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Family And The Holiday Season

The “Holiday Season” (for us in the USA, that means Thanksgiving through New Years Day) is a time in which many of us will be seeing our extended families over the next five weeks. As my wife, Jennifer, and I are the only skeptics in our extended families, there is a certain level of disconnection that exists between us and our families, especially when it comes to our families understanding what skepticism is all about. Almost everyone else in our family falls on a scale. At one end, they don’t care at all about being skeptical of pseudoscientific claims, and on the other end, they don’t have a clue about how science works.

This can be frustrating to a skeptic, such as myself, because many people in my extended family I consider to be intelligent and bright people. However, they so regularly fall for claptrap and nonsense, almost as if they are actively trying to be as unskeptical as possible. By profession, the people in my extended family consists of doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants, successful business people, and so on. Among the things that these people believe include the existence of ghosts, UFOs, and bigfoot. One of them practices homeopathy. One of them has abandoned scientific medicine for alternative methods of being “cured.” Some of them claim to be psychic. One claims psychic ability with animals. Another with plants. Several of them regularly pay psychics for their services. They consult both astrologers and tarot card readers. Some of them believe in the power of feng shui. At least one of them believes in alien abductions. And as sure as the holiday season comes every year, I will be seeing many of these people and engaging in conversations with them about all sorts of things, the paranormal included. What is a critical thinker to do when forced into the social arena with an unskeptical family, especially during the holiday season?

Over the years I have developed a sort of personal survival guide to the holiday season meetings and conversations with the members of my family. As I am sure that some of you find yourselves in a similar situation as mine, here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind as you sip your eggnog in the company of some of your more gullible family members:

1) Try not be confrontational. When I am approached by the family member that wants to tell me about the remains of an alien spacecraft being held at Area 51, I will say “Oh, where did you learn that?” They’ll tell me about a book they read, or a series of articles on the Internet, and I’ll reply again by saying “Oh, that’s interesting.” They’ll continue to blather, I’ll nod politely, and limit my interjections. With any luck, your apparent lack of interest in discussing the subject with them will become apparent.

2) Try to employ quick conversation changes. After they try to further convince me of their belief in the mythology surrounding Roswell, I’ll come back with something like “Oh, New Mexico, that’s near Arizona. Did you see the Arizona Cardinals football game last week?” Make sure you phrase your topic change in the form of a question, that way they are compelled to reply to the question. And if you are extra quick on your feet, you can throw in an additional conversation change on the heels of the original change. For example, after they tell me that they did not see the Arizona Cardinals game last week, I’ll come back with “I saw it on television, in high definition, of course. Have you seen this year’s line of HDTV sets?” See? Now I’m two subjects removed from the original conversation. Hopefully, I’ve turned the conversation around enough by now that I won’t be forced to endure the Roswell nonsense again.

3) Humor as a means of deflection. Lets say that they are persistent, and they come back to the Roswell propaganda again. They will say something like ” So getting back to Roswell, isn’t it interesting how the government to this day refuses to acknowledge blah blah blah..” I’ll try to come up with something light and witty such as “Gee, when did the government become so competent?” Ha ha ha … we share a laugh, and hopefully, mercifully, the conversation will cease or change.

4) Spill your drink a bit. As they try to tell you that the Roswell incident is just one of many alien cover-ups by the US government, tilt your glass ever so slightly and spill a bit of your drink on the ground or the table. Not too much – you don’t want to cause any damage to the rug – but then you can say “Oops!” and start to search around for a towel or some napkins. Clean up the little spill and then (this is important) get up and walk away with the wet towel or napkins to dispose of them in another room. With a little luck, the person will have moved on to a conversation with someone else while your tidying up.

5) Keep your cell phone on and in reach. So they’ll be telling me about how the materials of the crashed saucer stored at Area 51 are so advanced (folks, I am not making any of this up – a person in my family has engaged me on this subject several times before!) and with my right hand I’ll sip my drink, and I’ll nod my head, while casually, I’ll reach down to my belt with my left hand, and hit the volume adjustment on my cell phone. It will make a “ringing” sound, and I’ll say “excuse me”, answer my phone and say “Hello? Oh, yes, is everything all right?” Then I’ll tell my family member “excuse me I have to take this call”, and I’ll walk away pretending to talk on my cell phone. Sure its dishonest, perhaps a bit rude, but its almost always a safe way out of almost any unpleasant conversation.

Please do not mistake this advice as a disliking of anyone in my family. I really do enjoy their company when they are not trying to impress their personal beliefs and delusions upon me.  It is because I do care about my extended family that I choose not to take a confrontational or corrective stance about their paranormal mumbo jumbo during the holiday season.

18 comments to Family And The Holiday Season

  • I take the opposite approach – I challenge and friends or family directly, being as confrontational as I can be. You can still be polite – avoid any ad hominems, avoid talking down , denigrating them personally, and avoid questions of faith, except to identify them as such. Also, I make it a point (at least I try to remember to) to point out the things that I agree with or that are correct.

    But then I don’t pull my punches. I try as hard as I can to utterly destroy any nonsensical beliefs and correct myths and misconceptions. My friends and family have learned that if you are going to be in my presence and spout nonsense you will be challenged to defend yourself.

    Honestly, it’s not as bad as you think – try it out. Sure, you ruffle some feathers – but think about it. If your family and friends love you, they will love you as you are – a skeptic. If they are not going to love you because they are gullible jerks and you are an outspoken skeptic, then screw them. But seriously, anyone you care about is not going to hate or abandon you because you stick up for what you believe. They may actually respect you.

  • Jon Blumenfeld

    I’m closer to Steve than to Evan. I’ll start out with “that’s interesting” and then try to direct the conversation to “but if that’s true, then that means…”

    I TRY to engage, get them thinking. For example, Chiropractic. My sister went to a chiropracter, and afterward she felt better. I said something like the following:

    1. I’m glad you feel better
    2. I know that some studies show that chiropractic manipulation is about as good for pain as regular physical therapy
    3. What worries me about Chiropractic is that it’s based on the vitalistic theory of innate intelligence and subuxations, which can only be detected by Chiropracters. Personally, I’d rather go to somebody grounded in commonly held reality
    4. Lots of Chiropracters make claims about being able to cure all kinds of diseases and other conditions not related to back pain, and they try to get you to sign up for ongoing treatment.

    Sure enough, my sister’s Chiropracter started to talk about all kinds of crazy stuff, including getting the kids in for manipulation instead of vaccination. She stopped going to him. I like to think that my conversation had a positive effect on the situation.

    The best thing you can do is be prepared. And some people simply will not engage – another relative of mine told me that she had acupuncture, that she felt an energy blockage being cleared up, and I shouldn’t even try to tell her that it was something else. End of conversation, pretty much.

    OTH, my family is pretty skeptical in general…

  • Jon Blumenfeld

    It’s ‘chiropractor’ not ‘chiropracter,’ isn’t it?

  • I have a mix of the two styles. When I’m with my family, I might avoid a touchy subject and let everyone talk it out. Then when I get home I hop on the internet, research whatever they were saying and make a blog post about it or send out an email explaining any flaws in the reasoning I remember.

  • I agree with Steve in general, with the exception of the timing of the year – the holiday season.

    I spend the majority of the year constantly correcting my family, sometimes very harshly, like in the case of my relative that decided to go off their meds for their auto-immune diusease becasue they didn’t like the side effects – they’re seeing a naturopath for their condition now, last I heard.

    I used the example of the Roswell person because its more of a light hearted case, one that lends itself to some humor. But in the serious cases, such as alternative health claims, my approach is “no nonesense 24/7”. I’ll always be honest with my family about my views, and if they ask me direct questions, I give them direct answers. But its much more often the case that they like to hear themselves talk about their favorite form of woo out loud – they’re not even really asking questions of me, just blathering.

    And I never have, nor ever will, have a fear of being loved by anyone in my family. Its not something I’m concerned about at all.

  • DLC

    Some of my relatives are so certain in their delusions that they will brook no argument on the subject. It does not matter what the subject is.
    I have one relation who is adamantly certain that she was an alien princess in a previous life.
    (yes, you read it right.) She is so far gone into her new-age nonsense that she will not listen to even the slightest critique of her completely irrational belief structure. In this case, I do not attempt to reason with them, as it is a wasted effort. But, otherwise I try help my family with a dose of rationality when I can.

  • MDH

    I must have it pretty good. There don’t seem to be any conversations about nonsense at my family’s gatherings. Actually, over the weekend I was very happy and surprised when my Grandfather told me he’s probably an atheist.

  • GreatZamboni

    It’s funny for me because, back in high school, I convinced my parents of all sorts of conspiracy nonsense. Now they’re on and on about Big Pharma and are into alt-med, and when I try to give them accurate information, they accuse me of being a sophist or a dupe. I guess I have only myself to blame.

  • James Fox

    I have to admit that one of my most used holiday phrases is “what absolute twaddle”. I plan on being more polite after I retire.

  • Steve Page

    I definitely prefer to confront people about their in(s)ane thoughts, although I do make allowances for the situation; for example, at my grandmother’s funeral this year, I sat through all sorts of drivel being propounded by the vicar (“There’s more evidence for Jesus than there is for Caesar” being one choice example), but after the service, my mother asked me if I thought it was good (phrased as “I thought the service was really good? Did you?”!). I thought on my feet and told her that I enjoyed hearing things about my grandmother’s early life that I was unfamiliar with and deflected the question; it was, in those circumstances, the wrong time to have a debate about skepticism and religion, given that my mother was burying her mother. However, on another less emotionally charged occasion, I’ll gladly have that conversation (and indeed, I have); it’s just a case of picking the right time, IMO.

    I have another funeral to attend this Friday – an uncle in good health died unexpectedly, aged 61, so again I’ll have to listen to bundles of “He’s in a better place now” and “God works in mysterious ways”. Again, I’ll be as diplomatic as possible and save the debating for another day, for no other reason than I believe that it’ll be more productive.

  • thenumberthirteen

    If i’m in one of those situations I like to take the theatrical approach.

    1. Say “Excuse me for a moment”
    2. Rise out of your seat (If standing go to 3)
    3. Throw smoke bomb to the floor while laughing manically
    4. Leap out nearest window before the smoke clears

    Works every time

  • […] Christine Herron wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptThe “Holiday Season” (for us in the USA, that means Thanksgiving through New Years Day) is a time in which many of us will be seeing our extended families over the next five weeks. As my wife, Jennifer, and I are the only skeptics in … […]

  • Jim Shaver

    Last year during a family gathering, I was playing a quiz game with my daughter and said something like, “Dowsing, true or false?” When I told her the answer, boy did that piss off my aunt and my mother-in-law. They scolded me about how I have no business saying something isn’t real when I wasn’t there to see what their dowser did for them, blah, blah, blah. I did say something about the ideomotor effect, which I’m pretty sure they took as an insult, but I basically backed quietly out of the fray.

    Fifteen minutes later, I caught my aunt more or less alone and asked her to select one of the playing cards I was holding face-up. When she did, I showed her the backs of the other cards, which were all red, and asked her to turn her card over. Its back was blue. At least that is how the effect appeared to her, because I had performed some slight of hand.

    Then I said, “That was practically impossible, yet you witnessed it first-hand. Maybe what you saw was not exactly what really happened.” I’m not saying she accepted my demonstration as a meaningful challenge to her belief. But it did make me feel better. (^_^)

  • GreatZamboni

    Smooth, Mr. Shaver. Smooth like Randi. \m/

  • Horse

    When I’m in these type of situations I never find the need to be harsh or confrontational. Here’s what I do when someone begins a conversation about some supernatural or pseudoscience topic.

    I respond with, “Really, everything I’ve read goes against that. Explain to me how it works from your perspective.”

    After they go through their thought process and explain to me the topic I’ve had enough time to pull together what I know on the topic and I return it to them with, “well, here’s what I’ve been able to find out on this topic.”

    By being genuine and fairly nice about it, I’ve actually debunked and changed a lot of how my relatives and friends think.

  • calaisordover

    After Thanksgiving dinner this year some of my family were sitting around talking. I guess I should first mention that they are all very devote Christians. My sister’s boyfriend started getting into this speech about how global warming was going to make all of the plants on earth dry up and all of the ocean water evaporate. I interrupted him and tried to explain how if the water from the ocean evaporated it would create rain and not dry out all of the plants, and how global warming is likely to cause increased rain and snow in some areas, not just dryness. Little did I know that he was building up an argument for global warming being the mechanism by which God will destroy the world, fulfilling the prophecy in Revelation of the earth being consumed by fire.

    In reply to my attempt to explain some of the science behind global warming my sister said, “Yeah, but that’s just science. We’re talking about God.” My husband later overheard her telling my mom she thinks I’m an atheist because I talk so much about science.

    These kind of conversations happen all the time. My attempts at making an argument based on reason and scientific evidence have damaged my relationships with my family members. It’s sad but true. I think I’ll try to use some of Evan’s tactics next time.

  • Andrew Walsh

    This year I have been trying to reconcile the conundrum of teaching my two young children critical and rational thinking, whilst at the same time “deceiving” them about the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and so on.

    I almost wrote to SGU for advice, but I have since come to realise that fantasy is a crucial element in children’s development. It is a fundamental survival skill they need to deal with all the information that they receive, and how the cope with the emotional challenges they face daily.

    In fact, I strongly suspect the parental inspired fantasies of Santa, Tooth Fairy etc have evolved as part of the cognitive processes necessary in forming a scientific mind in young children. Children are natural scientists, and they are always asking “why”, and if they can’t find an acceptable reason “why” then they imagine a theory to explain it. Imagination is a vital component to being a scientist. The trick to being a fully fledged scientist is to learn the skills of how to test your imagined theory, and how to let it go if the evidence shows that you were wrong.

    Parents give to children ideas of mythical beings and magic, and children will not only accept these ideas but build on them to explain other phenomena they encounter. For example, recently my 4 year old was impressed that pushing a button on a microwave opened the door. Excitedly she exclaimed “Look Daddy, the door opens when I push this button. Magic must do it”. She was attempting to form a theory to explain something she found interesting. The true mechanism would be too complicated for her age, so a simple explanation (magic) will do fine for now. The important point here is that she formed a theory, and she had available to her some knowledge (the concept of magic) with which to explain it. So she put the two together. If she didn’t know about magic, she would simply have asked me why did the door open, and if I had given her the true answer she would not have been satisfied, because from her point of view being a 4 year old it would be too complicated to understand.

    Children will obviously accept the “theory”, or premise, that a mythical being will deliver gifts, since after all it’s not only a demonstrable fact (the gifts do appear) but it’s also in the children’s interest to believe. To not believe is to let go of the gifts. And that’s where the major step in a child’s development is. Parents who practice the fantasy of Easter Bunny/Tooth Fairy/Santa Claus and any other childhood beings know that at a certain age the “trick” is revealed to the children, and the children then have to let go of the fantasy, or from the child’s point of view, the gift-giving-being. This is an important part of growing up and learning that the theory you had was wrong, and that you have to look back at the evidence you used to support your theory and re-evaluate it. The parents should explain how the trick was done. Thus, children learn to critically assess anymore evidence of fantastical beings (or ideas) they might then encounter.

    My oldest child is 7 and is intelligent enough to start thinking more logically, so I’m teaching her about magic “tricks”, optical illusions and how people fool themselves, or worse are fooled by others. Also, both her and her younger sister are fans of Mythbusters. They love to do “experiments”. My oldest is starting to form questions about such things as Santa, identifying some of the inconsistencies in the “Santa theory”, and she forming theories to explain them. If I’m really lucky she will figure out that the whole thing is a scam, and I know she will revel in busting the myth, as will I watching the process unfold.

    So it is possible to be a skeptic and a parent. Phew!

  • Imperius Rex

    Evan’s approach is evidence of his being a nice guy.

    One of the benefit’s to Steve’s approach is that after one sound shellacking at his hands, the nonsense spouting individual(s) typically refrain from engaging in that level of discourse at family functions in the future. Unfortunately most people do not have Steve’s memory and imminently logical approach when these situations arise, so often the less stressful solution is Evan’s approach.

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