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Becoming an Effective Skeptic: End Belief, Faith and Certainty

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Becoming an Effective Skeptic: End Belief, Faith and Certainty
Think

“I don’t know.”

Perhaps the three hardest words to say in the English language. But perhaps they are also words we should be using more often. You don’t have to look far back into history where people believed things that we would now see as ridiculous: a flat Earth, a sun that orbits us or that blood letting was an effective medical practice.

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Similarly I don’t think you need to look far back into your personal history to find examples of where you have been wrong. Relationships you felt would last forever that didn’t make three weeks. Career paths you ignored. Beliefs you held that turned out to be false.

Benefits of Skeptical (and Critical) Thinking

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There are a lot of practical applications for using skeptical thinking. Unfortunately, with the recent popularity of programs like The Secret and positive thinking self-help, rational thinking is being subverted for a self-induced placebo effect. Here are some benefits you can get from using skepticism on practical matters:

  • Creativity – The best way to prevent new solutions is to believe you already have the answer. Allowing a gap of doubt can allow creative alternatives to flow in. If you are adamant that advertising will not work for your product, you might cut off hundreds of ideas for improving your business.
  • Planning – Assumptions are the enemy of planning. A common rule of thumb for software development is to plan to use double the amount of time you need; then add six months. Write your plans too narrowly and they may collapse under new information.
  • Quickly Integrate New Facts – When you also maintain a small margin of doubt, you can allow in new facts easily. If you are completely certain your approach is perfect, you won’t be able to adjust when evidence points that it isn’t.
  • Reveal Weaknesses – Many of the things that sabotage your efforts will be completely unknown. Thinking critically and examining the information can reveal some of these traps.

Becoming a Better Skeptic

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Here are some ways you can integrate healthy skepticism into your life:

  1. Measure – Get the numbers and use them as a basis for improvement. Avoid subjective judgements where possible. The data usually won’t provide the whole story, but it provides a solid foundation for drawing conclusions.
  2. Examine Your Scale – Data itself is worthless with a broken scale. Take steps to regularly ensure that your numbers are measuring what they need to. Getting caught in meaningless statistics is worse than having no data at all.
  3. “What if I’m wrong?” – I try to ask myself this question whenever I need to make large assumptions. Examining both potential sides leaves you an exit route if the information turns out to be false.
  4. Know the Unknowns – Figure out the unknowns in any project or endeavor. You can’t account for every missing variable, but being aware of them will help you react if new information comes in. If you are making a career decision, what unknown factors is that based on? That you will enjoy the work? That you will be challenged? Knowing these unknowns will help you if the information later changes.
  5. Cut the Arrogance – Part of healthy skepticism, is removing the arrogance that comes from a certainty you know what is right. With humility comes the ability to change your course of action as new information arrives.
  6. Develop an Escape Route – Some assumptions are pretty fundamental. I have a strong assumption that when I try to walk, gravity still works. But you should also have escape routes for what information would break your assumptions. I assume regular exercise is good for my health. But if several independent sources gave me evidence to show it wasn’t, I would stop.
  7. Fuel Curiosity – Skepticism doesn’t need to lead to cynicism. Having doubts, or uncertainties about basic assumptions should inspire curiosity, not despair. Fuel your urges to discover and you can balance out the natural urge to reject opposing information.
  8. Play the Devil’s Advocate – Spend a bit of time thinking through some of your problems if your assumptions were reversed. Not only will this keep you on your toes, it can yield creative new answers. If your business is based on the assumption that you need to work many hours to be successful, what would happen if that assumption was reversed and working more wasn’t necessary or had a negative effect?
  9. Seek Contradictory Viewpoints – Look for opinions that clash with yours. This could be in the form of people, books or classes that confront your assumptions. I know people who believe entrepreneurship and capitalism are the source of societies woes just as I know people who believe the opposite. By listening to both sides and empathizing with their perspective I can form stronger ideas.
  10. Test – Measurement is good, but active experimentation is better. It is easy to simply go with your intuition when finding an answer. But it is more useful to actually test out the ideas. Personal experimentation, whether it is with a new diet or a business plan, won’t be as perfect as a scientific study, but it can still provide better information than simply making up your mind in advance.


Avoid Turning Skepticism into Cynicism

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Healthy skepticism, questioning your underlying assumptions and introducing doubt, can be helpful. Cynicism takes it further where doubt becomes mistrust and paranoia. Avoid that trap. Become an effective skeptic and be able to take the best information available and knowing what information you need to be proven wrong.

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Scott H Young

Scott is obsessed with personal development. For the last ten years, he's been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better.

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Last Updated on November 25, 2021

Protecting Your Online Life With Secure Passwords

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Protecting Your Online Life With Secure Passwords

With all of the recent online services and companies falling under attack to hackers in the past few months, it seems only fitting to talk about password creation and management. There are a lot of resources out there discussing this, but it never hurts to revisit this topic time and again because of its importance.

Password management isn’t necessarily a difficult thing to do, yet it does seem like a bit of an annoyance to most people. When it comes to password management, you will hear the famous line, “I don’t really care about changing my passwords regularly. I have nothing important online anyways.” Let’s see if you have nothing important online when your PayPal account gets taken over because you thought the password “password” was good enough.

In my opinion, it is an “internet user’s” responsibility to make sure that they keep secure passwords and update them on a regular basis. In this article we will discuss how to make your online presence more secure and keep it secure.

The easy fundamentals

First thing is first; creating a strong password.

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A strong password is a mixture of alpha-numeric characters and symbols, has a good length (hopefully 15 characters or longer), and doesn’t necessarily represent some word or phrase. If the service you are signing up for doesn’t allow passwords over a certain length, like 8 characters, always use the maximum length.

Here are some examples of strong passwords:
* i1?,2,2\1′(:-%Y
* ZQ5t0466VC44PmJ
* mp]K{ dCFKVplGe]PBm1mKdinLSOoa (30 characters)

And not so good examples
* sammy1234
* password123
* christopher

You can check out PC Tools Password Generator here. This is a great way to make up some very strong passwords. Of course the more random passwords are harder to remember, but that is where password management comes into play.

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Managing your passwords

I know some people that keep their passwords in an unencrypted text file. That’s not a good idea. I suppose that if you aren’t doing much online and are decent at avoiding viruses and such, it could be OK, but I would never recommend it.

So, where do you keep your strong passwords for all the services that you visit on a daily basis?

There are a ton of password safes out there including KeePass, RoboForm, Passpack, Password Safe, LastPass, and 1Password. If and when I recommend any of these I always count on LastPass and 1Password.

Both LastPass and 1Password offer different entry types for online services logins (PayPal, Twitter, Facebook, Gmail, etc.), credit cards and bank accounts, online identities, and other types of sensitive information. Both have excellent reviews and only differ in a few subtle ways. One of the ways that is more notable is that LastPass keeps your encrypted password Vault online where 1Password allows you to keep it locally or shared through Dropbox. Either way, you are the holder of the encryption keys and both ways are very secure.

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LastPass and 1Password both offer cross-platform support as well as support for Android and iOS (LastPass even has BlackBerry support). 1Password is a little pricey ($39.99 for either Windows or Mac) where LastPass has free options as well as premium upgrades that allow for mobile syncing.

Upkeep

You should probably change your passwords for your “important” accounts at least every 6 weeks. When I say “important” accounts I am referring to ones that you just couldn’t imagine losing access to. For me that would be Gmail, PayPal, eBay, Amazon, all my FTP accounts and hosting accounts, Namecheap, etc. Basically these include any account where financial information could be lost or accessed as well as accounts that could be totally screwed up (like my webserver).

There is no hard and fast rule to how often you should change your passwords, but 6 to 8 weeks should be pretty good.

Alternatives

You may think that all of this is just too much to manage on a daily basis. I will admit it is kind of annoying to have to change your passwords and use a password manager on a daily basis. For those people out there that don’t want to go through all of the hub-bub of super-secure, encrypted, password management, here are a few tips to keep you safe:

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  1. Create a unique and hard to guess “base password” and then a pattern to use for each site you logon onto. For instance a base password could be “Ih2BaSwAa” (this stands for “I have two brothers and sisters who are annoying”). Then you would add something “site specific” to the end of it. For Twitter Ih2BaSwAaTWTTR, Facebook Ih2BaSwAaFCBK, etc. This is sort of unsecure, but probably more secure than 99% of the passwords out there.
  2. Don’t write your passwords down in public places. If you want to keep track of passwords on something written, keep it on you at least. The problem is that if you get your wallet stolen you are still out of luck.
  3. Don’t use the same passwords for every service. I’m not even going to explain this; just don’t do it.

These are just a few things that can be done rather than keeping your passwords in a management system. Personally, with over 100 entries in my password management system, I couldn’t even dream of doing any other way. But those out there with only a few passwords, having a simpler system may be beneficial.

So, if you want to be a “responsible internet citizen” or you just don’t want to lose your precious account data, then creating and maintaining strong passwords for your online accounts is a must.

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