Home » Skepticism

Don’t Ever Let Go of the Basics

An accountant, known and respected for his accuracy and diligence at work, was nonetheless somewhat of a mystery in his small office for over a half century. Polite and soft-spoken, he talked very little and avoided conversation, preferring to work through his lunch hour rather than socialize. He was the first to arrive and the last to leave every day; no one could remember him ever taking a day off sick. However, everyone who worked with him noticed one small, subtle habit: at the start of every fresh task, he would open his top desk drawer, peer into a manila file folder kept there, nod to himself solemnly, and then replace the folder in the drawer and begin his work.

Although no one wished to ask him directly about this ritual, his co-workers speculated endlessly upon its meaning. What was in the folder? Was it some bit of inspiration or wisdom? Some rules of thumb that helped him in his task? A picture of a loved one? In this small, intimate office, it was the one topic of conversation that never grew old.

The accountant, however, did grow old, and eventually died: his co-workers arrived one morning to find him slumped over his desk, his slide-rule clutched in his hand. As the coroner took him away, the rest of the office waited a full five minutes before someone spoke the words that were going through everyone’s minds:

“It wouldn’t be disrespectful to look in the folder now, would it?”

The senior manager approached the drawer, the rest of the staff clustered around her. She slid out the drawer solemnly, and held her breath as she pulled out the folder and opened it. Taped inside was a single sheet of paper, with only five words:

“Debits go on the left.”

Although accountancy has changed since the days of slide rules and paper ledgers, the practice of entering debits to the left is so universal that the idea of an experienced accountant having to remind himself about it is absurd. However, this anecdote from early 20th century humorist Bennet Cerf contains an important grain of wisdom: no matter how absurd it might seem, it is always good to remind ourselves of the basics, and to check ourselves, regularly, to see that we really are following our own rules.

The hypocrisy of a high-control group campaigning for “human rights” while denying those rights to its members is easy to see – from the outside. But we are all blind to our own hypocrisies: from the environmentalist who uses K-cups for her coffee, to the vegetarian wearing leather shoes, to the economist who complains about the death of small retail, yet buys everything from Amazon and Wal-Mart.

When invoking critical thinking and healthy skepticism, it is important to check our preconceptions – even (and especially!) our dearest and oldest-held beliefs.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a story about all-or-nothing thinking that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!

Jessica Terwiel on Conflict De-escalation

jessica terwiel

Jessica Terwiel recently appeared on the podcast “Left at the Valley”, discussing the often-neglected art of conflict de-escalation – stepping away and taking time to cool down. Jessica offers some solid life advice, sparkling wittily in her interview, which starts at 55 minutes into the show (though you’ll want to listen to the whole podcast, particularly their amusing breakdown of the top ten product failures of all time).



Why Open Minds?

Why are we called the Open Minds Foundation, and what precisely is an open mind? I was at the meeting where the name was first suggested, but was out of the room, and no one seemed sure who had come up with it. I wanted to know, because I embraced it immediately.

But, if an open mind is open to influence, would a closed mind be better? I think we are on fairly safe ground. The online Cambridge Dictionary tells us that to keep an open mind means, “to wait until you know all the facts before forming an opinion or making a judgment.” And that is precisely what we would like people to do.

It is also worth realizing that we may never actually have all the facts, so a truly open mind is willing to consider new information and revise opinions and judgments in light of that new information. An open mind is a healthy mind.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s book, Opening Minds? Do you have a story about having an open mind that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

The Euphoria of Belief – Rachel Bernstein Talks with James Underdown

“Be a smart spiritual consumer,” Rachel Bernstein cautions in the latest episode of her podcast, IndoctriNation. Bernstein, one of our Advisory Board members, talks with James Underdown of the Center for Inquiry about healthy skepticism, the value of being able to distinguish harmful spiritual practices from harmless or even beneficial beliefs, and the importance of being able to think and question for yourself.

This engaging and informative conversation will leave you wanting to hear more from both the participants!

Three Little Pigs – Balancing Heart and Head

Once upon a time, there were three little pigs, who moved into a new neighborhood, and decided to build houses to keep themselves safe from the big, bad wolf.

The first pig was skilled at keeping his emotions in check, and knew how to take deep breaths, take his time to make any decision, and to make sure he was always well-rested and well-fed before starting out on any new course of action. However, he knew nothing about critical thinking or logical fallacies, and so, when the straw man at the market used a load of smooth-sounding pseudoscience to ‘prove’ that all straw houses keep out 99.9% of wolves, he decided to build his house from straw. The wolf, of course (who was bribing the straw man to convince tasty pigs to build straw houses), was able to huff and puff and bring the house of straw down.

The second pig had recognized the straw man’s false facts for what they were; he knew every logical fallacy backwards and forwards and prided himself on his critical thinking skills. However, he was a hotheaded hog, and easily moved by high emotion. So, a nice man at the market (another friend of the wolf) invited him to a free ‘seminar’, surrounding him with pretty porcine beauties who love-bombed him, and told him just how wonderful it would be if he would buy sticks to build his house with. After a night of singing and dancing and talking about the importance of sticks, he was convinced that anyone who didn’t build a house of sticks was an enemy of free-thinking pigs everywhere, and, before he calmed down, he had built a house of sticks, which the wolf easily destroyed the very next day.

healthy skepticism depends upon a balance of critical thinking and good emotional hygiene.The third pig knew about the importance of critical thinking and good emotional hygiene, and how healthy skepticism depends upon a balance of both. He also heard the straw man talk, and used his critical thinking skills to decide against a house of straw. A very pretty female pig invited him to the seminar, but he made himself a promise to calm down after the dancing, and not to decide anything about the value of sticks until he had had a good night’s rest and a few days to think about things. In the end, he built himself a fine house of bricks, and was safe from the big bad wolf.

Although this is a slightly different take on the old tale, we hope it serves as a reminder that critical thinking and emotional hygiene work best when employed together, and that the best defense against predatory influence is a well-rounded mind, with intellect and emotions working in tandem.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a story about balancing critical thinking with emotional hygiene that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Jon Atack Talks on Safeguarding Youth from Coercive Control

“We want to show young people how they can resist being drawn into a coercive relationship, whether that be with an individual or with a group,” Jon Atack tells the gathered students at Salford University. The program, a master’s degree in the Psychology of Coercive Control, is, he says: “truly pioneering. This is something that should be taught from primary schools through to universities.”

In this 90-second video clip, Jon stresses that although such groups as Scientology and the Moonies are in decline, other coercive groups like the white supremacy movement and multi-level marketing scams are on the rise. “People don’t know how to evaluate information,” Jon cautions. “Our society has become absolutely riddled with coercive behaviour, because it’s become acceptable.” Jon warns us that predatory and abusive influence may be found in families, in companies, and in social groups, and so it is vital to teach our children to recognize and protect themselves from predatory influence, wherever they might encounter it.

What do you think about this video? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Do you have a story about predatory influence that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 




Blink, Think, Choice, Voice – Teaching Children to Say ‘No’ to Predators

Teaching children how to protect themselves is a priority for all parents: we all know the dangers that predatory individuals pose to a child. So, of course we teach our children about “stranger danger.” But what if the predator is someone we trust?

That is why we should be teaching children intelligent disobedience – saying ‘no’ to a direction when it’s not the right thing to do. Regular readers of this blog will know about Ira Chaleff’s sterling work in the area of intelligent disobedience; we were pleased to hear that he has released his new workbook, Intelligent Disobedience for Children.

This must-read manual gives an easy-to-follow, common-sense approach to teaching children what to do if an adult tells them to do something that isn’t right, such as hurting someone, stealing something, or even submitting to sexual advances. In his handbook, Chaleff explains the best method for teaching children the four easy steps to resisting a “wrong” direction: taking the time to blink, then thinking about the direction, making a choice, and then using their voice to assert themselves.

By following the clear, coherent steps in this handbook, parents can coach their children, deliver positive feedback, and engage them in the process of learning this important prevention technique. The advice Chaleff gives is sound and presented in simple language, with helpful tips on how to present this vital information to children of any age, from toddler to young adult.

An important part of healthy skepticism is the courage to stand up and speak truth to authority, and teaching children intelligent disobedience is a vital way to foster this courage in the citizens of the future. We hope that this handbook finds its way into as many homes, schools and offices as possible, and that the phrase “Blink, Think, Choice, Voice,” will empower future generations of children to stand up to predatory behavior and undue influence.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Ira Chaleff’s book, Intelligent Disobedience? Do you have a story about intelligent disobedience that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 


The Donkey and the Idol

Once there was a Donkey who belonged to a man living next to a temple. Every year, the temple had a festival, where the statue of the local god was carried around the town square by a beautiful stallion. However, eventually the stallion became too sick and old to bear the weight of the idol, and the monks, not having enough money to purchase a new horse, asked their neighbor for the loan of his Donkey.

The Donkey had never paid attention to the festival, so had no idea what all the fuss was about when, laden with the stone god, he trotted out into the town square and found himself the center of attention. Everyone cheered and clapped, bowing and throwing gifts of flowers to the idol. The Donkey, thinking the people were cheering him, held his head up high and proudly carried the idol around the town square before returning to his stable.

Frowning at his humble surroundings, the Donkey became angry and said to the other animals: “Look at this dingy old stall! I am a revered and important person and deserve better than to be cooped up with you ordinary animals! And look at this filthy manger! Certainly, such a holy Donkey like me deserves better food than oats and hay!”

He went on for some time in this manner, until an old Crow spoke wisely: “You were carrying the image of a god, a symbol of a divinity: the people were cheering at the idea of the god, not at you, or even the idol itself. Just because you carried a statue on your back does not make you any more holy than you were yesterday. You are a Donkey, no more, no less; now stop putting on airs and be content.”

There are many who think that, because they somehow represent their idea of god, that they are holy themselves, and better than “ordinary” people, but nothing could be further from the truth. The same is true for those who think that wealth or status entitles them to better treatment.

Healthy skepticism shows us that it is the idea of something higher than us which brings people of faith together, that we are all entitled to fair treatment, and most importantly, that there is a big difference between a divinity and the one carrying the idol on their back.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novelDo you have a story about misplaced reverence that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 


Certainty, Aversion and the War of Jenkins’ Ear – Jon Atack Talks with Pearse Redmond

Jon Atack and Pearse Redmond are together again, this time exploring a wealth of fascinating questions, including, but not limited to:

  • Who is Scientology TV produced for?
  • Why do we feel so certain about our beliefs?
  • Why did the German people of the 1930’s vote to give up their right to vote?
  • What is hypnotism?
  • What can we learn from the assault of Louise Ogborn?
  • How do salespeople get us to buy – NOW?
  • Has the actual quantity of bombings gone up, or just the prevalence of reporting them?
  • What is the cultural significance of aversion and disgust?

As always, it’s an amazing and thought-provoking conversation – a must-listen.

What Do You Mean, “Scientific”?

A few weeks ago, a correspondent called me “anti-scientific”. It highlighted an important point: are we allowed to question a scientist’s view? And if we question the view of a particular scientist, are we being “anti-science”?

In my email, I had criticised Freud for creating a supposed science based upon opinion rather than investigation, and Richard Dawkins for desperately holding on to the belief that evolution is driven solely by the selfishness of the gene.

My correspondent had assumed the position that it is wrong to criticise “scientists”, elevating them to the mystical status of religious prophets. I could not disagree more.

Freud’s narcissistic self-obsession is evident in his own writings: he boasts and makes paranoid statements about his detractors. For instance, in a 1915 letter, he said,

“I have never done anything mean or malicious, nor have I felt any temptation to do so … When I ask myself why I have always aspired to behave honorably, to spare others and to be kind wherever possible, and why I didn’t cease doing so when I realized that in this way one comes to harm and becomes an anvil because other people are brutal and unreliable, then indeed I have no answer … In my youth I didn’t feel any special ethical aspirations, nor does the conclusion that I am better than others give me any recognizable satisfaction! … Why I … have to be [a] thoroughly decent human being is quite incomprehensible to me.”

This pompous self-congratulation is in absolute contradiction with Freud’s constant petty feuds with followers and co-workers who criticised him in any way. He blithely abandoned patients who had received no benefit from his ministrations – and often been harmed by his insistence on the use of cocaine.

Anthony Storr pointed to these misdeeds in Feet of Clay. Frederick Crews gives chapter and verse in Freud: The Making of an Illusion. Critics of Freud have at times been viciously attacked by believers in his system – very much like critics of other cultic groups.

Richard Dawkins’ beliefs about the selfish gene as the sole source of evolution were soundly dismissed twenty years ago. The evidence can be seen in Eva Jablonka’s excellent Evolution in Four Dimensions.

Science is not a belief system, but an exploration. Not a community of believers singing in union, but a gathering of often disagreeable and argumentative individuals working towards a truthful understanding, and always ready to modify their beliefs in accordance with the evidence.

Often today’s hypothesis is tomorrow’s embarrassment. “Phlogiston” made sense until Lavoisier showed that this invisible quantity was actually a mistaken idea about the role of oxygen and hydrogen in combustion. Who knows how we will view dark matter and dark energy, superstrings and even the Big Bang in a century’s time?

It is sensible to continue questioning, to expose poor reasoning and demand good evidence. Science should not be a priesthood: that is the “sacred science” spoken of by Robert Jay Lifton. Science should not be inaccessible, or above criticism and dissent.

As Stephen Hawking said in A Brief History of Time: “If we do discover a complete theory of the universe, that should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all – philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people – be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason for then we would know the mind of God.”

I don’t believe that would be scientists should be subjected to ridicule, but honest evaluation is a scientific approach: there are no totems or taboos when it comes to questioning idols or idolatry.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Do you have a story about science that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Load More Posts
Go to Top