This question was posed by Beth in our first SkepticInk podcast and I hope I don’t steal the thunder from another podcast.
I use skepticism and science to fight pseudoscience, anti-science, and people who will believe anything if a friend posts it on facebook. I’ll agree that I’m not the most tactful person and in a bad mood (which is more often than I like to admit), I can be rather rude. Perhaps I do turn people off.
By and large the people I deal with are not fence sitters, that is people who are willing to listen to evidence and consider it. I am perfectly capable of being very polite and I am a great instructor. As long as the people I’m talking to are actually learning.
But the people I deal with are the hard core anti-science believers. You can review the comment thread on one of my most popular posts and see what I’m talking about. These are people that will not be convinced. They are not interested in learning, but in preaching… and condemning.
Beth’s question though was about these people. They have their dogma, their beliefs. Whether is be creationists who believe in god so much that evolution is a “lie straight from the pit of hell” to the anti-vaxxer and anti-GMO proponent who really belief that extremely well researched and very, very useful products are going to kill everyone. This dogma can include financial incentive, emotional impacts, and even family coercion. It can even be someone who just thinks that they are an expert in a field and are proud of their “knowledge”, even though it’s wrong.
As a skeptic and a promoter of logic, evidence, and reality, what can I offer people in return when I try to strip them of these tightly held, comfortable, important belief systems?
It’s not unlike taking a wealthy person and telling them that their entire wealth is based on promoting wars or slavery in Africa or killing baby seals. It’s hard to give up that comfort, even when you feel obligated by morality or correctness. Of course, it would be impossible if one didn’t care how the money was acquired, as long as it was acquired.
What could you possibly offer a person in that situation that would make them feel better about throwing away everything that they believe, everything that they trust, and a worldview based on something is simply wrong?
I offer the truth, the best truth that we know of. A truth based on evidence. A truth, as uncomfortable, scary, and painful as it is, that is also amazing, stunning, and more importantly real.
There is a book I quite like called There Will be Dragons. The author is an utter jerk and very belligerently conservative (and VERY misogynistic). Anyway, the story is that humans of the future live in a hedonistic paradise. There is plenty of energy, nanotech and AIs can create anything one desires. You could be anything you want (including merfolk living underwater in the reefs), do research in the photosphere of the sun, create role-playing games that really exist where you battle orks all day long.
Then some stuff happens and all the nanobots and energy go away. People are left to fend for themselves. Instead of just calling up a 5-star dinner, they have to go out and learn to grow corn and hunt. Injuries are not cured nearly instantly by medical nanomachines. Now, a lost limb, is lost.
One of the main characters says that he sometimes wakes up and forgets that he’s in this fallen time and calls out to his robotic butler for coffee and breakfast. And then he remembers what his reality is now… and those are some pretty sucky days. But if everything came back to the way it was. He would miss the world that he lived in now, because it was real. The things he did every day mattered. It was just games for fun. Learning blacksmithing as a hobby because he was bored. But it was a matter of survival. And if he could wake up in his fancy home and have a multi-course breakfast and travel anywhere in the world… he would still remember this period that was “real” and those would be some sucky days too.
The point is that our world isn’t always an awesome place. We can’t make people be nice or even think for themselves. But this world and the sciences that we have are real. And it’s truly amazing to get up in the morning and have the latest issue of science in my inbox and read what has been discovered in the last few years.
What wonders we have created. And yes, horrors too. Humans excel at horror. As Maria pointed out an individual human can be very, very smart. But as a group, humans don’t always make the best decisions.
Perhaps K in Men in Black said it best:
A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.
And that’s the point I’m trying to get across. What will we know tomorrow? What wonders will be discovered… or debunked tomorrow?
Reality is hard. It takes a lot of effort to accept it, understand it (as much as we ever can), and live in it.
Skeptics don’t generally have the dogma of religion to comfort us. Some skeptics have lost friends and family due to their skepticism. But they have gained something that no amount of good feelings, tea parties, sermons, and horrid logic can change.
They have gained the ability to learn. To see reality. To accept that even they might be wrong about something and to change their minds when presented with good evidence.
Speaking personally, I can’t understand how any woman or non-white could vote for a Republican candidate for office. I can’t understand how anyone could remain a member of the Catholic religion knowing that their tithes are being used to hide child predators from the law. I can’t understand how people are willing to destroy their homes, their loved ones, people they don’t know, their country, or the entire planet… just to protect their own biases.
Maybe I can’t even offer the truth. Maybe the only thing I can offer is another idea. Whether you choose to accept that idea or not, the fact remains that the idea is out there. A person can ignore those ideas. A person can accept them. Or that person can do the work that I’ve put into those ideas and come to their own conclusion.
If their conclusion is supported by evidence and logic. Then it’s a valid conclusion. I may disagree with it, but I can accept it. And no, Intelligent Design is not a valid conclusion supported by evidence and logic.
I’ve often said that I don’t have beliefs. And I often fudge that by saying that I have evidence for the things I believe in. But I think I do have one belief.
I believe that if everyone thought this way. If everyone was skeptical, not taking claims at face value, not promoting dogma, and saying “I don’t believe you.” Then our world would be a better place. If two countries argued over how best to keep their people from dying and how to help the world instead of what they argue about now, then our world would be a better place.
If people, everyone, would make informed decisions instead of basing their decisions on family tradition or what their personal authority said or a ancient text about how to live in the Bronze Age, then our world would be a better place.
And that’s what skepticism can offer.
Not a better world for me or you or the Koch brothers. But a better world for everyone. Think about what we could do if every countries defense budget could be spent on science and health and helping our fellow human beings (and other passengers on this spaceship Earth) instead of killing them.
It’s a nice thought and one that I think is worth the effort to make.
1. I don’t use iTunes, but it’s supposed to be there. Subscribe to podcasts on iTunes and use this URL http://www.podcastgarden.com/podcast/podcast-rss.php?id=4397
2. What’s sad is the posts that I slap together in 10-15 minutes are often much more frequently read than the articles I pour days of effort into.
3. I hesitate to even mention it, but it’s relevant. However, I won’t link to the book, even though it’s available for free in many places. This book is the only one I recommend, his other works are… disgusting.
4. I’m pretty good about mentioning when I haven’t fully thought through something. And I’m pretty good at mentioning how much work is needed to study other ideas.