Skepticism

Afternoon Inquisition, 1.9

Hello everyone and welcome to Friday’s Afternoon Inquisition. If you’re like me, you can barely focus on today’s AI because you are so stoked about tomorrow’s Drinking Skepchickally in Pittsburgh.  C’mon ‘Burghers, it’s time to party with Jen, Elyse and me. Plus an assortment of sexy and skeptical people. And Buzzed Aldrins.  What more do we need?

In the spirit of camraderie, today’s AI is about friendship. I have a fairly large circle of friends and, thanks to various skeptical, work and volunteer events that I participate in, I make new friends all the time.  I think of myself as pretty non-skeptical when making new friends. I tend to go in from a position of believing the best in people and I’m usually right.

There are times, however, when I’m wrong and I end up being hurt, annoyed or betrayed by people who either aren’t what they say they are or who take advantage of my friendship in one way or the other.  I sometimes wonder if I should apply more skepticism in my friendships but I think going too far down that path is what causes skepticism to turn into cynicism.

What do you think?

Does being skeptical about friends, their intentions or their behavior imply a lack of trust or make you a bad friend?   What are your experiences with going into a new friendship with too much or too little skepticism?

I’m particularly interested in new people and new relationships. I think once you get into a relationship that is already established, you have more evidence about the person, it’s easier to be skeptical or think about the person critically, based on what you know about them.

Masala Skeptic

Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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23 Comments

  1. To me skepticism is how I process information. Personal relationships are more a matter of feelings and intuition. When I try to apply logic to relationships I wind up parsing what people say too closely and take offense too easily.

  2. For what it’s worth, I go into new friendships expecting the best pending evidence to the contrary. It seems to work well, as I think of it as having a “Golden Rule”/altruistic kind of attitude.

    But I try to remain clear-eyed and remember what George Bernard Shaw said, “The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those that have not got it.”

  3. Most of my new friends over the past few years I’ve met on the golf course. After a couple of rounds of golf with someone and beers afterward it will be more than clear if you will ever want to spend more time with that person. Right Sam??

    To answer the AI I generally need to get to know someone a bit before I step further into a friendship. However given I have to make fairly quick assessments of peoples motivations, character and truthfulness every day at work I find my decision is usually made before I even stop to process things.

  4. @James Fox:

    After a couple of rounds of golf with someone and beers afterward it will be more than clear if you will ever want to spend more time with that person. Right Sam?

    Well sure. Friends are the ones who buy the beer. The others are just acquaintances.

    But it’s true. And not golf specifically, but I certainly am able to separate acquaintances from true friends (even though I may truly like both) after extended time spent with them.

  5. I should be upfront and say that I’m a terrible person…but I almost never go in expecting the best in ANYTHING, let alone people!

    That said, it’s tough sometimes to overcome that mental process which makes us assume that people we like are more like us than they really are. I think it can be important to keep your guard up about your own biases and blindspots so as not to put unrealistic expectations on others.

    This DEFINITELY relates to skeptics/freethinkers, too. We sometimes want to think the people we meet think as critically as we do, and can be thrown for a loop when we, say, find a copy of The Secret or some sort of homeopathic “medicine” in their apartments. So a little bit of self-awareness and critical thinking can help one handle otherwise-disconcerting information better.

    Then, you can leave all of the skepticism about other people’s intentions to the hardbitten asshole cynics like myself :-P

  6. My life has taught me to be careful. It takes time for me to trust someone enough to think of them as a friend. Even when I am very drunk I am careful of how much I reveal to the people I am with. I normally take what anyone says with a grain of salt.

  7. Skepticism is definitely appropriate when it comes to friendships. Of course, that depends upon HOW skeptical you are being, under what circumstances, and whether or not that friend has earned that skepticism. What matters, I think, is not so much the skepticism itself so much as the intent or the feeling-tone behind the skepticism.

    For example, I had a friend/acquiantance back in Vermont who used to tell lots of stories of his past. Some of them were pretty tall tales, and some things he said (not about his past) turned out to be absolute bunk, so I had reason to be skeptical of what he said about himself. I therefore, as time went on, took what he said with increasingly large grains of salt. Through my skepticism of this man, I began to suss out where and how far I could trust him. This is an essential skill in any friendship.

    Now, if by “skepticism” in friendships you mean questioning every little thing people do and expecting the worst of them, that is paranoia, not skepticism. Paranoia is motivated by insecurity, fear, and sometimes ill-intent on one’s own part. Instead of being laid-back and asking, with appropriate interest or disinterest, pertinent questions about your friends or why they act the way they do, you may constantly seek holes in their armor for something that may indicate betrayal or hostility. It may not be a conscious seeking, but I suspect it is there in many cases.

    Going back to skepticism, it is also very normal to be skeptical of someone, especially upon first meeting. I’ve found that when I’ve established myself in a social group and someone new comes in, at first I’m not just skeptical of them: I’m flat-out suspicious. As time goes on, however, and I learn more about who that person is, how they act and why they act the way they do, I become less suspicious and more trusting. No doubt a very emotionally-driven skepticism, but it does fit the basic definition of what a skeptic is: one who demands evidence in exchange for trust. In this case, trust is trust between people and not trust in a claim, and evidence is a person’s actions instead of forensic data.

    Skepticism, in short, is an essential tool for building trust among people you don’t know can be trusted. In relationships, skepticism is simply the demand that we prove ourselves through our actions the way we expect claims to be proven through evidence. It can be applied to an unhealthy extreme, but in its basic form it is not merely essential, but endemic to human interaction.

  8. I sort of look at this the other way. One of the symptoms of depression is to magnify events way beyond proportion, or magnify what people say way too much. Always to the negative. It’s actually helpful to look at these situations skeptically, to see if the negative conclusions are being supported by evidence.

    Of course, there’s not much help for you if they are.

  9. @Sam Ogden: Agreed. Some of my golf buddies I really enjoy golfing with and we have loads of fun and competition. (Beers are usually the bet of choice) however these are not the same friends I have over for dinner or talk about my skeptical interests with.

    I have many very close friends who are very devout Christians and we just don’t talk about religion, but I “trust” these friends a lot despite not agreeing with their religious views.

  10. I’m going to approach this from a different angle than the others; that is, as a slightly older skepchick.

    I’m with davew in general; skepticism is mostly about how I take in information, especially things presented as fact. People are dealt with more intuitively, and my intuition about people has become much better with age (I’m in my 30s now). I tended to be more likely to get pulled into problematic relationships when I was in my teens and 20s, especially with neeeeeeedy women-friends. I’ve learned to recognize that quicker. But I also rely on my women-friends less, now, and on my husband (whom I know extremely well at this point!) more.

    I make new friends all the time, too, but they remain at arms-length (sort of in an acquaintance-limbo) for me for a long time … possibly because of those issues you’ve mentioned. I just need more information before I let someone become close. I find the women I meet now, who are my age, seem to approach other women with the same caution. In our 20s it was like a big love-fest, now we are much slower to become BFFs.

    Hmm, maybe that is being skeptical…

  11. Just found this blog. My initial review – some great content and discussion. Being new, perhaps I need some help with navigation. What I found interesting, particularly with regard to a blog addressing aspects of skepticality – was that there appears to be no permanent link (that I could find) or General Things One Things Should Know article, about some fundamental ideas – such as what the heck everyone means when they use the word: Skeptical.

    People here I suspect know that the dictionary likens skeptic to doubter or cynic. Skeptics Society provides some parameters for understanding what it means when it uses the word – all of it appears to be derivative of scientific method.

    When I read the comments, it seems to me that people are using their own personal definitions for the word – but I am not sure what that definition is.

    So, is AI 1.9 a tautological query? Does being *doubtful* about friends, their intentions or their behavior imply *doubt?* or make you a bad friend? What are your experiences with going into a new friendship with too much or too little *doubt*?

    Hardly seems like a useful question or really the question that is being asked.

    I do not believe scientific method to be cold, callous, inhuman, or impersonal but just the opposite. Bringing all that the scientific method has to offer to a friendship, just as it offers to those who use it in all aspects of life, is quite powerful and can only make one a better friend. For example, it can help you understand what your friend or putative friend is really saying/asking/needing and provides the skills to listen more effectively and respond more appropriately.

    Thinking about the AI – What is the correct parsing of the question? Is this the best way to even ask the question that is being asked? Is there a better question to be asked?

    Getting rid of the easy permutations, what remains may be an interesting related question: In our friendships, should one, and if so, when should one, suspend scientific method when there will be no benefit to doing so. (If any benefit flows (e.g., the person feels supported), it would seem then the scientific method should get to the same place more efficiently and more honestly.)

    Is it too easy a question? Suspend scientific method – no benefit? Other than evoking the Bush Whitehouse as the only real world example I could easily come up with, this question has me a bit stumped.

    But maybe something like this is behind the anti-intellectual, faith-based seduction to which too many Americans cling?

    Y_S_G – The Scientific Method is Dead – Long Live the Scientific Method

  12. I just follow my gut when getting to know people. I don’t care if my friends are skeptics, atheists, or believers as long as they are honest and supportive.

    I suppose if you are a bad judge of character, then you need a more formal friend-vetting system.

  13. As an older person who has been skeptical for many years, in the South no less, I usually maintain a little distance until I can detect a fellow skeptic, or at least a tolerant, thoughtful person. It’s really that important to me. If I have suspicion that a person might look down his/her nose at me because of my skepticism, then I’m going to preserve a distance and never try to cross it. That’s why getting together with fellow skeptics is so relaxing, even if I don’t even know them beforehand. I can let down that guard and not have to be careful about what I say.

  14. I feel that if there’s anything we can count on, it’s that people will act in their own self-interest. Fortunately the way the games work out, most of the time, self-interested also means ethical. So simply look at the incentive.

  15. First off, I should articulate my (sometimes) tongue-in-cheek philosophy on “friends.”

    “Friends are the assholes you can tolerate the most.”

    I like weird, surprising, “not normal” people, which is one reason I love, love, love skeptics. If you want the weirdest cross-section of cool people (or the coolest cross-section of weird people), there’s no better group.

    But, I’ve found that my skeptical “spider sense” is always on, regardless of company. I’ve got a running tally of all the crazy shit my friends, family, and acquaintances believe in; I always know which friends believe in what, from psychics to alien abduction to homeopathy.

    I simply weigh the crazy against the rational; most times, people come out on the rational side, despite whatever bit of serious craziness they swear to. (The line is drawn somewhere between Holocaust deniers and people who simply can’t resist telling me how great Jesus is 24-7.)

    If the crazy outweighs the rational, I simply refuse to associate with the person. There’s an entire side of my immediate family I don’t talk to at all, because they’re all racist, irrational, dirty rednecks. This doesn’t trouble me in the least.

    I’m of the opinion that skepticism is always a good thing, even when it applies to other people. As long as an individual’s presence or expressed beliefs don’t cause me physical harm or constantly piss me off, I’ll treat them as neutral or friendly.

    So, does being skeptical of friends or acquaintances make me a bad friend? I’d say “No.” It makes me an honest human being.

    Then again, I’m the guy who thinks that “Hudson Hawk” is hilarious and awesome, so maybe everything I say should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism…

  16. Oh, and COTW for…

    @Im a hedge

    “Who are these ‘friends,’ and what’s their angle?”

    Shades of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”

    (When Charlie wants to put on a musical he wrote…)

    “What’s the angle?”

    “Who’s the mark?”

    “Versus! Who are we doing this versus?!”

  17. @Expatria: You have a point about looking for evidence like copies of “The Secret” or other books in your new acquaintance’s space. One must be cautious not to pre-judge here. The person might be a skeptical researcher that is keeping up with all the latest woo. Some folks are are innocently looking at the latest best seller.

    So, yes, it might be an indicator, but keeping your ears and eyes open for evidence is advisable here.

    Personal example: I was tagged once as a conspiracy theorist because I watch the press for accounts of “UFO” sightings around places like Dreamland (Area 51). Why? Because that just happens to be where the USAF tests exotic aircraft. The F-117 Black Jet was “outed” by some aviation folks like me watching the area’s skies, for example. I suspect that Project Aurora does exist in some form (SR-71 replacement built with Shuttle and other advanced tech). There have been some very interesting sightings over the last 10 years or so of noisy, high-speed, steeply climbing “fireballs”…Sounds suspiciously like an advanced jet/rocket of some kind…

    I believe that many of the “UFO” sightings in the Western US are actually flight tests of exotic steath aircraft and UAV’s. No LGM’s here. After all, after you build it, you have to test it. The logical time to test is at night, in the middle of freakin’ nowhere when you are certain that there are no foreign satellites overhead. THe US has a long history of doing just that.

    Cross-referencing “UFO” sightings with those parameters, especially the “overhead times” of known spysats could give some very interesting results…

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