Publish at February 10 2021 Updated March 16 2023

Zetetics : a way for critical thinking?

Healthy doubt of everything to find the truth

Who to believe? That seems to be the question on everyone's mind in this day and age. The distrust of public institutions has never been greater. Media people, politicians, economists, doctors or scientists; it seems to some that none of these professions can be trusted.

Then the Internet came along and made it possible for anyone to find answers that appeal. Now, groups share their worldview together. Thus were born the anti-vaccine groups, flat earth proponents, creationists, etc. Fortunately, each poison comes with its antidote. Thus, on the same network, zeteticians also coexist who question the words of these noisy groupings on the Web.

The era of "debunkers"

They call themselves often "debunkers", an Anglicism coming from the English term "debunk" which means to discredit and even ridicule the exaggerated facts of another individual. Whether it's Aude WTFake, the Skeptical Cat or the Skewed Trunk, they are all, overtly or covertly, doing zetetics. This neologism was created by Henri Broch to initially designate a skepticism in relation to paranormal phenomena. Since then, the term has been expanded to include other more mundane subjects that may be surrounded by myths. Thus, they adopt an approach based on the scientific method to undo one by one the false facts on the Internet.

Their approach is to doubt since for them, science cannot prove absolutely true or false. Thus, they try as much as possible not to be in ideology but mostly in skepticism. Moreover, they are often criticized harshly on the right as well as on the left when they dismantle the arguments against vaccines as much as the fears in relation to genetically modified organisms in agriculture.

They nevertheless defend their positions and their important place in the digital culture. Indeed, the creators of the Slanted Trunk have argued that the scientific world tends to live reclusively in glass towers. Disconnected from the population and refusing to do an educational job, they should not then be surprised to see all sorts of conspiracies flourish. Moreover, one of the animators wrote about the importance of above all not falling into the trap of groupthink that harms the quest for truth.

Inculcating critical thinking

While zeteticians 2.0 are thus trying to ignite the critical thinking of Internet users, the question arises as to whether this is possible to integrate into education. For many zeteticians, this is the very reason of the movement. We must be able to transmit, as explained in this lecture by Denis Caroti among others, the epistemic virtues that will allow learners to take a healthy skeptical pose. This qualifier is of great importance. Indeed, as Henri Poincaré reminded us, doubting everything is as unproductive as believing everything. After all, many of today's conspiracy movements base their arguments on distrust of all theories on the pretext that a good scientific theory can be defeated.

Or, as the speakers in this program of "The Scientific Method" explain, there is a very big difference between scientific theory and scenarios. For example, the reason evolution is so supported by science is that since its inception, no discovery has been made that contradicts it. No researcher has found, for example, fossils of a rabbit from 2 million years ago that would be identical to those existing today.

The idea, then, is to offer students ways to think for themselves. Remind them that extraordinary claims require the evidence to go with them. This goes with Ockham's razor, which reminds us that "what is asserted without evidence can be rejected without evidence."

It is also important to demonstrate cognitive humility. Our brains will easily fall into thinking biases. There are many fallacious arguments in the media (social and traditional) as well as in speeches or advertising. It is then necessary to propose sources that will allow a reflection to free oneself, or at least be aware, of these biases and of the importance of proof when someone asserts something publicly.

Finally, it would be interesting if the scholarly world opened up more, accepted more to popularize and explain phenomena, findings and research to the general public. Their absence from the public sphere hurts. Perhaps also that as Stephen Wolfram proposes, the world is ready for a new kind of science that integrates more elements from both the pure sciences and the humanities and even from art to better explain and understand scientific theories.

Illustration: Gerd Altmann on Pixabay


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