Friday, March 18, 2011

The only skeptic in the room...

I'm sure, if you follow any of the skeptical blogs, that you've already seen the following video but it brings me to publishing a blog entry that I wrote a while ago and had not yet posted.  Watch the video, if you haven't seen it, and then continue on to the rest of my blog below it.

It is often that I am the only skeptic in the room.  Often it is an uncomfortable position (or experience) to be in (probably moreso for my wife than it is for me) but one that I do value and cherish.  Don't get me wrong, I wish I wasn't the only skeptic in the room but I value that my comments/questions/ideas could ultimately be helping people be better thinkers (or thinkers in the first place). 

Seldom, when I'm in a group setting, that I engage a person and question their (truly questionable) beliefs/statements, do I not get a positive response from at least one person in the group.  Richard Dawkins has often suggested that sometimes the discussion isn't for the purpose of winning over the person who you are directly engaging but the other people listening - I think that is often the case and, in those instances, calling something absurd when it is absurd doesn't have such a net negative effect.  It may entrench the person who espoused the crazy belief but others who are simply watching it unfold may very well appreciate that the beliefs are crazy/absurd. 

Though it isn't the point of this entry, I think it is important that people keep "approach" in mind when there is an audience.  Conceding "points" to the other person in an attempt to get them to explain their beliefs (or lead them down a garden path) doesn't necessarily help get the real point across to those just listening in.  They might, wrongly, assume that some of your "opponent's" claims are valid.

I wanted to discuss or express my frustration with how other people react to nonsense.  After I ask someone to explain why it is they believe something and then, possibly, point out the faulty reasoning for the belief, I am, almost without fail, approached by someone who says "I knew that what they were saying was dumb but I don't know enough about it to challenge them so I just let it go in one ear and out the other". 

The point I want to make is this: You don't have to be an expert in a subject to understand whether or not the acceptance of a position is based on logic and evidence.  You can't afford to not speak out - you'd hope others would do it in situations where someone is trying to bamboozle you - you owe it to others to do the same when they might need it.

A person's belief could be based on the acceptance of something that you DO know about, as well.  If someone was to state that we aren't going to run out of oil and we shouldn't be investing in renewable energies, you might not be aware of what oil reserves actually exist and what rate we go through the oil, but what if the premise for their belief/claim was that they believe the earth is only 6000 years old and that the oil is naturally produced in a matter of years and not hundreds of centuries?  The premise is wrong so any logical extensions from it are, at best, suspect.

I'm the first to admit that I'm not an expert in much - I'm definitely not an expert in everything.  I do not know much about demolition techniques, building engineering, jet fuel burn temperatures, etc. but I can reason my way through potential red flags presented by "9/11 Truthers".  Simply applying Occam's Razor would lead one to look at the "Truthers'" claims about "9/11" being an inside job.  Asking questions like "What makes you believe that?" or "What evidence do you have to support your claim?" or even asking them why they reject the other hypothesis/explanation can be enough to have them expose their weak reasoning and for others to see just how wacky their beliefs are.

Be a skeptic, if you find something implausible, ask questions.  Your first assumption about the claims seeming "far-fetched" may be wrong and you might actually learn something but, gee, is that really a bad thing? 

Do yourself and the ones around you a favour - withhold acceptance of a claim until you have good reason to accept it and, most importantly, don't incredulously relay decision-affecting information that you don't have reason to suspect is accurate.

And maybe, one day, I won't be the only skeptic in the room :)


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Sorry. I was typing on my phone and didn't notice it was on caps.