Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Finding that happy median...

I've been informed that this is a pretty good representation of my interactions with others.

As usual, Dilbert contains a kernel of truth - It's very easy for a skeptic to come across as a know-it-all chode. I personally have a severely limited capacity for self-censorship, so I can only imagine that the effect is rather amplified for the poor folks that have to deal with me in person on a regular basis. The Girlfriend in particular suffers under the burden of this aspect of my personality. Immediately coming to mind is an incident from last summer in which I guilelessly gave voice to my disgust when one of her friends, coincidentally a new mother, explained to me that she'd recently had her newborn baby's neck popped by a chiropractor to cure him of his frequent burping and bowel movements.

I'm not always an especially tactful fellow, and I told this woman something to the effect of "babies are made for pooping and burping, and if you're going to let a chiropractor manhandle him then you may as well toss him into the gorilla pit at the zoo." I stand by what I said, but I'll admit that the main point of my message was likely canceled out by the inelegance of my delivery. Subjecting an infant to the quackish antics of a chiropractor is tantamount to child abuse...but I doubt I changed this mother's mind with my snarky comments.

The problem of stalwartly presenting a position while not driving people away with an off-putting tone is a difficult one. Skeptics shouldn't hem and haw when laying out arguments based on essentially settled matters of science (be it the age of the earth, in inefficacy of chiropractic, or the uselessness of horoscopes).1 We should also strive not to present ourselves in such a way as to drive off the undecided masses. Everyone likes to play to their base, and I like a good roasting as much as anyone, but sneering and snark isn't always helpful in winning over new people to your side. On the other hand, winning people over is meaningless if you dilute your facts into oblivion in order to do so.

PZ Myers and Chris Mooney fired many broadside at each other a few months back over this very subject. It began when Mooney wrote in his book Unscientific America that overly abrasive skeptics may be driving the average American towards an anti-science stance with their vitriolic tone. Myers responded with a book review that basically accused Mooney of wanting to water down the facts in order to avoid offending people. This all resulted in a very public pissing match between the two, with skirmishes erupted across the blogosphere as their supporters rallied and railed. The only problem is that both of the were right.

Mooney is 100% correct that the ham-fisted approach can be counterproductive, but Myers is likewise spot-on in his claim that apologizing for the facts or acting like there's a controversy when there really isn't one (i.e. evolution vs. creationism) is misleading and ultimately harmful. 2 A skeptic can fiercely condemn the pseudoscientific without giving the middle finger to everyone who isn't firmly in his camp from the start.

It's not much of an exaggeration to say that the future of skepticism rests largely on effective communication. The charlatans certainly have no problem getting their message to the masses, so skeptics must do the same. Skeptics have the more difficult task, however, because we face a problem the charlatans, hucksters, and fakirs don't: sometimes we must tell people what they don't want to hear. It's easy to get someone to listen to you if you're promising them easy wealth, eternal youth, or a posthumous paradise. Convincing people to give up those "comforting delusions" isn't nearly so simple.

I propose that the goal all skeptics must strive for is to lay out our positions strongly and with no undue equivocation, but to do so without breathing fire and driving away the people who might hear us out. This goal is certainly attainable - look at the writings of Carl Sagan or Martin Gardner - but it doesn't come easily. I've been writing this blog for years now and I still don't always hit the tone I want. Until then I just have to work on finding that happy median.

1.) Neither should we feign certainty about matters that are not yet so clear-cut.
2.) Bluntness has its place as well. The "New Atheist" movement has used very direct, aggressive argumentation to send to pasture certain sacred cows that deference and circumspection would have been ill-equipped to handle. It's a matter of using the right tool for the right job.


Jay said...

Well said, Skippy.

martha said...

You did a good job with tone on this post.

My problem is slipping too far towards the edge of being too accommodating.

I do try to judge my audience and think about what I am trying to accomplish. For example, my sister and spouse are very religious. I tread carefully around my sister and she me as we care for each other. My spouse and I are on the verge of divorce over the religion issue as treading carefully has not worked well.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

Thanks for the kind words, Martha. Religious differences can be almost ridiculously divisive, can't they?

I'm also sorry that it took something like 2 weeks for me to get around to adding your post. This whole comment moderation thing may not be working out...