Afternoon Inquisition, 10.3

A return to our skeptical roots with today’s Afternoon Inquisition, I think:

There’s a whole lot of woo out there.  From Bigfoot to Creationism, we skeptics are busy!  So, my question to you is:

Are there certain issues out there that aren’t worth our time? Are we wasting energy on minor issues when we should focus on the more harmful forms of woo?  If so, what are they and what are the ‘big’ targets we should focus on? If not, why not?


Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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  1. I think a lot of little “woo”s cna create an atmosphere of “WOO” and that is very dangerous and bad thing.

    So, yes, lets d-woo-ify the little things, but always with our eye on the big picture.

  2. I certainly don’t think so. I think it largely has to do where your interests lay. Some might feel that debunking the latest Bigfoot “evidence” is a waste of time, but there may be someone else out there who wants to. I just don’t see any reason why we should place requirements on what any particular skeptic chooses to focus on or tell that person he/she is wasting his/her time. Yes, there are more pressing matters, but sometimes, by pointing out the lesser skeptical issues and what is wrong with those, we can aid others to start looking at the big things as skeptically as the small.

    Reporter 1: You mean Chickenfoot was a fraud ALL ALONG!!??
    Dib: This just proves that paranormal studies isn’t a bunch of crazies believing in anything! We also disprove the frauds!
    Reporter 2: I’ll bet this means Bigfoot is a fraud too!
    Reporter 1: And UFOs!
    Reporter 2: And hobos!
    Dib: No wait! Those are real! Except the hobos. Wait, no. They’re real. I… I guess. But- what’s wrong with you people!?!

    Invader Zim-The Sad, Sad Tale of Chickenfoot

  3. I’d say it’s a triage situation. Three categories: 1. too fringe or low-impact to waste time on (e.g. fairies, flat Earth), 2. too mainstream or entrenched to tackle (organized religion) and 3. everything else (ghosts, ufos, antivax). If you take on #3, #1 will become increasingly marginalized and #2 will erode from the edges.

  4. Woo that has potential to cause bodily harm to innocent bystanders needs pronto attention.

    Antivax, xian scientists, etc.

  5. This question has been on my mind a lot recently. I think that we skeptics spend a lot of time repeating ourselves, and that if we focused our efforts a bit differently we could get a much bigger payoff. So, my answer is already in the form of four posts on my blog — you can see all of them by clicking here.

    To sum up a bit, though, I think we should work more on building community, talking about what that community should be like… work more on outreach and education, and talk about strategies and content for that outreach… and make a practice of linking to well-written debunkings of old woo, rather than rewriting the same old stuff every time it comes up.

  6. @wytworm: Not necessarily. Europe is often thought to have a significantly better education system than the U.S. but they have serious issues with antivaxxers, homeopaths, psychics, etc. Education can only take a person so far.

  7. Absolutely not! All woo needs to be exposed for what it is, rubbish. The reason I take this position is that by properly exposing woo, namely by showing where the reason and logic went wrong, you indirectly damage all sorts of woo, because they’re all based on the same faulty logic.

    What is important is to expose the bad reasoning behind the woo, regardless of what the actual subject matter is.

  8. If what you’re trying to give other people is a new way of thinking, then I’m not sure it much matters which issues you use as an example.

    The more issues it is applied to, the better chance skepticism making an impression on more people.

  9. I think that one-off woo isn’t worth the time to attack. Things such as Bigfoot, UFO’s (existence, not abductions), Nessie don’t really hurt anybody, and don’t involve any huge violations of space and time and intelligence.

  10. I just like to promote critical thinking and I’ll use anything as an example for that. So there’s pretty much no subject that’s below my radar.

    That being said, I think there are some things that deserve more immediate public attention such as the anti-vax movement because that is more than run-of-the-mill stupidity. It’s *dangerous* for everyone.

  11. I agree with Kaylia Marie – the general acceptance of foolishness leads to an environment in which it becomes acceptable to grasp onto a wider variety of nonsense.

    At the same time, there is a triage situation – some issues are more pressing than others because they are either causing immediate harm or are likely to. So, those who are concerned about the harm of these beliefs need ot face that. However, having at even the less harmful beliefs will have a beneficial effect at eroding many of the harmful ones by simply changing the atmosphere in which they thrive.

  12. Maybe the question should be less about specific issues and more about age and arenas. Currently the occasional campus debate and the more often interview for media article counterpoint don’t seem to be getting us very far.

    By contrast, being exposed to all kinds of world religions at an elementary school level and standing eggs on end anytime of the year can be enough to instill a skeptical mindset for a lifetime.

  13. @Athos: I totally agree. We need to open up that dialogue about what to do in addition to the occasional campus debate, what ought to be included in elementary school curricula, and how to petition effectively to get those curricula changed. I hope you’ll check out the posts I mentioned in my earlier comment and let me know what you think about them — the most recent one was on education specifically.

    Lots of people have already written about Bigfoot, creationism, homeopathy, psychics, etc. etc. and while I don’t think those topics should be avoided, I do believe there should be some interesting context prompting you to write about them. (Not just “By the way, this how cold reading works.) In the meantime, when there’s no context to debunk Bigfoot yet again, we should talk strategy and organize.

  14. I’m not sure that determined skeptics, working as a group, and concentrating one one piece of WOO at a time, could actually wipe it out.

    But since that’s never really been tried, it might be a really fun project.

    We would need to get at least one leg of the elite media, and some political help, to go along with our grassroots efforts, I think.

    And lots of planning. I mean, c’mon! We have science on our side! Let’s figure out how to do it, and then keep trying until we achieve success!

    Deciding what is most worthy of our efforts, however (the original question) might be difficult. Too many arguments to be made for too many kinds of WOO.

    I, myself, think that religious beliefs are the most harmful, because they’re more widely spread and people tend to be inoculated against questioning them.

  15. What are we? Vulcans? Captain, Bigfoot isn’t logical – of course, neither are ghosts, liberalism, young earth creationism, conservatism, true love, alien abduction, or well, humans.

    While some of us may cast the discerning eye of critical thought on more of the world than others (my personal heroes are Sagan and Twain), we haven’t evolved to do it all the time or equally well. Given that, we must absolutely pick our battles. What we chose to engage, how we engage it, and the reasons we offer, help us mold opinion about our motives as skeptics (which is all too frequently negative).

    The question should always be – to what ends? For example, having read research into the psychology of happiness, studies show that childless adults generally report higher life satisfaction and happiness than those of us with kids. Is is woo to have offspring? Maybe, but I don’t believe we’d get very far arguing with people’s drive to procreate.

    So perhaps we need some principles on how best to use skepticism – perhaps –

    1 – It has a testable claim. Shroud of Turin? Bigfoot hairs? Yep. Divine creator? Invisible vorpal bunnies? Not so much.

    2 – It has a human cost. Horoscopes for amusement? Deism? Probably okay. Using astrology to identify potential child molesters? Fundamentalist Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Communism, etc. Worth taking on.

    3 – A desirable outcome is achievable. Trying to convince a devout whatever on their deathbed that their religious beliefs are false, probably couldn’t be achieved and wouldn’t serve much purpose if it were. Convincing the same person several months earlier to go to an oncologist instead of a faith healer might be achievable and has a more clearly defined desirable outcome.

    Why not just take all comers? First, we will likely alienate most of them. Second, we will suffer under the hubris that everyone else is deluded and only we have battered back billions of years of brain evolution with a few hundred years of scientific thought. Finally, despite having read the research, I want to believe that my kids will add joy and meaning to my life and all you poor childless sods don’t know how empty your lives are and I’d be a hypocrite if I weren’t willing to let others have their harmless delusions too.

    (But if you are thinking of having offspring, please understand that I could only write this, because the children are still asleep and once they wake up I will once again be immersed in Disney Princesses and arguments over who hit whom first – read the research before deciding.) :)

  16. It’s always, always triage. We are a limited community with limited skills and limited attention in a very big world- our periodic inattention to an issue is a given. The only question is how to best distribute the attention we do have. The question is, do we get better results by beating the crap out of low-hanging fruit, like Bigfoot and tarot cards, or by letting people have their fun while we write more letters to legislatures, or by going after the biggest ticket items, say, the existence of gods.

    It’s tough to say- busting ghosts is certainly a reliable way of bringing evidence-based reasoning to the public, but winning so often and decisively just seems to brand us as spoilsports, and really don’t seem to cause much harm.

    I also wonder if Bigfoot hunting has costs for our skeptical natures too. I wonder if spending so much time being faced with blatant falsehood and tiny, vocal groups of undissuable opponents makes us unnecessarily inflexible in the light of situations where the facts are genuinely uncertain or a response requires definite nuance- the cerititude gained from, and necessary in the face of, fending off boneheads might not be the most useful in political science, economics, ecology, or any of the other disciplines defined by the messiness of their data.

  17. When something is in the news or shows up in popular culture, it needs to be thoughtfully debunked. Preaching to the choir isn’t what is important, it’s getting the skeptical / scientific viewpoint out there in many places so it can found by the curious who are not yet true believers.

    Many of the things that have been debunked over and over again for years are still commonly held beliefs. When the old tired woo shows up in pop culture, we should all go at it again.

  18. Would you like to have some fun? If you would try this. Grab your broom and go to the beach. Then sweep up all the sand.

    That is what we are faced with. Sweeping all the sand off the beach would be easier than convincing everyone that all the different types of woo they believe aren’t real. The best we can do is, well the best we can do. We try to be examples of rationalism and good sense. If, like I think most of us are, you are an atheist we show the world that atheist aren’t evil. That you don’t need religion to be moral.

    All of that said, the most important things are the ones that kill people. Anti-vaccination, homeopathy, etc. They kill people. And the anti-vaccination types kill more than just themselves.

  19. @wytworm: Generally accepted as having better. Also, I am reminded of a logic course I took, in which the professor noted that one of his star pupils from a previous course, after attending a lecture on why abortion was wrong given by a catholic priest, noted that the priest only believed that because of his faith. Now, I am sure everyone in these comments knows what logical fallacy she committed. The professor was not a bad teacher and did do an effective job (imho) of relaying the information about logic and logical argumentation. He did teach critical thought. In fact many courses I took in highschool did teach some critical thinking. The problem isn’t necessarily not teaching critical thinking, or some intentional dumbing down of the educational system (which in some but not all cases is happening), it really has to do with HOW critical thinking is taught, AND there is a major cultural component that has to be overcome in all of this. Many who hold onto absurd beliefs aren’t necessarily uneducated, uncritical thinkers, they just aren’t very critical of the particular subject they accept as true, and they generally came to that conclusion based on the particular culture they were raised in. Not to mention, in the States at least, quality of education is largely dependent on where you live. Those living in wealthier communities tend to be able to get better education, in public as well as private schools.

  20. I think that if you have the time, then have at it. As long as you don’t spend several hundred thousand dollars to do it. That money is better spent on research projects that are legit and useful. I can understand maybe one or two studies to show that homeopathy is crap, but once it’s been shown to be useless, let it go. Someone always gets more federal money to do the same research over and over again. Getting federal funding for cancer research is a bit more important than wasting it on psi, homeopathy and prayer for heart patients.

    My 5 year old told me yesterday that if he learned all about science and math, he would know how the universe worked. This was definitely a proud mommy moment. If I can get both my kids to keep an attitude like that, maybe there will be two less woo believers on the planet.

  21. If you go around berating your friends for being woo if they “knock on wood” you are wasting energy on minor issues. But it doesn’t take much more woo for it to be a judgement call or just an opportunity for a friendly lesson in skeptical thinking.

  22. There is one issue that I think might not be worth our time:
    Lesbian nazi hookers abducted by UFO’s and forced into weight-loss programs.

    and I’ll give kudos to the first person to figure out where that is a refrence from!

  23. @killyosaur42:

    Generally accepted = by no one specific you can cite? Please cite a source showing where the EU education systems have instituted teaching of critical thought from the ground up so I can get some sleep at night.

    Get it in there, from K-12, protect it for those years and the culture will be gone. The degree to which it still exists is the degree to which this process has failed.

    I agree with you that it is in how it is taught, but only in terms of priority. I was in logic courses in grade 6, and even then it was as a handful of kids who were deemed ‘smart enough’.

    It needs to be established as the core of a child’s education, it needs to be reenforced throughout the rest of the child’s education as the hub of thinking upon which the rest of the curriculum extends.

    If we continue, as a society, to treat thinking as an elective or as something that should come in high school in dribs and drabs, we really have no call to cry about how marginalized it is in our lives later in life.

    Freedom to think should be an unalienable human right.

  24. Bigfoot and UFOs are amusing. But the issues that grab my attention are those involving kids: anti-vaccination hysteria and Christianity’s constant attempts to erode education (and the Constitution).

    Eugenie Scott is my hero (and Amanda Peet ain’t bad either).

  25. @wytworm:

    As to the rest of your argument, I am totally on the same page. I do believe that most of the reason that Europe is viewed (at least some countries anyway) as having better education is because they spend more money, and the students perform better on tests of Math and other non-logic subjects. I would have loved to have had an opportunity to take logic in middle school and always disagreed with my logic professor about needing to be of a “certain level of maturity” to be taught logic. I am totally for it being taught to everyone, early on and for it to be required along with a proper teaching of the scientific method.

  26. @killyosaur42:

    Thanks for the citations. I have not looked into them but will do so later on.

    I think the reaction your professor has is correct given what I am calling a failed system of education, and incorrect when considered within the framework that I think we are both agreeing upon.

    I am addressing the challenge now, with my 5 year old, who seemed to be learning more, faster before he got into school!

  27. I so much wish that critical thought had been taught me in kindergarten and beyond. I find it such a challenge now.

    Ach! I could have avoided so many years of falling for gunk, not woo exactly — I’ve always had a small level of seemingly innate slightly wise skepticism, but nowhere near enough.

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