Friday, 5 February 2010

The rather confused skeptic

I'm not thinking straight & it is due to a course of strong antibiotics fighting a bad toothache that has kept me mostly awake for over a week so do forgive me if I don't make sense with this post. It's something that has been bugging me for a few days and I would really appreciate any feedback and comments from people who read this because I genuinely am confused.

When I became more involved in the skeptical community the one thing I realised that I had been doing wrong for so long was expecting people to understand my skeptical POV without even explaining the facts to them. I realised by approaching people about what I considered to be wrong information or quackery and challenging it in the wrong manner wouldn't actually have any positive outcome and would only result in creating two sides of an argument that neither side would back down from because each side believed it was right.

This isn't a proactive way of helping to introduce people to rational thinking; I came to understand that you can't preach to people, you have to just present the information so that it's available for people who want to find out about it.

See, to me that seems a bit laid back but I can understand how it's a more proactive way of dealing with misinformed beliefs and claims. I was a believer in ghost related woo not three years ago and whenever a skeptic would come on television and outright tell me what I believed in was wrong the barriers went up. Simple as that.

However, when a skeptical person introduced me to the idea that I was wrong and encouraged me to go and seek the information to show they were right I did it and realised that they were indeed right.

Don't get me wrong, I understand that challenges have to be made where severe misinformation is passed onto members of the public. I am not against that at all because handled correctly such direct challenges can have great effect on the public awareness and understanding of the topic in question.

My concerns have been raised though as I watch the progress of the 10:23 campaign (which I believe is a fantastic campaign) and come to see numerous people who take on a 'them vs. us' stance towards homeopaths and people who use homeopathy. It doesn't achieve anything in my opinion, in fact it undoes any progress being made because suddenly those barriers will go up and it becomes a two sided battle that cannot be won. I don't like that idea.

It's difficult to not get involved deeply with a topic you feel passionately about, I guess it's just having the ability to ask yourself if what you're saying or writing is going to have a positive long-term effect or whether it's just a cheap shot that's going to do nothing but achieve a feeling of smugness for a moment or two? That's not what I understood skepticism to be about, perhaps I'm wrong...


  1. I think you are correct, I've thinking about the same thing.
    Whilst we are right, name calling and being patronising really doesn't help.
    It is, however, hard to appeal to the sense of logic and reason in someone who sincerely thinks that what they believe is the truth. For a start it's embarrassing to be shown to be wrong.

  2. One of the reasons I've never aligned myself with any of the skeptical groups (rather I lurk on the edges!) is because inevitably most skeptics turn into something that rather than promoting balance, looks from the outside to be something rather similar to what they are fighting against. I've seen far too many skeptics with minds as closed as the people they rail against. Obviously there are some circumstances where that is appropriate - someone who claims to cure cancer by waving a crystal over you needs to be stopped before they harm (or kill) someone. But there are things that happen, and that I have witnessed, that I and others cannot explain. This does not mean that they are due to spirits of dead people, or green men from outer space, they could very well have a logical solution that we haven't yet found. But having skeptics screaming that's just your imagination is as pointless and self-defeating as having believers shouting that's paranormal, that is. The whole point, for me, of skepticism is to look at things logically and scientifically (as much as possible, obviously), experiment, test, prove repeatability, and draw conclusions. What most skeptics seem to actually do is just shout back at the believers, which really gets us nowhere.
    Closed minds are self defeating, whichever side of the fence you are on.

  3. I realizied quite a while ago that one of the main differences between 'woos' and skeptics, is what each side perceives as reliable evidence. On the skeptic side,only cold hard provable facts will suffice,whereas in the case of a woo,any evidence that gives credence to their point of view is adequate regardless of reliability.If you then try to question that evidence, you are simply accused of being a non believer. I think that most believers like the thought of being in possesion of information which is not availible to the general public,such as conspiracies and ghost sightings etc,and consider skeptics as unwelcome guests at the party.I dont even think it is down to being proved wrong,it is more true to say that anyone who questions a believers point of view,simply does not understand things the way a believer does.Believers do not require proof and skeptics only require proof. Think of this as a final point....Believers often become skeptics(myself included),but rarely does the conversion occur in the other direction.

    "When I was at the recently held 10:23 Event at the Perth Skeptics, plenty of new people came to ask questions about what skeptics and skepticism is achieving [by doing this]..."

    You might like to listen to the episode. It's with a science communicator. :)

  5. I decided to sleep on this before answering :-)

    As you probably know, I'm relatively on the periphery of the whole 'skeptic' movement, but I do generally agree. The problem with getting a crowd of people together is that they will become militant whether they like it or not.

    I've said all along with 10:23 (in fact I'm sure I've said it to you directly) that I love the campaign as it's not about banning anything, more about education. Over the last week I've told about four people how homeopathy is made. The look in their eyes is fantastic.

    The reason? Because just before they had pretty much said "isn't it up to the person if they waste their money on it?" and "it's just crushed up plants isn't it?"

    So I love that awareness side.

    I must admit, I haven't seen much of a 'them and us' side in this campaign, but maybe I haven't been looking hard enough. The only really confrontational aspect I've seen is Martin Robbins vs. the British Homeopathic Association. However, if that is what is concerning you I can't see why. The BHA used various scientific studies as 'proof' of the efficacy of homeopathy to a select committee that are trying to decide whether to continue, amongst other things, NHS funding on it.

    That evidence has been shown to be flimsy, cherry picked, quote mind and even disputed as evidence by many of the original researchers when they have heard what it is being used for.

    Therefore the BHA deserve everything they get, and what has happened is exactly what needs to be done.

    Where I agree with your viewpoints is atheism vs. religion. I'm a staunch atheist, but can't stand conflict about it unnecessarily. I will happily argue the point, but I don't go out of my way to call people with faith stupid (even if I inside my head I can't help but think they are slightly deluded).

    When I do get annoyed is when religion intrudes on my life, and then I feel the need to be vocal. If I get involved in any protests when the Pope lands on our shores, it will be because of his attitudes towards contraception, abortion and homosexuality, not just because he likes to parade around in a silly hat.

    In fact, the closest I've come to an argument is my brother and his partner choosing to christen their baby next month, despite him not being religious at all and her only mildly. But it's been him trying to draw me into an argument about it, not the other way around.

    (I'm going to show myself up as a hypocrite here though, because I can appreciate why Richard Dawkins comes across as a militant atheist and applaud him for it, but purely because he seemingly faces stupidity most days of his career)

  6. I forgot to say the main point that I was going to come onto:

    That what you've said is extremely valuable and valid - if people want to think of themselves as 'rationalist' and 'sceptical' then that includes thinking critically about their OWN beliefs and whether they are valid. That includes how you put them across to others.

  7. Interesting points have been made. I fully agree with the points made by Pharmcat - feel very similar myself.

    I also don't believe that skepticism should be referred to as a movement though. That's not what skepticim is, IMO. I understand what you mean though.

  8. My problem wasn't with the BHA article by Martin Robbins either. Just behaviour I had observed of people claiming to be skeptics who actually lower themselves to the same level as the "woo" they try to debunk.

  9. Ah fair enough, as it seemed to coincide with that I wasn't sure if that was what had got you down.

  10. Looking at the bigger picture, some of these arguments and confrontations are not necessarily aimed at changing the mind of your immediate adversary. I'd have thought that the idea of 10:23 is to highlight the problem to the people who have power to change things (i.e. Boots and NHS budget controllers) as well as raising awareness generally, as someone else commented.

  11. I totally agree with you, Hayley, I too have witnessed people being quite vitriolic towards believers and that's not something I understood to be scepticism. My friend believes in fairies, but I would NEVER for a minute berate her for it, as no matter what I think about it all I don't feel I have the right to take away from her something that brings her comfort. I may be sceptical about such things but I would never patronise someone by telling them they're stupid to believe in that stuff, that's just unnecessarily cruel. Sometimes you have to agree to disagree with people about your beliefs.

    Educating people about things that are potentially harmful, however, is slightly different and I can see that sometimes people who are passionate about their beliefs might want to take things to another level. It's borne of frustration, and as long as such protests are done peacefully and are aimed at educating rather than just protesting for protesting's sake then I can't see the harm in that. As with everything, it's only ever people who are extremists who cause the damage.

  12. I always am in awe by people like Joe Nickle or the late Carl Sagan who would confront paranormal and pseudoscientific claims without at some point knocking the proponent of the claim personally at some point. While I love Dr. Novella, and Richard Saunders and respect the hell out of them, there are times when they just cross over into emotional exasperation. The walls go up. To me it's that the the proponents making extraordinary claims keeping saying we have all this great evidence. The skeptic says let me see it, and after reviewing it determines this evidence is rather poor. The proponent says, "no, this is good evidence. We need to examine this phenomenon more." Skeptics says, "We have here, here, and here. It is bunk." Proponent says, "you're closed minded. We have evidence, and you just blow it off." Skeptic says "We're not closed minded. You just want to change the rules of science to fit your world view." Proponent says "nah-uh." Skeptic says "you're a dolt, you are" It gets ugly.

    To me it is the repetitive nature of the discussion/argument that breaks down into exasperation, name calling, and lines being drawn. In your interview of Alex Tasakiris he brought up what he considers good evidence to take studying certain phenomenon to the next level. I'll admit all I could think is here we go again, as if there has been anything new to study in the realm for last sixty years -dolt. This probably is not fair on my part. Alex is most likely very genuine, but I find myself mentally rolling my eyes.

    My long winded point is that there have been a very special few skeptics who have that knack of not letting this happen over time, but to an extent human emotion tends to grab hold.

    I really enjoyed this post.