By Brett Youtsey
Skepticism is not only thinking critically, but also having an open mind. A truly open mind judges the merits of information itself first, and considers the reputation of the source second. There is a trend today that I call toxic skepticism. Today’s skeptic is a figure that listens to different voices not with the intention to understand, but to make a joke.
Mocking opposition is ignorance under the mask of intellectualism. The pinnacle of this narrow-mindedness is the many late night hosts who dominate political satire. They condition their audiences to see political opponents as caricatures. Caricatures may be amusing and have some truth behind them, however they do not reflect reality.
All news agencies can be wrong, and sources generally considered fake news can also sometimes be right in some respects. Alex Jones has one of the most popular fake news sites in the world, Infowars. Most of his subject matter is full of outrageous conspiracy theories. Nevertheless, even Infowars is occasionally right, though it may be rare, sometimes raising real and important issues. Toxic skeptics ignores this nuance to their own detriment.
Ironically, late night hosts frequently use one of Infowars’ few authentic messages to discredit it. For example, John Oliver, a fairly popular late night host on HBO, opens his show with a clip of Jones raging over government turning “frogs gay.” Rather trying to understand why Jones might think such an outlandish thing, Oliver uses the clip as springboard for satire. When the opponent’s image is reduced to a nonsensical idiot, the toxic skeptic’s thirst for truth is satisfied.
But what is Jones actually saying? Earlier in the clip Oliver conveniently edited, Jones covers how artificial hormones in water are devastating frog populations. According to Berkeley Times, the common pesticide, atrazine, skews the gender balance by turning males frogs female. Such contamination is common in bodies of freshwater across the US, including in the water we drink. While Jones’ conclusion of government conspiracy isn’t founded, he raises an important issue.
As Oliver and his audience mocked a conservative showing concern about the environment, the Trump administration began the process of rolling back the Clean Water Act. Though conservative fears of tap water being a “gay bomb” is not a good point of agreement, but if we meet them at this point and give them a better understanding, progress can occur. Bipartisan understanding of the issue could have prevented the deregulation. Lost perspective ultimately leads to lost opportunities, and dismissive laughter can prove to be just as destructive as fake news itself. Critically examining claims made by sources rather than just outright mocking and ignoring them prevents these losses. This isn’t to excuse Jones’ many fake claims, but rather to say that he is an extreme example of a larger problem.
Many of the same late night hosts who mocked Jones also laughed at Trump during the presidential campaign. Laughing away Trump’s words makes it difficult to understand why someone could possibly support him and the left underestimated him.
The lack of seriousness continued all the way until the election, and then Trump wasn’t funny anymore. But before long, the late night hosts were back at it again with Sean Spicer. The bubble reformed, and will probably burst again in the 2018 midterms.
Toxic skepticism creates toxic echo chambers. Like all bubbles, they eventually pop. It is up to those inside to decide whether they pop on the basis of enmity or understanding.