Communicating Skepticism With Your Friends

July 29, 2011

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)


Communicating Skepticism with Your Kids

July 25, 2011

For this entry, I went to a favorite resource, Mr. Dale McGowan, co-author and editor of Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers. In addition to the advice that he gives below, I’d recommend focusing on science and critical thinking (what we do believe) and less on the non-existence of Bigfoot, extra-terrestrials, and psychics (what we don’t believe).

1.  Build self-confidence. The best way to instill confidence is to encourage autonomy. We often intervene too much to spare our kids a moment’s frustration, uncertainty, or failure. An infant crawls under the legs of the dining room chair and becomes momentarily uncertain how to get out. She cries, and Mom leaps to her feet, ushering the baby into the open. A first grader struggles with his seat belt—Dad clicks it into place. A middle schooler gives up on a math problem after thirty seconds, asks for help, and gets it. These rescues add up, and eventually the child sees a moment’s frustration as a brick wall and looks to someone else for help. Who can blame him if he never had the opportunity to struggle and sweat and muscle through those walls on his own?

Skeptical inquiry is the act of a confident, autonomous mind.  It’s the act of someone who believes she can break through the walls between ignorance and knowledge.  If you want inquiring kids, work on confidence—and confidence starts with autonomy.

2. Instill a ravenous curiosity. No one asks questions if he isn’t curious about the answers. Indifference overtakes us soon enough.  Nurture curiosity while it’s natural and wild. The best way to do that is by showing your own ravenous curiosity with “I wonder how” statements — even if you know the answer.
3. Help create not a knower, but a questioner. It seems obvious that the best thing to do when asked a question is to answer it.  But when it comes to encouraging inquiry, it’s actually one of the least helpful things a parent can do: “Mom, how far away is the sun?” “Ninety-three million miles.” Clunk!  The inquiry is closed!  Elvis has left the building!
Many skeptical parents I’ve talked to seem to want to fill their kids’ heads with as many right answers as quickly as possible, as if that will keep incoming nonsense from squeezing into the elevator:  “Sorry, all full of true stuff. Take the next child.” But the idea is not to pack them with answers, but to make questioning itself a pleasurable habit. By focusing on making the process itself positive, you will virtually guarantee the next question. And the next.

4.  Use the language of “aspiring rationalism.” Don’t pretend that perfect rational skepticism is ever achievable. We all inherited a brain that is a layered mess of separately-evolved structures, as well as a high degree of ego-centric and socio-centric biases that make skepticism an uphill battle. It’s delusional to think we can entirely walk away from this mess that’s balancing atop our necks. Giving our kids the impression that we can sets them up for failure. Better to see ourselves as aspiring rationalists, doing our best to  think clearly and well despite the odds. It also gives some much-needed empathy for those who fall prey to their own biases.

5.  Encourage an unconditional love of reality.  The conditional love of reality is at play whenever a healthy, well-fed, well-educated person looks me in the eye and says, “Without God, life would be hopeless, pointless, devoid of meaning and beauty,” or “I am only happy because,” or “Life is only bearable if…”

I want my kids to see the universe as an astonishing, thrilling place to be no matter what, whether God exists or does not exist, whether we are permanent or temporary.  I want them to feel unconditional love and joy at being alive, conscious and wondering. Like the passionate love of anything, an unconditional love of reality breeds a voracious hunger to experience it directly, to embrace it, whatever form it may take.

Children with that exciting combination of love and hunger will not stand for anything that gets in the way of that clarity. Their minds become thirsty for genuine understanding, and the best we can do is stand back. If religious ideas seem to illuminate reality, kids with that combination will embrace those ideas. If instead such ideas seem to obscure reality, kids with that love and hunger will bat the damn things aside.


Dale McGowan
Author/editor, Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers

Communicating Skepticism To Your Spouse

July 24, 2011

This is the first of a five-part series on the most effective ways to communicate skepticism to people within your social spheres. This was originally part of the “Raising Skeptics” workshop at The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 in Las Vegas.

I felt compelled to bring this message to TAM because I felt the arguments over tone (such as DBAD) were not directly helpful to skeptics who want better relationships with their family and community. Most previous arguments have focused on the best ways to communicate to the public, but have avoided more personal levels of communication. Within that context, it would be detrimental to take an aggressive approach to communicating skepticism because losing your audience would mean losing a loved one.

With that in mind, please take a look and consider these suggestions. For each category, I’ve solicited the help of an expert within that category. My first expert is an anonymous friend from Atlanta, GA. She is a skeptical activist, but her husband does not share her love of science and critical thinking. Her advice…

When we married, I was agnostic and he claimed to be an atheist, though I don’t know how he arrived at that conclusion – I don’t think it was by extensive reading or deep consideration.

I did much reading, thinking, and research to figure out my position. I was raised Methodist, and though I paid lip service to it, I always had doubts. I did a lot of reading in the Bible, and found that it didn’t seem to say what people claimed. In my youth, I had attended a college prep boarding school and had been required to attend some religious services each week, though they permitted you to choose which. I had many friends who were wiccans, and I went to some of their circles, but the whole thing seemed rather silly and self-conscious.

My husband and I even joined a church and I liked the social aspect, but though I felt like we fit in from a social standpoint, my hackles raised when we got an email urging us not to go see “The Golden Compass” because it didn’t agree with church teachings. I thought, “I’ll decide what movies I will and won’t see, as well as what to think about them, thank you very much.” I tried to believe. I really did. My rational mind kept getting in the way.

I read Francis Collins’ book and still didn’t understand how he could be a theist, and his argument went something like, “I believe because I believe.” Once I read “The God Delusion”, I decided that being an atheist was the only way to reconcile my science training and critical thinking with what I understood about reality. I had never met anyone (to my knowledge) who was an atheist, or at least had never really talked to one, but Dawkins’ logic was compelling.

My husband did not have science training, and sometime during all of this, he began meditating. I don’t really know when he graduated from just meditating to believing in contrails, UFOs, chakras, and most conspiracy theories. Honestly, I don’t even know what he believes, because he won’t tell me. I question, but he shuts down quickly. When alt med or fundamental misunderstandings of medicine are involved, I don’t let these go. Everything else I just quit bothering. Mostly. Having a rational discussion with someone who is not using reason is nearly impossible.

1)Conditional Compromises: Pick your battles wisely (altmed BS is going to require some education).

2) Put the Relationship First: Decide if you would rather have harmony or if you would rather be right.

3) Be crafty: Sometimes I explain principles of critical thinking to the kids within earshot of my husband, hoping he will hear. If he gets mad, I can point out that I wasn’t actually talking to him.

4) Take a gradual approach: Start with less threatening topics then perhaps build parallels with more sensitive topics- you can hope that the believer will extrapolate.

5) Be understanding and respectful: Confront differences frankly, but respectfully. Senses of humor REALLY help.

Thank you, Anonymous! I must say that I completely understand and relate to her experience because my wife was once a student of acupuncture, a type of medicine that lacks plausibility and evidence. One thing that I would add to the above recommendations by my friend would be that we should take care to avoid making fanboy references to every SGU podcast or Mr. Deity episode, and we should refrain from using debate rhetoric (“straw man”) when arguing with a spouse. It can be easy to forget that the rest of the world is not as excited about skepticism as we are. Unfortunately, skeptics live in an insular world that feeds upon it’s own internal drama.

What would you add? Let me know in the comments section.


Parenting at The Amaz!ng Meeting

July 6, 2011

I’m really looking forward to The James Randi Educational Foundation’s annual convention for science and skepticism, The Amazing Meeting 9 (otherwise known as JREF’s TAM9). Yes, there will be the usual skeptical celebrities, such as Adam Savage, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and the recently vilified Richard Dawkins, but there will be other awesome people, such as the tireless parents who produce this blog and the Parenting Within Reason podcast. And on behalf of those of us who are attending, we’re excited to meet you too.

Look for me at the Foundation Beyond Belief table where I will be volunteering to recruit more freethinkers to the cause of active humanism. You can also see me as a guest on the parenting workshop alongside infamous magician Jamy Ian Swiss, sexpert and feminist Heidi Anderson, JREF Education Coordinator Michael Blanford, and Center For Inquiry board member Angie McAllister.

Is there a topic or resource that you want us to share in the workshop? Please let me know.

TAM9 will also mark the end of the Parenting Within Reason podcast. We loved doing every episode and will always have fond memories of our discussions and interviews, but the time and effort that goes into producing each episode has become more than we can handle in our personal lives. It seems that ending the podcast at 50 episodes will be a nice way to conclude the experience.

Hope to see you there! Would love to meet more parents and friends!

-Colin Thornton


Neil Speaks The Truth

May 18, 2011

What is a scientist? Someone who never stopped being a kid.


But it works for me

April 5, 2011

Being a new blogger, I’ve been struggling to develop an approach for handling comments in a consistent and sustainable way. Not that I have had many trolls on this blog or the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, but I find myself wanting to quickly respond to each and every criticism. If this blog gains the readership that I hope it does someday, that is not a sustainable approach. Further, it is not even efficient as most blog criticisms focus around one or two common points, which could be addressed in one place. So my approach is, at least for now, to take such common criticisms and address them as a new blog entry when I think there is enough meat there to do so and the topic is interesting enough as well. This is the first such post.

The most common criticism I saw on my listening therapy post is one that I see on many skeptical blogs: “but it works for me”. Often, when I express skepticism of treatments with family and friends, I get a similar response. So I think this is an important criticism to address, and it highlights a critical difference between how skeptics and believers think.

At the heart of the matter is epistemology, or more simply, the rules for how we decide what we believe. The rules of evidence used by skeptics are a critical difference between skeptics and non-skeptics, if not “the” critical difference. So when someone says to me that “ listening therapy works for me”, I think “how do you know”. Or even better, I should ask “how could you know”. This is not a criticism of their intelligence, but of the data available to them and the ability to draw conclusions from it. Further, I am nothing if not ecumenical. I recognize that if I try something like Airborne® when I have a cold, that I cannot afterwards make any conclusions about whether it has helped me or not. All I can say is that I got better from the cold, not a very astonishing fact in and of itself. This is also why I find such demands that I “try” some treatment before criticizing it to be a pointless endeavor (unless it is just a question about a matter of taste). My single patient non-experiment could not tell me anything. In fact, self experimenting introduces all sorts of additional bias if anything.

So is all hope lost? Am I advocating classical Pyrrhic skepticism reflected in current postmodernism, where all hope of knowledge eludes us. Hardly, but that is often the simple caricature of skeptics used in strawman arguments against their position. No, there is solution to this dilemma, and its name is science. If I were forced to give a one sentence definition of science, it would be that science is the collection of tools to address human biases and investigate the natural world as objectively and systematically as possible. And before the other common criticism of skeptics is posted, I am not arguing for scientism or the position that science can answer all questions. I am simply saying that reason, using the tools of science and logic, are the best we’ve got when it comes to understanding the natural world.

So what are my thoughts when someone comes to me and says “treatment X worked for me or some of my patients”? What else were they doing? What would have happened if they did nothing; could this just be coincidental? How did their expectations color their perception? How susceptible was the outcome to personal perception? Did the person giving the treatment have expectations that could affect their analysis?

None of these issues can really be addressed in a single person, uncontrolled, self-experiment. In fact, such a method violates every single principle of a randomized, controlled and double-blinded experiment, the gold standard, which was created to address precisely the questions above.

Being only one person, there is no statistical significance and chance could sufficiently explain it. Of course, it also means there is no control group which gets to the question of what would happen if you simply had let nature run its course? To answer that question, we need a treatment and non-treatment group of statistically significant size. If we want to get at causation and not simply correlation, we also need to randomly assign people to the two groups. This gets at the question of what else were they doing? Perhaps it was another treatment or simple consequence of the treatment (like resting more) that really caused the recovery. And when you experiment on yourself neither the experimenter nor experimentee is blinded. Our perception, especially of pain, is colored by expectations. Similarly, the experimenter’s expectations can subtly affect their analysis or influence the one being experimented upon. In the end, you could hardly create a worse experiment for effectiveness of a treatment than the “just try it yourself” approach.

Does this mean that everything in life needs rigorous scientific experimentation to establish its validity? No. For immediate, dramatic, repeatable and objectively definable results, we can often infer causality quite easily. For example, a few self experiments with a severe food allergy would give pretty concrete conclusions. Unfortunately, it may also kill you. I also don’t need an experiment to establish the fact that cuts and scrapes of the skin cause pain. You usually have a enough data by the time you are a toddler to securely make that conclusion. :-) The problem is that most treatments don’t have such a direct and clear effect as a few shots of whiskey, and so we need more than personal anecdotes to evaluate most interesting questions.


Hi-Fi pseudo-sci, Occupational Therapy, and making some lemonade

March 6, 2011

Being involved parents of an autistic child, my wife and I go to many different groups and meet lots of other parents of children with PDD (Pervasive Developmental Delay) or ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). I am used to the barrage of pseudoscience and misinformation from well-meaning parents (e.g, anti-vaccination, chelation, gluten-free diets, etc), but I have always expected that professional Occupational Therapists (OTs) would steer us towards evidence-based treatments. They have certainly been critical of many of the common autism myths, like the vaccines and autism non-connection. Unfortunately, my expectations were overly ambitious, and I let my skeptical guard down.

Our older son is very sensitive to loud noises and gets upset quite easily. He seems to have a lot of sensory issues both tactile and auditory, and addressing sensory issues is a large part of what OT therapies work to alleviate. Our OTs recommended that we try some Therapeutic Listening® therapy, which plays somewhat dissonant synthesized music that sounds like back-masked music rapidly oscillating in volume. I was a bit skeptical, but we tried it anyway because (1) they lent us the special headphones and CDs, (2) I didn’t think it would hurt, (3) I didn’t have the time or expertise to look into the research, and (4) multiple OTs told us to try it. Besides, it seemed a bit plausible that people sensitive to noise could be desensitized by listening to something dissonant and random on a regular basis, and we are REALLY struggling with these noise sensitivity issues at home.

It wasn’t until my 5-year-old broke these rather unremarkable Therapeutic Listening® headphones and we needed to replace them that I took some time to look into this. These headphones, with the construction and sound quality of a $30-50 pair, are sold for a whopping $145! They are one of only two approved headphones for this program, and they seem to only be sold through one place, Vital Sounds.

Being a bit of an audiophile before kids, I looked into the specifications and features to see what made them special. Of course they advertise meaningless features like “BioNetic design”, and other things that are wholly unimpressive like “9.8-foot single-sided OFC (oxygen-free copper) cable” and “Supra-aural, semi-open aire design”. The only thing that is somewhat unique is that they have a frequency range of (18-30,000 Hz), whereas most headphones stop at 20,000-22,000 Hz on the upper-end. Since humans can’t hear above 20,000 Hz normally (nor can CDs play sounds above that frequency), this isn’t such a remarkable feature to go up to 30,000 Hz. In fact, Sennheiser made almost the exact same headphones for about $50 with a 14-21,000 Hz range, (quite suitable for humans), which does not have the 150 Ohm impedance that makes them useless on portable devices.

Being annoyed at having to pay $145 for headphones that are worse in many ways (except that dogs may be able to appreciate them more) than my $50 Sony headphones, I dug a little deeper, where the non-sense only grew. You find some web sites saying you can’t even copy the CDs and have to play off the originals. It is said that this is about sound quality, but the writer obviously lacks an understanding of what it means to copy digital information. However, I could see an incentive from the company that sells these CDs for $60 a pop to propagate such a myth. Needless to say, giving little children original CDs is a bad idea. Of course, you can buy their lossless encoded versions on SD cards that can be used by certain music players at a premium, but they warn against ripping CDs to your own players because any compression could make them ineffective (regardless of whatever other magic is used to get 30,000 Hz sounds recorded onto a CD). Considering the open air design of the headphones and the fact that you are supposed to do listening therapy while performing other tasks, I would challenge anyone to tell the difference between even highly compressed mp3s and lossless encodings. This says nothing of higher quality, lower compression formats like 256kbs ACC.

The more and more I read, it just sounded like a couple of companies want to sell overpriced CDs and headphones, by controlling the distribution of “approved” devices for their therapy. A further red light was the range of things this therapy was claimed to help, such as, “improved bowel and bladder function“. More troubling, many of the sites promoting this therapy promote other quack therapies and misinformation to parents of autistic children with a strong emphasis on anecdotes and personal experience. All of this made me wonder about effectiveness of this “scientific” therapy in the first place, setting aside the over-priced hardware and non-sense about audio electronics.

The best, and one of the only sources of skeptical information, I found was at a blog called Autism Street. It is there that I learned that there have been Cochrane reviews and other meta-analyses of this whole field of therapy for autistic children, reviews which find no support for the claims of the companies selling these or the OTs promoting them. Sadly, the best support I found for the therapy was a student paper that basically acknowledged all these issues, but argued that we can’t rule out that there isn’t some effect on a special subgroup and lamely argued that more research is needed.

Needless to say, I am frustrated that tax dollars pay for this pseudoscience and disappointed in what I have discovered about some Occupational Therapy modalities. But I learned several things, and I can make some lemonade from these lemons.

First, pseudoscience can cost you money, even when you never expect it to. Sometimes “just trying” something will hurt. For example, your child could break the over-priced pseudoscientific contraption at the chiropractor’s office. This is irrespective of the fact that most times you cannot “just try” something to reliably infer that it “works” in any sort of controlled and unbiased way.

Our OTs are great people, but it seems like their field is infiltrated by a fair amount of non-sense. So I don’t really know what to believe from them anymore, and I certainly dismiss the less plausible things they say even more readily now. This should have been no surprise, as we see this in many other health care fields. Nurses have therapeutic touch, and OTs have Therapeutic Listening®. I was talking to a good friend who is a physical therapist, and he was telling me how he is endlessly fighting against crazier non-sense infiltrating his field on an almost daily basis. So this whole thing reminded me, in a personal way, that a therapist does not a scientist (or even critical thinker) make.

More importantly, it made me realize how much it helps to share these things, and that there is something that even I can do. This whole event has caused me to gather my thoughts, think about the problem and engage in skeptical activism as a new blogger here at Science-based Parenting. My hope is that others can learn from my mistakes, and maybe, just maybe, someone will find this blog entry when they are investigating this dodgy therapy.

Finally, I learned that Sennheiser has a really nice guy working in the parts department who is sending me a free part to fix the headphones.


The Wonderful World of Statistics

January 29, 2011

We as parents stumble along trying to make sense of the world as we make sure our kids grow up healthy and educated. One thing that we often encounter is the mysterious world of statistics. Read the rest of this entry »


Life Lesson: Be Prepared (Against Creationists)

December 12, 2010

I recently held my first Science Cafe event in Cincinnati. The topic of the night was astronomical pseudosciences, such as the 2012 apocalypse myths, aliens, and the star of Bethlehem. So, I was woefully unprepared to handle the creationist in the audience who spoke up to challenge our guest astronomer on issues of evolution and biology. I mean, who would expect those questions to come up at a presentation on astronomy?

The gentleman, who claimed to be trained in biological sciences, was sitting right next to me. I had my first clue that he was up to no good when he started talking about “entropy” in the first few minutes of our casual conversation. I knew that creationists consider “entropy” to be their best argument against evolution, but I wasn’t familiar enough with the topic to have a solid answer. So, I had to nod my head and listen to him spread the typical creationist propaganda without a proper rebuttal.

Always be prepared for a creationist!

The idea of “entropy” is that things in our universe generally break down from order to disorder over time, rather than become more complex.  Except that the second law of thermodynamics only applies in a closed system. The Earth is not a closed system because of the sun. And, in the words of biologist PZ Myers…

it’s obvious that the second law does not state that nothing can ever increase in order, but only that an decrease in one part must be accompanied by a greater increase in entropy in another. Two gametes, for instance, can fuse and begin a complicated process in development that represents a long-term local decrease in entropy, but at the same time that embryo is pumping heat out into its environment and increasing the entropy of the surrounding bit of the world.

This guy’s arguments would have been nullified if I had previously researched and understood the preceding points. But, I’m not a scientist, and the speaker was an astronomer (not a ‘squishy scientist’ as Phil Plait says), so this creationist was purposefully dropping bombs in a room where they couldn’t adequately be defended. Why?

I have no idea. The lesson I learned is to be prepared. Be ready to face any argument that challenges evolution. Not only did I not have an answer for this gentleman, but neither did the guests, the majority of whom who supported evolution,

The other argument that this guy made was that E. coli bacteria has never undergone speciation, despite years of experimentation.  I knew this was wrong and was able to quickly counter his argument by googling “bacteria citrate” on my phone. That’s because I remembered that the scientist Richard Lenski had conducted long-term experiments with bacteria, and was able to prove that two subsequent generations of E. coli had two completely different biological skills of whether or not they could absorb citrate. Again, I did’t know the details, but I knew enough to throw a name at him and ask him if he was prepared to admit that he might be wrong.

The creationist described E. coli as having no significant biological variation after many experimental generations, despite Dr. Lenski’s proof to the contrary. Rather than admit his error, he denied that the absorption of citrate was significant enough to be considered “speciation”. Whatever. I’m not a biologist, but the sudden ability of a species to absorb a nutrient seems like a VERY big deal, and as I pointed out to this gentleman, his unstated premise is that the alternative option is that God intervened with a miracle… for something as small and insignificant as a bacteria. That doesn’t seem logical, considering the millions of bacteria that have been discovered.

You might think that having a creationist heckler at my first science cafe would be a downer, but I truly enjoy the thrill of being challenged. There was a point when I thought this creationist might completely derail the evening’s topic, and when that was about to happen, I called for everyone to let the speaker bring things back to astronomy. This was very well received by all, and our creationist friend was able to follow up with his questions during Q&A.

I’m not a scientist. I’m a science advocate. But still, it’s important that I be comfortable with standard creationist canards, so that I’m not blindsided again. Let this be a lesson to me… and to you.


Spreading the Gospel of Skepticism

November 21, 2010

I gave a “sermon” at my UU church today on skepticism, and it was such a thrill to share my passion with everyone. One thing I wanted to focus on was outreach – how to be a better ambassador for the idea of skepticism.

Lately, there has been a battle for tone in our little skeptical movement. On the one side, are certain atheists (PZ Myers and friends) who are fairly intolerant of people of faith. Their argument is that there is no room for superstition in the skeptical movement, and that religion should not be immune to our critical analysis. They make a strong point, but they don’t make it very nicely.

On the other side, are people, like me, who want to be more welcoming and accepting of people who choose a path of faith. We shouldn’t shove any belief down the throats of potential allies. Skepticism should be about the process, and not the destination. Skepticism is all about giving people the tools to think critically, and sharing our conclusions for claims that are testable (the existence of god is not one of these claims). Too often, skeptics ruin skepticism’s street cred and jeopardize our greater goals by alienating deists with dismissive rhetoric and an unwelcoming vitriolic tone. I think those of us on the “accommodationist” side need to remind ourselves that it’s not our job to change people’s motives or attitudes. If accommodationists want skepticism to be represented by positive core values, all we can do is our own brand of outreach and not villainize new atheists for having a different tactic ; anything further obsessing over the topic just comes across as sanctimonious to the other side, and it allows them to mock our efforts.

Which is why I spoke to my UU congregation about the positive sides of skepticism, and did my best to represent my accommodationist position. I wanted the congregation to know that skeptics are not some fringe cynical lunatics who disbelieve in everything, as some might think on their first impression. We follow the scientific consensus, which more often than not, puts us in the mainstream.

I also wanted to take the advice of Sean Faircloth of the Secular Coalition of America, whom I interviewed recently, to flavor my sermon with arguments that pack a punch emotionally. I reminded them that Christine Maggiore, an HIV denialist, could have lived a much longer life (and her daughter too) if she had listened to the scientific consensus that AIDS was caused by HIV. I also brought up the dowsing bomb detectors that are based on the long-debunked concept of divination. How many innocent people died because those devices were being used? My argument was that skepticism matters, and I hope that this message hit home with my audience.

I also tried to anticipate some objections, like “who cares whether people believe in bigfoot?”. My argument has always been that somebody cares, and that most people should care about the truth. Nobody likes to hear their beliefs belittled, and very few people are willing to walk away from a belief that they have invested in. But most skeptics aren’t interested in taking away the free-will of people to choose their own path. The skeptic movement is about a method of assessing claims, sharing that method with those who will listen, and supporting the scientists and investigators who use the method in their trade. As I put it to my congregation, does the existence of Consumer Reports magazine take away people’s free will to buy expensive poor quality items at the store? No, but it’s there if you need it, and we should be thankful for it.

I’ve been reading “Mistakes Were Made, but Not by Me” by Carol Tavris, which is all about “cognitive dissonance”, the idea that people can’t hold two opposing ideas in their heads, so they tend to justify the idea in which they’re most invested. One paragraph really popped out at me, and it’s when Tavris said that skepticism is a form of “arrogance control”, which seems like a great rejoinder to the complaint that skeptics are arrogant. Who is more arrogant, the person who believes, without a doubt, that he has seen a flying saucer, or the person who recognizes that our minds are evolved to pick out patterns and that the UFO was likely a flare, a balloon, a planet, or any number of other natural explanations? I guess that answer depends on how the message is given, which goes to the points I’ve been making about tone.

I had a number of people come up to me afterward and discuss topics that I mentioned. I really enjoy being challenged. One couple had invested some of their credulity into the possible conspiracy of World Trade Center 7′s collapse and global warming denial. One thing that I admitted to them is that World Trade Center 7 is an unusual anomaly, and that it makes sense to question it’s collapse. But when I was hooked into the 9/11 conspiracy (for a day) I took some time to look at what the skeptics’ arguments were, and I found that the skeptics “had the goods”. As for global warming, I understood their argument that it’s fellow scientists who are pointing to errors in the way the data has been analyzed. I think that’s a great thing because science can be messy, and we should hope that scientists are keeping each other in check. However, as I understand it, the overall consensus among scientists is that AGW is a real man-made threat, and that it’s getting worse every year. Most of all, I tried to empathize with their position and let them know some resources where they could find reliable answers.

One thing I learned while investigating the information for this sermon is that Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were good friends, despite their differences in critical thinking skills. Harry never tried to push the overly-credulous Doyle into skepticism, but instead, he would be very careful about explaining how certain spiritualists could accomplish their supernatural abilities in explainable natural ways. Doyle went to his grave believing in fairies and clairvoyants because he was so heavily invested in his beliefs, but Houdini would never have had a chance to share his skepticism of the spiritualists had he been antagonistic toward Doyle.

I’ll finish with this quote by Carl Sagan, which I borrowed for the sermon from Daniel Loxton:

“And yet, the chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is in its polarization: Us vs. Them—the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, you’re beyond redemption. This is unconstructive. It does not get the message across. It condemns the skeptics to permanent minority status; whereas, a compassionate approach that from the beginning acknowledges the human roots of pseudoscience and superstition might be much more widely accepted.”

Amen, brother.