Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 5 – Skepticism is a Virtue

This is part five of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part four, visit Ask Why.

Skepticism gets a bad rap, thanks to frequently being confused with cynicism, but they’re not the same. Cynicism distrusts everything. Skepticism trusts evidence. You can find a more detailed definition but that’s what it boils down to: evidence. We’ll talk more about that in a future post, but for now understand that skepticism is simply about believing things based on evidence.

Skepticism is hard. It’s a lot easier to nod your head and go along with someone when they espouse the virtues of Reiki, manifestation or Ponzi schemes. Questioning the evidence takes work, so why do it?

You can’t be swindled if you don’t open the door

In the era of door-to-door salesmen, legend has it one technique to avoid losing a sale was to jam their foot in the door. A good way to avoid pushy salespeople is to not open the door in the first place, which is also how skepticism works: if you question things from the very beginning, the door never opens long enough for the foot to wedge its way in.

The courage to look under the surface

Theranos continues to serve as an object lesson in skepticism. Elizabeth Holmes famously demanded absolute, unquestioning loyalty from her employees, which meant no skepticism: you drank the Kool-Aid or you were out. The skeptics were on the outside looking in, not the rank and file, and the ones who eventually blew the whistle had to stare unblinkingly at the evidence and admit to what they were seeing. They had to acknowledge and embrace their skepticism.

What would have happened if more people on the inside had the courage to voice their skepticism, and do so earlier? What if the board of directors had done so? Maybe the legions of investors wouldn’t have seen that investment evaporate if either of those groups had the courage to be skeptical.

In the age of disinformation, we all have a responsibility to be skeptical.