Working It Skeptically — What the Job Guide Doesn’t Tell You

A friend once told me about some advice she got from Penn Jillette, on getting a job: “See where this job will take you — always be looking for the next one”.

I’d say it’s fairly good advice to give to a jobseeker, or at least reflects our times. When I was a teacher, I helped write dozens of university and college applications, taught how to use job guides and write CVs and even turned up to work placement sites to see how things were going. Every year I was told how there was some new course or workshop on offer, created to meet new demands. We’ve now been told for decades that the job of tomorrow ‘doesn’t even exist today’.

You’ve seen it for yourself, of course. Technology evolves; industries boom or downsize; trades retrain and professions upskill — and when ‘green is the new black’, you can be sure that someone is going to be making a dollar from that trend and need staff to make it happen.

But what career can help you be a skeptically-​​minded person? I was faced with this question by a recently-​​graduated high school student, who attended a lecture of mine this year.

They were planning on attending the same university that I did back in the 90s, and faced with the same choices I once had. I had no idea what I wanted to study during my first year and originally signed up for a Bachelor of Education. But I spent the first semester doing units outside of my major, trying to find what I actually liked to do — which subjects made me turn up to tutorials first thing in the morning, rather than sleep in! By the end of those six months, I knew that I was in love with Literature and found Philosophy a challenge. Those subjects became my majors. Eventually I signed up to do a Graduate Diploma in Education and eventually a Masters degree in Education, because I felt I wanted to know more about how people learned and how to improve the experience.

The undergrad who spoke to me hadn’t chosen his major yet either. But they wanted some advice as to what he should do in order to improve his own critical thinking skills and contribute to what he saw as a growing need to challenge poor reasoning about pseudoscientific claims and the paranormal

My advice was immediate — go with what you are passionate about for a career. Because no matter what you choose, you can still educate yourself and take part in questioning what claims are made in any industry.

One reason is that whilst technology changes and new jobs are created — the same weird claims stick around. Sure, we can all see how the publishing industry churns out books on astrology, homeopathy and diets that don’t work. Many magazines can profit from advertising beauty products that contain vegetable extract and oil, making little to no difference to skin condition and health. The online forums and free blog sites provide us with a voice to debate and challenge conspiracy theories, myths of monsters and claims of psychic ability.

Sure, some of these appear more to be the concerns of adults — but from the very start, our own peer groups and younger years are just as likely to be targeted by dodgy sales and media depictions of new age therapies. Although some of us are still finding our way in how to discuss why there’s more fiction than fact in psychic detective shows and are sometimes silenced by popular opinion about new age claims — you can begin clubs and talk to teachers who seem sympathetic towards encouraging what are essentially consumer rights and science literacy for young people.

Networking also is massively supported by the internet — groups like the Center for Inquiry (http://​www​.centerforinquiry​.net/​o​n​c​a​m​pus/) encourage school and college groups; linked and group blogs like those featured on the Center For Inquiry student blog initiative The Edger (http://​theedger​.org/) are useful to adopt — and of course, there is the Young Australian Skeptics, who encourage you to find your own feet as questioners of the paranormal and pseudoscientific.

Yet we must remember to face the challenge of making the enthusiasm online work offline — in the world we work in, now and in the future, in order to make a difference for our community and co-​​workers.

False claims about products that purport to reduce fuel consumption and harmful emissions can be found in the automotive industry — and be challenged by apprentices and future mechanics. Musicians and music store retailers can point out that copper audio cables being sold for $7250 make no difference to sound quality and warn off potential buyers. Hairdressers can talk about how certain products which say they prevent hair-​​loss actually make no difference and cost hundreds of dollars. Childcare assistants can discuss the importance of vaccination and back up with evidence how it’s for the good of everyone’s health in the childcare center.

Be curious and see every job as an opportunity to be a different sort of education; an education which will shows you how people think and justify their actions. Business ethics, consumer protection groups and even human rights groups all underpin the rights of the buyer to know exactly what they purchased and what it’ll do to their health and welfare. No matter what career path you eventually take, you can still join campus groups and local skeptic, humanist and freethinker organisations to find social support — even if you are the only one who questions why your workplace supports a feng shui-​​ed reshuffle of the furniture!

The journey you begin can take you to worlds you never even considered. But you can always make your future one where you follow your interest and passion — and be a critical thinker wherever you go.