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My Friend, the Believer

by Brian Dunning, May 07 2009

I have a very good friend who is from Eastern Europe, a country in the former Eastern Bloc where gypsies roam and belief in the paranormal flourishes. It’s little wonder, for a country that took its first steps out of a modern Dark Age only twenty some years ago, that its people are deeply accustomed to folk wisdom and traditional healing methods. In a nation whose healthcare system was decades behind the world and offered few tools of value, you often were better off staying home and applying a poultice.

One night we were out for drinks and were discussing a few Skeptoid episodes where I’d discussed various non-scientific alternatives to healthcare. Soon, he’d had enough. And he told a story that went about like this:

“In my village there is an old man who cures people. He’s well known throughout the region, and people come from all over just to see him. And they do it because it works. All day, every day, he has a long line of people waiting outside his door. They bring their elderly, their children, their sick. No matter what their problem is, he heals them by the laying on of his hands. He’s poor and doesn’t do it for money. He doesn’t want fame or thanks. He only wants to help people. What do you say about that, Mr. Skeptic?”

And, I should mention, my friend was quite passionate about it. He’s also 6’5″ and had a couple beers in him. Not someone you want to contradict when his blood is up.

But I had no desire to contradict him or argue with him anyway. However, nothing would please me more than to see his loyalties move away from folk medicine and toward modern medicine. In his profession he gets injured sometimes, and avoids treating his injuries; thus they persist, to the detriment of his career. His other friends and I have urged him to see a doctor, but one characteristic of many immigrants is that they often have a large circle of fellow countrymen; so he always has as much, or more, support from his folk medicine friends as he’ll ever hear from us.

Now it’s one thing to sit in the comfort of your office, research materials close at hand, and contemplatively write a well-framed argument to make a point. It’s quite another to have something sprung on you by surprise in a social situation. Everyone was expecting me to take him on, but I didn’t have my ducks in a row, and I really didn’t want to offend my buddy. I was concerned about coming off as a blabbering, hateful, closed-minded skeptic. Frankly, my usual preference would have been to change the subject and move on. I think that’s usually best in such a situation.

But he wouldn’t have it. He really wanted to know what my problem was with the old man. (He rightly assumed that I’d be skeptical of the old man, in fact I hadn’t even said anything yet.) So I was dragged into battle. There are a number of ways I could have gone:

  1. Be the nice, positive skeptic. Say that the prospect of such a thing is very exciting, and that I eagerly await its being tested and proven and certified and made available to the rest of the world.
  2. A more cynical and confrontational approach. If he can do these miracles, why hasn’t he won Randi’s million dollars? Why has he jealously kept this power to himself and not given it to the rest of the world; is he an asshole?
  3. Apply the scientific method. I can’t comment on this guy specifically because I don’t know anything about him; but many other claimants to such powers have come forward and failed to perform once controls were applied. So despite your personal experience with the old man, I would need to see him perform under controlled conditions in order to be convinced.

#1 is probably the best choice in such a situation where friendships are on the line. It shows open mindedness, it expresses a positive attitude about the old man, and it even hints at the need for testing. But it doesn’t encourage my friend to think more critically in a way that’s likely to lead him to seek useful treatment for his own injuries.

#2 is rarely successful. It’s like the dark side of The Force. It’s easy and seductive. Anyone can be confrontational. While it’s intended to raise alarm about the old man’s motives, it doesn’t have that effect. Instead it builds barricades, it draws lines in the sand. It encourages disagreement and fighting. And that’s the wrong path to take when the goal is enlightenment and knowledge.

#3 is kind of a compromise. It lacks the argumentative edge of #2, but it also lacks the positive tone of #1. It’s a good way to put the debate to rest quickly, because it’s not really something that can be argued against. It’s intended to plant the seeds of skepticism, and help my friend to conclude “Hey, maybe I should also demand a higher standard of evidence.” In this case, I doubt that it would have that result. My friend knew friends of friends who had been cured by the old man, and that’s a profound experience in his mind. In his mind, the old man has already passed all the tests he needs, with flying colors. A great way to follow up #3 is to cite other examples of controlled tests from other sciences. Most people love to hear about exciting science, and if it’s clear that it’s going to be hard to plant the seed you want, you can always make some progress planting a similar seed.

The best thing to do would have been to start with #1 to set the right tone, and to let my friend see that I’m on his side, and that our goals are the same: To bring better treatments to the world. This establishment of shared motivations is essential. And then, in discussion, gradually move into #3. I’d probably avoid saying something as specific as this old man has not passed any controlled tests. That would be too confrontational, and anyway my friend has not tried to argue that the man has passed any controlled tests. Move the conversation away from the sore point, and talk about other exciting areas of science where tests have been applied. What could have become a debate turns into a shared adventure through science, and it instills proper appreciation for good science.

What I ended up doing, however, was not the right thing. I tried to open with #3, but I did so as a preamble to a great, raging tirade on #2. Essentially, I made the worst argument possible. I did offend my friend; I did not in the slightest encourage him to reconsider his own mistrust of evidence based medicine; and I made myself look like a jackass whose opinion is not likely to be sought again. Such failures are how we gain experience. The important point is to be able to learn from such experience, and to do a better job next time. I’ve done that to some degree, but there is always room for improvement. Helping people to understand the way the world works, and to be able to make good life decisions based on good information, is important work; and we can all do a better job of it.

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47 Responses to “My Friend, the Believer”

  1. Skepdude says:

    Hey Brian, I’m from the Eastern Europe (although I’m not Romanian or Bulgarian which is what your friend should be given the gipsy thing). Let’s be friends.Look at it this way, I’m less than 6′5″, I get friendlier and more skeptical as my beer intake increases and I don’t believe in psychic, healing, old men.

  2. Pat in Montreal says:

    I’ve found that when dealing with hardcore believers in that kind of woowoo, #1 often ends up being the only civil option…

    Don’t forget that these people believe in the impossible and their belief itself is completely irrational. Most choose to ignore evidence.

    There is almost nothing you can do to convince an irrational person so I will often choose to nod and smile and tell them it sounds “too good to be true” and I’d have to see it to believe it. I then switch the conversation to another subject.

    Pat

  3. Dedalus1953 says:

    Actually, your response is nothing to be ashamed of, since, apparently, he was being aggressively “In your face” to you. Hopefully you’re good enough friends that the Beer-Factor was considered before fisticuffs ensued …

  4. steelsheen11b says:

    Agressive stupidity like what was displayed by your friend has to be met with agression. The panty waisted half measures you advocate are what has let this kind of rabid insanity florish. MAN UP! and take on the idiot, expose his dumbass for all the world see and make fun of his stupidity.

    If it comes to combat STAND UP and fight. Be a man and battle for the truth over benighted ignorance. All you people advocating half measures, and the go along to get along mentality, make me sick to my stomache. Wusses.

  5. Brian says:

    These aren’t “half measures”, these are ways of communicating that get past mere I’m-smarter-than-you displays and into the realm of actually helping other people improve their thinking skills. Aggressive tactics influence nobody but the weak-minded.

    Brian, thanks for sharing; now many others beside yourself can learn from the experience.

  6. I often don’t try to hard with these folks, I’m not going to change their mind. I ususally take approach #1 and if they persist I will move to #3.

  7. Colin says:

    Brian,

    Coincidentally, I did the same thing last week, except the friend was my mother. She was telling me about this Ghost Hunt that she went on and there were paranormal detectives running the show. When she started explaining how fun it was for her, I interrupted her story and blatantly scolder her for believing in such nonsense.

    I asked her outright, “so where’s the proof? Did you see any ghosts for yourself?” Her answer was disappointed “No.” Of course — then she chimes in with “But other people there did!” And so I asked her, “And did they all see the same ghosts? “Yes!” she says, “They all saw an old man smoking a cigar walking up and down the hallway.” This went on and on – then I concluded with “And doesn’t this seem a bit staged? Is it possible that there were people in the audience that were in on it?” Her answer was “No, of course not.”

    Mind you, this event was held in a theater, and tickets were sold. I’ll let you decide if it was a “show” or not.

    Anyway, the point of my anecdote is, that even though I too wish that I had the resources available to talk to her. Maybe because I didn’t, my emotions went wild. I went straight to option #2 without even thinking about 1 or 3.

    The next time we meet, I think we’ll have to discuss this and come to an agreement on discussing topics like these. She’s a huge believer in ghosts, the paranormal, UFO cover ups and all of the stuff that brings skeptics together.

    I also face a tough challenge, do I try to convert, ergo, educate? Or do I let it go and let her have her fun? I feel our relationship has taken a turn in the negative direction. Best of luck in repairing yours, Brian.
    -Colin

    PS To top this all off – all this happened one week before Mother’s Day. Looks like I’m going to have to get an extra large bouquet this year.

  8. TLP says:

    I am a Romanian and the level of credulity in these parts is amazing.

  9. TLP says:

    I see no reason why we should handle them with care.
    Here are the facts:
    - healers are either self-deluded or frauds
    - believers are either self-deluded or dumb

    The only way to be non-confrontational is not to open the subject in the first place. If someone insists on preaching the wonders of Reiki to me I just say “haha, cool, you’re into the crystal ball business”.

  10. flawedprefect says:

    Actually, I second the “stand up, and fight” option, with the proviso, that after you get a good knifing, or a broken bottle in the face, demand to be taken to this healer and see if he’s the real deal. Stand up for skepticism and perform a scientific experiment! :D

  11. doofus says:

    But at the end of the night, who payed for the drinks?

  12. plob218 says:

    To people calling strategy #3 weak, I think you need to read it again. It doesn’t say you have to handle your opponent with kid gloves, just that you point out that everyone who has made similar claims has been proven wrong. You can apply this strategy with more or less aggression depending on the situation, but it’s the only one of the three that you could really call “skeptical.”

    Strategy #1 is a candy-coated lie meant to defuse the conversation. You know there is very little chance of the healer getting tested under satisfactory conditions, and that he will fail the test if he does. But maybe it will prevent a heated exchange from breaking out (which is the only reason Brian mentioned it).

    Strategy 2, while more aggressive, is a much weaker position because you don’t supply ANY valid argument of your own. It’s easy for a believer to deflect such provocations and actually come off sounding MORE rational than the skeptic. “Why does he keep his gift to himself?” “He doesn’t, he heals people from all the surrounding villages.” “Why doesn’t he get Randi’s million?” “He’s in freaking rural Romania! He’s probably never heard of Randi. Besides, he’s too selfless to care about money.” To an unbiased observer with no skeptical background, the skeptic sounds more like a denier whose opinions are based just as much on personal belief as the believer’s are.

    That being said, #2 is awfully tempting. It’s hard work finding evidence and forming solid arguments, especially when what you’re arguing against is patently ridiculous! I fall into that trap more often than I’d like to admit. But thanks for posting this anecdote, Brian. You’ve encouraged me to try harder in the future.

  13. Tuffgong says:

    I too am Romanian and the level of woo is alarming. I’m glad my parents (being 1st generation) haven’t heard of homeopathy. They buy into the organic thing like nobody’s business but they understand I’m the skeptical one and so far there’s been less woo and straight bullshit being bought.

    I would go with 3 every time because 1 doesn’t help anyone by taking the touchy-feely approach and 2 is the opposite in that it doesn’t help by pushing people away.

    The important thing here to stress regardless of the situation is to make your opponent aware of their biases and more so sentimental biases. It’s at least a firm ground to stand on as you make your arguments.

    Being a skeptic sure hasn’t made me very popular but it sure has earned me respect. I’ll take that any day.

  14. MadScientist says:

    So – loud ingnorance wins because people who know better are afraid. My excuse would be that I never discuss things if I had a beer.

  15. If I have to say anything, I almost always use #3, because it is the most honest: “Wow, that’s fascinating. Of course, I wasn’t there, so I have way to evaluate this healing case / your Bigfoot sighting / your aunt’s premonition. Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that some similar-sounding cases have turned out to be X or Y.”

    Number three is like Goldilocks’s porridge. Contrary to #1, I’m generally not on the edge of my seat about a new paranormal claim that comes up at a cocktail party, and not looking forward to new data about it. Typically, those unsolicited anecdotes aren’t remotely testable (“I was abducted by aliens while camping in the desert 15 years ago”), which means I’m not able to mount much of a #2 critique either.

    If I’m forced to put on my skeptic hat in a social setting, I usually try to get through #3 as quickly as possible (“I’m aware of similar solved cases, but I can’t judge your personal experience”).

    The best-case scenario is often #4: silently listening and soaking in what people actually say about their experiences with the paranormal. This is the way to learn, and I’ve tried to train myself to shut up and open my ears and heart to the stories people tell.

  16. There’s option #5: Start laughing at the man like he’s just told you the funniest joke in the world, and then barely manage to get out between the gasps of laughter, “You’re so gullible!”

  17. Stefan Bourrier says:

    This is a situation I think most openly skeptical people can relate to. I have been there many times and used all 3 of your recommended choices. Over the years though I’ve evolved a more laid back approach that I find gets my point across without engaging in aggression.

    That way is to point out that I’m sure a lot of people act according to how they view the world but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s reality. The man in the story may very well believe that what he is doing works for people. Sometimes we get caught up in something being right or wrong and forget that as humans we have some major tendencies to believe all kinds of crazy ideas.

    That said, I think there are ways of pointing out which ideas seem ridiculous but it’s important to approach those situations carefully. Meeting aggression with aggression is pointless since it usually ends in yelling or further aggressive responses. We can be civilized and also be compassionate (empathetic?) to those who actually believe in nonsense. It doesn’t need to be condescending but I find that it puts things in perspective. “You’re an idiot” or other insulting ways of approaching it only garner a blocking response from the other party and then you’re just going to sit there in a stalemate where no information is going to convince anyone of anything.

    I’m also a really big fan of asking questions that are neutral in tone but point out obvious flaws in the belief. Those people don’t always leave thinking differently but those seeds of doubt are planted and once they’ve had time to think about it concepts will change. There’s no way to strong arm someone into a change of belief.

    It’s hard to accept but we can’t control what other people believe. The best we can do is lead by example and provide as much education and information as possible.

  18. Mully410 says:

    I’ve used all three approaches at various times. I’ve felt the dark side of the force that is #2. I’ve burned a bunch a bridges with people using #2. If I told them the sky looks blue, they’d disbelieve just because I said it.

    If I really don’t care about the person or don’t expect to ever meet them again, I’ll still whip out #2 sometimes. However, I’ll almost always use #3 with people I want maintain a friendship with. I think I’ve made some people think about certain things more critically, at least I hope I have.

  19. Jason Goertzen says:

    “I see no reason why we should handle them with care.
    Here are the facts:
    - healers are either self-deluded or frauds
    - believers are either self-deluded or dumb”

    This is exactly the wrong view and approach, as far as I can tell. First off, a good skeptic should be informed about *why* people come to believe these things, and how the human brain in many ways lends itself toward superstition and false-pattern recognition. From this standpoint, there’s no basis to conclude that believers are especially “dumb,” or “delusional.” They are making what feels like a rational conclusion based on what appears to be obvious evidence. They have been mislead by circumstances and by the limitations of our feeble monkey brains. :)

    I am with Brian; our goal should be helping people learn how to think more clearly. Assuming that believers are incapable better is giving up the fight entirely. It’s a kind of lazy arrogance.

  20. Brian
    I empathise, it is hard to resist the bait.
    I have often wished that I had bitten my tongue in that sort of social situation as it too often turns into a lose-lose situation.

    Alternatively, you could have suggested setting up a joint business venture. This would offer sick people a holiday in Europe together with the “laying on of hands” by this old man. Your polite discussion could then be directed to the problem of getting the FDA approval for the adverts of miracle cures without the intrusive conventional medical approach of harsh chemicals, radiation, etc. Perhaps it needs a randomised, double-blind trial first, just to placate those sceptical scientists?

    It works for Lourdes, they get 6 million pilgrims a year, so why not?

  21. Jake Vice says:

    Thanks for writing this Brian. In addition to my skeptical and general scientific education, I’ve been really interested in how to make a difference to the people I see in my everyday life. It’s easy to write an essay for a website that only skeptics seek out and read, but talking to your friends and family when they incredulously believe Oprah’s latest endorsement is much more difficult.

    I’m the guy people choose to pick fights with in my group of friends because I’m the only one who stands up for critical thinking. My friends are highly intelligent, but all too often fall in the the shruggie camp. And I’ve definitely been the guy who came off as the sarcastic jerk who thinks you’re an idiot for believing in ghosts (usually after too many PBR tallboys). HEY, NEWSFLASH: I wasn’t always a skeptic either! And some arrogant know-it-all certainly wasn’t the person to sway me to the light side of the force.

    I’ve seen this written before around these here interwebs, but the best way I find to deal with these situations is lighthearted humor and perspective. Don’t back down from your beliefs, but also show that you are not your beliefs. You are a person who believes certain things based on what you’ve learned and that your current position does not define you as a person. Use some humor. Plant a seed. Grow a skeptical flower in the un-plowed field of the true believer (that sounds way lamer than I intended).

    Hope to see you at TAM7!

    P.S. Ghosts? Really?

  22. TonyaK says:

    Thank you for writing this….I frequently find myself in similar situations, as I have a great number of friends who are part of the paranormal “community.” I’ve used all three approaches, but often simply rely upon, “Hmmm…that’s interesting,” while quickly changing the subject. I’ve learned over time that attempts to plant seeds of skepticism in most of the people who are of the “someone told me it’s so, so I believe it” camp is futile. Their soil has long been unable to grow anything even closely resembling critical thinking. Cynical? Yes, but cynicism gained through experience….

    • Lee says:

      paranormal “community.”

      I bet if you did a poll of Christians and asked them if they believe in the paranormal, 90% would say they don’t believe in it.

  23. MadScientist says:

    I used to work in a ‘haunted’ observatory (strange how people who work in an observatory can believe in hauntings). There were some very annoying things going on but it was all due to various equipment not being properly maintained. I slowly exorcised all ghosts. People would tell me things like I shouldn’t work alone in certain places and should never work in certain places at all at certain times, etc. I’d always tell them that was a load of c-r-a-p and there was no such thing as ghosts. I’d often say “show me the ghost and I’ll …” (I’d better not write what I say here). I don’t know if I ever convinced others that there’s no such things as ghosts, but everyone sure was afraid of me because I feared no ghosts and rumors spread that the ghosts stay away from me. So telling people that something is a load of BS doesn’t necessarily make enemies either. I liked that observatory; the building I worked in made lovely spooky echoes as I tramped through in the evening; when the wind blew there would be a loud wailing sound, and there just happened to be a large cemetery at the bottom of the hill too – but just no ghosts.

  24. catgirl says:

    I think the best choice is the first one. It’s best to explain to people that you base your judgment on scientific testing.

    First of all, making fun of the person or insulting them will most likely make the defensive, and there’s no way they will consider what you say in that situation. But if you just explain that testing is what’s important, then they probably won’t change their mind right away, but there’s a very good chance that they will think about later.

    Also, there is the very remote possibility that this healer actually does make people feel better beyond the placebo affect. With no testing, I am extremely doubtful, but as a skeptic, if the scientific evidence showed otherwise, then I would believe it. Maybe this healer gave the patients a plant extract that has drug-like properties and makes people feel better temporarily without actually healing them, for example. As skeptics, we need to be careful about assuming that something is impossible.

    The best thing to do is be polite and explain what your standards of evidence are and why you have them. People really will be much more likely to consider your points if you are calm and rational about it. Being insulting or condescending rarely works.

  25. My solution to the social dilemma is to cultivate a reputation as a skeptic. Anyone who knows me knows I am a skeptic. They expect me to take the skeptical position. And frankly, anyone who would not be my friend because I do likely wouldn’t be my friend in the first place.

    In terms of actually influencing what other people believe – some variation of option #3 is the best. The goals should be to plant skeptical seeds. Do this by finding common ground and emphasizing it – we all want treatments that work to be widely available, I just want to know what works.

    Also – engage their skepticism on other topics. “Tell me, are there any folk treatments (or whatever) that you do not believe in? Really, why?” Get them to agree to some skeptical principles and then gently suggest that they may apply in this case.

    But sometimes we confront people who are not honestly questing for truth and information – true believers or even promoters (whether sincere or fraudulent). My approach to them is to politely demolish them with logic and facts. Give them enough rope, and then ruthlessly hang them.

    So you have to adjust your approach to the person and the situation.

  26. Max says:

    #2 doesn’t even make sense. If the old man really does cure people in his village, but he never heard of Randi’s challenge and has no interest in attaining worldwide recognition, that makes him an asshole? Not simply humble?

  27. tlav says:

    I propose a fourth possibility. Instead of making statements, ask questions in a non-condescending tone. The allows your friend to continue to discuss something he is clearly passionate about, while achieving your objective of causing him to think. This is much closer to a win-win situation. How do you think the old man heals? Where do you think he obtained his power? Why do you believe he has the gift and not others? Do you think the old man would be willing to allow someone of science to investigate his powers, so that this could be replicated worldwide to save millions? Can the old man cure all, most, or some people and/or health issues?

    Ask questions from the perspective that your friend may be correct to some extent. Realize that your own assumptions could be wrong. It could be that your friend has incorrectly remembered the old man’s powers. Under friendly questioning you may cause your friend to remember that the old man seems to be really productive at curing a certain health issue common in that area and in addition to the laying on of hands, he uses a mixture of local herbs or similar. You may then discover an actual medicinal treatment, cloaked in pseudoscience, that could benefit others with a particular ailment. Often, there are grains of truth in myths. Dig them out, as you never know what you may discover.

    When you continue to ask questions that causes someone to respond ‘I believe’ or ‘I think’, you have moved them a little closer to realizing that their perspective may be no different than that of any other fantasy. In doing so, you have helped them to walk down the road, if only briefly, of a skeptic.

  28. Jenea says:

    Brian, kudos on being man enough to admit (to everyone, no less) that you behaved like an asshole. It can be so easy for us skeptics to fall into that trap (knowingly or unknowingly), and all of us can learn from your example.

  29. tmac57 says:

    One of the main difficulties in addressing dubious claims is that the average person thinks that anecdotal stories are evidence, because most of what we learn is done this way. We wouldn’t for example feel too credulous in believing that a friend watched CSI the night before if they told us so. That is a common claim, and the more far out the claims get the more doubtful a listener will probably be, but if they hear from enough people, particularly someone influential that something strange is true, to them it is good evidence. So trying to convince someone who thinks this way that their evidence is weak doesn’t compute. It makes you seem closed minded. The real hurdle is to get people to understand that we are all easily fooled,and critical thinking ,and the scientific method is the only way we have found to sort out the mysteries around us. That is a pretty tall order over a couple of beers. The person needs to already be open to being proved wrong. It sounds as though Brian’s friend did not fit in this category.

  30. kabol says:

    i live in the southern US. i just nod and smile – and smirk occasionally. sometimes i roll my eyes, but not to the WooOnes.

    i don’t know anyone who has ever openly admitted to being skeptical and/or atheist/agnostic in my circle of friends in a setting where believers abound.

    it’s scary down here.

    you could actually lose your job.

  31. gwen says:

    My late husband was Eastern European. That’s why is a late and not current husband. He died from what should have been a very curable disease, but didn’t believe in western medicine.

  32. Paul R. says:

    I can absolutely sympathize, Brian, as I run across the same problem on a frequent basis.

    #2, like the dark side, is simply too alluring, especially when on the spot. Were I approached via email, I’d take the time to construct an articulate, well thought-out combination of #1 and #3, otherwise I find it incredibly difficult to get through to a person who pivets and pirouettes around science and reason. #2 becomes a reflexive jab, and one that is wholly ineffective.

  33. Petrucio says:

    I just LOVE having skeptical arguments when I’m full of beer. And I throw in quite a bunch of #1s, #2s and #3s all in the same night.

    Somehow I always manage to be a nice guy, even when confrontational, so I almost never offend anyone and we all have a great time through it. Everybody knows I’m a hardcore skeptic, and most actually enjoy drinking the night away and disagreeing with me. It usually goes something like: “Man, drinking with this guys is awesome, you never know what kind of crazy talk we’ll be having that day. Wait till he starts about Supernovae and the atoms in your body”.

    Religion usually also gets thrown in at some point or another, and surprisingly, that too goes on without problems. I’ve managed to bring quite a few to the light side of the force in my years as a drunken skeptic.

  34. Petrucio says:

    And one more thing: Brian Dunning is da man. His posts here are well thought out and insightful.

    Shermer: I love you man, and I don’t mean to be a Jackass but I must – dude, learn from this guy.

    PS: Dr No, don’t get jealous – you da man too :)

  35. steelsheen11b says:

    after reading through the whinning self justification for cowardice by weak collabirators on this board, it’s no wonder the idiots are winning. all you panty waists should be proud of yourselves; fo your moral self satisfaction and personal cowardice are directly responsible for the state of ignorance carrying the day. Bravo!

  36. dave says:

    So, if I read your story correctly, you’re actually more interested in turning your friend from his belief in ‘energy medicine’ than you are in finding out if it works – since you’re already convinced it’s bogus and the old guy’s motives are at best questionable? You spend so much time discussing how to win a skeptic argument that it’s difficult for me to understand any other motive. So, perhaps you’re more invested in ‘being a skeptic’ than you are in finding the truth? Do you at least see where your description of the events would lead me to that conclusion?

    Think of it this way – proving one ‘energy healer’(or several) is a sham and assuming ALL of them are, is no more valid than trashing ‘evidence based’ medicine over the Vioxx deaths or bad hospital care that kills patients. Those are in fact failures under ‘controlled’ situations too. The fact that sometimes failures occur does not mean that successes never do. Deny that statement in the case of western medicine and nobody would ever see a doctor!

  37. Lee says:

    I say go with #3 and or add a couple more ways to respond.

    It sounds like the tone of the conversation was set by the friend and his “in your face” question. Besides, life is too short to tolerate people that you don’t agree with; there are just too many people out there that believe the same way I do…why tolerate ignorance in you’re circle of friends? Family is one thing but friends, why bother?

    That being said, it’s often very satisfying to watch believers struggle by trying to answer leading questions. Consequently, I think you should have at least 4 or 5 ways to address a situation like that.

    #4 Question – put them on the defensive by asking questions of them. I would actually move number 4 up the list in front of #1. You can do a lot of damage to their arguments with a few well put questions.

    #5 Carpet bomb them with information but only if you’re prepared for “total war.”

  38. jansob says:

    If I really thought they might listen in a non-beered-up situation, I’d listen for details, go the #1 route and change the topic. Then I’
    d prepare some questions for a sober time, and go for 2 or 3 later.

    If I thought he would never come around, I’d evaluate my friendship. If he’s not often on this topic and otherwise a gem of a person, I’d keep following #1 and hope he eventually sees me as a reasonable person who he might listen to profitably.

    If he’s always harping on it, I’d have other plans until he’s no longer in my circle.

  39. jansob says:

    I think it would be interesting to start a thread on skeptical “testimonies”.

    If you’ve been a skeptic as long as you remember, this thread is not for you. But if you used to believe in the woo, especially if you were really into it, what changed your mind? And I mean what series of events, what slowly dawning realization? What environmental factors, friends, tv shows, books, discussions, groups, etc, got you to start seeing things differently?

    I firmly believe that it does very little good to try to argue people into something they were not argued into in the first place. Most people will just tune you out (becoming psychologically less open to skepticism in the process), and you end up with fewer friends and less influence. Most hardcore skeptics I know have very few friends who are not also skeptics…..and so they have virtually no effect on people around them. They can tell stories of how they “totally owned” someone in an argument, and take pride in not suffering fools gladly, but they never change anyone’s mind.

    I think it would be good to see what actions, words, approaches actually work toward changing people’s minds. Because that’s what I want to do, not just score points for being a skeptical badass.

  40. Drew says:

    Yeah. An example of something we all have to face – from loved ones and tough ones. Good call.

    Really, though, as with all beliefs, there’s no point making a deal of it. People take their beliefs far too seriously to want to question them, or be questioned by others.

    In fact, they’d rather lose their relationship than lose their muddled nonsense.

    Throw booze into the mix and you’ve the definition of a waste of time.

    Your ‘friend’ was having a pop at you under the influence, as some people are wont to do wherever they’re from.

    While quackery is an important issue, there are bigger issues that must be confronted – somehow – wherever they arise. Racism and homophobia to name two.

    Maybe with the quackery, you got off lightly.

  41. Nihilodei says:

    I have to confess… I can’t stand ridiculous claims at all. Homeopathy sounds absurd, any vitalogy, i ching and dec 21, 2012. I just cant help wanting to throttle anyone who stands in the way of good sense (note I avoided “common sense”).

    So, I have developed the pseudo science of beeropathy in defence against the poorly constucted “religions” I now face. After 6000 years of beer consumption and waist size change, we know beer is a causal effect in the matter. Measurements over the past 50 years have clearly shown that consumption sweetens the blood and has shown wonderful calcium inclusions throught particular parts of the body. Great blood pressue changes can be experienced in as little as one year of the diet.

    Robust studies have proven all of the above!

    Any obs Brian. I have at least one leg to stand on.

    For any advice on the all beer diet. Contact me through Brian or Michael!

  42. Jeshua says:

    My approach is to try humor mixed with a small measure of sarcasm, but i realize when a woo pusher gets pushy that can be hard to maintain. I have one friend who is a supremely convinced conspiracy nut, and when he goes off on a spiel, i just do all i can to change the subject. Some people like to hold nonconventional beliefs regardless of the facts.

    On the other hand, I remember once when a friend of my brother-in-law and mine looked up at the night sky and declared, “you know, they’ve discovered that there are pyramids on the moon just like the ones in Egypt.” This from an elementary school teacher. My brother-in-law just smirked, but i couldn’t resist.

    I asked him where he learned that little “factoid.” My brother-in-law cracked up when he looked at us with incredulity and said, “why, that’s just common knowledge!” You had to have been there to really get it, but it was truly a hilarious moment.

    I just said, “not among anyone i know,” and we just let it go at that. Though there was beer drinking involved, fortunately no one got overly insistent on their point. I was satisfied that he knew we weren’t among the people who considered Egyptian pyramids on the moon as “common knowledge,” but i do worry about what he is teaching his students.

  43. William Mook says:

    What are miracles?

    There are several usages, here’s one that I think is appropriate to this discussion;

    An outstanding event in our lives that occurs by divine intervention by our merely desiring the event.

    Does this shit actually happen?

    Skeptics say not. Believers say yes – and point to anecdotal evidence in their own lives.

    What’s up with that?

    Well, some people are just making up stories to survive a bad situation that would drive them ad otherwise. Do we really want to kick these folks when they’re down? Obviously not.

    There are others that have been successful in business, in love, etc., in highly trying circumstances and claim miracles – and have the goods to back it up.

    There are three reasons for this that do not violate physical law as we understand it;

    1) statistical fluke. Many people may pray to win the lottery when they buy a ticket, or be divinely guided in number selection. Only those that win report success. We ignore those that do not win. The same thing happens in life. Some will win – even though all pray to win. This is not evidence of the efficacy of miracles.

    2) sociological response. Business success, success in love, are largely interpersonal processes. People who are highly likeable are generally more successful than those who are not likeable. Belief in one’s likeability impacts their likeability. One who believes themselves to be popular, notices things that feed that belief, and ignores those things tht do not. they also behave in ways to engage people positively. One who believes themselves to be unpopular notices slights and ignores praise – and behaves in ways that alienate people. Clearly, by changing one’s attitude one can improve their position in society in ways that seem miraculous given their earlier attitude.

    3) physical response. Those with a can-do attitude tend to notice opportunity in situations that those with a defeatist attitude would give up. This literally changes the range of things possible by changing one’s beliefs.

    4) spooky stuff. This is hypothetical – so bear with me – what if time is a construct. The past is over and the future hasn’t happened yet. There is only now. That’s how we experience reality.

    Why this now? Here’s where time and space and things in time and space become useful ideas.

    Can we select this now by direct mental action – from a range of nows by noticing things and ignoring other things?

    This seems crazy – but bear with me please.

    The metaphor here is the Necker Cube. Here is an unchanging figure that seems to change when we change our mind about it;

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necker_Cube

    We decide to interpret the ambiguous bits a certain way, and bam, we see a 3d cube a certain way.

    Here is a more complex image that has motion in response to our thoughts about it;

    http://vidareal.files.wordpress.com/2007/11/800px-anomalous-motion-illusion1.png

    Things are not changing in the images, but they seem to. Our minds create the motions here even though no motion exists. They cannot change a cube into a sphere – but they can decide how to interpret ambiguous bits to give a depth sense that isn’t there in the figure.

    Can time be the same sort of thing? If reality can be thought of in a way where time doesn’t really exist does space? If neither exist except as a mental construct, then the idea that we can view reality in a way where we can seem to make things happen by changing our thoughts about them. Even here we are constrained by reality – since those things are constrained by rules given the nature of the underlying unchanging reality that we’re making decisions about.

    Physics is replete with stationary solutions of all sorts.

    At present we can only speak metaphorically, but space and time might only be one way to make sense of the cosmos – other ways may admit other realities – realities in which intention affects things just as our bodies affect things in time and space.

    This doesn’t make our science wrong – any more than deciding to see this or that face in front changes the Necker cube in any way. Both are consistent with the underlying reality. Same here – if it exists.

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