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The Quicksands of Belief

The Need for Skepticism


Janet Winn Boehm

The Quicksands of Belief: The Need for Skepticism draws on history, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and the cognitive sciences in an accessible, non-academic style in order to argue that humans don’t question enough. Instead, uncritically accepting the often absurd beliefs swirling around them, too many lack the skepticism needed to avoid global disaster. The claim of this book is that humans need to question everything they think they know.
The way the human brain works is impressive and has taken Homo sapiens a long way. However, it is also the source of our failure to doubt. Janet B. Winn explores consciousness first, then the sense of self and how it affects thought. Subsequent chapters deal with beliefs – about reality, politics, religion, pseudo-science – and attempts made to explain human behavior by the social sciences. This concept includes a consideration of the failure to grasp the meaning of evolution, the evolution of language, and how language distorts understanding, along with the role culture plays in these distortions. The remarkable human brain has made an extraordinary creativity possible, yet this ability is used to find ever-more powerful ways to destroy the planet and its inhabitants. Winn argues that this sequence follows primarily from absolutist thinking. In spite of the fact that we cannot know what is true with any certainty, we try to impose our certainties on each other, leading to the lies and chaos of the political world, to the destruction of the environment, and to war.
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6 Social Science: Efforts to Explain Ourselves


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Social Science: Efforts to Explain Ourselves

You’d think the social sciences would be a realm of wisdom and skepticism. Instead, one finds assertiveness, a certainty that others are mistaken and that everyone ought to accept the findings of some particular school of thought.

Suppose, as social scientists, we look for explanations of aberrant behavior. Paul hits and curses his mother; he steals from her. He gets into fights in the streets and has been caught shop lifting. He often stays out all night and has missed school so often that he was expelled and put under the direction of a mentor. Paul tells the mentor he hates his mother. She is single, trying to raise her kids on a meager salary, in a tenement in a dangerous neighborhood in Texas. Paul loathes his home, so he fills his backpack with food from his mother’s kitchen; he steals and sells his little brother’s flute, and begins living in an abandoned mobile home.

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