Oct 28 2010

Skeptics Preaching to the Choir

I try to avoid spending too much time talking about skepticism itself. Like any movement or intellectual tradition, we need to self-examine – to step back occasionally and see how we’re doing and talk about strategy. But I try not to get caught up in the “paralysis of analysis” of excessive internal focus.

Having said that, a recent article on the topic of skeptics preaching to the choir deserves a little discussion. Alom Shaha wrote an article for the Guardian called, Skeptics: It’s time to Stop Preaching to the Converted. In the article I think Alom makes some valid points, some questionable points, and offers one good suggestion.

His primary point, mentioned in the title, that skeptics should stop preaching to the converted is not valid, in my opinion. First, he presents a false choice – as if we can do outreach or lecture to fellow skeptics. We can, and should, do both. In fact the goals we have before us are so numerous and challenging that there are many things we need to do simultaneously to move forward. We need to educate, expand, lobby, organize and argue.

I am often offered advice by fellow skeptics about what skeptics “should” be doing, as if there is one valid or best way to promote skepticism. My counter advice is always to consider that this is only one of many valid approaches. And second – if you think it’s such a great idea, go out and do it. The rest of us are busy doing what we think are good ideas.

Further, not only are there many important activities for skeptics to do, lecturing to the converted is definitely one of them. It should not be criticized as a waste of time. Alom’s unstated major premise is that skepticism is a destination. It’s not – it’s a journey (to use a tired but perfect metaphor). There is a role for those who spend their time helping fellow skeptics on their journey toward better understanding and appreciation for the findings and methods of science, the nature of human cognition (so-called metacognition), and the claims and tactics of opponents to science or the promoters of dubious science. And we are learning too. Like any vibrant intellectual movement – everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student (although this relationship is not always symmetrical). The same is true in my medical career – everyone has something to learn and something to teach.

Skeptics talking to each other at gatherings serves the exact same purpose as physicians getting together at a conference – to build community, exchange ideas, collaborate and learn. I don’t see why this activity should be denigrated in any way when skeptics do it. But Alom does, writing:

Don’t like that label but want to show off that you’re super smart and rational? You might want to call yourself a “skeptic” (and make sure you spell it with a “k”). Then you can meet up with other skeptics and nod along with them as someone lectures you in a pub (yes, a pub!) about these things that you already know.

Alom displays the “destination” fallacy here, but also his assumption as to why skeptics gather – to reinforce their own sense of intellectual superiority. I think this is a lazy assumption of elitism, all too common among our critics. I am not denying the community aspect of skeptical meetings. That is definitely part of their appeal. It’s great to meet a bunch of other people that share a basic respect for science and reason, especially since many of us spend large amounts of our life being a little on defense about our skepticism. Alom acknowledges this, and admits to a bit of “skeptic baiting” – but I get the sense he was just trying to take the sting out of the point he wanted to make. The core of his article is saying that skeptics should not waste their time gathering together just to make themselves feel better.

Alom does make a legitimate point is that we do need to keep our eyes on outreach. Yes – we can always do more. But he does a disservice to those of us who are already doing outreach. Writing a blog is outreach – it is out there in the public domain for those who are interested in the topic (not necessarily skepticism) to find. The SGU podcast is outreach. I cannot tell you how many e-mails I have received over the years from people all along the skeptical spectrum saying that they found the movement, or their inner skeptic, through the SGU. Some were on the fence, but we pulled them over. We even get the occasional e-mail from “true-believers” who claim that we pulled them over from the dark side.

DragonCon is outreach. Derek and Swoopy have built a skeptic track in the middle of a large gaming convention specifically to draw in young people who may be predisposed to skepticism but don’t know we exist. And there are many people trying to break into mainstream media. Phil Plait has had success with his Bad Universe series – and let’s hope it get picked up for a long run.

I won’t go on, but suffice it to say there are many hardworking skeptics trying to do outreach. We can do more, and we do need to keep focused on outreach, but it is simply inaccurate to imply that this is not what is already happening within the skeptical movement.

Alom then finally comes to a good suggestion – develop resources to help teach children critical thinking in school. This is a great idea, and definitely an area where we need to put more resources. But Alom is far from the first person to make this suggestion. I have written about that on this blog. Richard Saunders is developing and running a program to teach critical thinking to children. CSI has also, and produced their Magic Detectives book specifically for this purpose. They will even send teachers and schools a critical thinking kit (including the book) to help with such teaching.

It is not enough, and I would definitely like to see a much larger effort in this area. But it would have been nice if Alom did a little due diligence before criticizing the skeptical movement for what he thinks we are not doing and offering an idea that has been floating around for years.

I also file this under the notion that it is easier to point out problems than to think of and execute solutions. Ironically, Alom came off as very preachy and didn’t really offer any new suggestions. I admire his enthusiasm and willingness to focus on strategy, but he should probably engage more with the community to see where we are otherwise he risks treading over old ground as if he is making a new discovery.

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