Afternoon Inquisition, 9.5

It’s time for your TGIF Afternoon Inquisition and it’s all about Nature v.s Nurture.

Are Skeptics born or made?  Are we born skeptical or do we have to learn to be skeptical?


Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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  1. I think it’s a combination. I know I have always been a bit skeptical, (my claim to fame is that I never believed in Santa Claus but kept up the ruse so as to not disappoint my parents who were clearly way to invested in the belief in a fat yankee), but if I hadn’t been taught how to think critically I wouldn’t be a skeptic.

  2. True skeptical thinking needs to be learned. I think that we are born with an innate curiosity (some more than others), but also an innate tendency towards belief. After all, it’s better that child learns “don’t walk off a cliff” by believing their parents, rather than learningit for themselves.

    Skeptical thought requires a kind of “learning for yourself” that needs practice and diligence, that can only come with choice and practice, or self-nurture.

    Who is more prone to become skeptical? I think that’s nurture by circumstances and by other people, as well as your own choices. Can one be genetically predisposed to skeptical thought? Seems unlikely to me for some reason, but I have no basis either way to back that up.


  3. I think it is nature. Most skeptics are born into it. They refuse to take the world around them at face value, and strive to learn as much as possible. True believers on the other hand never bother to investigate their beliefs and so can never be considered skeptical.

    I think most of us are skeptical in some way, many either are too lazy to pursue it or are to quiet to admit it.

  4. I think the answers to the recent blog about the dumbest things you ever belived in answers this particular question.

    At the risk of straying off topic, I wonder (after just listening to the NPR wrap-ups on the conventions) if one can really be a skeptic and also be a Democrat/Republican (and I don’t just mean making lesser-of-two-evil arguments).

  5. I don’t imagine there’s a line you toe without sacrificing some amount of skepticism, but the whole “can a skeptic be an X?” concept hinges on what your definition of a skeptic is, and we’ve had that argument quite fruitlessly already.

  6. This is one of my favorite topics. In fact I’ve written about it. I don’t know the answer, but here are the gist of my thoughts (from my prior post):

    “Whether we realize it or not, we all adapt our personalities to a degree in order to be successful in our environments. What we think of as “us” may not be “us” at all, but some combination of our natural temperament and learned adaptation to our environment. Some environments encourage unorthodox beliefs and embrace change, while others have a strict regard for authority, discourage the questioning of authority, and are resistant to change. Some countries reward the efforts and achievements of the individual while in other countries group affiliation is a prerequisite to success. And in some countries, straying from the norm means lack of group affiliation, which means an all around unhappy existence.

    To what extent do the dimensions of culture affect the development of skepticism in the individual, or the expression of skepticism by the individual? We like to think of ourselves as “free-thinkers”, and in many ways we are (being agnostic or atheist in a Christian nation, for instance). But US culture is democratic. Citizens of all levels get a say, and expect to be able to question rules and regulations. The US is an open forum for opinions of all sorts. There is no strict reverence for authority – look at how many citizens currently regard our own president! How much harder would it be to be a “free-thinker” in a country in which you must be affiliated with a group in order to be successful? If you were brought up in a culture that has absolute respect for authority? If having an unorthodox opinion meant you would be an outcast, both socially and vocationally?

    Additionally, what if the culture in which we’re raised not only affects the way we act, but also the way we think? Is it possible that skepticism never even develops within persons raised in a collectivistic, high power distance country that avoids uncertainty? Or is skepticism intrinsic, so that the skeptic would be forced to suppress their thoughts in order to survive?”

  7. I don’t think infants do a whole lot in the way of thought, much less critical thought. But later on…

    Critical thinking is a bit like math. Most people are taught to think critically, but it’s entirely possible to figure it out by yourself if you just put some effort into it.

  8. I think skepticism is a process, not a state, and in that sense, one cannot be born a skeptic. I agree with the observation that we are all born with an innate need to get to the bottom of what the world is all about, but I think that some of us choose to go down that road farther than others, and many of us choose to linger longer than others at the rest stop of raw belief.

  9. I think we are made. When we are born and for the first several years the world is new and we don’t know how anything works. We are dependent on those around us. If they are good and kind and patient they will take time to answer our questions. When we ask where wind comes from or where the moon goes they have a few choices. They can tell us the truth if they know it, they can tell us they don’t know but then take us to the library or the bookcase and try to help us find out, they can tell us they don’t know and then stop or they can give us a magical answer. I think you can learn to be a skeptic at any point in your life but it is much easier if the people who raised you do certain things to prepare you for reality.

  10. Here are my two cents: I think we have a certain amount of innate skepticism that comes along with “Don’t trust that which is different” – it’s the same foundation for why we trust our family, respect our elders and believe what they say. So we’re skeptical of strangers innately.

    But, we are also born to trust and believe in our parents, our tribes and our social circles. So we are made skeptical or non-skeptical based on what they teach us. We tend to believe what our parents believe, at least for the formative parts of our lives.

    So I guess I am in the ‘it depends’ camp :)

  11. I think that mindset and the way we look at the world are things that are shaped by our environment and our experiences.

    That being said, I think that some of us are born with a more questioning attitude, a desire to KNOW more, and so we ask more questions and sometimes have a more open mind.

  12. Hanes,
    You are absolutly right, I was born with the potential to be 7 foot 2 inches tall. But thanks to my environment of drinking booze and coffee starting at the age of 14 I only filled out to 6 foot 6 inches tall with really long arms.

  13. made + 1

    There may be some genetic traits that predispose people to skepticism, but:

    A) you can still make a skeptic without them, and

    B) having those traits doesn’t preclude being made into a non-skeptic (historically, I think there were plenty of potentials who never made the leap).

  14. We’re all born with the ability to be skeptical, to feel it as an emotion – that “I don’t know…” feeling.

    But to actually be a skeptic, an active critical thinker? That takes some “training”. Some people do it easier than others.

    For me, though, I was not born a skeptic. I’m as gullible as they come. Learning the tricks of critical thinking helped me to become less of a douchebag.

  15. i’m going with the both crowd on this one. all kids are a wierd mix of curious and gullible. Kids may believe their parents about things like Santa Claus, but by the time the parents admit the truth, the kids have usually figured that one out on their own. And what kid hasn’t specifically ignored their parent’s decrees to find out what happens if you do it anyway? I think upbringing and maybe innate personality determine whether you’ll keep investigating as you grow older, or follow along with the believer crowd.

  16. Elyse,

    I agree with what you are saying. I think that if it weren’t for Issac Asimov and Carl Sagan I would still be a magic believer cowering in the night terrified for my soul

  17. Are you born able to see or do you learn to see? Equally ridiculous! Lets have more questions that aren’t set up as a(n often false) dichotomy.

    That said, I would like to preemptively disagree with anything else I will ever say. Here is why: I was born a Believer. I trained as a Skeptic. Now I must turn off a part of my brain in order to talk with anyone. … would you agree with an arrogant douchebag like me?

  18. Hanes,

    I wasn’t rude to you. I didn’t call you names and I wasn’t being and idiot. When I was a kid the docs did a growth chart on me. Iwas supposed to be 7’2″, I started drinking at 14 along with the coffee I think these stunted my growth and I ended up at 6’6″ with ape positive arms that would be the correct length if I were 8 inches taller. I didn’t claim you said anything more than you did. So don’t be a jerk in your posts.

  19. You know, I’ve been accused of having long money arms myself… I wonder if maybe I got stunted somewhere along the way… Of course, there’s a certain amount of long-arm that comes with being tall in and of itself, but when you overreach people your own height by an inch or two, it’s a little interesting…

  20. From my wrist to my shoulder it is 38 inches, that is the same as my inseam. So basically my arms are as long as my legs. This is called ape positive. My children love this term.

  21. Nature v. nurture? Hmm. I think certain skills relevant to critical thinking could have genetic bases, and I think that certain skills are certainly learned.

    But I THINK I agree with Elyse on this – her characterization of skepticism as an “I don’t know” feeling. It seems like that comes from life experience. (e.g., If you’ve been cheated on, you are more likely to have that “I don’t know” feeling in later relationships).

    And I think the “feeling” – the cause of choosing to apply our critical thinking skills – is context-specific. (e.g., The most skeptical person and most critical thinker I know could not see the ending to ‘The Usual Suspects’ coming when we watched it together for the first time.)

  22. Can you come to Chicago and wrap me in your money arms?

    …and of course, it’s not the internet unless someone gives you a hard time about typos, right?

    It’s ok. I forgive you because you’re pretty. :P

  23. yeah, I’m a freak, I also have really big hand with pronounced hairy knuckls, hair feat and toes. All I need is an extremly pronounce brow ridge and a sloping back skull. I used to be really, really good at climbing trees.

  24. @slxpluvs: I don’t think the purpose of any of these questions are to have a black and white answer. And I would have been highly disappointed if everyone came out on one side or the other. The fact is most of these areas are shades of grey and that’s what makes them interesting to discuss.

    Personally, I am interested in folks who have a background in evolutionary biology to explain what components, if any, of skepticism may be evolved. But if anyone said “100% – it’s a nature,” I would be very skeptical. :)

    I think the general tendency of these questions is to be thought- and discussion- provoking.

    But, just for you, maybe I’ll make the next question “George W. Bush – Great President or THE GREATEST President?” :)

  25. Nature v. nurture? Hmm. I think certain skills relevant to critical thinking could have genetic bases, and I think that certain skills are certainly learned.

    And certain skills may have both genetic and learned bases. It’s not a false dichotomy because it’s not a dichotomy at all. It’s a matter of degree, and it’s a topic that is studied in many contexts.

  26. Considering that we’ve evolved in an environment in which Type II errors are less costly than Type I errors, we’re all born suckers. Skepticism is an acquired trait.

  27. @Stacey:

    I agree with you Stacey … Sorry, I did not intend to imply a mutual exclusivity … I really should think harder before blogging.

    I just don’t think of “skepticism” as a “skill,” any more than I don’t think of its evil step-cousin, “cynicism,” as a skill.

  28. @Stacey: It absolutely is a false dichotomy. It ignores both the ability for individual organisms to produce novel and unique actions and the ability for individuals to choose acts counter to their natural and cultural upbringing.

    Although I agree that one can often reduce many things to nurture vs. nature, that simplification looses the most powerful and compelling parts of a system.

    Hrmm … I feel I’m not making my point very well. Lets imagine a world where people evolved (magic) an extra set of functional arms that they didn’t know how to make them function. Then someone learns how they function. Although exploration may be natural or nurtural, the discovery itself is neither within nurture or nature. The discovery is of the person.

  29. @Gabrielbrawley: n. “One who instinctively or habitually doubts, questions, or disagrees with assertions or generally accepted conclusions” … Hmm, “instinctively” or “habitually”? … Dammit!

  30. It ignores both the ability for individual organisms to produce novel and unique actions and the ability for individuals to choose acts counter to their natural and cultural upbringing.

    No, it doesn’t. Have you reviewed any studies involving nature vs. nurture? They often involve twins, raised separately. The recorded observations make for very interesting subject matter.

    I am hereby resigning my post as the Defender of Skepchick Afternoon Inquisitions. Though, I don’t even remember accepting the position. It may be hard to stand by and see an interesting conversation get derailed with petty BS attacks on the question itself, but I’ve lost the desire to participate in it on any level.

  31. I just don’t think of “skepticism” as a “skill,” any more than I don’t think of its evil step-cousin, “cynicism,” as a skill.

    I think skepticism can be a skill, but I may define skepticism differently than you. I define skepticism as application of the scientific method, which is learnable.

  32. Okay, so, What is a skeptic?

    I’ve said it before, and I don’t much like self-quoting, but I think it could be said again here appropriately:

    “To my way of looking at it, skepticism is not a state of being, so much as a road. It a path leading to knowledge and understanding. It’s part of the larger and more comprehensive highway of science, if I may continue the analogy needlessly because I like it.

    Any person walking that road can rightly call themselves a skeptic, no matter how far along they may be, and no matter how often they get distracted and wander off in other directions.”

  33. Also, here’s a snippet from Shermer’s definition of skepticism:

    Some people believe that skepticism is the rejection of new ideas, or worse, they confuse “skeptic” with “cynic” and think that skeptics are a bunch of grumpy curmudgeons unwilling to accept any claim that challenges the status quo. This is wrong. Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas — no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position. Ideally, skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true. When we say we are “skeptical,” we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe.

  34. @Stacey: Well thought out and written, Stacey. I think that everyone has the capability of being a rational, skeptical person. It has to be nurtured, however. It is all too easy to to mold children into a belief or worldview. Just look at how the Christian Bible says (the exact verse escapes me at the moment) that ‘As the twig is bent, the tree shall grow.’ If a belief in the supernatural is fostered in a child, it will be much harder later for that belief to change.

    I also think that there are personalities that are more likely to become skeptics than believers of received wisdom. The budding skeptics are the kids that persist in asking about a subject if the answers they recieve are not satisfactory. Now, I’m not talking about the little kid that relentlessly asks, “Why?” to everything. I’m talking about the kids that thinks the matter over and asks cogent (and hard to answer) questions. These kids are likely to be advanced readers for their ages, too. I was one of those (Boy, did I get a lot of crap when I was in Catholic school!) and so is my younger daughter. I taught both of my kids about having a Carl Sagan “baloney detector,” as well as his statement, “I don’t want to believe. I want to know.” It only took in one kid, though. ;-)

    I wonder what effect a group-consensus driven society has on skepticism? One would think that it would be more difficult to become a scientist in that kind of culture, as questioning authority is discouraged. Isn’t questioning authority part of the scientific method? Not accepting “Because I said so” as a valid answer to a scientific question? It would be interesting to be able to examine scientists raised and trained in a country such as North Korea, with the type of “cult of personality,” totalitarian, secretive government they have.

  35. By the way Stacey, I meant to ask you how you come by your writing skills. I was expecting to see your profile say you had a degree in Writing or some allied major. Do all MBA students write as well as you do?

  36. @Stacey:

    Take the weekend to consider your resignation. The rest of the Skepchick team will support your decision either way.

    Wasn’t the point of AI to be fun conversations for us and our readers?


  37. @whitebird:

    Hey Flib – is your avatar a closeup of a stained glass window with Northern California in the summertime in the background? Sorry, OT.

    Northwest Indiana, not California, but you’re correct otherwise. I took it a few years ago.

  38. I thnk we label ourselves skeptics and then fight to live up to the name.

    I’m not sure anyone’s born skeptical. Personally I remember being pretty gullible as a kid.

  39. @Rystefn: Excellent! I call it a life-long learning process. But that is an ideal, and I don’t know if it’s right to build values into the definition of the term. There is also a lazy skepticism that is akin to contradiction. [Do you remember the Monty Python sketch? “Yes it is.” “No it isn’t!” “Yes it IS!” “No it ISn’t!”…] But questions of this type are least interesting when they come down to matters of semantics.

  40. I think we are born total saps that are predisposed to believe just about any nonsensical notion, in fact, the more crazy and absurd the better!
    As others have said, the essence of skepticism is a lifelong struggle re-training yourself to assume that your senses and emotions (and other people) mislead you constantly. Our brains are fiendishly simple to trick.
    Unfortunately, a skeptical mindset requires effort to maintain, so most people find it easier to just go with the crowd or the easy explanation.
    Hmmm…I’m skeptical about everything I just said and for that matter, this whole thread.

  41. @Rystefn:

    Any person walking that road can rightly call themselves a skeptic, no matter how far along they may be, and no matter how often they get distracted and wander off in other directions.

    This seems to happen to me a lot, but then, I do have Attention Deficit Disorder.

    You’re one of those skeptics aren’t you? Always questioning! – Bill the Paranormal Investigator, Invader Zim Ep. 6A Career Day

  42. Marilove has hit the nail on the head: critical thinking skills are learned.

    There seems to be some confusion here between a. the semi-natural and somewhat non-verbal state of doubt and mistrust that (along with its counterpart, trust)) is part of the instinctual, or innate survival process/mechansim, and b. skepticism.

    As Stacey indirectly pointed out with her quote from Shermer, the two are very different things.

    As far as I understand (and recall my studies in) psychology, critical thinking can only be learned. While the capacity for critical thinking may be innate, or heritable, the practice of it is neither.

    And regardless of how hard one may try, critical thinking skills can only be learned by some limited percentage of the human population, not all.

    Effective critical thinking involves, amongst many other things, the ability to put one’s self in someone else’s shoes. Regardless of education or intellectaul development, the ability for that kind of emotional/intellectual projection is a trait or skill that is available to some, but not all, of us.

    So, to cut the long wind short, I would say while some folks may feel they were born skeptical (as opposed to being open to critical thinking, hence skepticality) rather than just mistrustful and doubting (not the same thing as skepticism), I suspect they would have a profoundly, perhaps impossibly difficult time providing any evidence whatsoever that this was so.

  43. Well, now, Sic, I believe that depends wholly on your definition of what is a skeptic – something that is still up for debate. I’m fairly sure that those who say that they were born a skeptic are using a definition compatible with such a statement.

    Further, I would like to say that I would have a profoundly, perhaps impossibly difficult time providing any evidence whatsoever that I was born bald. This is no way makes it any less true, though it perfectly valid grounds for you to withhold acceptance of the fact.

    /me wishes Stacey wouldn’t leave her post, she seems to be one of the wisest folk here.

    I would like to second, and add also that she is among the most stunningly beautiful as well, and that’s no small feat in this crowd.

  44. Hanes,
    Okay, cool. I was really trying to support your point. I guess it loses something without my freakish size in the back of the group picture.

  45. I think you need to learn to be skeptical, though the seeds of skepticism I think are available to just about anyone, you have to learn to really use those talents and capabilities that are part of your thought process. It’s all too easy to just accept what people tell you without critically examining things and to choose to believe what you want to or what is easier to believe.

  46. Rystefn said: Well, now, Sic, I believe that depends wholly on your definition of what is a skeptic – something that is still up for debate. I’m fairly sure that those who say that they were born a skeptic are using a definition compatible with such a statement.

    (How’d you know the short form was “Sic”?
    /glances shiftily from side to side)

    Um, er, well maybe. Though I think, without any implicit or explicit hostility, that you are maybe playing a wee bit with sophistry. Maybe. But ya, you may be right.

    /ponder, ponder….

    Okay, if the definition of skeptic is still up for grabs, then what you say may be true.

    The Canadian Oxford states:

    skeptic: 1. a person who doubts the validity of accepted beliefs in a particular subject. 2. a person who doubts the truth of Christianity and other religions. 3. a person who accepts the philosophy of skepticism.

    Skeptical: 1. inclined to question the truth or soundnesss of accepted ideas, facts, etc.; crtitical, incredulous. 2. (Philosophy) of or accepting skepticism; denying the possibility of knowledge.

    skepticism: a skeptical attitude in relation to accepted ideas, facts, etc.; doubting or critical disposition. 2. (Philosophy); the doctrine of the skeptics; the opinion that real knowledge is unattainable.

    Okay, so clearly we do indeed have to do some work and come to some consensus about what skeptic, and skeptical means.

    Maybe we could ask Shermer or Phil Plait, or Randi to provide some of their insight and thoughts on the matter? After all, they are approachable wise guys — I’ve exchanged several emails with all of those wise guys. :)

    Friend Rystefn also said: “Further, I would like to say that I would have a profoundly, perhaps impossibly difficult time providing any evidence whatsoever that I was born bald. This is no way makes it any less true, though it perfectly valid grounds for you to withhold acceptance of the fact.”

    Well, okay, yes you might, but most folks would almost certainly have photographs that would verify such an admittedly bizarre phenomenon.

    What I mean is that judging by your photo avatar, you, like me, have probably never been, and with luck may never be, grade double A eggshell bald at al, at all. 8)

    In all seriousness though, photographs are I think efficient proof enough, barring extensive descent into the chthonic territories of absolute philosphy where nothing is proof of anything because everything is proof of nothing, and so forth and so on ad museum. ;)

  47. I think that if you asked them, you’d get three different answers. Similar in tone and concept, but different enough that you’d have a fair bit of wiggle-room. I’m also fairly sure that if you presented them with any of ten or twelve definitions, you’d get varying degrees of agreement and likely start quite an interesting conversation on the subject.

    You’d also get skeptics on the ground, so to speak, disagreeing. Goes with the territory. Welcome to the wonderful world of skepticism.

    Also, photos are never really proof. It’s astoundingly easy to manipulate images, and pretty much has been from the start. I don’t know what the first photo ever taken was, but I’m fairly sure the second was faked.

  48. Rystefn, while I don’t, in essence, disagree with you, and I do think your points are essentially true, I will say that I feel you tread too closely into what I, for no particular reason, call ultimate philospohy.

    What I mean by that is that what you say is not false, nonetheless it serves no constructive role in the general discussion in regards to working toward a consensus, however thin, nor does it help in clarifying the issues we, seemingly, feel are important.

    What you say is not false nor wrong; however, is it helpful, constructive, purposeful, or productive?

    (Please note I do not in any way mean that in a hostile, billigerent, or combative way: it is meant as honest query.)

    Rightly or wrongly, when a group of bright, thoughtful, curious, and intelligent folks get together to discuss the kind of issues that we discuss here — I know I’m new, but the general theme is clear — I feel it is fairly important we avoid the depths of “ultimate philosophy” and try to adhere to a reasonabley consensual common ground.

    I know, I know, I know. That statement opens the potentially bottomless well of “what is common ground Sic?” Nonetheless, I do believe that fair consensus can be found.


    Lastly, if the Shermers, Randis, Plaits, Sagans, et al of the world don’t provide a defintion of “skeptic” or “skeptical” that we can agree on, is there then any hope, or reason, to carry on the great debate?

  49. What you say is not false nor wrong; however, is it helpful, constructive, purposeful, or productive?

    No, no, yes, maybe.

    I think the discussion of what it means to be a skeptic is far more important than actually nailing down a definitive meaning of the word skeptic can ever be. To this end, I hold a definition of very broad strokes, and freely indulge or argue with any other definition as the mood strikes me.

    Settling to one seems to me like a step in the wrong direction, because any time such a definition becomes the accepted definition, it becomes dogma, and that defeats the entire purpose of skepticism in the first place…

    Please, feel free to disagree with me, of course.

  50. Rys and Sic (if I may so abbreviate), I’ll have to come back and read anything else you read in the morning, but before I went to bed I wanted to say thank you for having an entertaining and intelligent conversation without being rude and logically fallacious right and left. ‘Tis lovely.

  51. @SicPreFix:

    Just to clarify, I’m not leaving my post. I’m merely :

    resigning my post as the Defender of Skepchick Afternoon Inquisitions.

    I got caught up in debating the derailers/defending the AI two days in a row.

    So what I was saying, in an unecessarily melodramatic way, was that I realized by fighting the derailing, I was contributing to it. And I don’t want to do that.

    I’m pretty sure that was clear, but just in case there was any doubt…

    I’d have to be crazy to leave this awesome website. I may be melodramatic and bitchy, but I’m not crazy.

  52. I was definitely not born a skeptic, but I think I always have been curious. I became a skeptic when I was 18 I’d say, when my mom Introduced me to the SGU which was introduced to her through one of her best friends and a mother who has raised 3 skeptics.

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