I’m not what you would call a garden variety sceptic. For the most part I let most things slide as there are enough people fighting the fight for me already. However if in conversation someone says something that is obviously incorrect or is based on hearsay and anecdotes I’ll usually point it out so that they have to prove their point. I often say to them that “you can’t bullshit a bullshitter, and I’m the best that’s around” since I’ve been known to use argumentative devices and sometimes questionable logic to get people to believe what I say. Once you develop critical thinking patterns it becomes quite easy to pick up on when someone is talking with authority on a topic they have no idea about. I guess that puts in me in the category of the casual sceptic, concerned with ensuring that everyone has the right information and makes their own decisions rather than accepting what they here without question.
It was then last night over my usual Thursday night drinks with friends that the topic of scepticism came up. For the most part my group of friends would fall into the casual sceptic category as we’re interested in facts and won’t blindly believe something until we’ve done our research. My fellow blogger then pulled out a copy of Richard Dawkin’s The Greatest Show on Earth a book which he said felt more like a transition away from the bible bashings that he was famous for and felt more rhetorical, something that is sorely lacking in the sceptic movement’s arguments. This then begged the question: Has the sceptic movement forgotten the art of rhetoric?
I read quite a lot of sceptical material and that’s because it appeals to me. This is probably in part due to my slight anti-mass-media bias as many of the online sceptic resources are targeted at major news outlets who are reporting misinformation. Additionally there’s something that I myself haven’t really thought of, and the sceptical pieces trigger that all too important research reflex in me that sends me off on a couple hour streak through online journals. However they’re preaching to the choir here as I’m already on their side. To the other side their argument isn’t persuasive at all, and comes off as an attack which only serves to strengthen their resolve.
It would then seem that most sceptics make the mistake of thinking that the people on the other side of their argument will be converted using the same techniques that would convince a fellow sceptic of their point. I came to realise this recently that hammering away at someone’s beliefs does not serve to improve their view of you or your argument. More you have to convince them that your side of the argument is the more sensible option, and this is usually done through the use of rhetorical devices and soft power techniques. Sceptics put forth a (usually) scientifically sound argument that would convince a like minded individual of their position but seem to give up in frustration when their argument falls on deaf ears.
Personally it feels like human nature to just assume that everyone thinks along the same lines as you do. It makes life considerably easier as you don’t have to spend half your time considering every aspect of someone in order to communicate with them. However it’s this assumption that seems act as a catalyst to the raging debate between sceptics and their targets. I’m sure one day we’ll see the rise of persuasive arguments from the sceptic movement and if they do it right they’ll get exactly what they’ve been fighting for.
That, or they could convert Oprah into a sceptic. 😉
I’ve always considered myself somewhat of a libertarian when it comes to matters of politics and personal freedoms. I strongly believe that for the most part the government or any large establishment generally has no right to poke around in my private affairs unless I’ve explicitly allowed them to first. That or there’s a potential for me to do harm to others through my actions. There’s also this other part of me that can’t stand misinformation like what we see coming from the anti-vaccination movements that seemed to have popped up everywhere. However more recently I’ve been dealing with a bit of cognitive dissonance when it comes to the rising sceptic movement and their dealings with religious folk.
Whilst I’ve been struggling with the idea for a while this video I saw yesterday caused the dissonance I had felt previously to rise up again:
There’s also this post for a little bit more background on the matter.
First off let me say that if I was walking into that creationist museum I’d probably be doing the same thing as their group was doing. When it first opened I saw some of the pictures online I can’t say I didn’t make fun of them (this one is particularly amusing) and I probably would have been laughing the whole way through. Walking into a creationist museum wearing a Dawkins t-shirt was probably stirring the pot a little bit but I’ll concede that they could have reacted in a much more dignified way. But this is where everything starts to get all murky for me as the libertarian and sceptic in me start to duke it out.
The museum itself really isn’t doing any damage to anyone nor impinging on the freedoms of those who visit it. The funding to build the museum came from Answers in Gensis a non-profit organisation who makes do mostly on donations and for all intents and purposes are a transparent organisation. People giving money to them know what they will do with it and there seems to be no ill intent from them. In fact I had never heard of the organisation prior to this date (I somehow missed it in the first press releases) so they can’t be too bad.
Sceptics would probably argue however that the museum itself is a tool to spread misinformation. Now whilst the museum title is a little misleading you’d have to be relatively naive to be able to blast past the fact that this place is firmly rooted in Young Earth Creationists ideals. As such something that states its goals so plainly before everyone can hardly be classified as a tool of misinformation. It would be like saying the National Air and Space Museum is nothing but a tool of the aviation industry, it’s not quite like that.
I guess the problem I have here is that when some sceptics come up against people don’t believe in science is that on the surface they appear to be fighting for fact based reasoning but once you get down to it, they’re just zealots for another cause. I’ve come to realise that sometimes you can never convince someone of your viewpoint and that it is better to just lay out the facts as you see them and then leave it at that. At least that way you’ve had your say, they’ve had theirs and you can all agree to walk away from it. If either of you have a compelling argument it will stick in your opponents mind and you might end up with another ally rather than someone who dismisses your ideas as petty zealotry.
Religion does have its place and I came to accept that many years ago. Destroying people’s faith is not something I’ve seen help a lot of people but if they are presented with some facts and they decide to do some research on their own then that is the true power of an idea. Ravenously campaigning against people’s faith does nothing but strengthen their resolve and the best method of defense is to their the facts stand up for themselves.
Maybe I’m just a pacifist at heart.
I make no secret of the topics that I have absolutely no idea in. Sure I’m able to make an educated guess about most things but I will usually seek an expert or experienced person in a field if I want to know something about it. This is why I always find it strange when people start bashing doctors or lawyers when they themselves have little to no experience in their field. Whilst I thought that this was probably the right way to rationally think about things it turns out I might actually be following my natural instincts closer than I thought:
Financial advice can make us take leave of our senses, according to research that shows how the brain sets aside rationality when it gets the benefit of supposedly expert opinion.
When a bank manager or investment adviser recommends a financial decision, the brain tends to abdicate responsibility and defer to their authority with little independent thought, a study has suggested.
Such expert advice suppresses activity in a neural circuit that is critical to sound decision-making and value judgments, scientists in the US have found.
Their results may explain why people are so apt to follow experts’ recommendations blindly, when a little reflection might be sufficient to suggest an alternative course of action.
This also brought up a good point about leadership in the workplace. Working as a contractor I’m often asked my opinion on matters to see what someone from outside the organisation thinks. However whilst I may bring a different opinion to the table I’ve noticed that people do tend to switch off the critical thinking whilst they’re talking to me, and become far too agreeable to some of the things that I propose. I’ve seen this happen with big projects as well, once an external agency wins a contract they will usually do work their way and the client will usually adapt themselves to agency rather than the other way around.
So thinking back to my distrustful friends it became clear that the best way to deal with a subject that you have no experience in is to first educate yourself about it. Wikipedia is great for this as it provides a good overview of a topic with links to further reading should you wish to pursue the topic any further. Once you know a little bit about the subject you can then ask the right questions of the experts, and get a feeling for when an answer is out of line.
I think the main problem with naively trusting the experts is that whilst they might be very well versed in their particular field of study they probably aren’t the definitive source on that topic. I know when people ask me about certain topics (virtualization is a great one) I’ll be able to answer 95% of questions off the top of my head. After that my answers start to get peppered with “I think” and “should be” but most people don’t hear this and will take that 5% of answers as expert opinion. Having a little knowledge in that area would hopefully give them enough scepticism to see when I started to walk outside my expert boundaries and trigger them to do their own research.
Overall developing a base level of knowledge and treating experts with a small dose of scepticism will ultimately leave your more informed and will keep your brain from switching off it’s critical thinking when someone floods you with facts. Wikipedia and Google are your friends here, but remember to treat them just as you would any other expert.