As we indicated in the side-bar introducing Randy Alley's series of articles on Dr. Kreider, phrenology, and mesmerism, we are printing these because we think it is important to look back at earlier skeptics and the pseudosciences they faced. We may learn something from this study. Also, it seems these things never die (you can still find a Web site promoting phrenology, for example, and some of the claims made by Caroline Myss sound rather similar to some of the claims made by one group of Mesmer's followers [see "REALLity Check"]).
I was rereading this month's installment of Alley's series, and several sentences struck me: "Dr. Kreider did not blame man for believing in quackery. Rather, he unequivocally believed that man is a 'dupable animal.' He also thought that it humiliated a man's pride to be told that he was dupable."
Is this the reason that skeptics are so often ignored or even vilified by some? I suggest that Dr. Kreider, all those years ago, hit the nail on the head. Nobody likes to be told they are wrong. Nobody wants to hear that they were fooled. We all want to believe that we are too smart to be fooled (as an aside, if this weren't so, con-men would be out of business). When a person is told otherwise, they may feel like they have been insulted.
So how do we, as skeptics, go about our business of critical inquiry without wounding the pride of those who believe in the particular idea we are busy debunking? Sometimes, it cannot be helped. Anytime we say that a particular claim is incorrect, somebody, somewhere, may feel insulted. It is my opinion that there is nothing we can do about these people. But there are others who will not have such hard feelings if we can express our thoughts in terms that avoid demeaning them. This we should always strive to do. The best way is to focus on the purveyors of nonsense, not the believers. Sometimes that line is a fuzzy one. How do we classify a nurse who believes in Therapeutic Touch? Is she a purveyor or just a believer? What about therapists who listened to Dr. Bennett Braun and practiced repressed memory therapy? Etc. I submit that we must judge each on a case-by-case basis.
But with that said, I wonder if there is any way we can move away from preaching to the choir and towards discussion with those who we need to reach those who may believe in some piece of pseudoscience or another, but who will not be offended if we point out that they have been "duped."
I would be very interested to hear any of your suggestions. Please feel free to mail or e-mail them to me, or even to call in on the REALL hotline.January Meeting
Dateline NBC recently dedicated an entire hour to the Bennett Braun/Pat Burgus case. I can already hear a bunch of you saying, "You've covered that in the newsletter, David!" True, but as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. I guarantee you will gain new insight to this case by watching this show, and I encourage everybody to come. As usual, it will be the first Tuesday of the month January 5, 1999, at 7:00 in the Lincoln Library. I hope to see you there!