Communicating Skepticism With Your Friends

This is a category that can be difficult for all skeptics, especially those of us who are outspoken about our science-based ideals. Should we speak up and debate our friends or should we lay low and avoid being known as the know-it-all jerk. I often wonder if I have a reputation among my circle of friends of being arrogant or self-righteous. Even the most innocent comments or links posted on Facebook can be unwelcome to friends, especially if they strongly believe in that particular thing you are criticizing.

A good example of positive skeptical communication would be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, who were friends for a time, despite their differences in belief. I wrongly stated in the parenting workshop that they remained friends until their death, but despite that justifiable correction, it’s generally true that Houdini was very diplomatic about communicating to Doyle his skepticism of the paranormal. Eventually, Houdini’s diplomacy was unsustainable due to his very public activism against the paranormal (and Doyle’s very public belief), and even in their falling out, we can learn that some friendships may be to challenging to save. It just depends whether both sides can communicate with each other respectfully and without too much judgement (or perception of judgement). I was interested to read this excerpt from a letter between Doyle and Houdini’s wife Bess after Houdini died…

“He was deeply hurt whenever any journalistic arguments arose between you and would have been the happiest man in the world had he been able to agree with your views on Spiritism. He admired and respected you –two remarkable men with different views.”

Ultimately, we must remember that there’s a difference between respecting the friend and respecting the friend’s ideas. A true friend can distinguish between the two.

To help bring this point home, I invited Mike Meraz to offer his advice on the best way to “be a skeptic and still have friends”. Mike produced the Actually Speaking podcast, a short-lived series on the theme of balancing skepticism with personal relationships. There were many good nuggets of advice in the Actually Speaking podcast, but Mike has moved on to producing the ever-more-popular Aaron’s World dinosaur podcast hosted by his seven year old son.

Anyway, Mike’s advice on communicating skepticism with your friends is below…

It’s important to remember that we can’t “make” people think, feel, believe, or behave in ways they haven’t freely chosen for themselves. Our friends need to be free to make their own decisions in order for those choices to have an impact in their lives. Assuming a person is happy, healthy and doing no harm to themselves or others, the promotion of skepticism is most effective when based on education, not confrontation. With that in mind, here are 5 tips for sharing skepticism with friends.

Share Without Judging – Don’t set out to change minds or win arguments. Instead seek to share information and inform decisions. Your friend’s choices are their own.

Be A Skeptical Example – Be an model of skepticism for friends. Demonstrate it by sharing your own decision making process as well as how you handle being wrong.

Notice and Praise – Identify and acknowledge areas where friends are already thinking skeptically and encourage them to apply that process in new areas.

Be Supportive – Remember, for growth to occur, people need a balanced amount of both challenge and support. Skepticism is challenging enough… so focus on support!

Accept Your Friends and Choose Your Battles – Allow friends to make mistakes and don’t fight every battle. A strained friendship stops the flow of communication and benefits no one.

-Mike Meraz (and family)

6 Responses to Communicating Skepticism With Your Friends

  1. atheistdad says:

    I feel a certain political and social commitment to be “out” about my skepticism, but even as I try to present myself authentically in the world, I try to do so in a way that allows others to feel psychologically safe to do the same. I get lots of practice, as I’m atheist but my wife is Mormon. One of our mantras is “respectful honesty.”

  2. This reminded me of the quote attributed to Shimon Peres “When a friend makes a mistake, the friend is still a friend, and the mistake is still a mistake”
    As nobody is perfect, you can’t really judge/select your friend for x or y philosophical position, as you most probably also have philosophically untenable positions.

  3. Right on the heels of the kids one … this is a toughie for me. I tend to think of myself as “fighting from behind enemy lines” much of the time — deeply religious extended family, other family members who swear by their magical magnet bracelets, still others who don’t “believe” in climate change or the age of the planet or vaccines. It’s enough to make me want very much to fight every battle. Still, I’ve found if I can bite my tongue on some things (bracelets, say) and not condescend or dismiss people (even when I want to), they’re at least a little bit more likely to listen when a more important topic (vaccinating their kids, for instance) comes up.

    I’ve had to learn I can be correct, It can even be that I’d be correct in addressing the issue in question, and it’s still possible that it’s a bad move strategically.

  4. “Be That Guy – Be an example of skepticism for friends. Demonstrate it by sharing your own decision making process as well as how you handle being wrong.” – I consider that to be inadvertently sexist. I know you didn’t mean it that way, but I feel that a lot in the skeptical community, that sometimes it is assumed that we’re all scientists ourselves or are all male or even are all fairly old adults. I am a 21 year old girl who has never had a boyfriend and am still an undergraduate in college. I am not that “guy” and I don’t want to be him, I want to be “that girl”. I get the point you’re trying to make but I just thought maybe I should point out to you that the expression really isn’t unisex and that you’re excluding a large number of us female skeptics in that type of statement.

    That being said, these are all nice points. I’ve been listening to every episode of the Actually Speaking podcast and know it’s ending soon since Mike moved on to his son’s show, and I’m disappointed about that. I’m a new fan. I do love the show and am somewhat in desperate need to listen to some new good skeptical podcasts… I tend to get tired of ones like The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and need to take a break for a month or two and listen to other podcasts instead on my walks to class and whatnot. :P This one has been good and makes so many good points about how to be non-confrontational about my atheism and skepticism and I’m going to try to use these tips in my daily life for sure. :D
    (P.S. my name luvtheheaven is ironic I know, it’s a long story.)

    • Chris says:

      Have you listened to the Righteous Indignation podcast? Hayley Stevens, Michael Marshall and Trystan Swale have interviewed several people who have some questionable products, including Jim Humble (he sells industrial bleach as cure-all). They do it in a very engaging and non-confrontational manner.

    • Ticktock says:

      Thank you for saying “inadvertently” because my intention was not to exclude anyone. It should also be said that words in bold are my way of making a succinct bullet point, and were not written by the original author, Mike Meraz. Sorry about that. I’ll make an edit for all the ladies out there.

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