Skepticism 102

I had long ago promised to write about what came out of Skeptrack at Dragon*Con. It’s taken some time to process, and there have been many other distractions (life, work, etc) but here I finally begin…

I’ve written previously about what it means for me to be a “skeptic” so I guess you could call that “skepticism 101.”  So say you are already on board with the whole idea. As Daniel Loxton asked, what do you do next?

One of the simplest things that you can do it just talk to your friends and family about what you think. Don’t be shy when you hear a friend claim that childhood vaccines cause autism.  Be genuinely curious when someone wants to tell you their ghost story.  It’s easy to rag on homeopathy or make fun of Jenny McCarthy when you know you are among like-minded people at skeptical blogs, forums, and meetings.  But eventually, the topics that you care about will come up in conversation with your buddies, and they don’t all read skeptical blogs all day long… I mean…. I’m working!

I’m not confrontational by nature. Grumpy at times, yes, but I’m pretty shy when it comes down to it. (Despite the volume, honestly!) And sure, we all see the productive arguments and unproductive shouting matches that occur online, but real life conversation doesn’t always go that way.  The first thing that you can do when someone brings up a topic that you are skeptical about, even passionate about, is listen.  I know, it’s hard, sometimes the first thing to come to mind is “WTF, dude, Oprah is a ditz!” Listen to your friend, discuss it like you would anything else.  Even on a topic that is as well scientifically validated as the safety of vaccines, just having the right answer doesn’t end the conversation.  The science is there, but so are the fears and emotions.  The science is there, but it hasn’t been properly communicated to everyone.  Most people just want to make up their own minds, and you may be able to plant the seed that leads them to the answer.

Most of the time, you really won’t know the answer. You didn’t personally see their UFO or ghost, you weren’t there when they “cured” themselves with homeopathy.  You probably can’t say for sure what they saw or felt or what really cured them.  But you do know a few things about the field, so share that. Plant the seed of doubt, let them investigate for themselves. Or help out! I’d love to see a really crazy UFO and try and figure out what it is.

There are times for impassioned, even asshole skepticism. But some of us just can’t pull it off well, and besides, having a beer with your colleagues is probably not that time. Chances are, they aren’t swindling people out of their money with fake cures. They are probably just as curious as you are. And who knows, you may grow your own skeptic! That said, I still cherish the online arguments, even as a spectator. It’s good training for your own critical thinking, and maybe it can help with some of those listening skills I mentioned above.

So, we use the word “skeptic” to describe ourselves, although technically the term is misleading. Skepticism is a process, there is no one way to be a “skeptic.” But we use the word and it’s there and sometimes your friends will ask, “Well what does that mean?”  For a while I wasn’t sure what to say. When I was at Dragon*Con at Skeptrack, I asked this question of a bunch of people there, but being scatterbrained as I am, I didn’t write it down or record anything. But a general picture began to emerge… a skeptic is someone who asks questions… a skeptic is a science advocate… a skeptic values critical thinking… a skeptic likes to do their own research and see the evidence.  We like to be seen as inquisitive, not curmudgeonly, though the latter is more likely where the stereotype lies.  We’re open-minded, not closed-minded, nor are we “conspiracy theorists”, though some of those have tried to co-opt the term.

I tend to hang out with science-types and with grad students. It’s just a function of where I am in my life. In my experience, they are more likely to respond to honest discussion and critical thought, not appeals to emotion. We live and breathe this stuff every day, poking holes in articles once a week in journal club, watching peer-reviewers poke holes in our own work.  (Aside: there is nothing “peer” about it when you are a wee student. It’s frakking terrifying!)  So maybe I have yet to delve into the world of the believers, but I think there’s plenty to do right here.

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