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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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10 Culture as a Lens


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Culture as a Lens

A group of about a dozen men beat up Dembo Fofana, leaving him with broken ribs and internal bleeding. He says this was caused by prejudice. More deeply, it was caused by a culture clash, the perception of strangers as enemies. Dembo Fofana came to New York from West Africa 21 years ago. He moved into an area of the Bronx where many West Africans have settled. They have opened an African video store and restaurants that sell African foods such as cassava soup. They had hoped to introduce Americans to their music and their food. Instead they were taunted, the restaurant windows urinated on or shot out; a Gambian immigrant had to be hospitalized for eight days after a beating.

American residents see the numbers of African immigrants rising. One angry American said to Mr. Fofana, “What would you think if I came to Africa and tried to take your property?” Mr. Fofana replied, “Brother, I’m not taking anything from you. I’m just trying to live my life.”1 But to the irate American, something was being threatened: his culture, his style, the world he was familiar with. Mr. Fofana adapted to American ways as far as he could, but much of his own background remained. His style of speaking, his tone, his posture, and his sense of his own dignity, were all alien. A strange culture seems like a challenge to one’s identity. A...

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