The Peppercorn of Doubt

I was skeptical before I ever knew there was such a thing as skepticism. I haven’t always been right – far from it in fact –  but I have always tried to look for truth wherever that took me.

My earliest memory is my first experiment. I can’t have been older than three and my parents had warned me not to ring the front doorbell because it annoyed my poor dog. Not satisfied with this statement I decided to drag a garden chair to our front door. The journey was only two or three metres but at the time it felt nearer two miles. I then bravely stood on the chair and rang the doorbell erupting into laughter when my dog let out a howl of dissatisfaction at the sound. I had successfully tested my hypothesis. I’m sure I later successfully replicated the experiment but I have no memory of this.

Not my childhood dog (RIP) but still very cute.

From the ages of about five to nine, whenever I asked my parents if I could add pepper to my meal I was told: “no you can’t have it, it’s not good for you.” When pressed they explained that it’s because the peppercorns stay in your stomach for seven years.

Where’s the pepper meant to stay?

Now I don’t know about you but as a child seven years sounds like an eternity. I’m not sure I even grasped how long that was but I thought the claim was fishy. How would the pepper stay inside me? How would my body even know what was pepper and what wasn’t? Wouldn’t the build-up of pepper block everything else at some point? My parents couldn’t answer all the questions I had and perhaps I didn’t even ask all of them out loud.

When I finally Googled the peppercorn claim in my early teens it turned out to be false just as I had predicted. Pepper does not stay in your intestine for seven years. In fact, black pepper may even aid digestion.  I also learned that the body does, in fact, retain some substances such as heavy metals and that our digestive system is actually pretty ‘clever’ – clever enough to tell different substances from each other.  Of course, to be scientifically accurate it’s not the digestive itself per se but the enzymes and cell membranes and all that but let’s not get bogged down with those details right now. Let’s look at what I learned.

Through finding out the truth about pepper I learned that trusting those with authority blindly isn’t always a good idea – especially if they haven’t done their own research.  Asking simple questions like “does this sound plausible?” or “is this even possible?” are vital and can help avoid many later problems.  Equally, through the doorbell experiment with my poor pup,  I learned that sometimes people with more experience are actually right and that I shouldn’t just dismiss their claims without consideration. They’re not just being controlled by Big Dog, (was that subtle enough?).

These early experiences were just some of the events that showed me the use and the beauty of skepticism. Not only did I end up believing something closer to reality I also learnt new information and for me, that’s one of the wonderful things about skepticism –  even if you’re wrong you learn something new.

One of my pictures from QEDcon 2017

With skepticism, you can learn about all manner of topics. Just last month at QEDcon in Manchester I learned how to fold a t-shirt in less than 5 seconds, explored some of my own and others cognitive biases and heard all about the cover-up of the Hillsborough disaster among much else. Skepticism has helped me see where I’m wrong and where I can and should do better. Skepticism is not something to be afraid of. It’s something to be embraced, enjoyed and shared.

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