While Arlo Eisenberg was pioneering extreme skating in the 1990s, the public couldn’t see his own transformation from conspiracy-believer to skeptic. Now, as we’re all deluged by “fake news” and “alternative facts,” the 1996 X-Games gold medalist has decided to get into the game, on his website Skeptic Tattoos.
AiPT! spoke to Eisenberg about what fuels his outreach efforts, and why he thinks critical thinking is so important. Presented below is Part 1 of our two-part interview.
AiPT!: You recently put a pretty impassioned post on your site, Skeptic Tattoos. What motivated that, at this point in time?
Eisenberg: That’s something that had been growing in my brain for a long time, and weighing heavily on my heart. Ever since the [presidential] election of Donald Trump, the role of “fake news” has played such a prominent role in all the storylines ever since. I hear so much talk about it, but all the talk seems to be focused on the problem of fake news, and the source of fake news, and the bad actors responsible for fake news, but I never really heard people talking about the antidote. And as a person who is a self-described skeptic, with a capital “S,” this has always grated my nerves, because it seems like it’s begging for skepticism to be announced as a solution. It just makes so much sense.
But I know a big part of the problem is that people just aren’t aware of it. So I felt like I need to get this off my chest, and I should probably do my part, however small it is. You know, I have my small network of followers and people I’m close to; I thought, if I can at least get my message out to those people I’ll be doing something.
AiPT!: How would you define skepticism, then?
Eisenberg: Skepticism is the application of scientific principles to all areas of inquiry. But really, in a pithy, elevator pitch sort of way, what skepticism is, is kind of the investigative journalism of the science department. They’re the ones who go out and get into things and present them for a lay audience, who may otherwise have difficulty navigating or understanding difficult or complex ideas, or murky ideas where the science isn’t clear.
I think one of the things skepticism is up against is “common sense,” where people feel kind of emboldened or empowered by their own ability to suss stuff out. But unfortunately, in a case like GMOs, your common sense really won’t do much for you. One person might say, “My common sense tells me I shouldn’t eat too many chemicals,” another person might say, “My common sense tells me I should probably listen to the experts.” Your common sense really can’t get you through it, because it comes down to sifting through, and processing, and synthesizing a lot of data.
And that’s where skepticism comes in, with people who look at the data and are able to synthesize it and make it palatable to a mainstream audience.
AiPT!: So how did you get involved? What made you interested in this idea to begin with?
Eisenberg: The whole reason I wrote the article is because I was never exposed to skepticism in my life in any formal way, or even any casual way, so I didn’t even know it existed. So I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And so like most people, I thought — it’s weird. Unless you know how to discriminate between competing ideas, you sort of operate in this world where truth is kind of relative, and so ideas compete for your interest, and you choose based on which ones suit your sensibilities the most. The evidence is really not the most important, or even a guiding factor.
In the early to mid ’90s, when I was going through my formative, young adult years, this was at the height of my professional skating career … I was way into aliens, [with] my whole network of friends. We were into conspiracy theories — like, the government had alien technology, they’d recovered alien bodies, alien ships, and all this stuff. And they were keeping it from us.
I was always fascinated by this stuff, so I would always look for content to go further down that rabbit hole, and once, while looking at a newsstand, I came across a magazine, that would turn out to be Skeptic magazine. Looking back, I now realize this was kind of savvy on their part. Skeptic magazines are usually adorned with some extraordinary topic — big picture of Bigfoot or a crash at Roswell … anything that would catch the attention of someone who is credulous, or interested in those topics.
And someone like me, who doesn’t know there’s such a thing as skepticism, I see this and I think, “Whoa, heck yeah; that’s what I’m interested in.” Once I grabbed the magazine off the rack and I start thumbing through it, and I see it’s densely filled with content, and it’s got charts and graphs, and it’s like, “Yeah, these guys go deep!” I feel like, now I’m getting somewhere. But then once I read it, I realized what all that depth was about, and it was like pulling the wool from my eyes. I just had no idea, even that evidence mattered.
It’s so weird, because before that, if you thought that UFOs were a thing, evidence was all the stuff that supported the hypothesis. So every blurry photo of a UFO, that was evidence, as far as I knew. Every redacted, Xeroxed paper, allegedly from the government — that’s evidence. All you were looking for were things that confirmed your hypothesis. And of course what you learn through skepticism is that the real way to approach evidence, is you need to try to look for things that disconfirm it.
[Skeptic] would, instead of trying to make a case for aliens, they took each piece of evidence, and analyzed that. And of course, all those things, once you start looking into them, they don’t stand up to scrutiny. Eventually, one by one, as all these little bits of “evidence” disappear, what you find is the entire premise vanishes.
Come back later this week for Part Two of our interview with Arlo Eisenberg, with more on what made him decide to take a stand now, and yes, so talk about skeptical tattoos.