The Positive Power of Skepticism

Stephen Jay Gould kepticism or debunking often receives the bad rap reserved for activ-^^^ ities—like garbage disposal—that absolutely must be done for a safe and sane life, but seem either unglamorous or unworthy of overt celebration. Yet the activity has a noble tradition, from the Greek coinage of "skeptic" (a word meaning "thoughtful") to Carl Sagan's last book, The Demon-Haunted World. (Since I also wrote a book in this genre—The Mismeasure of Man—I must confess my own belief in this enterprise.)

The need—both intellectual and moral—for skepticism arises from Pascal's famous metaphorical observation that humans are "thinking reeds," that is, both gloriously unique and uniquely vulnerable. Consciousness, vouchsafed only to our species in the history of life on earth, is the most god-awfully potent evolutionary invention ever developed. Although accidental and unpredictable, it has given Homo sapiens unprecedented power both over the history of our own species and the life of the entire contemporary biosphere.

But we are thinking reeds, not rational creatures. Our patterns of thought and action lead to destruction and brutality as often as to kind-ness and enlightenment. I do not wish to speculate about the sources of our dark side: Are they evolutionary legacies of "nature red in tooth and claw," or just nonadaptive quirks in the operation of a brain designed to

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