Learning To Be A Happy Skeptic

by Randy Murray on August 24, 2010

If you spend any time on the Internet, or have access to email, or spend anytime at the office water cooler, you need to know one web site address: http://www.snopes.com/.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard an incredible, fantastic, or stunning story that someone swears is true, but that a few minutes on http://www.snopes.com/ will quickly deliver the verdict that the tale is false. Another urban legend. I’m also a huge fan of the MythBusters, and not just because they typically find a reason to blow stuff up.

People may call you a killjoy (they’ve called me worse), but now that I’ve got ubiquitous access to the Internet with an iPhone in my pocket or my iPad at my side, it’s easy to check out a story and clear up the rumors and the “have you heard” tales that so many people take at face value.

I’ve been in marketing and done a fair amount of public relations (PR) over the years and I’ve learned one thing: I have never seen a news report or article that I’ve either been quoted in or had some part of the event where the story as reported was 100% accurate. There is always something wrong. And more often than not, the story is one-dimensional or incomplete, allowing the reader to misconstrue what happened.

So I’ve become skeptical about almost anything I read or hear.

Being skeptical doesn’t mean that I think you’re lying to me. It just means that although your information seems interesting, I need to check it out.

I read a story about James Randi, the great debunker of psychics and frauds. Someone recognized him, standing in line to register for an event. The person asked Randi, “Is this the registration line?” To which he replied, “I doubt it.”

Some people think skepticism is a depressing way of looking at the world, but I find it exhilarating. It’s an approach where you can gleefully discover what is true or false. It’s fun to get to the bottom of things. And even if the tale is a juicy one, understanding what’s really going on is critical if you want to be more than just another one of the countless sheep.

Learn to be a skeptic. Remember what the most junior reporter is taught: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Be proud that other people understand that if they send you an email story that they’ve copied to dozens of others that you’ll be the one to reply back and say, “That happens not to be the case. Here’s what really happened . . .”

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The Learning To Be A Happy Skeptic by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mari August 24, 2010 at 9:52 am

The second time the same friend sent me the snopes report after I had blindly forwarded an outrageous urban legend, my embarrassment of having to re-email the truth to those I had emailed the B.S. cured me of buying into the vast trove of circulating email stories. Holy cow, Captain! You’re saving humanity again with today’s lesson. Hopefully the uninitiated will pay attention.

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2 Randy Murray August 24, 2010 at 9:54 am

I doubt it!

I actually love urban legend stories, but it’s important to understand what they are – stories.

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3 Mari August 24, 2010 at 10:13 am

Perfect serve and return!

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4 Eddie August 24, 2010 at 11:21 am

Thank you for posting this. I could not agree more.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to reply to friends and relatives informing them that they’re blindly forwarding emails with flat out false information. Of course, I’m much more courteous than I make it sound here. :)

This gets particularly bad during political elections. And as close as some recent elections have been, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the proliferation of false information through email could decide an election.

I even wrote Google once and suggested that they add a snopes.com “lab” feature to Gmail that would alert people before forwarding an email based on bad information.

Google already scans your email to deliver ads. Why not help cut down on the spread of misinformation by hitting snopes.com with keywords and displaying alerts?

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5 Randy Murray August 24, 2010 at 1:17 pm

I love that idea!

Add chain mail, spam offers, and multi-level marketing crap and Google could show it’s still got a little good left in it.

Google, are you listening? Please turn away from the dark side!

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6 Mark August 24, 2010 at 6:50 pm

How do we know Snopes is correct and isn’t spreading false information. I heard it was owned by Fox News. I agree always be a skeptic.

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