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:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.