Afternoon Inquisition 11.24

My husband is not a skeptic.  We’ve decided put me in charge of thinking and researching for the family (and in return, he does the laundry).

He goes to all the Drinking Skepchickally events with me, and he understands the basics – and what he is unsure of, he usually asks.

But he’s not interested in getting gung-ho about critical thinking. He thinks the skeptical community is, as a whole, pedantic curmudgeons. The skeptics at the meet-ups are pretty laid back and fun, but he wonders if these guys are the exception to the rule. He wonders if most skeptics even know how to have fun. I wonder if his impression is the way most people view us.

Do you think skeptics, as a whole, come across as arrogant or unapproachable? What can we do to change that image?


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. Try to be humble like those who believe that an all powerful all knowing creator cares for you personally. It’s our arrogance that gets them going, you know when we bring up our logic and evidence as though that means anything.

    Maybe if we made silly arguments people would think highly of us…

    But then maybe not.

  2. Arrogant? Sometimes (as is the case with any group)

    Unapproachable? You bettcha.

    Thank goodness for the internet and blogs and blogs and blogs about skeptical thought, atheistic thought, etc…. because I have to tell you, as a “seeker” it can be pretty hard to ask questions when the critical thinkers act like their conclusions (after extensive critical thought) should fall into the category of ‘duh”.

    Just saying.

  3. Yeah, we do. It’s probably because we get so frustrated, and let that frustration show.

    But it wouldn’t hurt if we could keep in mind that most people’s critical-thinking snafus are matters of simple ignorance (not willful ignorance, stubbornness, or stupidity).

    Remember that most people don’t like having their knowledge challenged, because it makes them feel foolish. Be gentle, and relax; it doesn’t matter if people are perfectly correct or accurate all the time. Let things go now and again.

  4. I think it might very well be a side-effect of a skeptical disposition that we are harder to get along with than the average person if for no other reason than we are less inclined to let BS go by without calling it out. Speaking strictly for myself I am awash with personality defects from arrogance to an ego large enough that I need to ride a tandem bike at all times. I don’t think skepticism led me to be the way I am, but rather the way I am led me to being skeptical.

    All this being said, no philosophy should entitle one to boorish behavior. Slowly, painfully, over the years I have learned what my wife calls “the fine art of shutting up”. I do try to not make gagging noises every time someone brings up herbal medicine or homeopathy, and sometimes I even succeed.

  5. I am an arrogant pedantic curmudgeonally atheist. But then again I was an arrogant pedantic curmudgeonally christian back when I was a believer. I think I might just be an arrogant pdedantic curmudgeon.

    I was at the Flying Saucer in Ft. Worth drinking with some friends from the Navy Reserve. We were reading the menu of their googleplex beer selection and one of them starts laughing. He looks at me and says “I have just found the perfect beer for you.” The others look at his page and all start laughing and agreeing.

    The beer?

    Arrogant Bastard.

    Friends, huh.

  6. I think we can definitely come across as arrogant and unapproachable, but I think these both fall under a bigger umbrella of being preceived as closeminded. I think people see us as not being open to the possibility of woo instead of merely demanding proof before accepting it.

    As for a way to change that image? I’ll have to think a bit longer on that.

  7. Probably. It’s hard to say things without starting it with “well, actually…” or something. And I’ve said it so many times at this point that it’s almost a rote speech rather than a conversation. And they didn’t necessarily ask, I told. So I’ve got to work on…a lot of stuff. :)

  8. My husband is definately more the skeptic than I am but by talking about things he read on the boards and casually sharing articles he read on the web I became more interested in skepticism and aware of my own beliefs, or lack of them. It just took time for me to process through all I really believe with what I was brought up to believe.

  9. We’re challenging deeply held beliefs in some cases, and that causes discomfort. Sometimes even saying very calm and rational things can set someone off if it conflicts with their view of reality, no matter how poorly considered.

    Also, people don’t like to think that they’re being treated as fools, and pointing out that a belief is foolish is seen as a personal attack of someone’s intelligence.

    It’s tricky to walk the line of inquisitiveness while talking to someone about what is fundamentally an article of faith, wether it’s homeopathy or god.

    Patience and baby steps.

  10. I wish I could’ve been a fly on the wall when my fiance told two of his clients that taking their dog to a homeopathic animal “vet” was “equivalent to giving it water” and still coming off as the sweet kind guy he is.

    I try to take the, “I know you’re smarter than that” approach, personally. Or cheery excitement over scientific studies, even when what I really want to do is roll my eyes so hard they fall out of my head.

  11. I am going to go sit in the corner with Expatria and roll my eyes at how stupid everyone else is. Don’t come near, or we’ll bite.

    I suppose it does get exhausting, replying to Pascal’s Wager over and over and over, and might look arrogant when we just get a link. But I’ve never seen any sciencey type get huffy with someone for asking questions.

    At least in person. There are plenty of people I’ve met online at places like InternetInfidels and the JREF Forums who come off as just assholes. Those of you who hang out there probably know some of the names I’m thinking of.

    In those cases, much of it might be poor communication skills online (or even not being strong in English), which sound more hostile to someone who is already primed for feeling insulted. (You can’t blame communication on all of it, though. Critical thinking is not a vaccine for Prickititis.)

    The sciences in general have a similar problem. People like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Phil Plait or Pamela Gay (sorry — natural inclination towards the astro folks, I guess) are easygoing and engaging when they talk to crowds of non-scientists. But for every Tyson there are probably legions of scientists who never mastered the art of public speaking and come off dry and stuffy and talking a different language.

    In short — we’re no worse than any other group, I think. We’re just approached by people who are predisposed to dislike us.

  12. Do you think skeptics, as a whole, come across as arrogant or unapproachable? What can we do to change that image?

    Arrogant yes. Unapproachable no.

    It’s just that folks generally don’t want to approach someone they see as arrogant.

    Aside from that, I’ll disagree with the other commenters, just a little bit.

    I think new skeptics are arrogant. They have discovered a wonderful method; a method that gives them a lot of the right answers to big questions, and a way of looking at things that will help them find the truth if they don’t already have it.

    Also, they suddenly find themselves a part of a large group they weren’t part of before, and that’s very empowering. And often when we feel empowered, we can become arrogant.

    But I think the longer you spend in the company of the big group, the more you realize that there are just as many dipshits and assholes among them as there are outside your group.

    That realization is humbling, and takes the edge off the arrogance.

    Fortunately, we still have the method to help discover truths, but individual personality quirks are just that; individual, and should be addresses as such.

  13. Personally, I think I display great patience when I explain to someone how there’s scant evidence that a magnetic bracelet actually has any therapeutic value. I think I’m polite when I tell them there’s no archeological evidence of the Jews wandering for 40 years in the desert after the Exodus (which apparently didn’t happen either). I think I’m nice when I tell them people can’t walk on water and horses can’t fly, so why believe stories of those things happening centuries ago?

    But then again, maybe I’m too arrogant to see my own arrogance.

    Personally, I think we should do nothing to change some people’s perceptions. But then I suppose that’s arrogant.

  14. Yeah, I do.

    Stop calling everyone who believes in anything delusional or stupid. Stop making fun of everyone who disagrees with you on everything. Stop acting like you are smarter than everyone else. Stop calling people names like fucktards and faith-heads. Stop making every conversation into a debate where you have to prove you’re right.

  15. I don’t think so. Listening to podcasts and lectures, we sound like a fairly good humoured bunch. Maybe if you’re only experience with us were the sounding boards of internet forums, then yeah, we come off as a little prickly, but that has more to do, I think, with being in like minded company. We like to gripe, like anyone else, and know we’re not alone.

    So no, I don’t think we come off as arrogant or unapproachable any more than any other group.

  16. @Gabrielbrawley: Mmmm… Arrogant Bastard, some of the greatest beer ever.

    As far as the whole arrogant thing, I think for the most part people don’t like to feel stupid.* As people go through life they like to think of themselves as open minded. They see claims for and against ESP, extra terrestrials visiting earth, natural medicine (including homeopathy), astrology, and psychic energy. They listen to both sides and can see pluses and minuses using their skill set and hey, maybe something is there. Then a skeptic comes along and says people using ESP and psychic energy are doing magic tricks, no good evidence exists for UFO’s, astrology is impossible, natural medicine is a lot of things but not effective or a good idea, and homeopathy is water. Not only that but I’m 100% sure. I may also throw in a few remarks regard about what I think about people who believe in it. So this is all armchair psychology (or is it sociology) but hey, my opinion is just as valuable as any intellectual with his fancy degree up there in his ivory tower.

    *(though I can think of some examples that contradict that)

  17. @writerdd: What if they believe in something delusional or stupid? Isn’t it our responsibility as caring citizens to put them on the right path?

    NOTE: ==> :)

    But Cola made me think of a point. I know sites like this are public, but there is still a tendency to treat them as “home turf.” I think people come here and similar places and feel more comfortable just venting after a day of smiling at the theocrats. Clenching your teeth is exhausting.

    So, yeah, if your primary interaction with skeptics is online, you are going to get a skewed view. Just as if you approach a skeptic with the attitude that he or she is going to be arrogant and insulting, you are going to get a skewed view.

  18. Well, I think there are tons of folks who are rational and skeptical, but not “skeptics” who are neither arrogant or unapproachable.

    I’ve never done any of the things that @writerdd is asking me to stop, and although I’m unwilling to use the hyperbole “everyone,” I’d say that in day-to-day life, many of the skeptics I know have lots of mixed friends and collegues, as it were.

    I’d say it’s possible to come off as arrogant, and unapproachable, but that’s just as true for any group. For me, most folks see me as the nice guy in a group: helpful to a fault, I’m told.

    I wonder…if we try and isolate one aspect of anyone’s personality… would that come off as overblown and arrogant?

  19. Sometimes me thinks we need to understand that religious beliefs are not found or maintained through the rational thought processes and there are a lot of emotions, insecurities and need meeting taking place. And woo and quackery is often much the same. All that to say when one is irritated at the absolute absurdity and penultimate non thinking garbage that some folk believe in it usually goes without saying that a diplomatic and sensitive approach is usually called for when disagreeing. This advice would not apply when actual physical safety, abuse/neglect or maltreatment of a vulnerable person was a possible result of said irrational beliefs.

  20. @Sam Ogden:

    I also wonder if new skeptics are also more angry than seasoned skeptics. I know I was… and there’s a lot to be angry about. You’ve just realized that so much of your life was a lie, and you were told these lies by everyone you loved and everyone you trusted.

    I’ve always been know-it-all-y. But in the last few years, I’ve come to appreciate how much I don’t know and the power of being able to say “I don’t know”.

    I can’t help but wonder if we’re losing the battle against woo because not only are we telling people what they don’t want to hear, but we seem to do it in a dick way. I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself.

  21. @Elyse:

    I also wonder if new skeptics are also more angry than seasoned skeptics. I know I was…

    No doubt. I was, too. For a good many years. I was angry, and that anger inspired me to get up in people’s grill a lot of the time.

    But I eventually realized all that anger was doing no one any good whatsoever, and the arrogance actually prevented me from showing others how I thought about the world. And when the anger and arrogance subsided, I realized that’s really all I want to do; teach the process.

    I can’t help but wonder if we’re losing the battle against woo because not only are we telling people what they don’t want to hear, but we seem to do it in a dick way. I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself.

    Well, maybe it’s best not to look at it as a battle against something, and better to approach it as a mission to do something.

    I mean, for me personally at this point, I only care that people have access to and are able to grasp critical thinking skills. I have some control over things like that by writing on this blog and just talking to people and demonstrating how it’s done. I can sort of make a difference in that regard.

    The conclusions that folks then draw are out of my control, so I don’t trouble my head over it anymore.

    Aside from protecting the innocent and ignorant when they might get hurt, the best we can do as skeptics for anyone is to lead them to the water, and show them how amazing it is to drink. But we should never think that we can make them drink.

    That is arrogant.

  22. @Gabrielbrawley

    It’s been too long since I’ve tasted the Arrogance. Must… get.. Arrogant Bastard… soon.

    Stone brewing makes a surprising variety of beer including Double Bastard (because apparently they were holding back when making Arrogant Bastard), Smoked Porter, and Imperial Stout. You can easily walk across the top of a pool filled with Imperial Stout. No miracle required.

  23. My question is, how many of you, in the course of your daily life, go around announcing to all and sundry that you’re a skeptic? And if you don’t, how is anyone to know? It’s not like we’re branded in some way that makes us uniquely visible.

    My skepticism only very rarely comes up in everyday conversation. Most people are mostly pragmatic most of the time. Usually, when I “go all skeptic on someone’s ass,” it’s by asking open-ended questions. You’d be surprised how much someone can be taken aback if you simply ask, “Is it true?” In my experience, people can get awfully passionate about something they’ve heard, without ever questioning whether there’s any basis for it.

    I once had this fellow tell me about the book of “philosophy” he was writing, and it was a huge woo fest of watered-down Buddhism, homeopathy, psychic powers, etc. And I said, “Well, you’re a philosopher. Maybe you can answer a question I’ve had for a long time. What’s the difference between believing something, and wanting to believe something?” And it left him speechless. He’d never thought about it. So I don’t know — is that humble, or passive-aggressive?

    I may well be arrogant and unnaproachable, but it’s not because of skepticism. It’s because I’m better than other people and I want them to stay away. :)

  24. @Howard: And it left him speechless. He’d never thought about it. So I don’t know — is that humble, or passive-aggressive?

    No. It’s socratic.

  25. @Sam Ogden:

    Great points. You too, Elyse.

    My atheism hit me at 16, and in high school I was eager to start fights with people. I wanted to throw myself into the fray and either have the atheism beaten out of me or hone my debating skills to a fine edge. I know the first didn’t happen, probably not the second either.

    Now, though, all the edges have rubbed smooth.

    But I have had the fascinating experience in watching the same progress with masala_skeptic, who finally chucked the last of it seven years ago. She went from “c’mon, fugger, let’s dance” to “christ, atheism is boring to talk about.” And now she’s here with the other Chicks as an object of worship and desire and fine cuisine.

    Aside from protecting the innocent and ignorant when they might get hurt, the best we can do as skeptics for anyone is to lead them to the water, and show them how amazing it is to drink. But we should never think that we can make them drink.

    Yup. Despite the temptation to hold their heads under until they see, or at least walk into, the light.

  26. i have always lead my life by the motto, “if you’re right, then you don’t have to be mean; if you’re not right, you can’t afford to be mean.”

    i thought this way until i started to run into uber-religious nut jobs that won’t acknowledge that a fact is a fact

  27. @Kimbo Jones:

    Are people doing those things to “everyone” or just the people who deserve it? And yes some people deserve it.

    God’s bodykins, man, much better : use every
    man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping ?
    Use them after your own honour and dignity : the less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty. Take them in.

  28. @wytworm: I’m referring of course not to the unsuspecting masses that are innocent at large, but to the ignorance-mongering assholes who take them in. Examples: WBC, Kevin Trudeau, Oprah, etc. I reserve the right to make fun of those people excessively, if they are willing to profit on other people’s desperation.

  29. To clarify, I wasn’t referring to any specific individual(s) on this site, but to the skeptical community in general. There are several well-known, famous skeptics who do the things that I listed, and many, many, many people who comment on blogs and forums who act like that as well.

    These famous people (and vociferous online participants), at least as much as regular individuals, provide the impression of skeptics to the world. (It’s true in the reverse, too, as shown by all the times we post the obnoxious stuff that Dobson, Robertson or Phelps do, as a representative of Christians, even though most individual Christians are probably not so obnoxious.)

    I think Michael Shermer is a great example of a good skeptic who is not insulting or demeaning or condescending to others who disagree with him or who have other beliefs. I would be very shocked if he ever insulted anyone or made them feel stupid.

  30. It’s hard to fault william beatty’s proscription of being 100% for or against any position for a proper sceptic. (find at –
    “R. A. Lyttleton proposes that one’s belief in a particular hypothesis is like a bead which slides along a wire. One end of the wire represents 100% disbelief, and the other end shows 0% disbelief (or 100% acceptance.) Nothing prevents the bead from falling off the ends of the wire. Since all theories are tentative, proper scientists should strive to keep their “beads” somewhere between 0% and 100%. However, many otherwise intelligent people have been convinced to move their beads regarding contemporary science theories to the position of 100% belief, whereupon their “beads” fall off the wire and their beliefs can can no longer be altered. At the same time, they move their “fringe science” beads to 100% disbelief, whereupon the beads fall off the other end of the wire and are nearly impossible to restore. Then, whenever a piece of “fringe” science gives signs of being proved valid, those fallen-bead skeptics must launch remorseless emotional attacks against it. Or, when a piece of solid mainstream science starts to look shakey, they must leap to blind defense of the dogma. This is entirely sensible, because their alternative is to court insanity… If we all could avoid this “fallen bead” state, science would be much improved. In other words, we should never sneeringly, hostilly disbelieve things that look “fringy”. We should never adopt a viewpoint where some ideas are 100% right and others are 100% wrong. Instead, we should cultivate a healthy .01% belief in crazy things. And correspondingly we should never accept any theory 100% no matter how solid and widely acclaimed, but should maintain a small, non-zero amount of doubt and suspicion.”

    This would also allow for a 0.01% belief in the possibility that the other person is not stupid – which may be enough to rescue our communications…

  31. I think writerdd hit the nail on the head — there are many well-known skeptics that are a bit … cantankerous. For example, I enjoy listening to the SGU podcasts, but sometimes they say something that makes me wince … I generally agree with what they are saying but am frustrated at the delivery. (Note: I am *not* complaining about the podcast … they do a *far* better job than I ever could. I just wish they were a bit more diplomatic sometimes.)

    Another example comes to mind … in our own internal discussions we often use the word ‘woo’. Doesn’t that sound like it has a negative connotation? It sort of rubs me the wrong way like the ‘brights’ movement did … whatever the intent of these words, if someone hears it with no previous knowledge they are likely to come away with the feeling that they are not liked for being ‘less bright’ or believing in ‘woo woo’.

    It comes down to a marketing issue. We skeptics are great as a group at thinking rationally, scientifically … and usually pretty bad at thinking ‘how can I position my ideas so they generate the maximum impact’?

    Speaking of which … I am sure I did a pretty bad job at positioning my ideas in this post! Ha!


  32. My husband is a critical thinker, but not a hard core skeptic. He’s really fine with the old “live and let live”. You want to believe in a giant flying spaghetti monster… that’s ok.

    Me, I’m fairly laid back but know what I’m not good at…or should I say balanced at. Pyschics, can’t be objective enough to be good at dealing with the issue. I come off as a hard assed jerk when I talk about them. Death is too good, slow unending torture, well almost alright.

    So I keep away from THAT and try to work with a topic that I can joke about and have some fun with (UFO)

  33. The skepticism I was drawn to is based on perpetual learning, not closed-minded “knowing”.

    It’s not about being right, or being smart, or having geek-cred – it’s about wanting to know the real deal about life.

    It doesn’t require a certain IQ or a fancy degree, only a desire for truth.

    It requires you to subordinate your ego and opinions to whatever facts are introduced, which requires humility, not arrogance.

    I hope the skeptical community isn’t becoming a bunch of arrogant know-it-alls, because I don’t think that’s what skepticism is about.

  34. @Gabrielbrawley: “The beer? Arrogant Bastard.”

    There’s a bar in Scottsdale where we used to drink that. It’s pretty good, but very strong. A few of those 22 ouncers ‘an ‘ya might just end up talkin’ to the bouncers.

  35. Patronising, unapraochable, bad tempered and grouchy pretty much sums me up according to Mrs S.

    I think my problem with dealing with people is I tend take it for granted that the skeptical community is as agrressivley critical of ideas as my little corner of the scientifc community. No quarter given and non asked for. Which is not the case.

    I also struggle big time to make any point without equations. Skeptism overlaps (Venn diagram would be handy here) strongly with Formal Logic and Probability Theory both of which are only possible to describe with equations. So I often end up writing “this is a maths issue” which I know makes me sound like an arrogant dick.

    However, the reason things like the Monty Hall Problem and the Resturant Bill Problem cause so much trouble is because it’s assumed they are easier to solve with words, when infact its the wording that causes the problem. Represented mathematically the Monty Hall Problem is simple fraction manipulation (and a bit of logic) and the Resturant Bill Problem is reduced to, 30-5=30-(2+3)

  36. @Stacey: Agree with wytworm. I can’t say it better and I write for a living. The only person I know that said it better was Carl Sagan: “I don’t want to believe. I want to know.”

    “Stop calling everyone who believes in anything delusional or stupid. Stop making fun of everyone who disagrees with you on everything. Stop acting like you are smarter than everyone else. Stop calling people names like fucktards and faith-heads. Stop making every conversation into a debate where you have to prove you’re right.”

    I do know some like you describe and there is no need to identify the famous ones that sell books and lecture.

    I try very hard not to come off in those ways to the faithful. I will not, however, cut them any slack in logic or argumentation, either. I expect them to play by the rules of argumentation, i.e. no fallacious reasoning, no special pleading, no “straw man” or ad hominem attacks, etc.

    If they become visibly upset during the discussion, I offer to back off and suggest that we agree that we will not agree on this subject. If they agree, then it is over and we move on. If not, it’s time to retreat politely and gracefully if possible.

    Do I manage this every time? No. But I do try.

    I consider talking between ourselves here to be quite different, though. I expect that if I make an error in logic or judgment, someone will call me on it. Those are the social rules of the game on this blog and I agree to them when I comment here. (I do draw the line at being called a “fucktard,” though. Really!)

  37. I also think there might be a bit of a culture gap between the Yanks and the Brits as well. Brits dont have the “Have a Nice Day” paradigm of social interaction, it’s better to be right than to make friends.

    eg. I went to see Ghost Town with an American friend who said afterward he didn’t like Dr Pincas and didn’t find it funny, whereas the other 399 British audience warmed to him immediately and laughed their heads off.

  38. @QuestionAuthority: “I consider talking between ourselves here to be quite different, though. ”

    The thing is we are not talking between ourselves. This is a public forum. We are talking on a stage in front of thousands of readers around the world. As much as we might not like it because we want to cut loose in private, that’s the way it is.

  39. @Kimbo Jones: There are many variations on this involving motels and car hire and all sorts of additional stuff, but the version I first heard was:

    “Three Guys go to a resturant and order a meal that in total costs thirty pounds, so they decide to split the bill three ways and pay ten pounds each. They pay but something was wrong so the manager sends over a waiter with a five pound refund in the form of five £1 coins. Now they have a problem of spliting the five pounds so they give the waiter a two pound tip and take £1 back each. So each man paid £10 and got £1 back, meaning each paid £9. But three lots of £9 is £27 and the waiter’s tip is £2, £27 plus £2 is only £29. So where did they other £1 go?”

  40. Yeah – lots of skeptics are arrogant and off-putting. Especially the people in the public eye. I love Hitchens and Dawkins, but I had to already be a skeptic to actually hear what they had to say. Before that, they just seemed to be frothing at the mouth like every other fundamentalist.

    It’s really difficult when you are absolutely sure you are right, not to see the people who disagree with you as stupid or deluded.

  41. Listen first.
    Try not to preach.
    Listen first.
    Care about what the other person says. Be aware of possibly being condescending.
    Listen first.
    Never lecture.
    Listen first.
    Don’t have an agenda when you engage in conversation.
    Be true to who you are without ridiculing the other, but it’s definitely ok to defend yourself.

    Remember, you’re not a missionary for skepticism. A zealot is a zealot and a zealot is always offensive to those who do not believe in what you believe. If you’re funny try to convey your message with a touch of humor. If you’re not funny, please don’t. Just smile instead.

    And whether we like it or not, the name SKEPTIC simply sucks.

  42. great topic, elyse.
    this is something that’s been on my mind lately. i think it’s important at a person to person level to recognize the humanity in everyone, regardless of their beliefs. i’ve learned a lot watching how religious people sometimes treat nonbelievers (and how i’ve been treated myself), as tally marks in god’s notebook, or lost sheep, and i never want to be the skeptical equivalent of that.

    having said that, i think there is a place for a whole spectrum of voices in skepticism. as much as people like pz myers might be loud and inflammatory, and we might not always like what they have to say, they’re out there saying things that sometimes need to be said; starting conversations that may otherwise have remained unspoken. i think that’s important.

    look, we are about as diverse a community as is possible. we’re never going to be in lock step on how best to project ourselves and our message. and i think that’s good. i think tension on this point within the community causes us to constantly evaluate how we interact with others.

  43. Listen … we have to choose our battles. Many view every faith based ritual, every anti-science issue and every true believer to be a site for a battlefield every time.

    I have patients who go to chiropracters, explore herbal therapy, and homeopathic therapy … I always follow the physician’s creed – at first do no harm – and if my people are allowing me to guide their significant illnesses and preventative concepts with evidence based medicine, then I’m fine if they desire to supplement a little bit here and there.

    Who cares if they take homeopathic remedies when they have a cold? I don’t. And in a very tough time, if they feel God will help them through a tough time why should I diminish that hope as long as I’m along for the ride as well?

    Do I care if they take herbs without science based benefit or neglect herb-drug interactions ,take the homeopathic route, or substitute God for actual therapy for diabetes or other significant problems? You bet your ass I do!

    One can argue that we must make an effort to educate the non skeptic on each and every issue every time or you may indirectly reinforce shotty beliefs, undermining science. But there is something described as a teachable moment. I must support my patients through many scenarios and that comes first; when the time is right, when the need is self evident, I attack my teachable moments. But if one is always on the attack, he or she usually alienates his audience. As a physician I definitely can’t do that. And as a group, neither should we.

    Pick your battles. Attack when the moment is teachable, otherwise … play nice people.

  44. @ carr2d2

    Well said. Embrace the diversity.

    But like it or not, usually the loudest of voices in any crowd are heard the most.

  45. I find that simply being calm and not getting emotional about topics is what makes believers get frustrated with me, which can be off-putting for them, i guess! although certainly not intentionally so. I usually try to just let things go if they’re getting too intense, but that in itself is seen as being kind of arrogant, I think.
    That being said, I’m a pretty easy going gal in my social life, but when it comes to my professional life, I don’t let people get away with irrational thinking. I’m a research assistant in a controversial field, so that’s kind of necessary – I end up defending my group’s work quite a bit.

  46. darwinfan: I’m an economist so I know just how you feel. If I hear some random punter go on about the Infant Industry Argument one more time then by the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s noodly appendage I’m buying a high powered rifle and climbing the nearest clock tower.

    But enough about my issues. I’m not really good at interacting with people at the best of times, but the best tips to improve our image are:

    1) Be very careful with language. Dawkins’ The God Delusion is a classic example. Now Dawkins explained his (technically correct) use of delusion in the book, but how many people were put off by the title and never got that far? How about The God Mistake, or better yet Why we Don’t Need God. Lets not give the haters ammo people?

    2) Don’t get personal. Make it clear that we are respectfully disagreeing, not calling them idiots (for this to work we have to not call them idiots). Remember smart people are wrong every day, therefore wrong != stupid. The believers are fundamentally the same as us, just a little confused. What we need to do is explain why we disagree.

    3) Pick your battles. Sometimes the price of victory is too high, know when to back off.

  47. Well I am really impressed with Stacey’s comments.

    What passes for skepticism by people who label themselves as “skeptics” (an odd thing to do in the first place) can be as dogmatic, arrogant, intolerant and close-minded as any religion.

    And the idea that one can simply choose to accept “skepticism and critical thinking” by some pledge of allegiance (akin to accepting Christ as your saviour) and this choice will endow you with some special critical thinking abilities and you will all of a sudden be skeptical of things that have not been demonstrated is just funny.

    So-called “skeptics” accept many dogmatic beliefs for no other reason than they are part of the skeptics’ “creed,” without any real understanding of the issue, beyond their uncritical faith in the skeptics’ code of beliefs. And these so-called “skeptics” jump ugly with those who are, in fact, skeptical of unverified, dogmatic beliefs.

    From my observation, people who go to the trouble of labeling themselves as “skeptics” are not particularly interested in seeking the truth, nor particularly adept at critical thinking, but rather they tend to have as many close-minded, dogmatic views as any other group that is organized around a particular set of beliefs.

  48. I’m not sure the perception of “a skeptic” is necessarily bad, many people consider themselves sceptical (even if they are not) and all people are sceptical about at least some things. But certainly many of the folks who comment on etc do come across as arrogant. I’ve become aware over my life that people often think I am arrogant, even before I considered myself a skeptic, and I’ve tried (and am still trying) to avoid making that impression. You do have to let go of the urge to be “right” in every discussion. If I’m in a conversation that turns to wacky stuff, I try to either steer it to an equally interesting and related topic that I’m more comfortable with, or use humour to avoid getting drawn in. In other words, change the subject. I know some will say that irrational beliefs should be challenged, but as said above, you have to pick your battles, and a pleasant dinner party conversation is probably not the right forum to point out that some of your fellow diners are full of crap.
    To be smart is great, and to be smart and sceptical is even better, but to be wise, that’s the prize. I hope I get there one day.

  49. Stacey – “The skepticism I was drawn to is based on perpetual learning, not closed-minded “knowing”.” – Thanks for that… I’m with you and trueskeptic. I think it follows that humility will be evident in the “perpetual learning scenario” – I’ve been blessed with several professors and mentors in this category… while arrogance is the hallmark of “close-minded “knowing” – a mark of many sceptical websites I have encountered. I’ve been looking for more of the first, and seem to be finding it here to a great extent, so well done, folks!

  50. @marilove:

    Sure, they do. But do we want to seem like them?

    I think Stacey said it perfectly. We should be encouraging people to examine things themselves… and helping them when they need it.

    My husband and I were talking about this question last night. He said he sits on the fence for a reason. He’s neither a true believer nor a skeptic because, to him, both sides seem equally dogmatic. He said that he reads the comments here and sometimes all you have to do is swap out a couple of words and it’s just like having dinner with his mother who’s yelling at you that if you don’t accept Jesus, it’s because you love abortions and want to see black people die.

    He sees a group of people that call themselves “skeptics” who seem to just replace their old beliefs about X with not-X.

    Or he sees a group of people who are too scared of getting swept up by woo that they can’t just take a break and see the humor in something or appreciate the fantasy of it all.

    He sees the skeptical community, and all he sees are a handful of fun people sprinkled on top of a mob of Sheldons.

  51. @Elyse: I agree with Stacey – preach less, question more.

    One of the best ways to accomplish this is to become better listeners.

  52. @Elyse: Great comment with your husband’s impressions.

    My husband always says the few visible, vociferous extremists ruin everything for the rest of us. And I think that’s true for skeptics and Christians. The problem seems to be, how do you make the quiet majority become more visible than the loud-mouthed assholes? (Even on this blog, I imagine that the lurkers are less antagonistic than many of the regular commentors.)

    I have no idea how to do this. But it really bothers me that the press (and by extension the public) latches onto people like, say, James Dobson and Christopher Hitchens, and the rest of us seem to be silent or invisible, which makes outsiders think we, as a group, are allowing these people to act as our true representatives.

    I guess we need more of the quiet people to come out of the closet and speak up, be visible.

  53. Question 1:

    Do you think skeptics, as a whole, come across as arrogant or unapproachable?

    Not “as a whole”, no. Some yes, many no. I think the public’s perception of skeptics as arrogant and unapproachable is a somewhat false perception aided and abbetted by the credulous, theist “enemy”.

    Question 2:

    What can we do to change that image?

    There’s not much one can do to change one’s public image, in part because public image is to a large degree the creation of external forces often beyond one’s direct control. I think the “enemy” tends to play rather a large role in fomenting any negative public image that skeptics may or may not have.

    We, as self-labelled skeptics, only have so much control over how our public image is built and proselytized. Also, although I think in post 39@Stacey did indeed put it well , Rebecca has a point too when she says:

    There are times for seriously considering a paranormal claim and there are times when the claim is just so ridiculous that it deserves nothing but ridicule.

  54. @Elyse:

    My husband and I were talking about this question last night. He said he sits on the fence for a reason. He’s neither a true believer nor a skeptic because, to him, both sides seem equally dogmatic. He said that he reads the comments here and sometimes all you have to do is swap out a couple of words and it’s just like having dinner with his mother …

    Wow, Elyse, that is one of the things that makes me ambivalent about the skeptical websites. The other thing that adds to my ambivalence is that although there is plenty of room for skepticism on both sides of political issues (e.g., does the bailout plan make sense under principles of economics?), when a community of skeptics who are supposed to be encouraging people to think for themselves take an official position (to the point of organizing participation in nationwide protests) over a purely political issue (e.g., the entirely semantic definition of the concept of “marriage”) as if the “answer” is as objectively obvious as evolution v. creationism and no reasonable minds could possibly disagree (e.g., all history, culture, etc. aside).

  55. @TheSkepticalMale:

    The other thing that adds to my ambivalence is that although there is plenty of room for skepticism on both sides of political issues (e.g., does the bailout plan make sense under principles of economics?), when a community of skeptics who are supposed to be encouraging people to think for themselves take an official position (to the point of organizing participation in nationwide protests) over a purely political issue (e.g., the entirely semantic definition of the concept of “marriage”) as if the “answer” is as objectively obvious as evolution v. creationism and no reasonable minds could possibly disagree (e.g., all history, culture, etc. aside).

    There are two things that concern me about this.

    First, IMHO, the skeptical community shouldn’t take a formal position on anything that doesn’t have scientific facts to back it up (e.g. evolution, homeopathy). I think we should focus on the approach to thinking critically about such issues, and not formally advocate a certain position, otherwise the skeptical community is guilty of the same dogma as religious organizations (and those who hold the opposing position). The heart of skepticism is its approach, which encourages diverse opinions, not a set of commonly held beliefs.

    Second, about the issue itself, I don’t think Prop 8 is of similar importance to the movement for african-american or women’s rights, because the only right in question is the right to refer to yourself as “married”. All other rights can already be exercised through domestic partnership.

  56. I invited a co-worker to attend a recent meeting of the Houston Skeptics Society group that Sam and I recently started. It was our fourth meeting, and I was able to snag a speaker for our combination social/presentation meet-up. We had a pediatrician speak about his experiences with alternative medicine and how he has seen it endanger children. It sparked a lively conversation. Mind you, I don’t know two-thirds of the people who showed up.

    My friend, who has a degree in nuclear engineering and an MBA from Wharton, is a natural skeptic, and a polymath. When I later asked him for his take on the meeting, he had already thought through his response. He said “group-think, in any form, scares me.” He felt that the predominant theme was ‘we’re really smart and we should make fun of people who don’t believe as we do.” (Interestingly, he commented that Sam Ogden seemed to be one of the reasonable people . Yay!) We’ve had some follow-up discussions, and exchanged various articles and books. Without previously being exposed to the ‘skeptical community’, he was conversant on logical fallacies, evidence-based science, that skepticism is a process and not an ideology, and all the other truths we hold near and dear. But he was turned off by the arrogance he saw in some of the attendees. I might add the observation that the scientists, PhDs, engineers and like tended to be the least likely to immediately dismiss ideas, while the more blue-collar types of the crowd tended to be the more dismissive and cocksure. I have no insight into that observation, rather just comment on what both I and my co-worker noticed at this particular meeting, with this particular group of 20+ individuals.

  57. I suppose I’ll finally offer my two cents on the topic, since it has crossed paths nicely with my post today in which I have fun insulting a scammer . . . the best way to make skeptics as a whole seem more approachable and down to earth is for an out-and-proud skeptic to, on an individual level, actually be more approachable and down to earth. That’s pretty much it.

  58. GG, I’d say your friend’s assessment is very accurate for that particular gathering.

    Unfortunately, he likely won’t be back because of what he saw. I pointed out that I can’t really select who gets to attend.

    (Wait, the group-think comment, or the “that guy in the back was one of the reasonable guys”? :) )

  59. I am also the dominant skeptic in the family though my influence has gone far with my husband who rejects all forms of woo, but he talks less in general and is rather anti-social.

    I went to a congress of skeptics once some years ago. It was a blast, I met so many great people. Then there were the curmudgeons. No matter how often they say they aren’t curmudgeons, they always will be. Everyone knew it and they radiated arrogance to those they were not associated with.

    Curiously enough, I remember hearing some Dude talking rather loudly at the adjoining table. I recognized him from SI as none other than Dr. Steven Novella, the one and only. He sounded arrogant because he was really animated about something, I think. Now, I know he’s pretty cordial but I didn’t get that impression at the time. If not for the podcast…

    I’ve also been to regular scientific conferences. Many there put out that same sort of vibe. It’s sort of a “professional” thing, where you need to always look as if you know what the other person is talking about.

    I ditched my local free-thought and atheist group meetings because discussions got too narrow and some were rather arrogant. I felt like I had to act similar to be part of the fray. I didn’t feel like I connected with anyone. (No one was remotely like a 30-something female with family). I’d love if we could lose this connotation. But, it’s awful hard to do when there are too many reinforcing the stereotype. People have selective memories.

  60. @David Plumb: Exactly. It took me much too long to learn not just that, but to stop being snooty about science issues with people that simply didn’t have the opportunity to learn the things that I did.

    When I was doing financial aid at a college in Buffalo, one of the deans had a plaque that read:

    “We are all Learners, Doers, and Teachers.

    We Learn things from people that have had opportunities and experiences that we haven’t.*

    We Do things with people that know pretty much what we do, or something complementary.”

    We Teach people that haven’t had the opportunities or experiences that we have.

    He also had another one that read:

    “If you act like an ass, then you must be one.”

    Do you remember what made your best teachers so good – not just in school but all the people that you learned from that helped make you the sensible person you are today? Most likely they were personable, approachable, good natured, likable, made sense, weren’t condescending, arrogant, berating, swearaholic, foaming at the mouth, etc.

    Not everyone has the ability to think critically and rationally. That’s just something about the human race that nobody has the ability to change, so some people are not worth discussing things with. But also, the ones with a fair amount of gray matter won’t listen to or put up someone who treats them like an idiot and comes across as disrespecting them as a person. Yes, I sometimes would like to do exactly that, and add punctuation with an aluminum softball bat. But I refuse to act like a dickhead anymore since I end up with the results I’m looking for.

    *That’s one of the reasons I visit this place.

  61. I am beloved by furry animals and small children which makes me approachable yet arrogant …

    What frequently bothers me most about the attitude of too many of us skeptics is that we have some how attained enlightenment. It is as if once you’ve listened to your first SGU podcast (or to date myself) read your first Skeptical Inquirer back when CSI was still CSICOP, our ignorance was washed away and we were the ones who could lead proper, pure lives avoiding all error.

    We ain’t Spock … even Spock ain’t Spock. The more I learned and performed magic and read about the advances in our understanding of the brain, the less arrogant I was inclined to be. If anything, skepticism and an appreciation of human cognition ought to start us down the path of humility and understanding of our fellow humans’ foibles. We too are imperfect.

    When I do this or that magic trick for little kids and their eyes bug out, I don’t meditated on their ignorance and inferiority. I took advantage of how their brains work and if we as skeptics stop believing that we are equally susceptible then in the words of Harry Anderson – “Son, some day a man will come up to you with a deck of cards on which the plastic has not been broken. This man will bet that he can make the one-eyed jack jump out of the deck, into the air, and squirt cider in your ear. Do not bet this man. Because as sure as I’m standing here to day, you will wind up with an earful of cider.”

    Why else would we as skeptics and science proponents need the James Randis and Penn Jillettes if not to follow behind whispering “You are mortal. You are mortal.”

  62. @ Geekgoddess – no. 69 – Your friend expressed a fear of “groupthink” in any of its forms. I became an expert in “groupthink” when I began to grow out of and leave my evangelical Christian upbringing – it wasn’t so noticeable when I was still caught up in both the beliefs and the pleasurable feeling of “belonging” that came with sharing them with others. After my few painful years extracting myself from that particular sea of belonging, I found throughout successive wanderings in academia, in leftwing and feminist politics, and elsewhere, that groupthink is a pervasive part of the human condition – there was nowhere that I failed to encounter it. We are tribal and crave connection and belonging. We are experts at identifying folk that are like us (and therefore likely to “connect”) through stray key words, gestures, even by challenging them to provide the right passwords – “have you met Jesus as your saviour?” “do you use the word “Derry” or “Londonderry” to name a county in Northern Ireland?” “do you recycle?” “do you eat meat?” “Did you go to a public or private school?” In this context – ie the “community,” if there is such, of sceptics, words like “psychic” “homeopathy” “ghosts” “crop circles” “angels” evoke instant judgments – “folk NOT like us” – beware. The things is, there is no such thing as either folk entirely like us, OR folk entirely unlike us. That which persuades us we have encountered either one or the other is often illusory.

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