(Investigator 28, 1993 January)

If you're totally uncritical you'll easily be hoodwinked! Alternatively, if you're so skeptical as to reject evidence for anything contrary to current science you may miss something important. The trick is to be skeptical but open-minded.

I have a few ideas that might help. I can't supply an infallible way to distinguish what science will always accept from what will need future revision. If I could then lots of scientists would be out of work since my rule would give them the answers and experiments wouldn't be necessary! All I can do is offer some guidelines to sharpen your thinking!

My first suggestion is that if the question under discussion can be settled by making an observation then make that observation! If, for example, you're debating whether men or women have more teeth you might open some mouths and count!

My next suggestion if you're unsure whether some one is making a plausible claim is ask for references in reputable journals. If he says "Flying Saucers have landed" get published discussions about it by reputable astronomers and physicists.

My third suggestion is to ask informed people directly whether something is true. Try to get an appropriate specialist in the relevant field. Concerning the male and female number of teeth you might try your dentist! It's also smart to ask several specialists and see if they agree!

Avoid anger. Sometimes anger is a cover to avoid facing up to the idea that your belief is based on inadequate evidence. We've all seen people in disagreement start insulting each other. Perhaps the question was "Does evolution occur?" Relevant sciences to consult include genetics, zoology, paleontology, etc. If the disputers call out things like "Bigot", "Ignoramus!" and "Afraid to think" they're making psychological claims. They've ignored sciences (like genetics) which might supply some answers and switched to a science (psychology) which won't supply answers! Even if a psychological assessment shows one disputer to be closed minded this would not necessarily make his view wrong. It's quite possible to be inflexible and yet still correct in one's views!

Almost opposite to anger is flattery. We all like occasional praise! But what if the praise wasn't earned or is subject to you agreeing with the flatterer's views? There's a sect which continually flatters its members as "lovers of truth", "sincere", "reasonable", "genuine Christians", "loyal", "light bearers", etc. Several score such expressions keep getting recycled and sometimes 100 such flatteries may occur in about 30 pages! Watch out for strange claims mingled with flattery!

Be informed of opinions contrary to your own and of evidence for them. A useful way to make yourself more aware is to put yourself in your opponent's shoes and imagine how you would defend his views. I don't often do this myself because it's uncomfortable!

Watch out when fear is used to lever you into agreement. A salesman who wants to sell you his security system may exaggerate the risk of burglary. Some religious leaders who want your support regularly stress the nearness of Armageddon with phrases like "Act now while you still can", "Nearer than most people think", "Immediately before us", etc. The idea is that a bit of anxiety and fear may get you to agree with the sect.

Whatever the disagreement perhaps one day you'll get the right answer and reach agreement. You might for example find out whether males or females have more teeth. What then? Chances are that the answer will generate more questions on which to disagree! If one group has fewer teeth is it because: 1.They are born that way? 2. Make less effort to care for them? 3. Suffer more accidents?

Next time someone tries to convince you of something that sounds dubious be skeptical but also open-minded. Investigate to the extent it is practical for you. Observe; Consult relevant specialists and references; Understand both sides; Beware of flattery, anger and fear.

You won't become infallible but you'll do better than previously!