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Digging in Their Heels

I consider this an addition to my previous post about being a good skeptic. Thanks to the JREF, I was able to listen to a great lecture given by the “Bad Astronomer” Phil Plait, who was in fact the president of the JREF not so long ago. The title of his talk was “Don’t Be a Dick”, and I think that the main point of the talk could be gleaned quite easily from the title. I think that the implications of this talk have great value for all skeptics. Allow me to summarize:

As skeptics, we have a hard time fighting the opposition, that is, those who perpetuate bad science. Almost all of the studies regarding our effectiveness yield bad news. The studies show that when someone is challenged with evidence contrary to their own beliefs, they dig in their heels and begin to believe even more, regardless of the evidence.

Not only that, but the studies also bear out that when someone is presented with a claim that they are told to be false (based upon evidence, of course) that the majority of those people will remember that claim as being true in the future.

“Oh you mean that crop circle thing? Yeah I remember someone said that was true, or something”.

Skeptics fight against the predisposition of human psychology, dispositions that run opposite to exactly that which critical thinking and rationality strive to achieve. It is because we fight against the irrational, that we must also be delicate.

“That’s Interesting, What do You Think About This…?”

To get people to really change their minds, sound arguments, facts, and critical thinking tools must be presented in a friendly, person to person way. Sometimes it is hard when a belief is central to their lifestyle or world-view, but that is simply all we can do without coming off as arrogant, which will be immediately ignored. Unless, of course, you use an argument that is so amazing, you get something like this…Of course that will defeat any claim, but seriously, he has a hair-bird.

Back To Business

How many people do you know that have given up some sort of belief? Now think about how that has happened. Do you think that they changed their minds because someone got in their face and called them a moron? It is the tone of arrogance that immediately causes the “digging heel” response. As skeptics, we truly desire for the believers of various superstition and pseudoscience to change their minds. But again, because of that, we have to approach it softly, offering tools and evidence instead of smug superiority. An approach that entirely consists of telling someone that they’re wrong, hardly accomplishes anything.

How do you convince someone they’re not thinking clearly, when they’re not thinking clearly? Again, the approach must be personable and rateable, not visible disdain. I admit, the skeptical mindset is a hard sell. It touts no afterlife, no happy ending, no magic, no supreme moral father figure. Most people will choose magic over science, and most generic people will choose fantasy over reality. It really is intellectually easier to accept the superstitions and faith-based reasoning that we are psychologically disposed to. I will contend that the confidence and understanding you will gain from overcoming, or helping someone to overcome, that intellectual laziness is far more rewarding than sitting in the darkness of unsubstantiated knowledge.

Staying a Skeptical Course

Those of you who are outspoken skeptics/rationalists/humanists, it is always the time to become science evangelists. Because, for most people, it’s more exiting to believe Santa Claus dropped presents under the tree, and this alludes to most parts in a superstitious lifestyle.

The generic person thinks that science is hard and that its boring. Yes, it is hard at times, but that is usually at the point when there is a base of scientific knowledge to build upon. The first step of teaching people how to think, to use reason when thinking something through, precedes any sort of difficulty that they associate with perhaps college BIO 1001. Our culture is one that doesn’t really care how something works as long as it works. I can assure you that even though circuits and photosynthesis sound boring to some, the realization of how science makes everything work, will far surpass any boring aspects on the way to utter fascination.

Remember Our Goals

For all of you who have lost some sort of belief, was that accomplished through someone getting in your face and calling you an idiot? Don’t let anger and frustration get the best of you. Insults may make you feel better or superior or vent, but why score a cheap point instead of winning the game? Examples of how to teach someone, or yourself, to be a good skeptic (with valuable tools) can be found in the earlier “What Does it Mean to be a Skeptic?” post.

Always ask yourself what your goal is. We are not fighting a war, we are trying to persuade other human beings. We need diplomats, not warriors. We cannot afford exclude people when they outnumber us 10,000 to 1.

Don’t be a Dick.