I love racing. I keep up with all sorts of disciplines ranging from NASCAR, Formula 1, Indycar, NHRA Drag Racing and the Rolex Sports Car Series just to name a few. I love playing racing games and driving high powered go-karts. When I first started playing, I was excited and inexperienced which led to being reckless while on the track. I operated with the misconception that merely by watching racing on television, I would know what I'm doing. Watching racing on television is one thing and actually doing it, even at a lower level and online requires attention to detail, smooth operation with respect to steering, accelerating, corner entry, corner exit and braking. In order for you to be good at it, you need to practice with the best methods available to you, find people who are better at it than you so you can learn their methods and apply them, revise your own technique to limit ill-advised actions, and take care of your equipment. What I have learned by racing online and the little I have raced offline is the skill does not come naturally. Racing, like many other things requires time, revision, good practice, sharpening skills, hanging out with people who are smarter/possess better experience than you, and tossing habits which are not conducive to laying down solid, fast, consistent and smooth lap times. I think the same technique applies to skepticism. In order to be good at it, you must know what it is and understand how the process works, apply that process in the best way you can achieve and know what skepticism is not. The following is a quick guide to how I do things and what I think you ought to avoid.
What is skepticism?
Skepticism is not a process of disbelieving things. It is a process to seek a supported conclusion(based on evidence) and not to bolster a conclusion based on naive intuitions, ignorance, unsophisticated thoughts, or to establish support for a particular conclusion you want/feel to be true. You go where the evidence takes you and you develop a model or an explanation which bears out where the evidence guides you. You do not make the evidence fit or justify a preconceived conclusion. Critical thinking and applying reason when evaluating claims is extremely essential.
Know which battles are worth fighting:
I think part of being a good skeptic and maintaining your sanity is to know when it's time to fight and when it's time to tip your cap and go home. Sometimes your input is not necessary and you can decide to "sit this one out". That does not mean you lack the intellectual veracity to engage. Part of this tactic is to reject invitations to arguments. You are not obligated as a skeptic to fight each time you are invited to participate. You can and should decline some party invites, especially if the topic does not interest you, a discussion may lead to nasty personal barbs, or you have no opinion to share and have no interest in obtaining one. Determine what matters to you, learn about it, talk to others, adopt meaningful and useful methods to facilitate discussion/action and know when to shut the fuck up and have a drink with your friends, enjoy a good book, play a game, sleep, have some awesome sex or whatever.
Experts are useful:
We defer to experts all of the time. When the issue is our own health, or the health of a loved one, maintenance on our vehicles, recipes etc, we rely on the expertise of 1 or more people in that particular field to help us make sound decisions. As laypersons we can and should examine the work/advice of the expert and compare her/his work with other experts in the same field and see how their work is received by their peers. The thought here is the better the expert, more likely than not, you are going in a solid direction when you accept their advice/direction within that particular field. If their advice/direction is useful in a number of different areas, it may warrant usage there too. The tactic is not fool proof and it is not meant to be but I think it can be useful. There are lousy experts and there are some people who exhibit expertise in a particular field but they absolutely suck when they attempt to venture into other areas.
Denial and cynicism is not skepticism:
Simply being cynical is not skepticism even though some cynics can use skepticism. Cynics attach ulterior motives to phenomena and events of history which I argue leads to debilitating solipsism and inaction by other people if they adopt and believe the what the cynic is suggesting. Examples of cynicism are claims which suggest the government is necessarily evil and consequently unable to redeem itself, doctors enjoy sickness and they need people to remain sick or they will not have a job, political parties are evil in principle and in action, etc. Denial of the Holocaust, HIV/AIDS, climate change, among others are paraded as acts of skepticism. They are not.
Just Asking Questions:
Posing questions is not necessarily skepticism. The form of the question matters and questions which lead you to a desired conclusion by the petitioner ought to be met with concern. There are misleading questions with erroneous assumptions and naive intuitions which seek to obfuscate, bullshit, and destroy your critical faculties. When I have dealt with 9/11 truthers, Ron Paul supporters and generally anti-structure types, the tactic of just asking questions is normally displayed as skepticism. I find the tactic to be nothing more than a convenient way to spout specious, spurious, and unsupported claims in order to promote alarmism, denialism, potentially inciting others to riot(while you sit on your ass and document the event and wish to lead after the chaos is over), and cynicism. Questions like "how does X function" or "what does this tell us about existing knowledge/phenomena" are far better suited to get your critical wheels rolling than something like "when did you stop beating your wife" or "why is the government still poisoning your food". The last 2 contain accusations which are meant to alarm you.
Could be or possibly:
Both have the potential to be covers to launch absurdity. Could the government or possibly some mysterious entity be poisoning your food without your knowledge? Sure, but where is the evidence which suggests the question merits serious attention? It's possible, but is it probable? It's also possible or could be the case that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim working for the cult of Scientology.
Appeals to Open-mindedness:
Open-mindedness is not an uncritical acceptance of a claim or a set of claims merely because someone presents them to you. Being open-minded is the willingness to consider new ideas. Usually when I'm told to be more open-minded, the charge is thrown at me because I did not accept a claim which was presented to me. Either I asked questions which the presenter could not answer, he became frustrated and was unwilling to say "I don't know" or "I will try to get back to you". You may also be told that you lack curiosity or respect for ideas when you demand evidence for the claim brought to you. The fact you take on the idea and apply it to reality and our understanding of existing knowledge shows the charge to be absolutely false. You can reject bad ideas and remain curious and open-minded.
Burden of Proof:
You make the positive claim then it is your job to substantiate that claim with solid evidence. It is not the job of the other person(s) to falsify your claims for you. For example, you say "God exists". I say "show me". You say "well do you have evidence to suggest God does not exist"? I have made no such claim. I am simply asking for verification of your claim. Do your job.
Learn types of fallacies/errors in reasoning. The following is a good list with examples. Try to find some in your local paper/magazine, listen to the news or yourself and even friends/family.
If you want to be good at something you must practice with good tools, revise methods, challenge yourself and ditch bullshit. My racing opening can be easily substituted with whatever you like to do. With the right tools and methods and good practice with good people, you will improve and I think you will be better off because of it.