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6.1.06

How To Write A Skeptical Post

Here's a challenge: find someone extolling the virtues of blind dogmatism. Everywhere you go, you find nothing but claims to be a clear-eyed rational assessor of the evidence. Even the most deeply religious people will tell you that their faith withstands open-minded scrutiny. Dogmatism is prevalent in today's world, but the Enlightenment has succeeded spectacularly in forcing it to disguise itself, even in the minds of its believers, as rational inquiry.

Why, then, do so many people feel the need to begin blog posts, newspaper columns, and other writings with a long discourse on the virtues of skepticism? There won't be any defenders of dogma popping up to take you on. I suspect that for many people, skepticism is an attitude, not a way of thinking. It makes you cool to extol your clear-eyed commitment to reason and the facts. It makes you righteous to see the truth where the masses have been led astray by unthinking allegiance to an unsupported theory. And it makes me skeptical of the quality of your analysis if you have to preface it by rehashing the same old arguments against dogmatism.

Anti-dogmatic generalities are a cheap rhetorical trick. They make the writer sound more important, since he's battling a grand social ideology rather than just a particular creationist argument, climate model, or Iraq policy. They demand that the reader take your side before the real argument has even begun -- after all, who wants to take the side of dogma?

People making skeptical arguments need to remember the cardinal rule of writing: show, don't tell. Don't tell me about the evils of dogmatism. Show me the evidence and show me how the prevailing conclusion doesn't follow from it. I, and everyone else, will be more likely to give your arguments fair consideration if you don't start off by accusing us of being unthinking sheep, and instead grant us the respect of making an argument about the topic at hand.

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