Fighting the good fight

As a skeptical activist, it’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses. My weakness has always been on-the-spot debate. I’m a planner, an organizer, a contingency maker and a writer of lists. I am strongest when I have time to think, to formulate a plan and then to act. However, the luxury of advanced planning isn’t always available. Sometimes, you are just confronted with a problem and have to be the ‘skeptic-on-the-spot,’ either in an online debate or, worse yet, in person.

I am weakest in these situations. I get flustered, nervous, I forget facts and respond with emotion or anger. I walk away and then write a strongly-worded follow up letter or blog post hours or days later. I look at people who are on the front lines of activism and I never cease to be amazed by how easily the words flow and the arguments formulate.

What I’ve realized though, is that I’m getting better at it. Admittedly, I’m not on the front lines of any debates with pseudoscience on a regular basis, but I am starting to see my skills at rational debate and discussion getting better.

As I have mentioned in the past, my father was a diplomat and I get a lot of my disposition from him. I tend to try to avoid conflict, to be the peacekeeper and the conciliator. I have extremely strong levels of empathy and that allows me to see all sides of an argument. Although in a lot of situations, this means my instinct is to shy away from confrontation, I am learning that empathy and respect are tools that I can use to my advantage when it comes to debate and discussion, in online forums and in real life.

I think a lot of skeptics shy away from arguments, particularly online. Even on the Skepchick blog, things can get heated in the comments and this can be intimidating. Just the time commitment alone is often enough for me to have to walk away, even when I have a point to make. I also suspect that women have an even harder time being confrontational due to the quiet, nurturing role society still expects us to play.

But I’ve come to realize that staying silent is the worst thing I can do. If I walk away from a conversation because I’m intimidated by people within the skeptical community, how on earth do I expect to be able to walk into a conversation with a non-skeptic? When I find myself in a doctor’s waiting room with a mother who is considering refusing a vaccination for her child, will I have the right words to say? Will I be prepared or able to have that discussion and get my point across effectively? Or will I shy away from that discussion too, and always wonder if a few words might have been what pushed her over the edge and made her decide to go ahead and protect her child after all?

I was going to include a comment at this point about why it’s important to keep fighting the good fight. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that there are real consequences to what we do. But I don’t have to. Steven Novella wrote a post this morning that covers the consequences of action (and inaction) far better than I could.

Everyone has their limits, but argument, discussion and lively debate on our blog and in other online forums has a purpose far beyond discussing the topic at hand. As skeptics, this is our training ground, a somewhat ‘safe’ place where we can hone our skills of persuasion, debate and defense and prepares us for when we have to do it for real, in a scenario where it really does make a difference.

So the next time you feel like you ‘don’t really want to get into it,’ even though you have a point and a voice, don’t go with your instinct. Screw your courage to the sticking post, and find the confidence to speak out. Because if you don’t, you may not be able to when it really counts.



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. This is something I find really hard to do as well. It seems that socially it’s accepted for someone, say on Facebook or whatever, to suggest chiropractic, or ‘cleanses’, or anti-vax, or acupuncture, or whatever fairy tale motivates them today.

    But if I say “There’s no evidence for that; you’ve just recommended something that’s at best a waste of money and at worst a serious health risk”, *I’m* the rude one. Even if I hold back the phrases I *want* to use, like “obvious bullshit” or “money-grubbing witch-doctors” :)

    I think the problem is that things are identity issues for the believers, so they take contradiction personally. But for me at least, skepticism in general is identity but a-acupuncture is not. So we’re not playing for the same stakes as the believers, and that makes the discussion unbalanced from the start.

  2. Thank you for writing this, Maria. It is so very important for us all to speak up for truth and rationality. It may be difficult for those on the front lines today, but if we stand strong now it will be easier for those who follow behind. Gooooo team!

    1. This is me all over. I have hyperventilated after a couple of not-even-terribly-hostile disagreements on Facebook, for Chuck’s sake. I adopted the same strategy as you, Masala (can I call you Masala?) – I force myself to engage and stay as calm and logical as I can until I feel my chest start to hurt. Then I eat a sugary snack to calm myself.

    2. Exactly so, Amy. In our civilization’s ever upward march to rational thought over superstition, we find ourselves now, in the US at least, in a drastic dip back down into the crazy pool. We can return to our upward efforts, but it would seem it’s going to take quite a bit of effort on the part of those who defend reason.

      Bravo, Maria!

  3. This is a fantastic post.

    I’d say that the people who are non-confrontational are the ones we need in defense of rationality even more than the ones who take pleasure in argument. It’s the diplomats, not the debate-junkies, who have the best chance of changing minds, since they’re the ones who will gently persuade with compassion and respect instead of bash bluntly with ridicule and eye-rolling. You catch more flies with honey, etc etc.

    1. I would like to point out that diplomats don’t always gently persuade, but good diplomacy also requires tactics of assertiveness and acting from positions of strength. As the Nyhan-Reifler paper ( ) shows, gentle “correction” may do little good when people have ideological ground to hold onto. In fact, even ‘gentle’ attempts at correcting misperceptions about facts may actually further entrench people with opposing viewpoints.

  4. Yes, I feel intimidated by this potential need to argue the skeptics’ case. It seems daunting to have all the standard arguments lined up and on the tip of my brain. My wife tells me that I’m a “deep thinker, not a quick thinker.” More often than not, though; I find that it is with dear friends that I end up having these skeptical discussions. This forces me to take the diplomatic, empathetic approach, which I suppose is a good habit.

  5. So the next time you feel like you ‘don’t really want to get into it,’ even though you have a point and a voice, don’t go with your instinct.

    Sometimes that’s the case for me…but most of the time I don’t mind getting right into it. And if nothing else, I will at least get folks to respect my viewpoints, and refrain from being automatically dismissive of those who share my viewpoints, even if they are still going to disagree.

  6. Hmmm…
    I guess the problem is that when I feel that no one else on the forum is saying what I think needs to be said, and then if I comment so that there will at least be my lone voice, I feel MUCH more depressed or angry or outraged or whatever about the fact that no one else seems to agree with me.
    That is, commenting makes my loneliness more evident to me, so the emotional costs are huge.

    1. I feel the same way, but yesterday I was somewhat rewarded for my efforts. One of the owners of a page I “like” in Facebook put up a nod for Dr. Northrup. (Mind you, the subject of the page appeals to a particular demographic: the same one Oprah appeals to.) I posted my concerns, giving the page owner the benefit of the doubt and trying to keep said owner in a good light, explained briefly what Northrup’s worst offenses were (and why she shouldn’t be endorsed), and shared a link to Harriet Hall’s full discussion of her on SBM. Then I braced myself for the virtual rotten eggs and tomatoes.

      To my surprise, my comment immediately received several “likes” over the next few hours. Honestly, I expected to receive none! Of course, negative replies finally did come, and in the form of anecdotes (no surprise). No one has called me out for being a petty thug of Big Pharma yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

      It’s been a full day since, which is long enough for that particular post to die as newer ones are given more attention. My comment still has the most “likes,” although the total number of them given to woo-supportive replies still dwarfs mine. Nonetheless, I feel somewhat empowered by the idea that I said what others could or would not say. The “likes” I received are a small but very welcome show of support… and need.

  7. Wonderful! Lots to say, but I’ll try to be concise.

    Maria, you say you are not a great, on the spot debater. That may or may not be true, but you are doing your bit for skepticism by your contributions to Skepchick. Congratulations. You are probably underestimating yourself.

    I find I don’t make much headway with full on confrontational debate or argument. I’m not very good at it and I’ve made mistakes, particularly by losing my cool. But one tip I learned that has helped me was to try to find a way to agree and then move on from there.

    I’ve only been commenting on blogs (two to be precise) for less than a year, but I find on line arguments can sometimes be tiresome. At a certain point, it has all been said and then it just seems to go on and on. I do comment, but then I don’t necessarily keep on commenting.

  8. I avoid confrontation at any cost. When I say any cost, that means that if we use Maria’s example of the lady in the doctor’s office planning to refuse vaccination for her child, I would not speak up. The fear of being trashed in the inevitable argument is just simply far too great.
    My entire life has been an unending series of compromises, acquiescence, and avoidance of conflict altogether. Although I am not as easily swayed as I used to be, I pretend to be, in order to avoid that conflict. That’s worse, because I’m now lying to myself.
    Rare is the time when I actually have my point of view even heard, much less listened to.


    1. Well, @ Anthony, I listened, so you have made a good start!

      I also relate strongly to the comments from @exarch, @Laika, and @Mark Hall.

      Is anybody else frustrated by the way comment threads here tend to end so quickly? I know it is internet etiquette to respond quickly, but often I would like a day to mull over and do a bit of research rather than just shoot from the hip (which I always regret!)

      Then again, perhaps I am just being boring.

    2. Testing 123…You are coming in loud and clear Anthony! Keep it up!

      and @Jack 99, I think the rapid turnover of comment threads is just the way it is and I also get frustrated. No mulling for you sir!

      1. the “testing” part was me attempting to make the letters small.
        if HTML was visible, it would have shown as : <span style=”font-size:xx-small”>testing<lt;/span>

  9. Perhaps an important part of having a fruitful discussion (both on- and offline) is to pick your “expertise” and at least debate that every time it comes up.
    And there’s plenty of woo to pick from, so you’re bound to find a few subjects you care about enough to memorize the necessary facts (and these subjects probably come up often enough, that you’ll get your fair share of experience debating them as well)
    So if you’re not up on the details of Global Warming, then focus on homeopathy, or the 9/11-conspiracy, or creationism, or vaccination, etc… something’s bound to be right up your alley.

  10. I’m having serious problems using the site today. Nothing at all is working in firefox, including the login process and the contact box (I can get the form but the verify button does nothing so i can’t submit). Under IE8 I can read stories, but the contact and login buttons just produce blank screens. I was able to log in via the process of submitting this comment, so I apologise for the off-topic post.

  11. My usual problem is not a lack of confrontational spirit, but apathy. “Is this going to matter? Is this going to change their opinion?” I just find I don’t care enough to carry out a good argument, so I usually leave it alone unless I have a good bon mot to throw in.

  12. I’ve been trying to speak out more because I recently lost a friend over an argument about, of all things, immune-support supplements. And I can’t help thinking that maybe if I’d spoken up earlier (when she started acupuncture treatments for her migraines, or Emergen-C to ward off a cold, etc etc), those stupid mushroom pills wouldn’t have been the last straw.

  13. I didn’t get into it, but I think it’s also important to pick your battles. What @exarch said is very true in terms of expertise but also, there’s no point arguing for the sake of arguing – it will wear you down. :)

  14. “acupuncture treatments for her migraines”

    That raises an interesting ethical dilemna, doesn’t it? It’s quite likely that acupuncture would prove a fairly effective placebo against migraines, and you wouldn’t want your friend to suffer unnecessarily. So why argue? It would different if you were a doctor with an ethical duty to inform a patient or if she were dropping chemotherapy in favour of having someone wave crystals at her.

  15. I try using humor to express myself and debate. I think it is hard to translate that humor online. I don’t find much use in being confrontational, I myself tend to dismiss people that I perceive as being disrespectful. (The how can you believe that argument I take as a personal attack rather than a discussion about the issue.) These are my shortcomings and after reading the article and examining myself, I think I could make more of an effort. I also agree with the others that said how it is hard to quickly form an opinion on the various topics on skepchick and then post. Many of the topics (especially the ethical questions) are challenging and force me to think…so by the time I have read the threads/responses/looked some thing up I don’t bother to post. I do appreciate that there is such a forum that these topics are discussed!

    1. I too try to use humour in face-to-face debate but I find that it’s far too easily misinterpreted as sarcasm, arrogance or outright hostility. Perhaps the abrasive Scottish sense of humour isn’t appropriate for such settings! I also find that I can easily lose my temper if I feel my partner in discussion isn’t listening to what I’m saying or is being stubborn. That never ends well and for that reason I find it much easier to sit down, think things through and write out whatever’s on my mind.

      I also agree with what you say about commenting on Skepchick. Not only do the topics require thought but there are so many other blogs that by the time I get through everything in my Google Reader the conversations have already closed!

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