Random AsidesSkepticism

A Message to Skeptics

Skeptical activism and our personal role in that activism is a topic that has been floating around quite a bit on this blog as well as other Engagemessage boards and I think it is an important issue that we as skeptics need to consider.

It is very important that we actively engage the public. There are many much louder voices of opposition speaking out in favor of a multitude of pseudoscientific beliefs and we absolutely need to counter those voices, with rationality. We want to help people understand how the physical world works. We want new people to join the skeptical movement. We want to protect people from scams and bad medicine. We want to encourage a new enlightenment era that is backed by legitimate science-based information. We want to make the world a better place. We should invoke style, panache, humor and intelligence. What we we don’t want to use is ad hom attacks or childish behavior. We want to rise above, after all.

More after the fold.

People who believe in pseudoscience are people just like us. In fact the majority of people who are now skeptics at one time or another held on to strong and passionate beliefs about all kinds of crazy things. I, as a young girl was convinced I had some sort of psychic ability and The Truththat I had been reincarnated. Psychic ability “ran in my family” and I had even typed out an entire story of my reincarnation (that came to me in a dream). If someone were to walk up to me at that time of my life and tell me that I was “stupid” for believing those things my reaction would have been to instantly dislike that person and to disregard whatever they had to say. In one ear and out the other. I wasn’t stupid. I just didn’t have all the information needed to make a rational decision at that time in my life. I don’t think my story is unique.

It is up to us as skeptics to share and explain the information needed to make rational decisions.

A few months back, Joe Nickell walked up to me and my husband, did a coin trick (seriously) and then he began to talk to us us about paranormal investigations and his experiences. Now, I’m paraphrasing here but what he said that had a profound effect on me was this: It is important to remember to treat people with respect. When someone tells you they have had a paranormal experience they are not lying to you. The experience is very real to them and we should show these people the respect they deserve.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t disprove what caused the experience or that we don’t shed light on the truth. This doesn’t even mean that we can’t joke around about things a little. I am a strong believer that humor is important in the learning process. What it really means is that we need to remember that we are dealing with real people that are just like us. They are not idiots nor are we better than them. They believe in pseudoscience simply because they do not have all the tools to understand what it is that they experienced or perhaps they were raised to believe otherwise. They are searching for answers just like we are.

I realize that some people are unreachable and there are even quite a few that are deliberately lying in order to make money of the uniformed and I understand that we have a sharp upward battle. However, I am positive that we will reach more people by being friendly and honest than we will with disrespect, parlor tricks and games.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. Thank you.

    This is very well written, and very much needed.

    I think after awhile of dealing with ‘believers’ and such, we [skeptics] get a bit cynical, and even a little bitter. It’s good to be reminded from time to time.

    Did you draw the pictures in this post? I LOVE the second one!

  2. Its important for all of us to remember that everyone is the hero of their own story.

    This is why I firmly believe that all arguments should be considered as offered in good faith unless you have evidence supporting an alternative justification. After al, the other side thinks they’re the good guys too.

  3. This is very true. I am not very good at gently correcting someone (or even being as respectful as I should be) so when someone starts talking about a pseudoscience I’ll do my best to direct the conversation to related (or unrelated) science. Because then I am positive and excited. Not cranky and negative. It may not change someone’s mind on whatever the specific item is but I think each time I talk about how we’ve learned something new or changed views on something in science it is easier to get people on board with whatever else I’m talking about. Or just more sexy science in general.

  4. I’m not sure I personally have the right tact to use in spreading the idea of being skeptical.

    Is there some sort of guideline to follow?

    The main thing I deal with is my family being taken in by paranormal TV shows (i.e, Ghost Hunters, Paranormal State, Ghost Adventures, A Haunting).
    I’m not sure how to present skeptical views toward the subject matter in the shows, especially when they sometimes involve religion, which is a big part in my family’s life.

    How does one go about this task in such a situation?

  5. In defense of “parlor tricks and games”; I think we should also keep in mind that things like James Randi’s Project Alpha and his Australian channeling hoax or his “Carlos hoax” that he performed with José Alvarez, definitely have their place.

    I personally take the greatest pains in being as extremely polite and gentle as I possibly can when trying to turn someone away from their beliefs in some particular brand of woo. But I have to confess to rarely meeting with success using this method. Usually we simply end up “agreeing to disagree” and then move on to another subject. Friendliness has its place and that place should feature prominently in our efforts to further skepticism and irreligion and reason in our daily lives, but do not underestimate the power of a parlor trick. The soft cudgel of being reminded that you are always capable of being fooled, perhaps in a way that is even mildly embarrassing, can be a very efficient method of rational suasion.

  6. @Grand Lunar: I think the best way to explain that something is wrong is by showing people how things actually work. You can’t just tell someone that they are wrong for believing in something. It is nearly impossible to reach someone that way. In my experience it is best to go at the problem indirectly. Perhaps you could start by explaining how “orbs” are photographed (by capturing dust or lens flares) and showing examples. That is something you can do at home with dust and a digital camera. Next you could look into other tools from a scientific standpoint that supposed ghost hunters use like, EMF readers.

    I don’t think their are guidelines, I just recommend being respectful and taking the time to investigate things. You won’t change someone’s mind right away but if you give them some valid information they might change their mind later based on what you have said.

  7. @Magnus: I agree that magicians are excellent at showing us the frailty of our perceptions. As long as we are all in on the trick I agree that it can be a great and dramatic part of the learning process. I just want to stress that we ALL need to be in on the trick in order for it to be (in my opinion) fair. I think Penn and Teller are excellent at this. They can explain a trick to you and then trick you and you are like, holy crap that was AWESOME! I just don’t agree with trying to outsmart or con others into seeing things “our” way.

  8. Excellent article. The attitude or approach that you outline is something that I am trying to reach. Coming off as a “know-it-all” is NOT how I want to be seen, and all too often, that is exactly how I represent myself. And I certainly don’t mean to.
    This reminds me of the post from a month or so back about activism. The idea that, we need “Loud-and-Proud” in your face activists to get an idea some attention and then have the more, hmmm, conversational approach to educate.
    Personally, I have nearly the same history as @Amy: used to think I was a wee bit psychic, was religious, etc. I think it is important to remind ourselves of who we were and how our own awakenings came about.
    Maybe I’ll just start blaring episodes of the SGU out of my front window. It worked for me.

  9. Great piece Amy :)

    Each encounter we have has it’s own appropriate response to counter the woo and pseudoscience. With friends and family I try to take a more educational stance though I will scale up my responses if they attack me. I find that not being afraid to voice my opinion tends to have an effect on those around as often pseudoscience doesn’t get questioned.

  10. This statement struck out at me, “They believe in pseudoscience simply because they do not have all the tools to understand what it is that they experienced”. This is simply not true.

  11. Brilliant, Amy. You’re so right about many (most?) skeptics being former adherents to all manner of irrational beliefs. I was raised as an evangelical Christian and didn’t emerge from that until late teens/early twenties (it was a long, slow process).

    You’re so right about the importance of being respectful, but I think it’s worth also pointing to the flip side of this coin: that it is possible for people who are deeply irrational to eventually see the (en)light(enment). It really upsets me when lifelong skeptics write people off, or think of them as lost causes. Nobody is a lost cause.

  12. i totally agree with the spirit of this. but, as i’ve tried to put this in practice, i always run into two flaws. i’d love someone to tell me what they think could be done to address these issues. i’m a husband and father living in a suburb of NYC in a reasonably well educated and quite liberal community, for context. and i actively use social media to put forth skeptical thought and philosophical perspectives.

    the first issue i run into is that people who hear me out ask one question i have no good answer for: so let’s say i walk away from my religious/spiritual community, where do i go? where do i find those same types of community building outlets and opportunities to pool efforts for charity on the small local scale and ways to inculcate moral values in the kids? remember, “teach them at home” doesn’t really cut it when people are legitimately looking for community.

    the second issue is one i struggle with myself and often the second question i get from people earnestly struggling to integrate what we’ve discussed. that is a question of heritage and cultural understanding. how can someone read “paradise lost” without an understanding of religious context? how can someone appreciate all the art inspired by spirituality without knowing the awe that was at it’s core?

    i don’t ask these as counterpoints to anything said in the piece. but these are the “what happens next” questions we need to answer if we expect to truly sway hearts and minds.

    thanks for the chance to discuss all this.

  13. >> It is important to remember to treat people with respect. When someone tells you they have had a paranormal experience they are not lying to you. The experience is very real to them and we should show these people the respect they deserve.

    This reminds me of what Carl Sagan told NOVA when asked what he would tell people who believed they were being abducted by aliens:

    “If I were speaking to a group of abductees, I think the first thing I would do would be to tell them that I’m sure to many of them the pain that is expressed is genuine, that they’re not just making this up. And it’s very important to be compassionate. At the same time, I would stress that hallucinations are a human common place, and not a sign that you are crazy. And that absolutely clear hallucinations have occurred to normal people and it has a compelling feeling of reality, but it’s generated in the head…”

    (… It continues in the article:

    Many people naturally turn off to what is unpleasant. People operating on emotions and feelings are very sensitive to how you perceive them and interact with them, so it is important to be compassionate if you wish to “win” their minds over. The question for myself is… how can I be compassionate towards believers of pseudoscience and religion without seeming insincere at the same time? Can you be sincere when you have a hidden agenda for that person?

    … I used to be a waitress who would get people telling me I am “so much like a Capricorn…” or talking about their “Indigo child”. What a great chance I had to poke holes in their ideas! However, I oftentimes blew it because I was too afraid of starting an argument – or making their brushes with skepticism (or my service) anything other than pleasant. When it fit into the conversation, I would try to present new scientific evidence as delightful or as AMAZING as I could (“You know, they actually found that the constellations are *no longer* in the configuration they were hundreds of years ago – can you believe that!”). I think that being POSITIVE in all aspects really helps get messages across… presenting scientific evidence or new information with the same *twinkle*, passion and fervor that a prophet would have when delivering a message from heaven. (Not to the freaky level, though… but just enough to show that wonder, curiosity, and humanity does indeed exist outside of religion).

    There is a quote I like, but can’t remember how it goes exactly: something like, “Serve truth in a golden chalice!” That is something I ALWAYS try to to remember when talking with the public or non-skeptics.

    Thanks for a great post!

  14. @jptxs: I don’t have all the answers for you but I will say we are actively trying to build skeptical and atheist communities that may eventually take the place of religious institutions, but unfortunately we just aren’t quite there yet. There is, as you can see a rich online community ready to welcome newcomers and the group outreach programs and community services are slowly evolving.

    As for something such as religious art appreciation, that is really an aesthetics and a historical context issue. To insinuate that an atheist can not appreciate the awe inspiring beauty of the religious paintings of the past is simply untrue. That would be like saying you can not appreciate the Mona Lisa unless you know exactly what was going on in the mind of Leonardo DiVinci when he painted it. Or it is like saying that the religious are privy to some special information. We can educate ourselves on the various religions without believing in them. Some of my favorite art is the Italian religious pieces of the 1600’s. I’m actually reading a fantastic book right now that addresses some similar issues and talks about how humans have evolved to create and appreciate art and this can be examined in all cultures. The book is called, “The Art Instinct” by Dennis Dutton.

  15. good, Joe Nickell is the person that has had the most influence on my own style of skepticism. I wasnt sure I could share a lot of my skeptic work as I dont just tell alien abuctees “hey you are WRONG”. I give them information in a “safe” environment, and if they wish to engage in more conversation with me they can (and often do). I’m told I’m too “soft” at times, but honestly, to many abductees their experience is 100% real. Oddly by engaging in conversation, I’ve found people are open to changing their minds especially when it makes their lives more comforatble and happy. sometimes we need to sell that being a skeptic leads to a happier life. It does! People often see they get stuff from “woo”, like homeopathic medicine at least claims to help you, well skepticism needs to sell how it helps people.

  16. oh on the art front…. Thomas Hoving, the great art critic and curator and writer, was head of the Cloisters and the MET. His favorite art… religious… his religion… none, he’s an atheist.

    An artist that has passion can create things of beauty.

  17. Nicely written. Indeed skeptics and critical thinkers will get far better results trying to educate the public by being respectful and polite rather than snarky and insulting. Unfortunately there are many skeptics out there who think otherwise.

  18. For those of you who are running into roadblocks at the end of conversations, leaving the other party still believing no matter what you present, remember that you’re not going to change anyone’s mind with a single conversation. Your job is to plant seeds.

    No one wants to be wrong. And these are beliefs that have been held and cherished for a long time… it can take years to change someone’s mind by chipping away at things.

    I, like Amy, was a psychic child (and teen and adult). I believed in God. I believed in conspiracies. I believed in natural medicine and spiritual healing. I believed when these things didn’t work, it had to do with me. I consulted psychics. I could sense ghosts and could communicate with them. I was a Mulderist.

    The transition wasn’t quick. But it happened. Being called stupid or naive only made me shun the skeptics even more, and likely prolonged the process.

    Now I’m a Scully. Your friends can be Scullys, too.

    So…. um, Mulder, if you’re around, I want to believe, too. Unfortunately, I can only see the truth when both of our pants are off. Help a Scully out, Fox.

  19. Just today someone asked me for a good place to start with skepticism that wasn’t “just negativity.” Honestly, I had to carefully consider where to send him. I decided on skeptic.com (especially their “About” manifesto) and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry as my first suggestions, largely because there isn’t the distraction of a vocal and sometimes overly vociferous community.

    (Thinking of Bad Astronomy as an example — love Phil Plait, love his blog, but I don’t think I’d toss a newbie into those shark-filled waters that are the comments there, especially one who is already somewhat biased against skepticism but is willing to learn.)

  20. There are a lot of holes in your article. If you were on time a believer in psychic phenomenon, but wouldn’t listen to other who tried to persuade you your beliefs were wrong, then how did you dome to abandon those beliefs?
    One can only assume that you took initiative and looked into those possibilities yourself. Yet you say:
    “It is up to us as skeptics to share and explain the information needed to make rational decisions.”
    Most adults in this country have had enough education to know better. We don’t belong to a culture that lacks alternative explanations for phenomenon, and those alternative explanations are very easy to get.
    It’s the responsibility of every individual to ask themselves if their beliefs make sense in an objective way. It the responsibility of every individual to evaluate their own beliefs.
    I think a group that aspires to treat adults like children it dangerously overindulgent. Don’t you find it a bit silly to have a chat about the monster under the bed with a 45 year old?
    At some point, some beliefs do become ridiculous, now that doesn’t all beliefs are equally ridiculous, but I do not agree with your assertion that there are no ridiculous beliefs. And they deserve to be treated with all due disrespect.

  21. My preference is to teach, not lecture; to have a dialogue, not a monologue. Fortunately, I have the illusion of authority on my side because I am a physician. In order to debunk: however, one must LISTEN first; then we must use every tool we have. But we must know what we are trying to fix first. I try to stay with what I know best, thus I help my patients try to understand vaccines better. Education is the key.

    The leaders in skepticism have clearly helped us as a whole. We are ready pupils. We want to learn. We understand the issues much better because of the blogs and podcasts. At least I know that I do.

    Though, as a group, skepticism does a great job battling dangerous movements, such as creationism and it’s influences on politics, the anti vaxers and so on, the only way we can educate a true believer on an individual basis is not to condemn or ridicule that person, but to feel we can HELP that person to better understand his/her world through conversation and education. The enlightening medicine should go down best with a firm, steady but slightly sweet spoonful of sugar. Trust me. I’m a doctor. :)

  22. Great post and I agree wholeheartedly. I think the very worst of this comes into play when skeptics deal with creationists. Because religious beliefs and faith often make it more difficult to see reason, I see skeptics get more frustrated, angry, and desperate with creationists than any other form of woo-merchant. Yes, it can be irritating to hear that there is no evidence for evolution and that polar bear’s fur turned white with fear. But hostility towards these people won’t help them see sense.

    I have always felt that if someone has to resort to personal attacks, or a hostile argument, then they must not have a very strong argument. We see this when a creationist dodges the science and makes threats involving hell. If they had a leg to stand on, they wouldn’t need to be like that. So when skeptics lose the plot, and treat others like idiots, we must come across in the same way. Overly emotional, and desperate.

    I did cringe a little at the mention of “parlor tricks” at the end of the post, but I understand what is meant.

    When people hear I perform a skepticism-themed magic show for the public, they think I’m taking the piss out of the public. I must deceive them with magic, and then I must tell them they are idiots for believing so much crap. Not true. Not only would I rather avoid treating other human beings like that, I also feel it won’t do any good and will not help the progress of the skepticism movement. Amy mentions intelligence, humour, treating people with respect, and most importantly: honesty. That was a pleasure to read, as it is my motto when performing. I tell my audience that I am using physical and mental skills rather than anything supernatural. I perform educational magic that helps visualise and explain things like homeopathy and global warming etc. I don’t do tricks, as I don’t trick people. I perform interactive effects. Audience members are also offered the chance to take part in my skepticism challenge. Post-performance, if they identify claims in their daily lives that they should maybe be skeptical of, and then do some research and discover they had good reason to be skeptical, they can contact me with this information and as a reward they get to find out how I did one of the magic effects from the show.

    Sadly, treating people like idiots happens in too many magic performances. I like to think I’ve removed that problem, and added useful education and incentives to be skeptical. I honestly believe that even if I was honest about not having supernatural powers, and even if I still offered the incentive, I’d still be disliked by some if I were to act as if I knew more than the audience and that I was above them. Respect is paramount in negotiations, healthy discussion and education.

    We’re all learning. We’re all making mistakes, and making new discoveries. Some of the most intelligent people I know are religious, some use homeopathic remedies, some are global warming deniers. Like Amy, I’ve believed some silly things in the past. As a child, I was obsessed with the idea that aliens are visiting the Earth. I was exposed to television shows, movies, magazines and books all telling me that aliens visit the Earth. For a long time, nobody told me otherwise. When some people did start to tell me, I let it go in one ear and out the other. I feel embarrassed to think about behaving like that (not the belief, but ignoring claims of others), but that’s what happens with belief and faith. I’d like to think I was intelligent back then. Like Amy said, I’d think negatively of anyone telling me I was an idiot. I don’t plan on making anyone else feel the same way.

  23. @Amy: the online communities are great for me, but they don’t really help the kids much. but at least i know there isn’t some huge resource out there i’ve just overlooked.

    to be clear, i was not implying that someone could not appreciate spiritually inspired art without some faith in the spirituality (past or present). rather, i was pointing out the issues with educating children in such things in a manner that’s both at their level (which is a moving target) and also not indoctrination. i try to be especially sensitive to that second point as i don’t enjoy the fact that i was indoctrinated and would really prefer not to do the same with my kids. i already talk to them about religion when the opportunity arises, give them books that cover the topics at their levels (funny enough it seems the hindu tradition seems to produce the best kid level english language literature that is informing without preaching) as well as allowing them to openly explore the traditions of their friends and relatives (my mother has them set up the nativity each year at christmas and goes through the story each time). i guess what i was hoping for, much like the communities question, was that there was some great well of untapped resources here that i had yet to find.

    glad to have found the site, have already added to my rss subs. thanks.

  24. As I thought about it, I realized there is another very specific problem with what you’re saying. You said you saw your past life in a dream, and you believed it.
    But surely you knew all dreams weren’t real. If you had a dream you were flying, you wouldn’t have leapt off a building thinking you actually had the power to fly. That would be absurd and dangerous.
    So let me propose an alternative theory. You believed that you had a past life and that you were psychic because it confirmed what you wanted you to believe about yourself- that your were special because you had powers outside the scope of normal human abilities.
    Maybe your self-esteem improved, or you discovered other special talents- whatever- the point is that your supernatural beliefs were not caused by a lack of vital information.
    They were the result of a failure to recognize that vital information because it disagreed with what you wanted to believe.
    I think that’s the case with most paranormal beliefs. Most have absolutely nothing to do with a lack of information.
    The few who do legitimately lack the information to evaluate the information to evaluate their beliefs merit a different response from those who reject reality because it’s inconvenient.

  25. @vie: Actually, I abandoned my psychic beliefs when I started to learn about science. Ironically, I had watched the movie, “What the Bleep do we Know.” which was billed as being a scientific evaluation of string theory. Which it is not at all. Lucky for me at the same time my curiosity and desire to learn more about physics and science led me to a wonderful DVD by Prof. Brian Green, “The Elegant Universe” and it also led me to find some podcasts, specifically, The Skeptics Guide to The Universe and Skepticality. Both of those podcasts and the Brian Green DVD taught me a lot about science, skepticism, statistics, math and medicine. Specifically they taught me that “What the Bleep do we Know” was utter nonsense. They also taught me a lot of what I did not know nor did I learn in school. Those tools or new bits of information shared with me by skeptics allowed me to reevaluate superstitions and false ideas I had held in my mind. Skeptics are not better people, but they are for the most part more informed on scientific topics because that is what interests most skeptics and they have assumed the role of liaison from science to the general population.

  26. @vie: So yes, I did look into my own beliefs and reevaluate but probably wouldn’t have done so if it weren’t for the help or information shared with me at the time by prominent skeptics.

  27. @Amy:
    Many thanks for the advice.
    I also realize that often, I’m really not so knowledgable about the stuff used by ghost hunters/parnormal investigators, other than what is said about their usuage; as James Randi put it, the equipment is often overtuned and thus oversensitive. There are a few others things I’m aware of, such as magnetic variations, but not much else.
    So I also need more research into such devices. Didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about such thing!
    What good guides exist to find out about the “tools of the trade”?

  28. Great post! I struggle with this a lot also- how to be nice while steering people away from nonsense.

    There’s one approach I like that I haven’t seen mentioned here- asking questions. For example, when someone mentions they’re into astrology, I ask for an example of how it has helped them. Then followup on their example by asking how they imagine that functions? What mechanism is at work? How does the alignment of planets at your birth affect you? Just keep asking more questions and drill down. Never tell them anything you believe- just ask more questions. Eventually you get to a point where they don’t have answers. The point is that often people just haven’t thought it through very much and when you get them thinking about it, it can plant seeds of introspection.

    The key to this strategy is to ask the questions in good faith- be genuine in your desire to know how they look at the world and how they feel it functions. It seems to work better with certain things like astrology, alt-med, and UFOs.

    If you have their attention after that, sometimes you can go into teacher mode and finish up with Occam’s Razor- explain what it means to introduce new assumptions.

    I think everyone is capable of rational thought, it’s just that most people aren’t taught how. Of course, for some folks, irrational thought is a coping mechanism. A warm blanket of comprehension that helps deal with the world. In those cases, all we can do is plant a few seeds and hope. It is VERY hard to get people to let go of that, in my experience.

    One other thing that works in some groups is peer pressure. In other words, when the cool people listen to SGU, other people will try it. Just talking confidently about skeptical issues with other rational thinkers within earshot of believers can make a difference.

    @Jake- to address the community issue… that’s easy for me. Communities are built around common interests. If it isn’t religion, it could be cars, books, whatever. For example,video games is one of my hobbies, and there’s a great community there that also does a lot of charity work (google Child’s Play). I’m also a gearhead, and our car club does soapbox derby races for charity. As for teaching morals to your kids, well, parents have always done that regardless of religious belief. I answer that with, “Everyone believes the same basic thing- be nice to each other. That’s pretty self evident, and doesn’t need religion”.

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