Fooled by Skepticism

My high school history teacher, Joe Poplowski, once told our class, “If Jackie Onassis wore a fork in her nose, half the women in America would do the same thing.” I figured he was joking and just trying to wake us up from our daydreaming (it worked). Now I know better, and not because punk came long the next year and ushered in safety-pin nose wear. Mr. Pop was addressing what only a history teacher of a certain age can glean from American history: Americans are one gullible people who can be made to do, and believe, nearly anything.

That’s why philosophical skepticism is so important.The best philosophy has almost always come out of it, with thinkers like Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant losing sleep over the skeptic’s conundrum: how can we be sure that we really know what we think we know? Pop culture has been thriving on skepticism at least since the ’50s, when performers like Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs put their doubts about postwar conventional wisdoms into song. In the ’60s, the Woodstock generation warned “don’t trust anyone over 30”. Today figures like Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, and Keith Olbermann make careers out of skeptically probing the inconsistencies and double standards that surround us.

There’s a new and different kind of skepticism afoot, these days — one directed specifically at science. Since the ’90s, for example, the “intelligent design” community has rejected whole chunks of modern biological theory, supposedly because there’s no valid evidence for it. Now skeptics about climate change have joined in, widely believing that the experts in climatology and climate science are simply wrong to believe that human activity is changing earth’s climate. Even newsroom weathercasters, about half of them according to a recent study, deny that global temperatures are rising and a quarter of them agreed with the statement “Global warming is a scam.”

“Don’t trust anyone over 30,” it seems, has been replaced by “Don’t trust anyone with a Ph.D.” The difference between these skeptical movements, however, is vast. The Woodstock slogan was not merely a rejection of conventional, middle-aged wisdom — it celebrated a new ethic and mentality that had to be experienced to be known (which is why Jimi Hendrix’s first album asked “Are You Experienced”?). Skepticism and empiricism, for good reason, have long marched hand-in-hand.The new skepticism, however, thriving on the internet and right-wing TV and radio, seems to jettison the empiricism in favor of an authoritarian trust in counter-experts.

Speaking of inconsistencies, this one is a whopper. If you’re going to believe that PhD’s are mistaken about the science they do, then why not be even more skeptical about what talking heads, bloggers, and infotainers who have no experience as scientists have to say about it?

Skepticism is not a buffet. You can’t be skeptical about only some beliefs or some experts. You must also be skeptical about your own skepticism. Watch out if other skeptics are trying to sell you something, literally or metaphorically. That’s the lesson Pete Townshend enshrined in “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, the Who’s slashing, 1971 indictment of the hype surrounding the swinging ’60s. “Nothing in the street looks any different to me,” Daltrey sang, because the “new boss” is “the same as the old boss.”

John Lennon came to a similar conclusion. As David Detmer explores in his contribution to The Beatles and Philosophy, Lennon explored the skepticism-gullibility connection (and ticked off many of his fans doing it) in “Revolution”. It’s too easy to merely reject the status quo, Lennon said, and it can be positively dangerous if you give your money and trust to “people with minds that hate”.

As for gurus who claim to know everything, Lennon knew nothing about Glenn Beck. He did, however, have first-hand knowledge of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whom The Beatles visited in India in 1968 (and is now immortalized as “Sexy Sadie” on the white album). “We gave her everything we owned just to sit at her table,” Lennon sang. In the end she “made a fool of everyoooooone.”

Photo of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (partial) found on

The below is excerpted from “That Is I Think I Disagree: Skepticism and Epistemology in The Beatles,” in The Beatles and Philosophy: Nothing You Can Think That Can’t Be Thunk Open Court Publishing Company, 2006, pp. 3-12.

Trouble with Gurus

If following the crowd is not a good idea, perhaps following leaders—experts, gurus, those who are on a “higher” plane—will work better. The Beatles tried this strategy, but found it wanting.The most famous instance was their brief flirtation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The Beatles, following Harrison’s lead, had traveled to India to study with him. Lennon quickly became disillusioned, and suspected the Maharishi of being a fraud. He subsequently wrote “Sexy Sadie” about him, explaining in the book Lennon Remembers (Verso 2000), “I copped out and wouldn’t write ‘Maharishi, what have you done, you made a fool of everyone.’”

Lennon’s skeptical cast of mind is revealed in his account of the Beatles’ departure from the Maharishi’s ashram. When the Maharishi asked why the Beatles were leaving, Lennon replied, “‘Well if you’re so cosmic, you’ll know why’. He was always intimating, and there were all his right hand men intimating that he did miracles. He said, ‘I don’t know why, you must tell me.’ And I just kept saying ‘You know why’—and he gave me a look like, ‘I’ll kill you, bastard.’ He gave me such a look, and I knew then when he looked at me, because I’d called his bluff.” (David Sheff, All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000, p. 157)

Lennon had a similar falling out with the psychologist Arthur Janov, whose famous “primal scream therapy” he had undergone in about 1970. When asked, ten years later, whether he still took that therapy, Lennon replied, “Are you kidding? No, I’m not that stupid.” But then he offered a somewhat gentler response: “At first I was bitter about Maharishi being human and bitter about Janov being human. Well, I’m not bitter anymore. They’re human and I’m only thinking what a dummy I was, you know” (All We Are Saying, pp. 124, 128).

So one problem with the strategy of following leaders is that the “leaders” are as human and fallible as we are. While some of them are as knowledgeable and honest as they are advertised to be, others are utterly ordinary. Still others are incompetents or charlatans. The strategy of turning to experts for relief from the burden of deciding what to believe is therefore pointless, since that burden is not simply removed but rather replaced by a different one—trying to figure out which purported expert is genuinely reliable. Thus, if your reason for subordinating your own judgment about X to that of an expert is that you want to believe what’s true about X, it’s only reasonable to do so if you know that the expert really is knowledgeable about X and that he or she can be counted on to communicate with you honestly about the subject.

To be sure, this tough standard is often met, so it probably is rational for most of us to rely on experts in certain limited areas of our lives. I, for example, know so little about automobile mechanics and dentistry that I would make a mess of things if I were to figure out myself what is the cause when something goes wrong with my car or my teeth. It makes more sense for me to figure out which of the local mechanics and dentists are especially good, and then rely (skeptically and critically, of course) on their judgments. But when it comes to questions that I really care about, it is better to investigate them personally, provided that I am competent to do so.

“Think for Yourself”: It’s Your Life

But the most compelling reasons for engaging in independent, critical thought have little to do with concerns about the reliability of experts. Consider these comments of Lennon’s, from an interview he gave shortly before his death: “Don’t follow leaders… leaders is what we don’t need… we can have people that we admire… We can have examples… But leaders is what we don’t need… ” “The idea of leadership is a false god… Following is not what it’s about…” “It’s quite possible to do anything, but not if you put in on the leaders… Don’t expect Carter or Reagan or John Lennon or Yoko Ono or Bob Dylan or Jesus Christ to come and do it for you. You have to do it yourself” (All We Are Saying, pp. 19, 37, 131). His point is not that all “leaders” are bad people, but rather that there’s something wrong, in principle, with following leaders: “You have to do it yourself.” What might he mean by that?

While it might be fine for me to let someone else extract my wisdom teeth for me or fix my car for me, it would be a disaster for me to let someone else decide for me how I should live, or determine my values and priorities for me, or develop my worldview for me. These things I must do for myself, not necessarily because no one else could possibly do it better, but rather because I wouldn’t be living my life if I let someone else do these things for me. Thinking for oneself about such fundamental issues is a necessary part of maturing into an independent, autonomous person. This I take also to be the fundamental message of Lennon’s much misunderstood song, “God.” The highlight is its litany of things, concepts, and people for which Lennon professes his disbelief. The list includes magic, I-Ching, Bible, Tarot, Hitler, Jesus, Kennedy, Buddha, mantra, Gita, yoga, kings, Elvis, Zimmerman [Bob Dylan’s original last name], and Beatles. He concludes, “I just believe in me, Yoko and me, and that’s reality.”

Some think that this song is an arrogant, cynical statement that all of the entities Lennon singles out are fraudulent or worthless, and that only Lennon and Ono, whose greatness outshines all of them, are genuinely worthy of belief. But I think Lennon’s point is merely that you have to live your own life and think for yourself. At best, perhaps you can find a partner willing to join his or her life with yours (hence “Yoko and me”). As for the others, they can provide ideas to weigh and to consider, and some of them may even provide inspiration. But there’s no evading your own responsibility for choosing how to live your own life. I’m sure that the author of this song would have no objection to your adding, if you were to sing the song, “I don’t believe in Lennon, I just believe in me.”

David Detmer teaches philosophy at Purdue University and is the author of Sartre Explained (Open Court, 2008).