On Skepticism

Phil Plait (Bad Astronomy) gave a talk at TAM 8 in this year. It was not about space or science. It was about the tone of the skeptical movement. It’s known as the “Don’t Be a Dick” talk. Click on that link, and watch the video.

This is a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, and to be honest, I still haven’t made up my mind about it. How should we approach skepticism? What is the purpose of Skepticism? I’m going to do a brain dump and incoherently lay out my thoughts on the subject.

I want to start with the purpose of skepticism. There are dozens of skeptic blogs and podcasts out there, and each treat the subject differently. This blog is a unique mix of science, politics, and economics. It’s hard to escape politics in D.C., and now that we have the Fun Party (teabaggers) we have lots to be skeptical about. I think both Austin and I know that 80 percent of the reason we do this blog is to satisfy our need to put our opinions about stuff somewhere. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to have a large readership. When I was first thinking about starting this blog I had grand plans to get a grassroots skeptical movement going in D.C. something with a lot of community participation. I still want to do that, but we need a community first.

But even with these grand plans, what should the goal of skepticism be? Should we be targeting a specific audience and try to convert them to the ways of skepticism, or should we just preach to the choir? The second option is the safe one, but it gets us no where. I can tell myself I’m awesome all day every day, but that’s not going to convince people I’m awesome. However, if I go up to you and tell you I’m awesome and  why I’m awesome, I’m not sure I could convince you I’m awesome. You probably wouldn’t like that either, especially if you didn’t think I was awesome in the first place. Confronting people about their beliefs is the one of the best ways to make them more steadfast in their beliefs.

Sometimes in this blog we call people stupid. Actually, we do that quite a lot. This is fine for people who already agree with me, but it changes nothing. That is more or less the point of the “Don’t Be a Dick” talk. Being confrontational and rude does not help. That doesn’t mean that I don’t feel better after ranting about a dumb or ignorant idea, because I do, but it’s not going to change a dumb or ignorant idea. It still exists and people still believe it.

I frequently say that the point of my posts is not to convince people to believe what I believe, it’s to think about what you believe and critically examine why you believe that. And that, in my opinion, should be the purpose of the skeptical movement. We need to teach people critical thinking skills, something that is severely lacking today. We need to encourage people to critically examine the evidence. I don’t want to tell you what to think. Don’t trust me on my opinions about global warming and vaccines. Do the research for yourself, and actually pay attention to your sources, don’t trust everything. Instead of reading a summary of a study, try to read they study itself. Look at the methodology. Train yourself to recognize a good study versus a bad study. This is what being a skeptic is all about, and instead of telling people that Bigfoot isn’t real, teach them how to critically examine the evidence (or lack of evidence) for Bigfoot. That way they can look beyond a bad History Channel program and come to their own conclusion.

I encourage comments with your thoughts on the subject.

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One Response to On Skepticism

  1. Austin says:

    Skepticism is about analyzing principles. “How did I get to this conclusion?” is the baseline for any person seeking growth in perspective. That’s what skepticism is all about. I think we write passionately, because we care about the consequences of what happens to people who don’t think things through: sick people drinking industrial bleach as a cancer cure, tax cutters bankrupting the state, Alt Med phonies making millions off gullible and desperate people, people thinking mosques near 9/11 are un-American (post coming). These injustices and lapses in thinking make me angry and passionate, and I try to answer how people came to wrong conclusions.

    But if you’re passionate about the outcome, you also have to be willing to listen and change your opinion in the face of evidence, because getting important things right is, well, important. Learning’s a two-way street. Some of the most mind-opening conversations I have ever had started politely, got to yelling, and then only later when I reflected on the other person’s statements did change my mind.

    I know a lot of people who think skepticism should be about balance , distance, and finding middle ground. It’s easy to be nice if you’re removed from the debate, and it’s a purely intellectual exercise. There are too many people in DC that are isolated like this. If you can’t get riled up about the events and ideas around us, I really don’t think you’re living a good life.

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