In last week’s rant, Skept-artist Brian George talked about being a dick to a woman at a party. This week, Tristan Zimmerman of EvoEdu gives you some tips on how not to be a dick and why you might want to avoid being one.
Yes, this was planned when I posted Brian’s rant. Yes, it was lazy. No, I don’t feel bad. No, I didn’t delete your rant if you submitted one to me this week. Yes, I still love you. No, I didn’t check on when the insurance autopayment is supposed to hit the account. (That last one was for my husband in case he’s reading.)
Anyway, I don’t really have much to lead into this with because I’ve never been an asshole to anyone in my life… ever. So I don’t know what it’s like. But I know you act like one all the time, so please read on:
Don’t Attack People
There are very few new pseudosciences out there. UFOs go back 60 years, homeopathy two hundred, and God only knows how old astrology is. Practitioners have been using the same tired arguments all this time, and we’ve been boring ourselves listening to them. Because of this, it’s easy to forget those we talk to are flesh-and-blood people, not collections of the same old faulty ideas and misconceptions. We can slip into a pattern. We simply attack ideas and strip bare what we see as stupidity without realizing that we are attacking the person, too.
You have to remember that people you talk to often have good reasons for believing what they do. While many just saw it on TV and won’t really mind being corrected, a good number are deeply invested in a pseudoscience for highly personal reasons. Attacking these people’s opinions is an attack upon the person himself. Consider that an attack on the idea is an attack on the motivations. An attack on the motivations is an attack on the person. It sounds ludicrous, but it’s true. Consider these two examples.
To many who advocate creationism, it’s only one facet of a broad and deep faith in Christ. To some extent, they filter everything in life through this faith. Attacking creationism is attacking their faith, which may be at the core of their self-identity. In this case, an attack on creationism (different from a discussion of the merits of evolution) is an attack on the person.
A man committed to homeopathic treatments likely thinks he has very good evidence for homeopathy. Attacking his beliefs as worthless anecdotal evidence and confirmation bias (different from explaining why anecdotal evidence has little merit and how confirmation bias works) will make him think along the following lines: “If what he says is true, I’m an idiot for using this stuff. But I know I’m no idiot, so he must be wrong.” It’s not logical, but forget logic. It makes sense for a human to respond negatively to what they see as a personal attack.
Your goal then, must be to to expose people to new ideas. Don’t simply tear down their ideas â€“ that’s just not going to work. Support the scientific alternatives, and then, with respect and empathy, explain why the support for their idea does not hold up. Do not attack the support. Certainly do not attack the idea itself. For example:
Terrible: “Homeopathy is a ridiculous idea thought of in an era where medicine was just as likely to kill you as make you stronger and based on the truly inane concepts that whatever sickened you can cure you and that diluting a chemical makes its effect more powerful.”
Bad: “Homeopathy’s support comes from people tricked by the placebo effect, terribly-designed studies, and a childish fear of big corporations.”
Good: “Anecdotal evidence is unreliable for [these reasons]. The scientific studies that support homeopathy are flawed because of [these reasons]. Most homeopathic remedies are manufactured by the same parent companies that advocates of CAM are trying to avoid. When you consider that the large, well-designed studies do not support homeopathy, there’s not much good evidence supporting the idea it works. I can completely understand why you want it to be true â€“ I’ve gotten obscene medical bills too. But it’s just not true.”
Beyond exposing people to new ideas, there’s not much you can do. They have to come to their own conclusions. Attacking their ideas will not get you any further, and will, in fact, drive them deeper into their convictions. You must not forget that folks will often see a personal attack in a volley on their cherished beliefs. Whether you think this is childish, ridiculous, or perfectly understandable changes nothing. Forgetting that these ideas you’re arguing against have actual flesh-and-blood people behind them will lead you to simply attack the idea, and that will accomplish nothing at all.
Tristan Zimmerman is the author and webmaster of EvoEdu.com â€“ evolution education for the layman. As part of this year’s Skeptic Track at GenCon Indy, Tristan will be giving a talk entitled, “Evolution,Â Creationism, and Gaming.”
The Skepchick Reader Rants,Â posted every Wednesday at 3PM Eastern, is a feature where you, the Skepchick readers, get to tell the Skepchick community what you think about whatever you want! Â To be considered, please submit an original rant, preferably unpublished anywhere else, to skepchick(at)skepchick(dot)org with the subject: My Rant.