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.

6 comments for “Skepticism 102

  1. idoubtit
    November 3, 2009 at 19:53

    I think the best question we can ask in these situations is “Why?” Why do you feel this way? Why do you think that is true? Why do you believe what she says? Why might that be a good idea? Perhaps it at least gets them thinking (when they can’t produce an answer that sounds good out loud).

    It’s very hard to just listen. One must make the effort to suppress the urge to rant on. Very difficult when you encounter someone who should know better. Or, worse, when it’s your Mom.

    • November 3, 2009 at 22:56

      That’s a good strategy. And yeah, I hate to say it, because I’m not trying to be deceitful, but I’ll feign ignorance for a bit in order to make sure I listen to the whole answer to “why.” first.

      Ha, I think the Oprah outburst was directed at my mom once. But it was unwarranted, she’s pretty skeptical all on her own!

  2. November 3, 2009 at 22:06

    Very good post, and this is coming from an asshole skeptic :)

    Also, you are going to have far more people listen to you than do to me.

    However, when you are ready for the screaming, call me!

    • November 3, 2009 at 22:51

      See, but you pull off the passion intelligently. When I let my inner asshole skeptic out, it’s a bumbling idiot. We just need to team up and be unstoppable in any situation!

      • November 3, 2009 at 23:06

        Yeah, the bumbling part is the tough part of being an asshole skeptic. Knowing when to bite your tongue can be hard.

        I find I get drawn in easily into the half-dozen or so subjects that I’m really passionate about, and once the passion is flowing it can be hard to stop. But it HAS to stop as soon as I get into territory I’m not versed in.

        I fully advocate impassioned argument (when appropriate – and that’s a very long subject) and the wanton use of playing the emotion card & other tricks usually the domain of the non-skeptical… but there is one we can never afford to play: not telling the truth. And that emphatically includes making stuff up.

  3. November 3, 2009 at 23:00

    “…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.”

    Nice. That’s an excellent and fairly comprehensive laundry list of the true commonalities amongst us.

    I believe it was Phil Plait who said at TAM this summer something to the effect of “We may not agree on everything. We may not agree on matters of opinion. We may not agree on political beliefs. We may not even agree on our spiritual beliefs. But we do agree on one thing, and that is how we come to determine what we believe in.” (I am seriously paraphrasing from memory, but that was the gist.)

    I think your summation totally nails the essence of that.

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