Skeptic etiquette

By Phil Plait | February 1, 2009 10:15 am

Being a skeptical blogger is easy. You can say what you want, and everyone assumes you’re just some antisocial jerk in his basement. Doing it in real life can be… difficult.

I sometimes have trouble in social situations because someone will say something that is perhaps not supported by reality, and I have wind up jumping right in. I don’t say they’re stupid or anything like that, but people identify with their ideas, so saying that an idea is wrong is basically saying they are wrong, and maybe even implying they’re stupid (or, more likely, they wind up inferring it).

It’s a delicate thing, trying to change someone’s thinking. Do it too strongly and you violate Wil’s Rule (in his banner). Do it too weakly and you may feel you’re not true to your convictions.

That’s why Allyson Beatrice’s post on Cocktail Party Physics about skeptical etiquette is so wonderful. It’s long, but well worth your time to read; it’s funny and true and may hit home. I have lots of friends I can call on their dumbosity, just as they do on mine, and we’ll laugh about it. But that’s not always true in every social situation… and it’s a minefield out there.

Not everyone who reads my blog is a self-identified skeptic, of course, and some folks may be skeptical about some things but not others. Still, I just bet you deal with friends/family/strangers who talk about astrology/homeopathy/antivax stuff. What do you do when that happens? The comments are open. Let’s talk.


Comments (61)

Links to this Post

  1. The Drinking Bird | February 1, 2009
  2. Life In The Milky Way | February 1, 2009
  3. On the subject of being a dick… « The Winnipeg Skeptics | August 24, 2010
  1. gila

    Generally, I just gently point out that I think they are wrong, give my reasons for it…and then let it go. I’ve found that most people aren’t willing to give up on their ideas about life, the universe, and everything. Certainly not because of anything I’m likely to say. Some listen, some don’t, and some get angry, rude, and stop talking to me for a while. I don’t think I’ve lost any friends over it, but I probably haven’t gained any, either.


    PS Just bought “Death” last night. Looking forward to reading it.

  2. That’s a nice post. I’m generally an empiricist, but with moments of wierdness because I am a writer. I enjoy oddness and bad science, as long as it can lead you to good science, and you don’t take it too seriously. Remember liking “Chariots of the Gods” as a kid, but it led me into learning more about petroglyphs and Egyptology. Eventually the little green men (or gray!) fade away, except for guest shots on “The X Files.”

  3. Gah, blocked by CENTAF. I know that sometimes I just get so fed up with some woo that I just want to rip their arms off and beat them over the head until they are no longer a threat to anyone’s brain… That’s when I just have to get up and walk away. I’m sure you’ve seen the “dogmatic” post on “The Repository” at JREF. That hermetically sealed woo world is frightening sometimes.

  4. Trocisp

    When it comes to religion, I let peoples… oddities… have a pass.

    However, when it comes to things like Antivax, Creationism (as a scientific ideal), etc. I adamantly and thoroughly debunk their ideas. I’ve even used (their) blackberry to cite studies about Antivax.

    After about two weeks of daily discussion on the topic, they were no longer an antivaxxer. Felt good spreadin’ the knowledge, I must admit.

  5. Anonymous

    I prefer not to argue with my sister about such things. It’s almost impossible to change her mind on some of these questionable beliefs, and she’ll usually adopt a “tough” demeanor that makes it practically impossible to argue against her whenever she’s convinced that she’s right.

  6. Radwaste

    Phil, read your post out loud. I know you’re a whiz at math, and you’re a great public speaker, but wow!

  7. I must say my level of etiquette depends on the level of dumbness being displayed and the level of certainty or arrogance with which said dumbness is delivered. If someone is just genuinely making a mistake and really doesn’t know any better then I’ll correct them, as politely and gently as I can. If they’re being monumentally and shamelessly dumb, wilfully ignorant or just being a dick then I’ll bring out the big guns and not stop shooting till all that’s left of them is an empty, smoking pair of boots.

    A fair approach?

  8. Helioprogenus

    See, normally, I’m initially dealing with believers, I tend to be relaxed, informative, and somewhat patient. Eventually however, I lose patience and end up sounding like a bit of a jerk. I guess I come off a bit aggressive, and regardless of all the facts, and all the holes in the oppositions logic I point out, their defensive walls become fortresses, and there is nothing but noise. With some people, it can take a few minutes, and others, it may never come about.

    My parents (as well as my sister) make me the least patient, because their thoughts can be so irrational at times. They apply their intelligence to subjects that are based on faith, and commit numerous cognitive biases to support their predetermined notions. They feel they’re open minded because they don’t follow any organized religion, but some kind of patchwork belief they call “spirituality”. Further, they tend to fall for a great deal of conspiracies without applying critical thinking, and do not fathom the possibility that those beliefs of theirs can be incorrect. To them, open minded means willing to accept the possibilities that “anything is possible”, but when I point out that they’ve formed a faith based belief structure, and it closes them to the possibilities of actual reality, the arguments and livid discussions start. A great deal of their reluctance towards embracing science is governed by the difficulty of the subject. In order to see the possibilities that evidence based logic can provide, they would have to go back towards reading numerous books that link various theories together.

    I’m pretty sure I can’t change the various assortment of odd beliefs my family falls for, and I know part of it is the artificial comfort it provides them to believe in some kind of supernatural, “higher intelligence”, that somehow cares for them. It’s similar to the security blanket, or even the pacifiers that most children outgrow. Eventually, there might come a time when you must intervene, and for the sake of the child’s development, follow through with your promise of freeing them from an artificial form of comfort. Yet, isn’t that what many beliefs necessitate?

    I can categorize the beliefs that I’ve noticed in a few main categories. First, as mentioned already, is the artificial comfort it provides against an apathetic universe that is random, and unconcerned as to how a bag of flesh lives or dies. The fear of death is probably a subset of the irrational acceptance by this mode. Second, is the “stance against authority”, which leads to uncritical acceptance of conspiracy theories, trading organized religion for astrology/spirituality/numerology, ad infinitum… Third, would be the appeal to authority, which is actually the opposite of the previous belief structure. The fourth would appeal to tradition, and its role in following a certain belief structure. The thinking goes, well, how wrong can people be for 1300/2000/3500 years? Also, the associated rituals would further support this, as they’ve culturally evolved to become the potent memes they are. Finally, the artifice of order can also play a great deal in embracing a belief system. The thinking here involves assuming that the ordered world one observes, as far as the functioning of the body, our technological advances, the interplay of nature, is all related, and must be a product of a universe that is also equally ordered (this would be the Blind Watchmaker argument to those who’ve read Dawkins).

    As far as the people that I generally come in contact with, I would say that almost all of these have a role to play in determining one’s inherent and irrational belief structure. Even the seemingly contradictory appeal to authority vs stance against authority arguments can sometimes participate in the same belief system. One can say, well, I don’t believe in god because it’s an idea supported by the federal government to control our behavior, but I do believe in neo-paganism because so many people are participating in it, even the venerable judge “smith”. Catching contradictions is fun, and generally any irrational belief is peppered by them. Yet, even those of us who think critically and analytically can be caught in contradictory arguments. As for me, I truly enjoy these, and do not shy away from them. However, most people seem to feel that you’re attacking their character when you continue in your line of reasoning, and generally, often degenerates into uncomfortable silence. You wonder what happened to the dialectic that helps to sharpen your wits.

  9. kinzua kid

    A casual and passing “moment of woo” comes almost hourly in conversation and you can’t respond to all of them. You would never get anything done. On the other hand, I think anyone who is so bold as to make a controversial remark (whether the commenter believes it to be controversial or not) demands some kind of response. I usually start with “too bad that’s just not true” and see where that goes. I believe the reason woo gets a beachhead in peoples’ brains is at least partially associated with the failure of reality to speak up. Most folks are shy about conflict, even if it is just a conflict of ideas. The woo-masters aren’t. The only time I defer is when requested to by my wife. Even then, my restraint has its limits.

    The concept of etiquitte around skepticism is curious to me. The Emily Post thing only works if everyone is reading from the same playbook. The woo crowd doesn’t have one, their verbal filter is completely turned off.

  10. Stark

    My parents are convinced that Creationism is the real deal. So when I started reading books on Evolution and began studying about it, it was like the sky was falling. :)
    I grew up in a very religious environment (Jehovah’s Witnesses), so I’m sure you can understand my position when I used to try to defend my new convictions.

    However, I’m at a point in my life where it no longer matters to me whether or not a healthy skepticism should be their conviction too. They are old enough to look at the evidence for themselves. The fact that they don’t answers it for me. They still question me on it and drop all kinds of minefields, but I’m not bothered the slightest anymore in requiring an answer for my ‘sins’. :)

    Gotta love your parents through thick and thin. (As long as their claims/convictions don’t lead them to do stupid things, like antivaxing)

  11. At my 20-year high school reunion, I ran into an old classmate I was friends with but hadn’t seen since then (of course, that’s what reunions are all about). He’s now a massage therapist, and he also does reflexology.

    The tactic I took was just to ask him questions. I didn’t lie; I told him I’d heard of it and I was skeptical, but instead of phrasing my concerns as challenges, I phrased them as questions that I wanted him to answer. He kept not being able to answer, and I think I put some doubts into his head about whether or not he was doing something that really worked.

    That seems to be a good tactic.

  12. Wildride

    I’m completely indifferent to trying to pursuade people of anything, but if someone says something that’s nonsense, I inform them of the correct thing, and that’s all. Of course, I’m also a dick.

  13. I tend to take a more long term approach. I make my friends aware of my heavy involvement in the local skeptical community here, and I don’t hide my enthusiasm for things like Drinking Skeptically, the next CFI event or the skeptical podcast that we are working on. with many of my friends this leads them to asking questions about just what skepticism is and opens the door to their own critical thinking.

    I can’t make them go through the door but if I can at least lead them there then that is progress.

  14. I have several friends that fall into the woo laden category. I try to approach things softly when I can. I do try to inject a bit of skepticism without being too overbearing about it, I ask questions and explain my own view the best I can. Sometimes it works and sometimes not.

    One memorable moment was at TAM 6 when we met up with a couple of friends that were in Vegas for a different reason. They are pretty woo-filled folk, but very nice and lovely to have a drink or two with. They asked us why we were in Vegas (they knew it was a conference, but didn’t know what) and so we told them. I was kind of disappointed when they changed the subject. I had hoped that they would ask a few questions, but they didn’t. I didn’t push it.

  15. Sundance

    I think one of the big problems with challenging people’s ideas, and encouraging them to think skeptically centres around how people view the world. A good paradigm is given in ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance’ – there are ‘classical’ thinkers, who try to understand the underlying structure of things, and ‘romantic’ thinkers, who perceive the external appearance. Because they mostly perceive external appearances, romantic thinkers see science as “just another religion” and miss the point that scientific reasoning is fundamentally different to faith or believing in something “because it feels right”. If you’re going to convince them their ideas are wrong, you have to do it in a way that is compatible
    with their world view.

    Usually when I’m trying to persuade people who believe in some nonsense like astrology or ESP, I find that they believe it “makes sense” that the stars influence our day-to-day lives, or whatever, so I try to give them examples where common sense expectations are wrong (e.g. objects thrown horizontally and dropped vertically hit the ground at the same time), to show them that what “feels right” can be deceptive. I usually don’t tell them straight-out that they’re wrong, because that makes them see you as a threat to their world view, and that makes them refuse to listen to what you say. I try to encourage them to be skeptical about everything, including their own beliefs, what they see in the news, and scientific theories, and point them in the direction of evidence-based arguments. It doesn’t always work, but it’s less frustrating than saying “crystal healing is rubbish!” and spending the next five hours butting heads with someone who’s convinced that you’re one of “the soulless minions of orthodoxy”.

  16. Adrian

    Personally, I can almost not help myself from leaping in, boots and all, and beating them to (not literal) death for being stoopid. I don’t make many friends this way, but it is great stress relief!

  17. SoberGuy

    In my opinion, you folks have all been discussing and describing the easy(er) situations. Try being an intelligent skeptic in a 12 step group where everything I mean EVERYTHING that happens is a result of the will of ‘my’ higher power!

    Doesn’t matter what the higher power is, door knob, jebus, YWYH, whatever. Higher power keeps one sober IF AND ONLY IF one maintains a conscious contact every single day. One simply can not have a conversation with one’s fellow members unless one knows the politically correct jargon and does not violate or deny the power of one’s higher power! SHEESH.

    The problem with criticizing this approach is that for some people this seems to be the ‘faith’ thing that they need. There must be a ‘plan’ somewhere/somehow that says that all the s**t that we/they/I drank over, happened on purpose and one is predestined to walk this s**ty road in order to get sober/clean/whatever. One just learns not to engage in logical discussions when listening to this, because this is the official jargon as set down by the founding fathers. And while it’s easy to see this as a great crutch, in a lot of cases I’ve watched people move from being helplessly lost in life to forming a reasonably functional livelyhood with friends & acquaintences they can trust and relationships with their biological family. The change really is amazing, but I’m just not at all convinced that the woo-meister in the sky did it.

    I’m an agnostic and an engineer and I consider myself to be an intelligent lay person when it comes to anything past electrical engineering. When depression got me down, it was quite logically pointed out that alcohol consumption was not helping anything and it was time to stop, so I did. 14 years later and I never want to touch the stuff again. But the rationalizations and excuses and general woo that is imparted in 12 step meetings is enough to gag one’s intellect forever. One soon learns to just smile and say ‘keep coming back’. While I know that some can’t let a lie slide on by, I’ve learned to do it. It keeps the argument level way down and I can always come home and read these wonderful blogs.

  18. kraut

    If somebody is telling me about some physical impossibilities, or defends creationism, I point out that there is evidence to the contrary, and will defend my point. If they persist in their view, and/or react offended – I will stop my input immediately. I also will request from my “opponent” to please leave the topic alone in my presence. That usually works, and the fronts are clear without any aggravation.

  19. Gary

    I try to follow some 2000-year-old advice and treat people like I want to be treated – with respect. It turns arguments into conversations which have a lot greater chance of correcting misinformation than “fact”-fights.

  20. Trocisp

    Point of interest: the idea of reciprocity is not 2,000 years old.

  21. Unfortunately I am surrounded by irrationality, displayed by people who are otherwise delightful and fun to be around. Reiki healing; auras; belief in the existence of various ghosts, deities and hauntings; astrology; the world ending in 2012; homeopathy; homeopathy for animals; and so on.

    There was a time I’d never let it pass, and since these ideas really have no foundation it’s very, very easy to tear them apart. Unfortunately doing that tends to leave people feeling upset, and under the impression you’ve just insulted them – even thought it’s an idea you’re talking about, not the person who holds it, the attempted destruction of strongly held beliefs is often taken badly. As a result of this selection pressure my oldest friends are almost exclusively rational and skeptical, carrying virtually no mental mumbo jumbo.

    Nowadays I have to admit I’m a lot less aggressive. It might take longer, but I find if you simply encourage a little rationality and skepticism from time to time people often come to the same conclusions under their own steam. If you run straight into these beliefs you often hit a massive defensive wall, so instead you smuggle seemingly innocuous chunks of skepticism underneath the defenses until the whole structure collapses from within. For instance, I’m fascinated by mythology, as are many people, and you can often use that as a Trojan horse to penetrate contemporary myths. And a lot of people are genuinely interested in the way the mind works, so you can talk about paradolia and so on without directly saying, “you’re just imagining it.”

    But sometimes I just fire both barrels of the logic cannon and let ’em have it.

  22. As a teacher, I find myself in a position of practising etiquette – and treading respectfully – during the Evolution unit. It is not uncommon (though not a given) that one of my students will announce that for religious reasons they cannot “believe” in evolution. I cannot force them to reject their beliefs, and I cannot take an aggressive stance, as it would be completely counterproductive. I have learned that the best approach is to explain that belief and faith are not the realm of science, and that I am not asking them to reject their faith. All I ask is that that read, listen to, and understand the evidence and reasoning for evolution, and use that knowledge to answer questions. Some gain only a superficial grasp, but I have had some students see the light, as it were.
    Sometimes, when you lead a horse to water, they get the idea and take a drink.

  23. Dan

    It’s a tough situation. I see it all the time. I was actually in a doctor’s office with my wife a few days ago when I overheard two women talking about evolution and making the standard ID arguments.

    It was SOOO tempting to just jump in. But I restrained myself. I was really hoping my wife would come back just so I could talk to HER and make sure those two overheard what I said.

    But it can be really hard to decide whether someone is just innocently misinformed or a zealot who doesn’t care what your arguments are.

  24. One thing I make absolutely sure to do is prove myself wrong in front of other people. When people recognize that being skeptical is never a personal thing they will accept your findings more genuinely – especially children. Displaying respect for truth above personal pride is a great lesson.
    Recently, in front of 3 younger cousins, I mentioned something about the equestrian statues in Washington D.C. having some kind of code based on which hooves were raised and which were on the ground pertaining to how the person on the horse died – it is a common assumption in and around DC. While saying it I realized that I’d never actually bothered to find out exactly what it is. After spending some googlepower investigating it was pretty obvious that the notion is total B.S. – at least as far as the D.C. statues are concerned. I made sure they saw me prove my acquiescence into popular assumption wrong.

  25. Chad Geidel

    It’s hard not to be a dick sometimes. I really struggle with that. I just have to remember to stop when both parties keep repeating the same things over and over. Of course by then it’s usually too late.

    The part that REALLY drives me nuts is the self-professed “science skeptics.” Like people that are “skeptical” of the “theory of evolution.” ARRGHH! That’s not skepticism! That’s IGNORANCE!

  26. davidlpf

    Most days at work I try to tiptoe through the dodgy ideas like a minefield but somedays I just hit one of those mines. A couple of weeks ago I metioned all we need now is Jenny McCarthy and a 50 million dollars and got the silent treatment from a co-worker. Here are a list of woo-woo topics that are or have been discussed:
    2)moon landings
    3)moon makes you do weird things
    5)many others.

    Once and while there is an exception. One women who was greiving over a death of a loved one
    was talked into going to a psychic far. Once there they asked people to wrote down the name of rhe love one they wanted to talk to, she wrote down Lance. The psychic told all this stuff Lance was saying. The thing is the whole name was Lancelot and it was a dog. Then she talked about Slyvia Brown and the million dollar challenge.

  27. The psychic told all this stuff Lance was saying. The thing is the whole name was Lancelot and it was a dog.

    Unfortunately, most psychics would, when confronted with that information, simply declare that their powers cross the species barrier and that they can talk to animals as well. Prove they can’t. …and most of the poor saps who believe in that stuff will buy it hook, line and sinker.

  28. Quiet Desperation

    I have, of this writing, personally converted 14 people away from Sylvia Browne.

    The new challenge is to explain to people who call Obama “socialist” that he is really “progressive.”

    Not that I’m a fan of either one (I hate all fixed ideologies), but those terms have specific meanings. And, yes, I know there are those who will argue whether he is progressive. There are degrees.

  29. Quiet Desperation

    The part that REALLY drives me nuts is the self-professed “science skeptics.”

    I dunno… I read a lot of physics and cosmology, and I’m starting to think all the string theory is a huge, steaming load. The holographic theory might be the last straw for me.

    But, you know, go ahead and build that particle accelerator with the same diameter as the Milky Way and shatter my skepticism, guys.

  30. Some of my most rational friends who don’t believe in anything else wacky believe in the Mercury retrograde thing, and I’ve given up saying anything about it. It’s not polite, it’s not helpful, it’s not useful, it’s frustrating. Sometimes, it’s better to place effort where it will actually do some good. What Nathan says about the long term approach works best for me, too. (I do wish there were Drinking Skeptically or Drinking Liberally events within walking distance of my home, but that’s beside the point.)

  31. Jeffersonian

    My family and friends all look up to me and count on my council before making any decisions. It’s taxing but I try to respect them for seeking such wisdom and truth. Because of me they’ve learned the history of philosophy dating to Socrates and to respect the scientific method as well as to apply logic and skepticism everyday.

    In reality, my mom buys silly gadgets for her electrical outlets because she believes electricity is leaking out, causing her rates to increase. A sister believes a xtian god is punishing us with tsunamis for allowing gays to walk about unpunished (if this was a century ago she’d blame a racial minority). An ex thinks ghosts misplace items for her. A friend I vacay’d with thinks the earth is 6000 yrs old and starlight was created “in transit”. Another spends paychecks on things like shoes with magnets in them and copper bracelets. An uncle is a chiropractor who gets extremely nervous/defensive if his practice is mentioned. All of them think “skeptic” means “taking the opposite opinion regardless”. A friend recently went through a two-year reincarnation-based spirit quest before returning to the synagogue for its “reality” (well, relatively less woo with her). Another smoked a pack a day and then acted mystified when his infant daughter had continual respiratory ailments which he proudly “treated” homeopathically (when he went on nicotine pills, the child’s ailments ceased). My “teen” is at the age where conspiracy discovery is a sexy sign of independent thinking. Yesterday at the grocery store I heard a manager tell an employee “don’t worry, god will provide”. The rest require too much typing. Sites like this are a spaghetti-send.

    It’s taken me years to understand ways to introduce logic in digestible chunks. With tiny chunks, they can claim ownership of the information and spend time digesting. Few of us had a skeptic revolution in one time/place. I see people with patchwork non-traditional supernatural beliefs to be light years ahead of those that swallow currently-popular organized religions and tend to treat them with a stepping-stone respect.

  32. Tact might save you a bad judgement, that much is true. It is also true that in many cases, it doesn’t matter how you approach the rebuttal, you will be guilty by virtue of challenge.

    It really depends how much you wish to be “liked” (and even then, we’re in muddy waters) as it isn’t as if the tactful have been universally better treated – many people admire those with the more cutthroat method of distributing the truth. Probably more so when the truth is being dealt upon someone other them, though.

    Me, personally, I prefer the Seinfeldian “Rip it off like a bandaid” tactic.

  33. Marco

    A made up sign is a fun way to gently refute astrology. I am myself whale. maggot ascendant.

  34. Craig

    What’s being discussed here is something that’s been on my mind recently, too.

    I spend the week after Christmas every year at the Woodford Folk Festival, up north of Brisbane; it’s the best music festival in the country, and possibly the best NYE party on the planet. However, although Woodford is very diverse, it’s basically a hippy festival, with all that implies. One of the dozen or so venues at the festival is specifically dedicated to woo; homeopathy, antivax, quackpot nutritionists, the works. You’ll find plenty of real scientists there as well, but they’re generally concentrated around the environmental issues venue on the other side of the festival…

    This year I was camped in between some rural greenies who ran a bird sanctuary, a very pleasant but very Christian woman (who I had many long rambling philosophy/science/religion discussions with, despite our extreme differences in outlook), and a group of about twenty assorted hippies (one of whom ran a macrobiotic farm, and heavily distrusted all modern medicine; you get the idea). They were all lovely people, but the conversations required some delicate diplomacy (particularly as I currently work in animal-based neuroscience research…).

    The approach I generally go for is: I don’t unnecessarily contradict people, so long as they aren’t implying or assuming my agreement with what they’re saying, or saying something that isn’t just mistaken but actively harmful (the antivax crowd would qualify here).

    On the occasions when I do feel required to express my disagreement, I find that the phrase “I’d like to see the research on that for myself” can be very useful. In more extreme cases, the significant pause also comes into play, as in “That seems…unlikely to me. Do you know what they based that claim on?”.

    It isn’t my job to forcibly “fix” other people’s heads, particularly when they’re essentially harmless and perfectly pleasant people at a laid-back music festival. If they’re interested, I’ll talk about what I know, and if they volunteer for it then I enjoy having full-throttle friendly arguments with random strangers. But demanding that every statement made in my presence must be “scientifically correct” isn’t being a sceptic or a scientist; it’s just being an arsehole.

  35. It depends from the circumstances. Apart from the obvious rule of being civil and polite, there are many approaches, my favorite is pointing out that constellations are human constructs based on casual perspective projections, and how something like that may influence you? Otherwise, I find funny to point out that my dominant celestial body is Quaoar…

  36. Cheyenne

    PZ Myers has the number one scientific/Skeptic blog out there. So the below quote is influencing how people should behave in these kinds of blogs-

    “I want my commenters to be uncivil. There is no virtue in politeness when confronted with ignorance, dishonesty, and delusion. I want them to charge in to the heart of the issue and shred the frauds, without hesitation and without faltering over manners. These demands for a false front of civility are one of the strategies used by charlatans who want to mask their lack of substance — oh, yes, it would be so goddamned rude to point out that a huckster is lying to you. I am quite happy that we have a culture of being rude to frauds here.”

    “Keep this in mind, O Regular Readers of the blog, and please do feel free to be uncivil to these fresh fools from the pseudoscientific fringe of the blogosphere.”

    Me personally – I would prefer to treat one’s neighbor as you want yourself treated. Elevated discussion of issues. Heated debate hopefully, but on the merits of whatever is being discussed (without personal attacks). But I don’t know, seems like the most influential skeptic blog out there is suggesting otherwise (but I think Phil isn’t).

  37. I should suppose should cite my source. Name has the link.

  38. Gary Ansorge

    “Show me the evidence,,,” is my usual riposte when confronted by woo. Asking thought provoking questions, rather than making bald faced “statements of educated authority” also occasionally leads to productive discourse. Stating why I believe in evidence based rationality while accepting that others may still need to believe in Santa Claus is another approach that oft times helps others to see I don’t judge their beliefs as good/bad, just different(and possibly non-productive).

    Sometimes this may impel a curious human to look a little deeper into evidence based thinking,,,or not,,,

    It is also true that you can’t really describe a rainbow to a man blind from birth, so trying to drag a confirmed woo into a hard science based reality may do no more than destroy a fragile personality, one utterly dependent for its stability/functionality upon belief in a higher, more gracious power.

    A teacher (jesus)becomes a Great Teacher(Jesus Christ) because what they say resonates with our basic desire for love and fairness or, as Jesus taught, “God IS love,,,” implying, there was nothing more to be said about THAT.
    (,,,and from that simple statement, came 2 millennia of human BS.
    Well, we are quite adept at twisting inspiring messages into whatever we want to justify.)

    ,,,but that’s a human thing to do,,,

    Our WOO protects us when we are too immature to protect ourselves. Crushing that belief is like taking away a child’s’ security blanket, before they’re mature enough to get along without it.

    It’s easy to be a snarky know-it-all. It’s really difficult to teach by being a good example but I think(believe) it is a better way.

    Gary 7

  39. Matt

    I witnessed someone buying into the History Channel “Flying Rods from the 4th Dimension” documentary the other night, all hope is lost.

  40. Pat

    I remember distinctly as a teenager scoffing at the claims on the back of one of the standard UFOlogy picture books as it attempted to assign meaning to an ancient spiral of prehistoric language – a circle with seven dots was a spaceship. And all of the other soldier-like illustrations were somehow connected, so they were spacemen. Ignore the other symbols. And I said “well, that could be anything – a shield, a wheel, how can they say this untranslated bit of text is about a spaceship without anything else to back it up? I could say it is about a series of pie-exchanges and be about as right…”

    This particular book was on the coffeetable of a neighbor girl’s family. The mother came flying out of the kitchen, irate that I would even suggest it. I said “it’s a circle – it could be anything, and the authors are making details up that don’t appear anywhere in the carvings…”

    She flew into a rage. And that was my first full contact with irrational thinking, as while I had been arguing archeological scholarship, she had been hurt to the quick that I would question, what for her it turns out, was a near religious belief in ufo’s.

    I wasn’t allowed in that house again…

  41. James Pannozzi

    When hearing such claims I simply ask for references that I might learn more – for example, if the person advocating Homeopathy refers me to a YouTube debate in which a genuine scientist, Dr. Iris Bell MD, Phd surveys research on Homeopathy and finds it indicative that Homeopathy works well above placebo level, then I have learned something and I will know enough to be sceptical of the sceptics. Likewise, if the person were to refer me to the experiments of M. Ennis, a bona fide scientist and pharmaceutical; researcher in Great Britain whose research clearly indicates that biological activity CAN be stimulated by highly dilute solutions with no molecules of the stimulant present (Inflammation Research, vol 53, p181), then I would thank the person making the statement for alerting me to the possibility that a major scientific breakthrough might be coming.

    Just for the record, Ennis’ experiments have been repeated with positive results in 2007 and 2008 by other researchers, and a BBC Horizon 2001 documentary that claimed to repeat her experiment with negative results, as is wrongly reported by the Wikipedia article about her, actually did not.

    The bottom line, is that one must do some reading and thinking and not allow one’s personal beliefs or amateur high school chemistry knowledge to lead one to condemn someone else’s opinion without researching the facts.

  42. Spiv

    I generally approach with the Socratic method; asking them questions, having them explain themselves in detail till it becomes apparent that they have no idea what they’re talking about (at least that their idea is short sighted) seems to work really well because it’s almost like they thought of the reasons to prove it wrong on their own. This also avoids telling someone they’re wrong when they have some deeply personal reason for believing the nonsense that will offend them to the core. Either they will make that apparent right from the beginning of questioning, or they will avoid giving answers that specifically offend.

    Sometimes though, they bring up some glaringly made-up piece of ‘evidence’ to support their claims. At that point the question is generally “Really?” followed by a google search.

    That is, if the person’s thinking abilities are worth the trouble. Some people just need a one sentence smackdown. Mercury = autism people generally fall under this category.

  43. maudyfish

    Now let’s do one on how people think they can sing when they can’t!!

  44. Miranda

    With my friends, who are very sensitive, this is an extraordinarily difficult balance. If I’m too blunt, they’ll stop coming to me for my opinion on their nonsense and I seem to be the only one inclined to debunk this kind of thing. So the last thing I want to do is scare them off!

    One friend recently cancelled surgery to have her gallbladder removed as treatment for gallstones in favour of a “liver flush”. She is totally on board with the idea of an alternative to surgery and is now angry that her doctors never told her about this other “option”. This horrifies me, because she is endangering her own health for a bunch of total crap. But I ended up taking a softer approach (so she’ll come to me again the next time she does this). I sent her a link to the Mayo clinic site with details about gallstones and how dangerous is can be to leave them untreated and also how minor gallbladder surgery really is. And I sent her another link to a site that offers an alternate view of the liver flush. I suggested to her that she be informed about the pros and cons of each, but in particular that she note the symptoms of a serious gallstone problem and watch carefully for them, “just in case the flush doesn’t work”. I at least got her to accept that surgery might end up being necessary at some point.

    Some friends I can be more direct with (one nicknamed me “Scully” several years ago, and still calls me that when she wants my opinion on something that she knows I will find wonky). The nickname helps lighten the tone of the message a bit when I have to tell her that she’s being an idiot :)

  45. Mango

    Three rules I follow tend to make these things go pretty well:

    1. Be respectful, not condescending.
    2. Be open to the possibility you might be wrong, even when you’re pretty darn sure that you’re not.
    3. Ask questions, avoid firm statements.

    To simplify, treat the other person like a scientist who has an unusual theory you’ve never heard before. Allow them to be clear about what they are saying, make sure you understand it, then gently ask questions about the problems it might entail.

    I might add a fourth rule to the effect of ‘If they start to get annoyed, back away slowly’, but unless you’re actually looking for a fight then that should be common sense.

  46. andyo

    Yikes, I could have used this about a year or so ago. Didn’t know people I was gonna meet were so superstitious, they caught me off guard at a party, and I think I ended up looking like “that smug atheist”. Even the “agnostics” (which they aren’t really) were kind of questioning me on my “atheism”. I should have had ready my (by now) well used line, “yeah, but I’m also an a-unicornist and an unastrologist”.

    Well, there’s this other time at a one-month passing away mass (catholics do that, I guess). When in there, I drew the line at having to kneel. To my surprise they ALL did, but I didn’t (in my country, not everyone kneels, so I was counting on that to pass inconspicuously). After the thing, I got some friendly ribbing from a friend, but knowing these people they probably thought it was disrespectful. I don’t think so, I think it’s less disrespectful if you’re not hypocritical.

  47. James

    I have the central problem that I AM an obnoxcious ass most of the time anyway, without bringing out my vast arsenal of mood-killers.

    This is kind of the reason I’m so harsh to militant athiests… I hate catching myself doing it and I know the vast majority of people I meet just don’t care, so haranguing them for no good reason will just make them dig in harder.

    I really like the idea of finding out the REAL position of the stars at my birth though, reel them off acsention and declination and watch the shallow fools gape …. MUAAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  48. Gonzo

    Allyson’s post was witty and useful. As a side note, I am constantly amazed by what is considered “long” these days.

  49. Sam Ley

    A few of the comments from people who are educators are very insightful.

    For skeptics, I think you have to ask yourself a serious question, that you might not enjoy the answer to. “What is my goal? To be RIGHT? Or to incrementally increase the intelligence and thoughtfulness of society at large?” Usually, these two goals contradict one another.

    If there is one thing humans from all societies, across boundaries of race, culture, creed and nation love to do, its telling other people that they are wrong. I try to avoid the temptation.

    I worked for a number of years in a science museum, doing presentations, demonstrations, exhibit design, etc., and being that it was a fairly “conservative” town (St. Louis), I had many opportunities to speak with people who believed in creationism, believed the moon landings were a hoax, believed in miracles, etc. My goal was very clearly to generally improve the intelligence and critical thinking of the world at large, not to “be right”, so I had to be very careful how I broached subjects like this.

    If you are too hard on people, then they decide that you are a jerk, and stop listening to you. They also make a more broad categorization that people who believe in “science” are generally jerks, and shouldn’t be trusted. You might win the argument, but you lose the war because now they will stop listening to anyone. The result, a slightly less intelligent world.

    Using the socratic method, sharing information a little at a time, and encouraging critical analysis in a gentle way may not be as satisfying when what you really want to do is just say, “YOU’RE WRONG”, but ultimately, it will serve the world better.

  50. Weaver

    I come from a long line of skeptics – critical analysis of urban myths and bad science was a regular topic of conversation at the dinner table while I was growing up. As an atheist, I learned that most times I’m much better keeping my mouth shut during religious discussions – but that the same critical analysis which could be applied to religion could also be applied to “current events” with intellictual challange and a bit of fun for me.

    As I grew up, I found most adults are more tolerant of minority religious views (at least, before 9/11 they seemed to be), but less willing to think critically about such topics as “alternative” medicine, climate change, and the like. I once was banned from a military discussion forum for a short time because of my viewpoing on climate change (always argued from a strictly scientific viewpoint, eschewing politics or solutions, and always with references supporting my assertions – but this was not in keeping with the right-wing conspiracy theories and long-debunked claims of the majority of the board, so I was called out for failing to support the troops. Or something. While I was deployed in Iraq. Anyways …), and have recently become a center of attention again for posting too many double-blind studies which clearly demonstrate that acupuncture is bunk.

    I find it very depressing that even when presented with good scientific evidence, the majority of the populace would rather believe what their favorite TV personality or their neighbor’s aunt told them, rife with anecdotal examples “proving” their points, than to critically examine the issue and seek the real truth.

  51. David D

    I agree with your views completely. Unfortunately, I find that most skeptical sites (incl. this one) have a different view.

  52. Sam Ley


    Thanks, glad you know where I’m coming from! Don’t be too hard on Phil though, he’s a good guy. FSM knows I’ve ranted about vaccines a few times, too!

    There is a bit of a difference between “Skeptic stuff for the general world” and “Skeptic stuff for other skeptics”. I’m a skeptic, and like getting things straight, with no fooling around, and Phil’s writing indulges my desire to be right, and get the facts. So, as something to empower and educate other skeptics, he’s right on.

    The times that it doesn’t seem to work so well is when things intersect the more general world, which, predictably, reacts poorly to being told they are wrong (even if they are, in fact, wrong). One runs the risk of pushing too hard, and inadvertently driving people further from the truth.

    The two goals are tricky to balance. Its good to fire people up about anti-science legislation, but its hard to combine that with a writing style that brings people “one step at a time” toward a more critical analysis of a subject.

  53. This is an area that still concerns me. I never used to worry about arguing almost anything with almost anyone but since becoming more of an “active skeptic”, I’ve come to realise the conviction some people can have and the danger some beliefs can pose. Oddly, this has made it more difficult for me to argue a case though I can’t really explain why.

    I did discover this week that my kids have apparently not yet been taught anything of Darwin or evolution at school. Without prompting, my kids said it was because it up sets the Christian kids. WHAT!!?? This is a small, regional school in Australia, not Texas! I called the Curriculum Council today to find out what the “rules” are and both should be taught something of evolution this year. Hopefully this will avoid the need to have a conversation with the teachers since I wasn’t sure how I was going to approach that. I’ll keep an eye on it though.

    What does throw me is when you think you’ve got someone pegged as a skeptic. You share lots of laughs with them about various woo subjects from psychics to religion to homeopathy then one day you hit on a subject they hold dear and the walls go up and the indignity comes out. Weird.

  54. Jon

    My skepticism has gotten me in trouble before because I spoke my mind before considering that the other person might hold those beliefs. I’ll never forget the day that I came home to my ex girlfriend (hmmm…I wonder why) after perusing the book section at Target and stumbling on the abomination that is “The Secret.” When I got home the first words out of my mouth were to the effect of “I found the most hilariously stupid book today! Those weirdos think that your thoughts create reality!” I’ll never forget the look of anger and annoyance on her face, and even worse the ridiculous amount of reassurance I had to give her that the idea wasn’t utterly ridiculous. It was after that I found out she was into reiki, regularly went to psychics and she’d actually hid a couple Sylvia Browne books from me deep in her closet. Is there any better way to make yourself look better after putting your foot in your mouth like that?

  55. Judging from some of the responses, I think I can make millions on an Atheist/Anti-woo Dating Service.

    Maybe thousands.

    Okay, $14.95 and a sixer of Schlitz.

  56. Isn’t there already one? I’m lucky to have a skeptic wife, so I wouldn’t need it (nor need to google it).

  57. Believe it or not, I’m fairly tolerant of others’ idiotic beliefs (as opposed to my own idiotic beliefs), that is until they start forcing those beliefs on others who have no say in the matter. Making public schools teach nonsense in science classes, compelling government agencies to consider dogma over scientific data…these things harm innocent people, and should never be tolerated.

    I also draw the line at people who willfully ignore contrary evidence when it it is plainly placed in front of them. These are the sort of imbeciles who lead countries into wars for no good reason, or allow their elected officials to lead them into wars, or prevent scientists and science policy makers from doing their jobs because their conclusions don’t match the desired point of view.

    A pox on the lot of them, the more rudely delivered, the better.

  58. Xelander

    You are right that there a lot people in the (so called) 12 step recovery programs who “drink the kool-aid” as it were. I’m sorry that you seemed to have not run into the many people who don’t. I’ve actually met lots of people in AA who are really skeptics, atheist, anti-follow- the- leader folks. Now, don’t get me wrong, they want to stay sober and they see the value of making adjustments and working with the basic 12 step principles, which actually, beleive it or not are flexible enough to encompass any sketpic attitude you might have. It’s kind of funny for me. I find that I’m skeptic of skeptics – I am kind of an empiricist myself and I really haven’t seen where the skeptics attitudes produce any better results. And even they tend to not tell the complete truth or manipulate things to suit them. For instance when you say you’ve seen people move from “…helplessly lost in life to forming a reasonably functional livelyhood…” reasonably functional – dude, I’ve seen people radically alter their freaking lives. You make it sound like this slight subtle shift. Not everyone of course. Many people just stop drinking and go on about repairing some basic things that make life bearable but the rags to riches stories (in various direct and matephoric ways) are endless. And I’m talking about one’s I’ve seen. Not just heard. I’ve been around long enough to have seen people come in and radically change their lives. I’m not saying to stop any questioning or criticism you have. I do it. I just sometimes question the point of questioning – I’m skeptical of the skepticism because though it’s supposed to mean that I’m some superior independent thinker I don’t really see the concrete results of that…they’re all in my head. The quality of life doesn’t reflect it, really.


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