Skeptical passion

By Phil Plait | September 3, 2009 10:00 am

Recently, I spoke at Gnomedex, a tech conference, about online skepticism. A little bit of my talk (along with others) was covered on PBS’s Media Shift blog.

My friend and skeptic D. J. Grothe from the Center for Inquiry posted an article on his blog about my appearance at Gnomedex — apparently, my talk was covered on the CNN live stream! Wow. I wonder how many people saw that?

And in fact that’s a legit question. During a break at Gnomedex I went into the lobby to grab some coffee. I was chatting to a couple of attendees, and they complimented me on the presentation I gave. One of them said something that made me laugh a tad ruefully: he said that he wasn’t all that interested in skepticism, but found that he liked the talk and became interested because of my enthusiasm.

I’m not saying this to brag (because I would never ever ever do that; I’m terribly modest about my overwhelming awesomeness) but because I think it’s a critical point. Sure, in my talk, I defined what skepticism is and what it isn’t. And I also hammered home the idea that skepticism is not a room filled with a bunch of angry, aging, white, balding and bearded men dismissing claims and deciding what’s right and wrong — skepticism is a dynamic process that everyone can and must do, it’s a way of looking at the world that keeps things from fooling us.

Skeptics and scientists have a major PR problem. People think we’re all humorless, cold and without passion. But that’s completely wrong! We run the spectrum: we’re happy, sad, angry, interesting, boring, awkward, calm, confident, silly, serious, smart, smarter — just like any group. We’re people. I think that gets lost somewhere between us and the people we’re talking to.

I’m really not any smarter or harder working or anything like that compared to your average active skeptic. But one thing I do is that I let my passion show. I love this stuff: I love science, I love understanding things, I love the process of figuring things out.

But the more general point I want to make here is that I spoke from my own passion. Anyone who’s read this blog for more than ten seconds knows how I feel about antivaxxers, for example. So when I was on stage, I made sure that came through.

I talked about groups like JREF and CfI that do top-down skepticism; professional organizations that put on big conferences, create magazines, host bulletin boards, and so on. But I really stressed bottom-up grassroots work, things like Skepchick (well, they’re on the cusp of grassroots versus big lumbering professional group), Robert Lancaster, Skepticamp, and so on.

And looking over the list of groups (both big and small) I showed, it hit me why they’re successful: they’re passionate. This passion may come out as humor, or concern, or anger, but the point is these sites are fun to read and these groups are connecting to people because they let that passion show. I read (past tense) far too many sites and blogs that phoned it in, and those don’t last long in my feed reader. If you want my attention, you need to show me that you’re worth it.

And you do that by showing me that you think it’s worth it.

So a little free advice to people out there trying to make a point: Let it fly. But remember, passion is a necessary but not sufficient component of any argument. After all, Apollo deniers are passionate, as are antivaxxers. So you need a lot more than that to actually make your point — you’ll need the evidence to back it up, and you’ll need a rhetorical style that isn’t like nails on a blackboard.

But passion is a good place to start. It’s where inspiration comes from, and people will respond to it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: About this blog, Skepticism

Comments (32)

  1. Color me confused.

    It is my opinion that MythBusters have been the greatest advocates for skepticism in the past few decades. Without hyperbole, *everybody* has heard of them.

    Perhaps the public doesn’t realize that they’re skeptics in the way that they should realize that they’re skeptics?

    Get *that* message home and you’ve won.

    Mythbusters are skeptics. Skepticism is, indeed, quite cool. QED.

    (PS, and edited to add, yes, your awesomeness knows no bounds, and continues to expand like the Universe, fueled not by dark energy but, instead, by the innate nature of the awesomeness, itself, yadda yadda yadda)

  2. Mikey

    Update the Robert Lancaster link to

  3. There is not enough evidence in the world to sway a passionate person. This is what I call passion without wisdom.

    There are simply going to be some people in the world who are anti-vaxxers, or Apollo deniers. Should we waste time on them? Or should we spend more time educating the outlets and others who are more inclined to have open minds and an earnest interest in how things work?

  4. Reggie

    Excellent post, Phil. I agree with your points, although I was skeptical at first. I’m still angry and white, though.

  5. Beelzebud

    Here’s my confession.

    I was first exposed to actual skepticism on the Art Bell show during one of your appearances. Back then I shamefully had bought into many Richard C. Hoagland nonsense. I then started reading, and before long I found myself questioning many things I was hearing on Art Bell’s show.

    Later that same year, I was watching Cosmos, and it rekindled a fire that had gone out since my childhood. I started reading Sagan’s books, and when I finished Demon Haunted World, my life was changed. That book sang to my heart. It let me realize that reality is so complicated, wonderful, and beautiful, that you don’t need to make up things to make it seem interesting.

    I thank you, Phil. You were the first baby steps in me ‘waking up’. Going on shows like Art Bell isn’t a waste of time, because I’m sure there are people like me out there, with a mind open enough to accept reality.

  6. L O'Neill

    I concur…well written.

  7. Jay

    Superb and eloquently stated, Phil.

    True, some folks will never be swayed, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

  8. Greg

    I know naming things is useful, but in this case I wish there were no name for “skepticism.” I think it hurts the cause. By naming it you take it away from everyone, where it belongs, and turn it into something with the appearance of being only for a few “nerds” who get together at meetings, etc.

    Not only that, but so much of what “skeptics” do is directly related to fighting with the nuts that I feel this too pigeon holes “skepticism” as just another (extreme) point of view in the eyes of the many.

    It shouldn’t be about facing down the nuts. It should simply be about keeping people informed and always speaking the truth. We don’t need a name for that!

  9. Hmm..

    Happy – check
    Sad – well, sometimes. check.
    Angry – only when UFO and religion nuts get my dander up. check.
    Interesting – errr…
    Awkward – check.
    Calm – ha!
    Confident – check. check.
    Silly – check. check. check.
    Serious – check.
    Smart – hm. check?
    Smarter – only than the average UFO nutter. check.

    I guess that’s why I like Dr. BA’s blog. (‘cept when he chews me out for being a twit.)

  10. @kuhnigget

    Angry – only when UFO and religion nuts get my dander up. check.

    Don’t forget the creationists/biblical literalists that don’t know their biblical history.

  11. MHS
  12. BJN

    I’m reality-based and therefore skeptical, but I don’t care to identify myself as a “skeptic”. That implies spending too much time fretting over what other people believe and an apparent need to delude oneself that you can change beliefs in a meaningful way. If you don’t have that delusion, then you likely enjoy being cranky and annoyed by other people’s woo beliefs.

  13. Metre

    I agree with Greg (#8) and BJN (#12) in that “Skeptic” is a poor choice of words. It conjures up images of grumpy old men. In fact, we are “realists” or, as BJN puts it, “reality-based”. We simply believe that the real universe is awesome as it is.

  14. Gnomedex? Are we talking your average garden Gnomes here, or your passionate skeptical Gnomes?

  15. Cheyenne

    People that are self-described Skeptics really, really like to use that word – a lot. “As a quite skeptical skeptic I would like to mention that my skepticism blah blah blah…..”. I’d be a little concerned that the word is getting a little played out is all. Just my two cents.

  16. @ Todd:

    Angry – only when UFO and religion nuts get my dander up, and when creationists/biblical literalists don’t know their biblical history, and when Todd picks on me. check.

  17. Arthur Maruyama

    BA: please correct your link to Robert Lancaster’s site on Sylvia Brown which is now:
    Unfortunately his old page to which you link (currently) is one of those holding pages which has links to Sylvia Brown’s actual site and other psychics.

    And people shouldn’t forget his first skeptics site about “Dr. Kaz”:

  18. 9. 9. kuhnigget Says:
    Interesting – errr…

    Still hiring for the lunar spa?


    As for Skepticism, my father was born in St. Louis, thus was ‘from Missouri’, AKA the “show me” state. Learned quite a bit of skepticism from him, and had it reinforced from a lot of reading, etc. with Carl Sagan being one of the writers, along with Joseph Campbell on the history/religion side.

    Plus, one of the first things I discovered when I started reading and that there was this wonderful place called “the Library” was Science Fiction… where all kinds of outre ideas were explored, and another way of looking at current events by projecting the ideas and debates into another ‘world’.


  19. One of the funniest skeptics out there is Ricky Gervais. If you’ve ever listened to his podcast or read his interviews you’ll know he’s very much a skeptic, and yet hysterically funny about it. If you’re compiling a list. :-)

  20. What #8 said!

    The problem with skepticism (as a word) is that it places you on to the same playing field as the nutters. While this is not attractive to me, I see the value in the attempt, especially where dangerous kooks like anti-vaxers are concerned. But for moon-hoaxers, is there really any value in swaying them? I mean, they’re not hurting anyone, right? Maybe disrespecting, but not hurting.

    It seems more constructive (and less confrontational) to strive toward more and better understanding of the earth & the universe than to get in a scrum with some close-minded individuals who cannot see further than the tips of their noses, and simply let the chips fall where they may. But then I don’t live in Texas, so I’m a little less passionate about the cause.

  21. Caleb Jones

    It’s always important to remember that any large group of people is going to most likely have the full human spectrum in it. Religion, science, politics, countries, states, communities, etc. If you look, you’ll probably be able to find the kind of person you’re looking for.

    That’s why when you meet people from a different background it’s important that you look for the good in that person/group. There will always be bad to find as well.

    Remember: “No matter what side of the argument you are on, you always find people on your side that you wish were on the other.” –Jascha Heifetz

    I think bad perception of skeptics comes from skeptics who constantly focus on what they don’t like in others or what they see wrong with others. This is the wrong way to engage in dialogs and debates with others since it causes people to become defensive which shuts down the communication.

    Likewise, people who judge all skeptics based on the negative experience with only a few are just as much in error.

    I like this quote from Pascal:
    “When we wish to correct with advantage and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.

    People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.”

  22. Rich Courtright

    Great article Phil. You just need to fix the link to Robert Lancaster’s site. You’ve got it going to a bad link – correct link is:

  23. I prefer to think of myself as a teacher/educator, but that requires a lot of skepticism to do well.

  24. Barry

    I think the general public think of skeptics as those who “won’t believe”, rather than those who simply say “show me the evidence”. In this sense we are as bad, in their eyes, as the extremist nutters that we oppose.
    Pity there isn’t another name we can use.
    It’s a bit like the word “chemical”, which nowadays implies nasty, synthetic, toxic. It’s difficult to persuade a lay person that water is a chemical!

  25. @Barry

    Pity there isn’t another name we can use.

    Well, there’s the term that James Randi (IIRC) came up with: Bright. I’m a bright. He’s a bright. She’s a bright. Wouldn’t you like to be a bright, too?

  26. 26. Todd W. Says:

    Well, there’s the term that James Randi (IIRC) came up with: Bright.

    Nope… and I knew it wasn’t Randi, but I had to look it up: The Brights movement is a social movement that aims to promote public understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic world view. It was co-founded by Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell in 2003


    Personally, when I read about it (Free Inquiry?) I thought it was a ‘less than bright’ idea

  27. wackyvorlon

    Honestly, people are getting entirely too hung up on language here. These words only have meaning because of the way they are used. If skeptic is used more and more in a positive light, the perception changes. Look at the word geek, that used to be considered an insult.

  28. JP

    It’s funny how emotions often contradict logic…like the coffee break guy. Since most people (at least one’s I know) aren’t skeptic, they’re easily swayed by a confident and passionate claim, even if it’s easily proved wrong. Non-skeptics are often easily manipulated…and that’s what sells political agendas and “as seen on TV” products (Sham-Wow anyone?).

  29. Floyd

    JP: Sham-wows are just synthetic chamois, and they do work as advertised (someone gave us some for Christmas last year), but aren’t much better than the other synthetic chamois available for years. Just sayin’…


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