ActivismAfternoon Inquisition

AI: Preventing Skeptic Burn Out

Being a skeptic can be overwhelming, especially when you’re a skeptic who wants to make things happen. You want to fix the world, but there’s so much to fix, and there’s only one you and there’s so many of them. Cancer quacks, anti-vaxxers, psychics, ghost hunters, Oprah, Republicans, your mother-in-law… where do you even start? Some days, I’m burnt out before I’ve even turned on my Keurig.

For years, my whole life was non-stop full-on full-frontal all-day everyday skepticism. These days, it’s less… intense. I’m still skeptical. I still do skeptical work. But I’ve had to put energy into other things… like not being such an annoying told-ya-so pedantic asshole about everything. And finding things in life to enjoy (which I am admittedly terrible at, so in an attempt to put off enjoying life, I started running, which is like the best way to avoid enjoying anything while still getting to be annoying and pretentious to everyone around you. It’s a lot like skeptical evangelism, but with a lower resting heart rate.) I stopped bingeing on skeptic blogs and podcasts, and started watching more TV.

I’m also working on plans to do more skeptical outreach beyond our community and have other skeptically tangential projects I’d like to get started on. Thinking about skepticism in a bigger picture, as something that’s a part of my life instead of my life is helping me to burn out on it altogether. I can’t not be a skeptic. I can’t not want to change the world. But I can figure out ways to do both without being overwhelmed by all the work that needs to be done in the world (and, honestly, all the work that needs to be done within our community.)

How do you stave off burn out in the things you do? Do you have a strong passion for Skepticism (big S)? Or are you more of a passive skeptic (little s)? Do you want to see more people doing more skeptical work? Do you want to see more skepticism in the work you already do? If you could immunize one person from skeptical burnout, who would it be? And can you bring me another cup of coffee? I left the Keurig on, so it’s not a big deal. 

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3pm ET.


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. I pick and choose my battles. For example, there was no reason to fight my elderly grandmother when she told me that babies need to cry or the lungs don’t develop correctly. I just smiled and agreed, and did what I wanted. There was nothing to be gained by insisting that’s not true. When people claim that they are getting all sorts of benefits by going gluten free, again, smile and nod. Disagreeing gains me nothing, and serves no real purpose. We see a lot of that one, because its quite popular, but also because my daughter has Celiac and requires a gluten free diet. When dealing with people who do things that could impact everybody else, like passing up vaccines, then, thats worth the effort for discussion.

  2. I was going to say that I can only focus on one topic at a time, but, actually, I’ve been multitasking like a mofo lately. Angry Birds has been very therapeutic.

  3. I totally understand. Since becoming active in the community years ago, I’ve been on the leadership boards of five different organizations (two of which I helped found), helped plan and speak at conventions, spent weeks away from home helping to run summer camp, and blogged, vlogged, or podcasted about it all. Not to mention having, you know, a regular life with a job that sends me across the country and around the world, a marriage, friends, and now a kid. It’s exhausting. But, I think the key (at least for me) is in changing things up, finding new projects, new groups of people to engage with, and of course a constant search for my replacement. Fortunately, the Dallas–Fort Worth area has a lot of opportunities and interests, and I’m not having much difficulty keeping stimulated.

  4. I put a lot of energy into teaching the next generation, and its amazing how that just doesn’t get old. There are workbooks you can do with kids that highlight critical thinking skills. My daughter is just 10, but after having done a page in a workbook each day with her for several months, her reasoning skills are getting sharper. I’m sure part of that is the normal aging process, but it also gives me more patience with other people. I’m making a difference in a small way, but its going to pay off in future generations.

  5. I advocate for it casually, and within organizations I work & consult with. You’d be surprised how much shitty non-skeptical decision making is present in the corporate world.

    As far as skeptical “activist groups” I avoid them. I went to a few group meetings and one conference and found the organized “skeptic movement” to be a waste of time.

  6. dr professer, I do find that surprising. I assumed that most corporate decisions would be based on numbers only. What kind of things do they do that would fall into the non-skeptical category?

    1. You should read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided. It details how non-skeptical or no-critical thinking led to the recent collapse of financial markets. The book explains how a corporate adherence to “if you believe it, you make it happen” and other positive thinking bullshit stopped corporate leaders from heeding the advice of their more skeptical employees.

      1. @ SamBarge: I was actually sent to an office training, that was like an hour or two solely based on that if you think it, it will happen type stuff. (This was years ago!) I want to say it was based on a positive attitude and how you relate to your employees and business contacts. I wish I still had the book they had us read before the training! It was invigorating for sure! If you think positively your will suddenly have a good rapport with your employees and tada, with little to no effort see where business is bleeding money:) Great stuff I know! Why go to business school!

    2. I had worked in the field of business out of college, so I think I may help answer this question. Decisions based on group consensus. Policies based on this is the way we have always done things. No one EVER seemed to ask, where did these numbers come from? It was as if the President and Vice President never considered that not only funders and stakeholders had their own agendas, but that may be, the people inside the organization may have their own agendas too. Mostly a lot of laziness. Reactive rather than proactive thinking. It is hard work to really think and solidly justify your decisions.

    3. //I assumed that most corporate decisions would be based on numbers only.//

      Hahaha, noooooooooo. Most corporate decisions are based on some whim of a manager or group consensus. Especially with group consensus decisions, people generally reach a decision in which all of participants feel like their view has been validated (regardless of any merit or data to support that view), which makes it inherently an emotional decision. Even when numbers are clear & present… this is the case.

      //What kind of things do they do that would fall into the non-skeptical category?//

      Almost everything… *headdesk*…

  7. I think most days, I wish skepticism had a better impact. I don’t get to burned out on it as it just is what it is. I am glad I pulled myself away from the cliff of whoo and can make good coherent decisions for myself and family and that honestly this is good enough for me. My husband and I are the only skeptical people that I know personally, outside of the WONDERFUL internet, that is now that we have taken a break from the scientific community. (A break, but recouping!) So I am the “weird”/ irritating one to have a conversation with. I smile to know that my daughter is raised with the same ideals that my husband and I have, despite my in-laws best attempts at teaching her religion. :) Here is to another generation of awesome! I have hope for the future.

  8. I’m not sure if I’m a skeptic with a big S or litte S. Probably the latter, since outside of reading about what others do and trying to get educated on issues I’m slammed with each day, I really don’t do much. I did try to educate my relatives about Dr. Oz and the anti-vax movement. Does that count for anything?
    I just let my introverted nature get to me too much. Damn it all. :(

    I definately want more skepticism!

    Just one person is all I can immunize? That’s a tough one.

    And I’m out of coffee.
    *panic ensues*

  9. I’m more of a small s at the moment. When I find myself getting burnt out, often after arguments with friends (when saying things that I’m doubtful of, so I point out that without proof I can’t agree with them), I just go and LARP. Nothing cures the burn out more than running in a field pretending to be an elf or an orc who ponders philosophy when breaking skulls, then getting ganked by the players who you conned the night before. Wow, I feel like I should be embarrassed. Oh well. Just one person I could immunize? Um,……… Ricky Gervais? That’s all I can think of.

  10. At times I want to yell out that people never change, the world is a collection of random absurdities, that we care or think we have free will is a temporary anomalous construct, and we’re all fucked. So as to avoid the chemical response nihilism seems to trigger in my brain I opt for a mish mash of materialism, naturalism, rationalism, selfishness, and humanism that seems to make my brain pleased with itself, often skeptical and less likely to burn out. At work I try to be rational and talk with my clients about making informed decisions, setting reasonable goals, and how to choose services based on evidence and research. As for my involvement in skeptical organizations…, I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that for me there really is limited benefit for the time and energy involved. Those persons and organizations I admire most are publicly addressing specific issues like Science Based Medicine or Hug Me I’m Vaccinated programs that positively confront and address ignorance, superstitions and their real harms. And someday when I have more time, which will likely be retirement, I may get more involved. Until then I greatly admire those who persist, write, advocate and strive for a rational and reasonable world.

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