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 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.


April 23, 2010

Usually I ignore the topic of vaccination, because we’ve got other parents here who focus on that. I’m more of the voice of parenting angst. But I’m actually somewhat bothered by an article that skeparent linked to about vaccination. I’m not going to link to the article I’m referencing, because increasing links in boosts the google search position of an article, and the last thing we need in the world is more prominent fear mongering when it comes to vaccines. I linked to the article in the comments, if you’re interested.

But I do want to highlight some sloppy thinking in this mystery article, which I guess you could probably find from Skeparent, over there in the sidebar. This is fairly typical of the anti-vaccine movement in general, so it doesn’t really matter who I’m referencing. I could pick any random anti-vax article and probably just write boilerplate about it and be about as accurate.

For example, the article mentions that Japan stopped using MMR. They don’t mention that Measles in on the rise in Japan. They don’t mention that even without MMR in Japan, Autism continues to rise, even though they claim that autism is linked to MMR vaccination. They claim that vaccines aren’t 100% effective, but they don’t actually point out that the rates of measles in unvaccinated and vaccinated populations are very different, instead giving the impression that unvaccinated children are just about as likely to contract measles as vaccinated children.

This is a technique called “Cherry Picking”, where an advocate for some position selectively cites data from a study while completely ignoring other data from the exact same study. So, for example, if the CDC reports that in a particular measles outbreak, 45% of the affected children were vaccinated, they mention that. They ignore the fact that of that 45%, the majority had not received a recommended booster shot. And they don’t mention that the unvaccinated population is much, much smaller than the vaccinated population, but still makes up the majority of measles cases.

It’s a special kind of dishonesty, this data filtering. I don’t think that it’s conscious… if it were, they wouldn’t put the links in the blog article. The blog author simply grabs what looks like corroborating evidence from a source, and then adds it to the impressive looking list of references at the end of the article. The fact that the majority of the sources recommend earlier vaccination and increased booster shots, or that some sources contradict claims from other sources, is just ignored completely.

On the other hand, the author moderates all comments on her blog, so that the only comments that appear are “Wow, you’re so smart and I love you so much and thank you for standing up to the evil forces of evil”, so maybe it is intentional. I mean, she has to have read the comments from myself and others by now (the comments she hasn’t posted) and so she should be aware that she’s selecting data and ignoring data.

But maybe, since she doesn’t let negative feedback go public, she can sort of put it out of her mind. Not really read it, just sort of skim it and then delete it when it’s not complimentary. That would make sense.

I think I’ll bring this around to parenting angst now (you knew I would). Highlander talks back to me. A lot. More than I like, actually, and more than is really helpful or appropriate. He says things like “I’m not your friend”, or “I’m mad at you”, and other deep expressions of 3-year-old anger or frustration. Which is bad, in some ways. But it’s good in other ways… and one way it’s good is the rare occasion when he says something incredibly nice, like “You’re a good Daddy.” Because I know he means it. He isn’t punished for saying mean things (except that I’m less happy) and he isn’t rewarded for saying nice things (except that I’m more happy), so there’s no real pressure on him to be a certain kind of commenter.

The real pressure is on me, to keep parenting despite some negative feedback, to ignore the temptation to give in in order to get positive feedback. That makes the rare parenting kudo better, I get the dual satisfaction of both doing what I think is the right thing to do and being thanked for it.

Too much restriction of your feedback loops leads to a bovine complacency, a self-satisfaction born of self-delusion. It’s easy to believe you’re the best parent in the world if you never allow negative feedback, it’s easy to believe you’re the smartest blogger on the block if you delete all the negative comments, and it’s easy to believe that we don’t need the MMR vaccine when the measles is basically dead.

sports, politics, and family communication

December 28, 2009

All I’ve been paying attention to lately is American Football and computer science. Why this is I’m not sure. Mostly because I don’t have time to get exercised over things I can’t change, and I get much less upset about football than politics.

Football doesn’t matter, and I know it doesn’t matter. I watch it, and I care, because it creates a neutral topic to talk to my son about, and I believe that eventually I’ll need that topic. My dad has started watching football for exactly the same reason. This is probably a good thing.

Sports creates common enemies. My Dad and I disagree about politics. We disagree about child rearing, religion, and working late at night. But we can agree that Florida should be facing TCU and not Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl, and even if we disagree, neither of us care enough to get mad about the discussion. There are points to be made on every side, and no one actually cares if they’re right.

Politics is a different animal, as is religion, or even science. It actually matters a lot whether the Obama economic plan is a mitigated or unmitigated disaster. It matters whether the Copenhagen summit represents pure stupidity or merely incompetence, it matters whether the good folks at the University of East Anglia were actually flat out lying or merely snarky idiots.

Discussions on these matters get hot and desperate, as we are gripped by terrifying forces beyond our control. Football is also beyond my control, but it doesn’t grip me. Teams win, teams lose, teams try again next week or next year. We cheer, we boo, we experience momentary happiness and sadness.

There are deep physiological roots to the enjoyment of watching sports, of course. Our ever handy mirror neurons create a vicarious sense of playing when we observe others at play. So to watch virtuosity makes us feel, however briefly, like virtuosos ourselves. And this can be a powerful good feeling.

As a geek, I occasionally feel guilty about this. Most of these guys are probably jerks. They probably tortured geeks in high school. And now they sit on top of the world.

On the other hand, every one of them represents the failure of a thousand other jocks, jocks working dead end jobs and looking back on high school as the pinnacle of their life. So there’s a little sweet revenge there. And the Highlander doesn’t have that experience yet. He hasn’t been to secondary school. He’s just a kid, and he loves football.

But this theory of mine, that sport fandom will lead to a better relationship with my son later in life, is pretty untested. My brief literature search hasn’t led to much data.

My question to the readership: what plans are you laying for navigating the teenage years? What do you think of creating a “safe” subject to discuss when parent/child resentment/embarrassment closes down other topics?


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