TAM London – How should Skeptics debate?

One of the strands at this year’s #TAMlondon was the question of how strident should skeptics be? Tim Minchin referred to this as the question of tone.

P Z Myers argued (calmly, kindly, almost sweetly) for anger, ridicule and truth. D J Grothe by contrast put it to us that we should be both rationalists and humanists, that we have to be good about being right, because being right by itself is not enough. Melinda Gebbie reminded us that one of the sources of failure in the feminist movement was that “didn’t have a maniesto of behaviour”, in other words because too many of them were self-indulgent and became whiny, strident and easily ignorable caricatures.

This disagreement is no surprise: Richard Wiseman (I think) reminded us that when cats get frustrated they talk about herding skeptics. That’s what happens when you have a bunch of people who think for themselves.

I’m with D J Grothe on this one, though. I think the key to how we interact with others (even the dull and ignorant) is respect.   As one of the TAMsters asked P Z Myers

Is it constructive to be so confrontational?

Why the different approaches? What do we want to achieve when we engage with the purveyors of woo? Randi told Robin Ince that he is fuelled in part by anger and wants to expose the liars and shut down the frauds. His motivation for exposing “faith” healers was rage; rage at the shamless way they turned grief and fear, and disability into cold hard cash. Dawkins is angry about the abuses of human rights embedded in Sharia law’s treatment of gays and of women. Evan Harris is disgusted that Boots’ excuse for duping the ill with homoeopathic remedies is that they are also available on the NHS.  There is indeed a lot of anger among skeptics.

However, I suspect that others who claim to be fuelled by anger are just fuelled by the need to be Right. That it’s egotism, pure and simple, and a bullying egotism at that.  One interesting quote from Myers was

“We have science and reason on our side”.

Well, surely it should be the other way round? Shouldn’t we be on the side of science and reason? One of the unexpected highlights for me was Susan Blackmore’s account of her double-blinded, randomised, statistially significant journey from woo to material atheism as she researched for decades but found no evidence for the psychic powers she absolutely believed in.

Back to the question of how should we debate? Too often, exasperated passion comes across as shrillness and underemines the message.  Debates between skeptics and believers frequently collapse in a morass of crossed purposes based on different ways of testing and arriving at the truth. Did Tim Minchin persuade Storm that she was narrow minded and wrong, or merely shout the poor woman down?  Both P Z Myers and Adam Rutherford reminded us: “Don’t be a Dick”.

The success or failure of these debates so often boils down to what kind of knowledge the debaters accept as true. Assertions that my logic is better than your intution are pointless.  Stupidly so. Our double blinded randomised controlled trial does NOT beat their personal experiences (in their minds at least), no matter how much it convinces intelligent, empirical, skeptical us.  Besides which, it is always so much more interesting to find out WHY people think what they think than to listen to yourself prating on about evidence to somone whose touchstone is their intuition.

So do you assume you are dealing with charlatans? Or with fools? Or with people of intelligence and integrity whose approach to uncertainty and evidence are different from yours? And this last one is, of course, much more threatening than the dismissive thought that “they’re all stupid”.

And how do your assumptions colour your debate?

(More on TAM London soon).


7 responses to “TAM London – How should Skeptics debate?

  1. After many years of online hoohaas (in which hoo haas participated ;-)) I have come to this conclusion: it doesn’t matter.

    A large part of the reason we rage at those who cling to superstition is that we, unlike them, have realised that the universe is a cold, purposeless, pitiless place, and absolutely the only thing we can do in our limited time here is try to make it better for ourselves and the other people in it. They cling to their ideas of reincarnation or redemption in an afterlife, and we want to scream “No! You don’t get it! THIS IS IT! This is all there is!” And we rage against those purveying woo to the vulnerable, because we’re trying to make those vulnerable people’s lives better.

    But here’s the kicker – the ultimate logical corollary of everything we do not merely believe, but know to be true – it doesn’t matter. The universe is, indeed, a cold, purposeless, pitiless place, and we are in it for so very short a time. I pledge to waste no more of that time trying to convince people who appear blissful in their ignorance. If they want to wake up to the pointlessness of existence, I shall welcome them to the ranks of the awake. Until then – let them sleep, poor fools. Their disappointment will come soon enough.

  2. “Did Tim Minchin persuade Storm that she was narrow minded and wrong?”

    No. But he did rather start from the position that that was impossible, anyway. As he ends thus:

    “And if perchance I have offended
    Think but this and all is mended:
    We’d as well be 10 minutes back in time,
    For all the chance you’ll change your mind.”

  3. Is it okay if I go a bit off topic? I am trying to read your post on my Mac but it doesn’t display properly, any suggestions? Thank you for the help I hope! claire

  4. The question of tone is something that frequently comes up in sceptical conversation these days. It’s almost startling that we need to get into such a large-scale discussion about it, and I am very “sceptical” that we are going to get very far with it either.

    I’m a strong believer that we need to be very careful about how we communicate our scepticism, as the word itself has strong connotations with negativity, unfriendliness, debunking and cynicism, none of which really describe what we are about. I’m glad that Grothe empasised the positive messages (a point that was echoed by Fry and Myers too). This doesn’t of course mean that we leave ridicule and anger to one side, but we should at least understand where the other side are coming from.

    In the end, my skepticism and atheism has taught me that we are all humans, with all the delights and awfulness that go along with that. I come from a country where Protestants (and increasingly immigrants) are seen as “the other”, and I’d prefer that we didn’t slip into this mode of thinking within the sceptical movement. Scepticism should be about education. It’s not for no reason that some of our greatest figureheads are people like Sagan, Feynman, Shemer, Steve Novella and indeed, Dawkins and Myers. At their core, they are educationalists. They don’t walk into a room of students on their first day in college and call them all idiots, do they? I would personally hope that as I further involve myself in the skeptical movement that I can learn how to be better at convincing others, rather than being abusive.

  5. Pingback: TAM London – what the bloggers thought « Sunny spells and scattered showers

  6. This question makes the logical fallacy of the stolen concept. The question of what is “scientifically provable” is derived from our metaphysics and epistemology. We use our basic philosophy to derive the epistemological standard by which to investigate the specific aspects of reality (e.g. physics, chemistry, mathematics, and economics). To demand that philosophical statements be scientifically validated is to demand that a derivative which depends on philosophy be used to prove philosophy. This is like trying to build a house by assembling the roof, walls, and windows before the foundation. It is fine to examine the whole structure of knowledge to verify that it is internal consistent and sound. But we cannot use a higher-level deduction to prove the premise that it depends on. The only way to validate philosophical claims is to use reason: to use logic to validate abstract ideas by reducing them to sensory evidence.

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