So Now You're a Skeptic

by Wally Hartshorn

This article is meant as a word of caution. Chances are you've had your fill of paranormalists, crackpots, cranks, creationists, and pseudoscientists, and now you're eager to start firing back. You're joining a skeptics' organization, you've "gotten religion", and you're all set to spread the gospel to the rest of the world and put the paranormalists in their place.

You're poised to become a zealot.

Hold on just a second. Have you considered how people react to zealots? The reaction generally is not good. The zealot may gain a few converts, but the vast majority dismiss them. If your only goals are to entertain yourself by ridiculing those with paranormal beliefs while at the same time you congratulate yourself on your superior intellect, then becoming a skeptical zealot will advance your goals quite nicely. However, if your goals include convincing at least a few people that they should examine paranormal claims rationally, then zealotry is not the method of choice.

If someone tells you that they believe in astrology, don't laugh at them and tell them that they are foolish to believe in such rubbish. Few people, upon getting such a reaction, are going to say, "gosh, you're right, how silly of me, thank you for showing me the light." Most will simply mark you as a disbeliever and avoid discussing the issue with you in the future.

A better tactic would be to give them an article that discusses astrology from a skeptical viewpoint (eg. the many studies that have shown negative results, the "Barnum effect", etc). Don't say, "Here's an article that shows you're wrong." Ask them to read the article and then tell you what they think of it. There are three advantages to this approach: (1) The article acts as the "bad cop," not you; (2) The article provides more information than you could probably relate to them during a conversation; (3) By asking them what they think, you are getting them to think, rather than simply formulate a defense against an assault on their beliefs. The disadvantage is that it takes a bit more effort on your part to find the article, give it to them, and convince them to read it.

If giving them an article is not an option, try this tactic. Tell them, "I read an article about astrology which said..." and relate to them the information from the article. Then ask them what they think. This tactic still has two of the three advantages listed above (the article acts as the bearer of bad news and you are encouraging them to think rather than to defend against your argument).

Also, avoid the temptation to act as an "instant expert" on everything. If you flit scamper about explaining every new claim that comes along without taking the time to actually investigate them, you will be marked (rightly so) as a dogmatic disbeliever, which is precisely the image that skeptics are trying to fight against. If someone tells you about a new UFO sighting, don't instantly tell them that it wasn't a flying saucer, it was probably an airplane, a weather balloon, an unusual cloud formation, a hoax, or the infamous "swamp gas." If you want to relate the story of similar sightings and the mundane explanations behind them, you should emphasize that you are not explaining the new sighting and that the evidence from the new sighting will need to be examined before any conclusions can be drawn. This does two things: (1) It provides them with information about several earlier UFO sightings that had mundane explanations; (2) It shows that you are not rejecting claims a priori (another charge that is often levelled against skeptics). If you later are able to learn enough about the new UFO sighting to provide a mundane explanation, your earlier suspension of judgement will make the explanation more readily acceptable.

Eagerness, enthusiasm, and exuberance can be very useful qualities if they are channeled into productive activities. A sledgehammer swung with full force at a wedge will usually cause the wedge to skitter away, but some carefully controlled tapping can open up a crack. The same can be said of changing people's beliefs.

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