It would be nice, I suppose, to believe that everything is just fine: the motivations of people are well-intended, science and technology always solve every problem, freedom and democracy are humanity’s natural state, the world can accommodate an unlimited number of people, and infectious disease has been all but eradicated. A part of me would like to wake up every day feeling wildly optimistic and confident about our rosy future, but to the contrary, I’m a skeptic.
This is not to say I spend each day unhappy, though admittedly skepticism tends to lean in that direction. Rather, I’d say being skeptical means being realistic, and if one looks at the world realistically, it’s impossible not to be a skeptic and a bit heartbroken.
The adherence to one form of belief or another informs most every moment of our lives, but the skeptic in me asks “how did that belief begin, who benefits from it and who suffers?” Such relentless questioning is at the heart of skepticism, which ultimately is an effort to understand why human affairs work out the way they do. Skepticism need not be cynicism, yet they often are found hand-in-hand; however, unlike the cynic, the skeptic does not believe all human endeavor is self-serving, but neither does the skeptic take everything on faith.
Upon birth and even before being born, fundamental cultural myths envelop each individual within well-established social frameworks of belief, and these are passed on to each of us just as surely as hair or skin color. In some cases these beliefs are based on science, in others religion, politics, commerce or family lore. In all cases, the origins of belief are most often deeply hidden in the darkened folds of history, and at best we can only speculate as to their beginnings. For those who choose to create new beliefs, such as advertising agencies, compelling tales must be created, communicated and ceaselessly repeated until all awareness of their beginnings have disappeared. When that disappearing act occurs tales becomes mythology, and the powerful mechanism of belief takes hold. The territory of this mechanism is the skeptic’s bread and butter.
Accordingly, let’s talk bread and butter. Bread, as we know, is largely considered essential to life, one of life’s “staples.” It’s said one can live on bread and water, or at least that is the myth. But bread, especially the 100% white, commercially manufactured “Wonder” type is so bereft of nutritional benefit that law requires the artificial addition of vitamins and nutrients lost during processing. And while nutritious, wheat, rice, maize (corn), potatoes, barley, cassava, and sorghum have replaced well over one hundred other more nutritious plant foods. The myth surrounding bread was born within the imperatives of fixed agriculture, the accumulation of private property and it’s militant defense. And butter? Targeted as hazardous by the medical profession, it spawned a lucrative industry of “buttery spreads” containing artery-clogging trans-fats; now butter’s back on tables. As to the effects on the planet of industrial-style dairies…well, you get my point.
So when I’m told of the great benefits of technology, the latest pharmaceutical, the unlimited promise of capitalism, freedom in Afghanistan, effectiveness of drone warfare or preventing the spread of Ebola, excuse me if I feel skeptical. Given the ceaseless mythological inventions of mass media, governments and commercial propagandists, skepticism just seems prudent.