The mental quirks that protect our beliefs

Skepticism involves a host of critical thinking skills--and an understanding of the ways that our minds protect themselves from info that contradicts our beliefs.

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Countless Herman Cain Award winners who died for a(n anti-vaxxer) lie. A YouTuber who leapt to the only logical explanation for a spooky clip: a ‘paranormal entity.’ And countless Christians giving their testimonies about converting to their religion through the usual logical fallacy-riddled bad arguments and emotional manipulation. They all have one thing in common: they all proclaim to be skeptics. They definitely want their audiences to think so, too. But they aren’t. In reality, they don’t even know what a skeptic is, nor how to think like one.

Apparently, open-mindedness’ definition

I began noticing this self-identification of “skeptic” years ago.

Wayyyy back when I began writing my blog, a Christian told me he’d been a true-blue skeptic before conversion. However, he’d witnessed a magic healing at some church he’d visited. Apparently, Jesus Christ himself had signed this healing. The guy was very certain about exactly which god had orchestrated it. So, he triumphantly offered me this PROOF YES PROOF of his claims.

He clearly expected me to be very impressed. After all, he had just demonstrated real evidence to me! Surely, any person of intellectual integrity would instantly convert after that! But when his story failed to impress me, he called me close-minded and got mad.

Since then, I’ve run into a big huge honkin’ lot of Christians with similar stories. They always begin the same way: I was always so skeptical of everything, but the evidence persuaded me!

Sometimes, they even falsely claim a past in ever-so-titillating atheism. In the past, I’ve written a lot about why this claim simply doesn’t hold up to examination: these supposed ex-atheists almost never understand what atheism actually is (a lack of belief in any gods).

So today, I want to show you why this claim of skepticism is likewise untrue.

False skepticism doesn’t just make someone buy into a false religious claim or accept a YouTube video as real-deal evidence of “paranormal entities.” Nowadays, a misunderstanding of skepticism can make someone buy into a downright lethal false claim.

The false skeptic and TOWTTHO

Being a skeptic means thinking critically about claims. Instead of leaping to an easy explanation, we find the explanation that best fits the actual facts before us–without reaching for unsupported explanations.

And you can spot a false skeptic very quickly when they discuss That One Weird Thing That Happened Once (TOWTTHO). Such an incident can’t be immediately identified or explained. It’s bizarre or out-of-context. In response to TOWTTHO, false skeptics latch onto supernatural explanations almost immediately.

In the case of the YouTube video I mentioned earlier (relink), Nexpo examined the case of a talking Dora the Explorer doll that sang and turned its head–supposedly without batteries.


In his video, Nexpo says:

Now, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from running this channel, it’s to always remain a skeptic. Enigma’s Light [submitter of the video] definitely seems genuine here. While I’d love to believe that we’ve captured some sort of ghost activity on camera, unfortunately without concrete proof that there weren’t any batteries inside of it, it’s hard to completely run with their story. Regardless, the video and testimony is one of the creepier ones that I’ve seen online. And if their story is legitimate, then well, it looks as if they’ve caught some sort of paranormal entity on camera.


But no. No, a “paranormal entity” had nothing to do with this incident. I can tell you that immediately–right off the bat–and in perfect confidence.

Explaining TOWTTHO

In fact, we need not reach for supernatural explanations at all when we examine this clip.

Either the doll doesn’t require batteries at all (as this one doesn’t), there’s some electrical glitch going on, or the submitter is simply mistaken or dishonest about the doll not having them inserted. A skeptic won’t add or, I dunno, a “paranormal entity” is totally possessing this small child’s talking doll, which means this clip represents our first real proof of the supernatural in countless thousands of years, and I for one welcome our new ethereal overlords.

That explanation involves a whole series of unsupported, unverified nested claims, each of which needs to be supported and verified before Nexpo can leap to “paranormal entities” even as a possible explanation for the clip.

And yes, I’m talking about Occam’s Razor here–the real one, not the misunderstood one that false skeptics prefer.

Sure, ghosts would definitely be the simplest explanation for the Dora doll clip, just as ZOMG it’s all true would be the simplest explanation for Christians’ testimony claims.

These are simply not the explanations making the fewest new assumptions.

A false skeptic in love with his own sense of superiority

In the case of those Herman Cain Award winners, they all considered themselves skeptics. Taking just the newest award-winner on the list of skeptics, he considered himself a paragon of critical thinking. No, he didn’t just accept the evil gubmint’s assertions about 9/11! Nor did he buy that Covid was a real problem. Nope, not him! He was far too smart for that!

Dude even proudly offered up an image quote of someone praising big-time critical thinkers like himself who refuse to get the vaccine for it. Here’s part of what it said:

“If you understand what’s going on and didn’t take the poison, you have survived the greatest psychological warfare in human history. [. . .] They have tried to manipulate, brainwash and force you. They have been trying to scare you. Attempted to make you feel guilty. They tried to bribe you with gifts. [. . .] Almost everyone fell for it, but not you. You never gave up on yourself. You stood up for yourself against all odds and persevered. Stay that way.” — Lee Walters

Reddit, HermanCainAwards. I’ve no clue who Lee Walters is, and the quote only exists on various Christian nationalist sites. I think I found him on Twitter. If so, he’s everything you imagined from this quote. However, I’m unwilling to make an irresponsible guess. It’s not that unusual a name!

I’ve no doubt that this award-winner immediately accepted this apparent quote as truth. I can perfectly understand why, too. It made him feel good, gave him a reason to feel superior to people he despises, and affirmed his existing beliefs about the evil gubmint.

But his entire family–all unvaccinated, apparently–came down with Covid. And he died of a disease he refused to accept as a real risk for anyone.

His antiprocess shields were simply too strong to let him engage with all the true information out there about Covid and its vaccines. Too bad those shields didn’t do much to prevent sickness.

Antiprocess: a quick introduction

When people buy into a false claim, or one adjacent to it, they can have a lot of difficulty with thinking critically about it.

I’m talking here about antiprocess. Antiprocess is our minds’ way of filtering out and negating information that challenges our beliefs. And it is powerful. I like to envision it as the force-field around Ming the Merciless’ fortress at the end of Flash Gordon.

Flash Gordon, 1980. Best. Movie. Ever.

I’m talking about stuff like compartmentalization, silencing tactics, demonization of critics, glomming onto arguments full of logical fallacies to support one’s opinions, and stuff like that. All of these tactics and more exist to keep true believers away from information that might devastate their opinions.

Here’s the important part

Just about everyone has Flash Gordon shields around their mental fortresses.

Yes, even skeptics.

A skeptic, however, becomes familiar with the common ways antiprocess gets expressed–and then seeks to defy them and rise above them to find the truth.

That’s what skepticism is and what it should be. A skeptic doesn’t just rest in explanations that soothe and flatter the insecurities, needs, desires, and flaws of the human situation. Instead, they figure out what real support for a claim looks like, and insist on having that support before buying into it. They don’t just latch onto the first all-too-easy explanation, if that explanation involves stuff that is also unsupported (like “paranormal entities” or “the evil gubmint committing psychological warfare with Covid vaccines”).

All too often, self-proclaimed skeptics turn out to be cynics, to borrow Jamie Hale’s observation. Cynics are simply contrarians who are unwilling to accept a claim’s valid support–or their own claims’ lack of valid support–all while proclaiming themselves good little skeptics! And hilariously, often enough those cynics accuse actual skeptics of their very own flaws.

Unfortunately, critical thinking simply isn’t valued by a huge chunk of folks in Freedom Land. It’s not often formally taught in schools, nor stressed to adults. In our new post-truth landscape, the whole idea of needing valid support for claims is vanishing further and further into the rear-view mirror.

If you want to learn more about antiprocess, here’s an archive of the original writeup that got my noggin joggin’ years ago. The Jamie Hale link offers a bunch of good tips regarding how to learn critical thinking, and I also found courses online (like this one) teaching it. I encourage everyone to learn these skills if they lack them. Our world contains a lot of very unethical people who stand to gain a lot from that lack.

With the critical thinking skills of real skepticism, those mental fortress shields can be demolished in favor of open discourse that uncovers truth, rather than protects errors and mistakes in judgment.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...