On skepticism

I saw a story on Yahoo today (by Pete Thomas of GrindTV.com) about a photograph of a whale shark, by Shawn Heinrichs. There is a link to the photograph at the end of this article if you want to see it. It is simply a shot of a whale shark in which the lens is partly underwater, with a boat nearby in the background. It’s quite stunning.

It is a story because “some users [are] expressing skepticism about its authenticity,” according to the article. “That’s mainly because there was little or no detail about the image, but Shawn Heinrichs, who captured the image last week at Isla Mujeres in Mexico, assures that it’s genuine.”

I was struck by this story because of the skepticism. We have clichés that assert the unique power of observation: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” “Seeing is believing.” People have accepted these clichés as expressions of truth for probably longer than anyone knows for sure. And yet their power is clearly waning. A picture is no longer worth a thousand words. Seeing is no longer believing. Seeing is just another form of possibly being duped by a huckster. Now, pictures can be faked, so they can no longer be trusted to convey truth.

I am not disputing either the truth of the clichés or the malleability of digital images. Rather, I am taken by the rapidity with which people will take the skeptical view; the propensity of people to think thusly: Because it might be fake, I choose to believe that it is. Or, to use the clichéd version: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

To be sure, that cliché is rooted in reality. One needs only to buy something from a used car salesman to know this.

And yet the cliché, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is” collides with another: “Truth is stranger than fiction,” something we observe on the news every day. If seeming too good to be true compels things to be false (to our way of thinking), how can it also be that truth is stranger than fiction? If indeed truth is stranger than fiction, then clearly there is some percentage of truth that we feel compelled to disbelieve, simply because it seems unbelievable, not because it is untrue. And if indeed both are somehow true at the same time, we are getting hit from both ends at once, and we are imperceptibly (and forcibly) blind to some percentage of truth for not one but two reasons—either it seems too good to be true and yet is, or it seems too strange to be true and yet is.

I’m not sure it does much good to ask why we do this. In the search for answers, we would land upon untruths and convince ourselves that they were true. That’s no good. We would always be at least partly wrong—and blind to the fact.

I also don’t know whether Shawn Heinrichs’ photo of a whale shark is genuine, and it may very well be that only Shawn Heinrichs knows, but this is not about whether his photo is or isn’t genuine. It is about skepticism. Skepticism has its place, but perceived goodness and perceived strangeness are not such occasions. If something seems unbelievable, it’s really beside the point. Such a perception has little to do with whether it is, in fact, true.

And yet off we go, being skeptical willy-nilly anyway.

It looks like we as a species are desperately wont to alter reality to suit our own prejudices. Even though we simply cannot make things true or false with the force of our beliefs, that is exactly what we try to do, chronically.

It seems to me we should not mistake raw skepticism for objectivity. They’re not the same thing. Doubt has its place. But no one ever got any closer to the truth by letting it pre-judge a conclusion. If something seems too good to be true, it may just be stranger than fiction.

The original link to the story, by Pete Thomas of GrindTV.com, is here: http://www.grindtv.com/outdoor/blog/34221/photographer+explains+stunning+and+unique+whale+shark+image/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *