We Need More Skeptics

Jordan Peterson (Gage Skidmore)
On YouTube and elsewhere they provide a useful service.

A  good thing about making YouTube videos — which I’ve been doing for over three years now — is that it forces you to watch a lot of YouTube videos. Though the sprawling site can be intimidating to those who rarely frequent it, anyone who takes the time to plunge its depths is surprised by the intellectual robustness of some of its content. There exist a great number of YouTubers who produce serious works on serious issues, long video essays on substantial topics making full use of the medium. For Americans of a certain generation who rarely watch television, YouTube provides a reliable cast of public intellectuals.

YouTube features personalities of left, right, and center, with each genre containing a further spectrum running from coherent to crackpot. The YouTube “Right” seems a particularly diverse ecosystem, with Jordan Peterson and PragerU on one end of the dignity gamut, and Paul Joseph Watson and his gaggle of “red pilled” imitators on the other.

Increasingly, however, I find myself captivated the most by what might be called “skeptic” YouTube. In an age of political polarization begetting political extremism — which many online commentators, with their propensity for audience pandering and purity spiraling, have certainly helped exacerbate — it may be the consistently skeptical who now perform the most useful service.

These skeptical vloggers, unburdened by partisan tribalism, expose the postmodern paradoxes of the “Social Justice Warrior” Left one moment, then deconstruct the discredited Victorian eugenics of the alt-right the next. They reveal the dishonesty underlying hustles such as the anti-vaccination movement and bogus medical cures that bilk believers of all ideologies. They make it their business to pour cold water on conspiracy theorists and snuff out historical revisionism. Such commitment to contesting the groupthink of a broad range of self-satisfied subcultures is refreshing, and something we could use a lot more of.

Skepticism, in the formal sense, is a proud American intellectual tradition that has been associated with everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Harry Houdini to Issac Asimov. Broadly speaking, it is simply a disposition of caution towards the overconfident, an attitude of instinctive suspicion of those who truck in simple, sweeping explanations and solutions. It is, in its own way, an often profoundly conservative instinct, arguing, as it does, against radical, revolutionary theories of life and society in favor of that which is tested and confirmed. It is a logic inclined to remind that man’s culture and institutions are neither as good nor as bad as some insist, with a wary eye offered to claims both miraculous and demonic.

To be sure, there is a lot about capital-S Skepticism that traditional conservatives have little time for. Skeptics tend towards atheism, for instance, and are often dismissive of arguments that appeal to Judeo-Christian traditions. An arrogant skepticism untempered by humility but clinging to the trappings of science (though not its methodologies) can easily morph into an arrogant pseudo-faith of its own. One should always be on guard against progressives in the guise of neutral observers, as Charles Cooke warned in 2014.

Yet even accounting for these caveats, surely few would argue that what imperils America circa 2018 is an overabundance of cautious thinking, or undue instance on high standards of evidence.

In this sense, the presidency of Donald Trump should be a gift to skeptics. Because he is a man who sires such extreme reactions on both ends, attracting cargo-cult worship on the paranoiac right and fanatic loathing to the point of literal mental illness on the progressive left, there exists enormous space for those willing to just speak honestly about the man and his deeds.

An orientation of skepticism does not rob politics of philosophy or principle; it merely asks citizens to be consistently on guard against conclusions that are too tidy, too extreme, or too theatric.

Take the Russia investigation, which may well be our current moment’s defining test of skepticism. There is presently little stigma to making all sorts of blunt, cocksure assertions about the president’s relationship with the Putin regime. After the Helsinki summit especially, many of Trump’s critics on both the left and right felt empowered to ratchet their already sloppy rhetoric to even less disciplined heights, declaring definitively that the president was now beyond any shadow of a doubt in hock to the Kremlin, an obvious stooge, puppet, etc. Some of Trump’s most blinkered supporters, meanwhile, have sprinted to the opposite end, offering arguments that essentially declare collaboration with Moscow an objective good, since it has helped to stave off some looming “war” with Russia they insist was imminent.

The most useful journalism, in response, has come from those who recoil with skeptical revulsion to the conformation bias of the above, including Ross Douthat in the New York Times and Aurel Braun in the Washington Post. Putting aside which narrative would be most useful to them politically, the Russiagate skeptics argue simply that strong conclusions aren’t yet justified. Such conclusions are the national-security equivalent of a homeopathy endorsement.

An orientation of skepticism does not rob politics of philosophy or principle; it merely asks citizens to be consistently on guard against conclusions that are too tidy, too extreme, or too theatric, and thus appeal to those who are entirely too credulous. A polarized age is one that enables intellectual softness and sophistry. An injection of greater skepticism into our public culture might help numb these temptations.

The YouTubers, happily, seem keen to do their part.

J. J. McCullough is a columnist for National Review Online and the Global Opinions section of the Washington Post.

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