone who doesn't believe anything they read or hear and thinks every new idea is stupid. These nay-sayers, with their extreme pessimism, can be nearly as annoying as those who are gullible Pollyannas.
Most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes. I would think those leaning toward the skeptical end of the spectrum have a more realistic view of the world, as long as they leave the door open far enough to let a new theory, idea, or hypotheses in the room for some rational exploration before tossing it in the trash.

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