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The Lonely Skeptic

Hello. This show is what set me on the road to skepticism. I am very grateful for that. My question concerns how to be skeptical when everyone around you isn’t. I go to a small school in the Blue Ridge Mountains outside of Asheville, North Carolina. There is a very strong presence of all kinds of woo. I feel very alone in my skepticism. For example there has been a lot of illness on campus. In all my classes the topic of Airborne comes up and I just want to say, no it doesn’t work, don’t waste your money. The biggest issue by far though is Organic food. it is huge here and there is also a very strong anti-GM vibe. I feel like if I came out as a skeptic in favor of GM food, i’d be crucified and fed to the pigs. I would love any tips or advice on how to handle this situation.
Thank you very much.
Thom Gilligan Asheville, NC

This is a question we get frequently – how to fit in when you feel like you are a lone skeptic in an unskeptical world. Human are a social animal. We want to fit in and feel like we belong. Recently neuroscientists discovered that we have “mirror neurons” – brain cells whose job it is to mimic what we see people doing (and feeling) around us. Anyone who has raised kids has seen first hand the human tendency to copy the actions of others. This is why we have culture – we are all strongly influenced in many ways we are not even aware of by the people around us.

If we don’t fit into the broader culture then there are several common responses: pretend to fit it by hiding your true nature, become a loner, or find a subculture with which you do fit in. Actually there is also a fourth option – try to get people to accept you for who you are. I cannot give specific advice to an individual about exactly what to do if they feel they are a lonely skeptic. There are various strategies to help mitigate the intellectual loneliness, and which ones to use depends greatly on one’s personality and situation. So I will simply discuss several strategies that may help – kind of like an a la carte menu.

The Skeptical Subculture

If you are reading this blog then chances are you are already part of the skeptical subculture. The beauty of our virtually connected world is that no matter where you live, if you have internet access, you can be part of a subculture that you choose. This is why we subtitle the name of our podcast “your escape to reality.” One of the most common e-mail comments we get is thanks for helping lonely skeptics feel connected to the skeptical community. An online community can be active and intimate. In addition there are occasional meetings, like TAM, DragonCon, and our upcoming live recording in Fairfield, CT (October 11th) where you can meet fellow skeptics in person.

Many skeptics either start or participate in a local group of skeptics to host lectures and skeptical meet-up events. Skeptics in the Pub is now a very popular activity with dozens of groups. Being part of a subculture may helpe the feeling of being alone, but it does not deal with the issue of what to do day-to-day if one lives surrounded by those with a very different world-view.

Be True to Yourself

The advice of being true to yourself is old enough to sound trite, but I think that is because it is true. But this is complex in execution. On the one hand, I don’t see the value in pretending to be something you are not just to fit in with people who are different. On the other hand, we all do this to some degree and call it being polite and considerate. We all (well, most of us) filter our thoughts and desires through a social filter (called the frontal lobes) so that our behavior is “proper.”

When an acquaintance or co-worker makes a gullible statement most of us don’t say, “Gads, what a complete idiot. Who operates the appliances in your house?” We may want to say this, but mostly we don’t.

Without a social filter, even the non-skeptic would constantly irritate and piss-off everyone around them. This is actually a common neurological condition – resulting from damage to the frontal lobes. So-called “disinhibition” syndrome is actually quite debilitating, and such people will often alienate everyone in their lives and destroy all their relationships. So how can we be true to our skeptical natures while still filtering our skepticism through a reasonable social filter? I will get to this below.

First I want to emphasize that it is probably not helpful or necessary to completely filter out any skepticism from our behavior. We can and should be true to our skepticism. You may even cultivate a persona of a skeptic – let your family and friends know that you are skeptical in philosophy and what that means. If you treat your skepticism as something to be proud of (and I think it is) then people are more likely to respect it. If you feel you need to hide it, then people will assume it is something of which to be ashamed.

The Friendly Skeptic

There are several strategies for unashamedly defending your skepticism while minimizing irritation and alienation to others. One very effective strategy is, when confronting someone with differing views, first try to find common ground. Emphasize the common ground – it will show that you are reasonable, you don’t have any nefarious hidden agenda, and it will form a bond between you and the other person. For example, when I am discussing unscientific medical modalities with someone who believes in one or more of them, I emphasize that we all just want treatments that are safe and effective. We want the best health care for everyone, even though we may disagree on how to achieve that goal.

When discussing the paranormal, it is useful to point out that you are just as fascinated by such phenomena as the believer is, and that you also want to find the truth. You just want to be careful in your approach to the logic and evidence.

Another effective method is to focus on asking questions. Rather than stating firmly that aliens are not visiting the earth (which is not a scientific conclusion anyway), ask the believer why the aliens would choose to write their messages in corn. Or – if they don’t want to be discovered, why are they flying over large cities with their headlights on.

A good generic question for almost any topic is “how do think that works?”

A related strategy is to engage the other person’s skepticism. Most people have some skepticism – they don’t believe absolutely everything. Ask them what they do not believe in and why. Explore and point out all the skeptical thinking they engage in to justify their non-belief. Ask them why they think other people believe in the thing they do not believe in.

I also find it useful to open up with some raw facts. Rather then say, “That’s not true,” or “I don’t believe that,” you can say – “That’s interesting because I read a study where they looked at ER admissions and crime rates and found no association with the full moon.”  If you don’t have the reference handy, then offer to send them the reference later – and then do it. This way you are not talking about yourself or the other person, just the evidence. This depersonalizes it. You may disagree over the evidence – but that’s a good thing, that’s science and skepticism in action. Focus on the evidence and then talk about what constitutes good evidence and why.

Religion

Religion is always the toughest challenge because emotions run extremely high when it comes to religious faith. How you approach this will depend greatly on your personality, your philosophy with regards to faith and science, your beliefs (skeptics can have faith), your family and your culture. Therefore it is most difficult to give meaningful advice about this.

However, I think good general advice is to focus on tolerance. If other people demand that you tolerate their faith, then it is only reasonable that they tolerate yours (or lack thereof). Taking the “tolerance and respect” approach is useful. Here you need to keep faith separate from any scientific or empirical claims. I am not advising tolerance of antiscientific views simply because they are religious. When confronting a creationist, for example, it is pointless to discuss their faith, or those questions that are not addressed by science. Simply discuss the science. Again this is personal, but for me – I don’t really care what other people believe or have faith in. What I do care about is that scientific arguments are valid, they are internally consistent, logical, and have the facts straight. You can apply all the strategies I gave above to religious belief if you are sticking to the science.

Conclusion

Using the strategies above takes a little practice. It can also take a bit of self-discipline at times. Outrageous nonsense can be irritating. But if you lose your cool, you are likely to fail at any objectives you have in a conversation. How much you confront the beliefs of those around you is a personal choice. I can only tell you that I have chosen to do so without much limit, and I do not find it to be a problem for me. But when you do choose to confront false beliefs and fly your skeptical flags, the strategies above can be helpful.

4 comments to The Lonely Skeptic

  • ThomDG

    Thank you very much Steve. This advice is very helpful. I have been considering starting a Skeptics Group or club of some sort on Campus too. Thank you once again.

  • GreatZamboni

    Thom, are you attending Warren Wilson?

  • tk42

    When someone worries about eating GMOs, I ask what they ate for lunch. If it’s celery, I ask, “Are you worried about all those celery genes you just ate?” DNA in your gut is just AGCT, no matter how it got into the food.

    I have an interesting variant on Thom’s problem. I’m a medical student in a northeastern US city, so I have no problem finding friends who are liberal and scientifically minded. However, a subset of med students on my campus is enthralled with “alternative medicine” and promotes it on campus to a degree I feel is inappropriate. I think I can easily convince the silent majority that, say, naturopathy is silly. But is there any way to reach the true believers who have publicly committed themselves to nonsense? Even more difficult is how I should interact with physician faculty who espouse nonsense. I have no problem tolerating different religious beliefs among my friends, but tolerating my future colleagues’ beliefs about CAM is not morally acceptable to me.

    Dr. Novella, how do you engage CAM sympathizers at Yale?

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