Monday, January 4, 2010


As much as I hate the term, I guess I'm a skeptic. Not that I’m skeptical of all things, but I pretty much need to have some objective evidence before I accept something as a fact. I’m a member of an on-line community of people who tend to accept principles like astronomy, evolution, and science-based medicine and reject concepts like astrology, creation, and alternative medicine. I have family and friends who have beliefs with which I disagree, and when certain topics come up in conversation, I try to be careful what I say or skirt the issue entirely.

That’s too bad.

People who accept things like Homeopathy and civilizations on Mars hold these as truths based on what they believe. Belief is a very powerful thing and will lead people to do things that they might not otherwise do, like strap bombs in their underpants or put on purple tennis shoes and kill themselves, or devote their lives to charity. I expect it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to change someone’s beliefs, regardless of what Skinner said or what missionaries might try to accomplish. Our beliefs are what define reality for us. I think of words like Gestalt and revelation when I think about changing beliefs.

Yesterday morning, The Bad Astronomer posted about a guy suggesting that the best way for skeptics to explain their views is to present facts in a positive manner, rather than just telling people that they’re full of crap. I don’t know if I want to say Hooray or Duhhh. The moment you tell someone their beliefs are wrong, exchange of ideas stops and a monologue of ideology takes over. “You’re right from your side and I’m right from mine.” (Dylan) I think I lean a bit more toward the Duhhh side.

I regularly read several blogs that present a skeptical point of view. From the comments, I assume most of these sites’ readers agree with the authors. There are exceptions, of course. Dissenting comments that present their cases logically often spur interesting discussions, whereas those that simply recite dogma incite shouting matches. (See paragraph above.) On the whole, though, I believe the vast majority of the readers are already on board. I think the authors are preaching to the chorus, and not really doing anything to expand their way of thinking. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of an arena for the skeptics’ message “outside of a small circle of friends.” (Ochs) Most viewers of mainstream TV are more interested in treating their sexual problems with herbal cleansing than saving their children’s’ lives by vaccinating them.

Skeptical thinkers can encourage critical thinking in their own communities by sharing news and events in ways that promote logical reasoning. There’s plenty to talk about, health, Hubble, the environment. If you’re met with the wall of a belief system, maybe you just have to agree to disagree. At least you’ve put the ideas out there.

That’s what I’m doing here.

Maybe somebody will actually think about them.