The long journey to skepticism

As a main stay of skeptical interviews the “What made you become a ‘Skeptic’?” is a very relevant question and never really seems to become boring. As has been discussed by many in the community, skepticism is not a natural state of mind. The way in which our brain works is not always rational and I often find myself having to think myself ‘down’ when my mind jumps to easier but more irrational conclusions – be a bump in the night or serendipity. For me it was a journey in which not only was religion an accepted part of life but so were alternative practises around health and general well being.

Having become weary of church-based organised religion at an early age, the allure of a more spiritual, earth based, naturalistic belief structure was strong. Like many, I found the idea of there being no greater power, structure or meaning to the world quite terrifying. Akin to listening to a theoretical physicist explain the machinations of the known universe – thinking about how small and how insignificant you truly are, in the grand scheme of the universe, was deeply unsettling. Looking back the times in which I bought books about crystal healing, channelling your inner goddess or feng shui were times in which I felt as if I had little control of my life. At first this was due to being an awkward, rebellious and difficult teen and later due to relationship break down and financial difficulties. I cringe now to think of the money I spent on votive candles, shiny gemstones and essential oil when at the same time I struggled to have money for college supplies. However 19 year old me needed to feel like I could fix something through wishful thinking and positive energy rather than taking a cold hard look at what I was doing with my life and those I chose to include in it.

Even when I abandoned the overtly spiritual side of my life I replaced a lot of coping mechanisms with alternative health practises. Those who listen to the podcast will probably have gleaned that I suffer and have suffered from a few low lying but chronic conditions: migraines, eczema and acne. These types of conditions can be difficult to manage and the medications provided can have adverse side effects or can only be used occasionally. This, almost inevitably, led me to try a lot of alternative treatments. From ointments, exclusionary diets, dietary supplements, tonics and not to mention a whole host of essential oils and “centring exercises” I seemed to have tried it all. Just as my life had felt out of control at times it felt like my body was conspiring against me also. To be fair my ailments can be seen as not that devastating, a few bad headaches and blotchy skin, but over time can wear a person down to the point where they are susceptible to trying anything in an attempt to break the misery.

For most of my years in college I worked in a health food shop which meant I had no end to avenues to explore. Instead of frittering away my money on incense sticks and tarot cards, now I could spend my money as soon as I earned it on evening primrose oil, feverfew and a whole host of “slimming aids” (but I am only human – a magic pill to be thin? Yes please!). Although looking back, as remedy after remedy failed to yield any long standing or reliable relief a sort of cynicism grew inside me. At first it oscillated between a belief that I obviously wasn’t doing this “right” – I wasn’t excluding the right foods, I should go on a detox, I’m not taking the right combination of supplements – to a conclusion that a lot of what was being peddled was just that, being peddled. Working on the inside of the industry I saw it was like other retailers I had worked for. There were fashionable supplements like the Terri Hatcher promoted hyaluronic acid or the now infamous Gillan McKeith and her very ending range of powers, potions and snacks. Then there were seasonal sellers, like detoxing and slimming in the New Year and before “bikini season”, to immunity boosters and insect repellents. As I saw more years go by and the same products resurge in a new fresh package I started to realise it was just the same cycle I had seen working in Claire’s Accessories with the same recurring gloves ever winter.

Once I graduated I heaved a sigh of relief as a bid farewell to the retail world. Now with a nine to five job and working in a pretty scientific institution I suppose it was only a matter of time before I left all magical thinking behind. Having a job in which having something to listen doesn’t affect your productivity it was a colleague that introduced me to The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. Like countless fledging skeptics before me it was listening to that podcast in early 2009 that lead me down the path I am on today. Starting to identify myself as a critical thinker lead me to help set up the highly informal but very enjoyable Dublin Skeptics in the Pub which in turn spawned this website and its accompanying podcast. I do find myself walking that fine line I found in the health food shop however: the one between skepticism and cynicism. At time I do find myself avoiding the more militant forms of skeptical campaigning as, to be perfectly honest, the lack of clear rational and critical thinking in the world is immensely depressing! It gives me even more respect for those who can put themselves out there to campaign in the wider public sphere, as they must be stronger than I to just keep going. For me, just once in a while, I hope that someday there will be a pill that will cure me of my eczema – ah sod that, on second thoughts give me the slimming one first…

The long journey to skepticism