Arlo Eisenberg helped bring inline skating to great heights in the 1990s, and now he has his sights set on bringing critical thinking and skepticism to a wider audience. Check out Part 1 of our interview with him, and then read on to see how he’s working to do that.
AiPT!: Here’s the biggest question of all — how do we get people to practice skepticism in their everyday lives?
Eisenberg: We don’t. There’s nothing you can do. Like I said, [by] doing my small part, I hope that some of the people that come across my blog will have the same opportunity that I had to be exposed to a whole new way of thinking. And of course you’re right — exposing people to skepticism is not enough, because skepticism is a practiced and learned thing that you have to maintain. It’s a skill, like anything else. You have to keep practicing at it; it takes a deliberate effort.
But the only hope that we have, not to be too dramatic about it … is that we would make it part of our education system. That’s the only thing that will be effective on a large scale — it’s got to be taught to our kids. That’s why the central argument of my article was based around my daughter’s own education, because I’m watching as she goes through her educational journey — what she learns, and how she learns and what she’s exposed to — and there’s just nothing about critical thinking, [and] certainly nothing about skepticism.
And I know that colleges have critical thinking courses, and probably have courses to expose students to skepticism, but my daughter was handed a Chromebook this year. She’s had an iPhone for many years … college is just way too late to start helping students figure out how to sift through this information, and how to make sense of it. In the Information Age, when these kids — all of us, really — are bombarded with so much information, and now as we’ve seen through the problem of “fake news,” so much unreliable information, the most important thing an education can offer to a student is the ability to navigate that information, because without those skills, it is a perilous exercise, logging on to any of your devices.
And we can see the consequences, whereas before — you know, I’ve had skeptic tattoos for years, and I’ve gone to skeptic conferences, and in the past, whenever I’ve talked to people about skepticism, I’ve always felt like it was kind of an indulgent thing. So what if people want to believe that Whole Foods has awesome multivitamins, or whatever? But now the stakes, I think, have been revealed, [and they] are much higher. The consequences of people not being able to discriminate between credible sources and sources that are not credible are severe. It is really that consequential.
AiPT!: On a topic a little less consequential, the site name is Skeptic Tattoos — what kind of skeptic tattoos do you have?
Eisenberg: Let’s start with the bigger idea … obviously skepticism is important to me, and one of the ways I kind of expres my interest and enthusiasm for skepticism is through the tattoos that I get. It’s a cliché that, “Oh, I want my tattoos to mean something,” but for me, I found something that was meaningful to me, and so skepticism has offered a lot of fodder for tattoo ideas. In conceiving of this website, I thought, “I would like to talk about skepticism; I’d like a public forum to talk about skepticism.” But there are so many forums out there that already cover this really well. I could never hope to do any better than Steven Novella [of Science-Based Medicine], obviously … but if I can find an interesting angle that hasn’t been covered already, and find my own Trojan Horse, where I can package the idea of skepticism into something else that’s maybe more palatable or interesting to a lay audience, then why not do it? Skeptic Tattoos became that vehicle for me. I felt by talking about the tattoos, which I thought people might find interesting, I could also communicate some of the messages of skepticism.
Also, as a skeptical person, and someone for whom there’s not much place for religion … I’ve always found that religious iconography was the most interesting kinds of tattoos. So I thought, “Well, if I could come up with a non-religious, maybe a secular iconography to fill that void, then I’ll be contributing something.” If to no one else, then to myself at least, because then I can start getting the kinds of tattoos that I’ve always imagined. So I’ve mined skeptical sources of content that can be turned into tattoo ideas. And so, for instance … one of the first tattoos I got was Occam’s razor … I’m not the only one that’s had this idea; there’s a whole lot of them out there. One of the logical conclusions that people come to when trying to solve the problem of how you get an Occam’s razor tattoo, is they get a straight razor … a straight razor’s a pretty common image. So it’s already got some currency as tattoo imagery, but then, people like me, who want to get an Occam’s razor tattoo, have co-opted that imagery and repurposed it for something skeptical.
It speaks to the two competing interests that I’m trying to solve whenever I think of skeptical tattoos, and one is obviously that it’s got a skeptical theme, but the other is that it looks like a tattoo … it’s not just a matter of getting a James Randi portrait or a Carl Sagan portrait. There are obvious and easy ways to get skeptical tattoos, but for me, I also wanted them to look kind of esoteric. I want my tattoos not to look so much like a billboard for skepticism … I want [people] to see tattoos that are tea kettles and handcuffs and razors, and they all look kind of like tattoo things, but upon further inspection, it can open up a discussion about skepticism. But it leaves me in control of the discussion; I don’t beat people over the head with it.
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