The Lost Art of Incredulity


First off, as a lesson that will make sense as you read through this, go look up the word ‘incredulity’ if you don’t know what it means. Really, it’s ok,  go do it, I’ll wait.

On October 20, while scrolling down my Facebook feed, I came upon a post where many thousands of people were wishing the fabulous actress Betty White a happy birthday. I like Betty White, she’s a great comic talent, but years of skepticism and brain-ninja training made my spidey-sense kick in. I was pretty sure I’d seen something similar earlier in the year so I took the herculean step of actually opening another tab in my browser, typing “When is Betty White’s birthday” in the search field, and quickly glanced over the first page of results. The BS meter alarm had been confirmed – Betty White’s birthday is January 17! She was born in 1922.

This is a painfully blatant example of the fact that many people will immediately believe anything that isn’t glaringly ludicrous, and actually many will accept the ludicrous just as readily as the sensible. I don’t know if this is directly due to the Internet’s impact on our lives or if our social media world just makes things like this more obvious. Could cat videos and the oft-repeated “What I saw next made my jaw drop…” headline actually be eroding the abilities of our minds to make any self-motivated critical assessment of information?

The cat video allegation is a joke, but the undeniable truth that people are exercising independent thought less and less is certainly not. I believe (and I didn’t find this in a meme, I actually thought about this on my own) our media-saturated society, although being a blessing in many ways, comes with some very serious pitfalls. We have so much information shoved at us all day long, it’s easy for our filters to eventually burn out or clog and we succumb to thoughtlessness, giving no consideration to much of what we’re fed and responding with a Pavlovian “Happy Birthday, Betty White” when we’re encouraged to do so.

People are silly, and yeah, some of them are outright stupid. “What’s the harm?”, you ask. The harm comes when this same blind credulity follows people into the voting booth. It comes when people mindlessly believe the media when it tells us what is true and right. The harm is greatest when a populace stops thinking. The society will then either collapse, or an unscrupulous few who retain the ability to think will fill the intellectual void and tell the people what to think, which will of course include the message, “Follow us, we know the way, we’re good for you”.

Why do I suggest the unscrupulous would be the ones to fill this void? Because “the good guys” will have seen this disease eating away at the perilously-close-to-mindless masses, and they’ll have tried to wake people up, to encourage them to think and learn, but if the media machine and societal apathy exert the greater force, the good guys’ message will go unheeded, and they will be vilified because they haven’t accepted the soft, quiet death of status quo, and they have tried to rouse us from our favorite YouTube hilarious fails feed.

Don’t immediately trust anything. Research, then research your sources. Check, cross-check, re-check. I know that can be hard to do, there is so much mis- or disinformation out there. But just the exercise of digging for truth is good in itself. Sure, a celebrity’s birthday isn’t of earth-shaking consequence, but the lazy mental habits we bring to such disposable data will be the same lazy habits we bring to truly important things. Think for yourself, so you can truly make educated choices.

Oh, and do you really believe her birthday is on January 17?

06 Feb 2012, Los Angeles, California, USA --- Actress Betty White from the film Dr. Seuss' The Lorax in Los Angeles, CA on February 6, 2012. © Armando Gallo --- Image by © Armando Gallo/Retna Ltd./Corbis