Anti-Skeptics are out of touch with the public

There is much ado, again, about soft targets in skepticism – the topics that are easily dismissed, should be ignored, are a waste of time and effort. So some say. Once again, we hear that we should be paying greater attention to things that really matter like cancer and war. Therefore, I’m getting the impression that people like me who write about these oh-so-silly things like cryptozoology, paranormal and misleading news stories are less important in the skeptical scheme of things. No one is listening to me, says John Horgan, who has a shallow and limited knowledge about the skeptical community and astoundingly is out of touch with public interest.

These beliefs and disbeliefs deserve criticism, but they are what I call “soft targets.” That’s because, for the most part, you’re bashing people outside your tribe, who ignore you. You end up preaching to the converted.

Gosh, this crap is SO OLD. “Bashing”? “Tribe”? “Ignore me”? “Preaching to the converted”? All very wrong.

Pushing this sloppy argument shows you are completely out of touch with the average Joe Q. Public (who really DOES believe in ghosts, Bigfoot, and thinks the government is spraying mind-control chemicals). Or, some wish to emphasize their own agenda and values like world peace, equality, animal rights or social justice for marginalized communities which makes them feel morally superior, I guess. Or, like I’ve experienced, it’s used by people who are annoyed that you keep ruining their great comment threads by inserting relevant questions and correcting their ridiculous inaccuracies – harshing their mellow. They want you out of the way so they can keep up their carefully constructed worldview. Those are all valid social reasons, if problematic in parts, and an indication that in the real world, dealing with “soft targets” requires tact, perseverance and a strong backbone.

Know your audience

For nearly 5 years, I ran Doubtful News, a site that was NOT just preaching to the choir but drawing in those who were wondering if a certain bizarre news report was true. I was able to provide them with additional information they may not have found in the media. Sure, lots of people disagreed with my take but I still planted the seed that this or that claim was likely bogus. It was a difficult job, for sure. It wore me down. But I received many messages from those who said that they appreciated my viewpoint or that I got them thinking in a new way. The Skeptical view is APPRECIATED and EXPECTED in public discourse. For those that have never been taught the importance of thinking critically about these topics, they respond to the guidance.

The key to a critically thinking society is to train them early. How can we talk to kids about how to be skeptical for their own good, for their entire life? You use examples they can relate to like monsters, haunted houses, aliens, and end of the world claims. It works great! Seriously, how far would I get if I started preaching about ending war and avoiding cancer screenings?

I’ve been to conferences where I am the only skeptic in the room. I’ve learned about why people belief these things. Those who pooh-pooh discussion of paranormal topics are ignorant of how deeply invested lives and funds are in these subject areas. People still lose at the hands of astrologers, psychics, gurus, cult leaders, alt medicine quacks, scam artists and charlatans.

One commenter on NeuroLogica blog said that Skeptics should give up on “easy to refute” topics that “scarcely any of the scholarly community believe in”. Well, gee, since when does the academic community reflect the public sentiment? What walled city does he live in? That sentiment is absurd.

Obviously, the suggestion to stop addressing “nonsense” and move on to more “important” things is elitist and dangerous. It makes no sense in today’s Internet culture. To do so feeds the sentiment of the detached unemotional scientist in the Ivory Tower. Never-mind the other obvious error – if these subjects are so easy to refute, why is the level of belief generally the same over decades – from 20 to over 50%? I feel a duty (as a civil service employee for 22 years as well) to provide a rational voice accessible to all. It’s what I do. Someone should.

Yeah, so I’m going to just keep doing that despite those who look down their noses at it and other Skeptics who prefer to act the role of social justice superheroes. Not only do people actually appreciate a reasonable and empathetic approach (unlike Horgan’s), but I learn a lot about humanity in the process. It has made me a more well-informed and tolerant person to think about WHY people believe lots of weird things.

Anti-Skeptics have a lot to learn. They are the soft targets, too easily fooled into thinking they know what’s best.

Further references on this absurd kerfuffle:

Horgan at SciAm: Dear “Skeptics,” Bash Homeopathy and Bigfoot Less, Mammograms and War More
NeuroLogica Blog: John Horgan is “Skeptical of Skeptics”
Skeptic Mag INSIGHT: Bigfoot Versus the Quest for World Peace?
Nature News: Scientific sceptics hit back after rebuke
NeuroLogica Blog: Skepticism and the Fallacy of Relative Privation
Why Evolution is True: Criticizing skeptics, John Horgan officially becomes an Internet troll
Why Evolution is True: Krauss on Horgan
Why Evolution is True: Shermer responds to Horgan
What Skepticism Is: Media Guide to Skepticism.

11 thoughts on “Anti-Skeptics are out of touch with the public

  1. My response to him is the same as my response to every fan of $QUACKERY who insists that before we critique $QUACKERY we should first fix all the issues with reality-based medicine: if you want to address some other topic, then feel free, but I reserve the right to study and critique whatever interests me. This is, after all, just a goddamn hobby.

  2. I wonder if Horgan, who does not know about the breath and depth of skeptical activism, is considering only the top sources and people not the hobbyists. Still, he’s wrong.

  3. Another factor, for many of us (me at any rate) is that we are not medical professionals or scientists. We do not have the background needed to find a cure for cancer. We do have the practical critical skills needed to investigate the credulous stories that proliferate the internet. And it is clear, from this proliferation, that many people believe these stories. Refuting them is a just duty, and also pretty fun.

  4. Exactly. The common sentiment has been: I am interested in this subject, therefore, I’m going to participate with a skeptical approach. It’s insulting and rude for someone to say don’t do it. It’s YOUR life. If you want to enjoy the fringe, why the hell not?

  5. Even ‘choir-members’, like myself, need constant education. People like yourself who write about so-called ‘soft-targets’, help to educate, encourage, and emboldened me when I’m confronted with woo in my own life. It helps me to be better informed and arms me with better arguments. Thanks.

  6. Thanks for this Sharon.
    This one particularly annoyed me because my day to day life is about housing the homeless and improving access to healthy foods. I acknowledge that ending war would probably do more good than what I do all day. But *I don’t know how to do it.* It’s not my skill set, and there is no combination of actions that would make it possible for me to end a freaking war! Does Horgan have any actual viable advice for me?

  7. There is no reason why we can’t do what we do AND pay attention and stay involved in world events and social issues. It’s silly for them to be mutually exclusive. BTW, what you do is *probably* more important than advocating against war – real results are achieved.

  8. Amen (irony intended). I’m glad that you’re standing up to that nonsense from Horgan. Elitist tosh.

  9. I think there’s room for continuing efforts on every kind of woo. However, I have become a proponent of prioritizing efforts, that is, going after the targets that cause the most public misery — anti-vaccination, quack cancer cures, psychic flimflammery, esp. grief vampires and televangelist faith healers come to mind.

    Sure, we need to keep up the efforts on Bigfoot, alien abductions, crop circles, anti-gluten madness, Roswell, chemtrails, and electromagnetic sensitivity disorder, but they’re not major pocketbook drainers or public nuisances.

    But imagine the good that could be done if we were able to finally squash homeopathy and ionic foot bath therapy! I’d like to see us stepping up the effort on even 9/11 Truthers who we tend to think of as harmless tin foil hat folks but seem increasingly scary in their fervent belief that the entire federal government, airlines, news media, architectural and structural engineers, physics experts and first responders are all in cahoots.

    Since Lippard has recommended a book I’d like to add my current favorite: “How To Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age” by Theodore Schick, Jr and Lewis Vaughn (2008 but covers nearly every woo you can imagine.)

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