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The Passion of the Skepticism

by Phil Plait, Sep 09 2009

Recently, I spoke at Gnomedex, a tech conference, about online skepticism. A little bit of my talk (along with others) was covered on PBS’s Media Shift blog.

My friend and skeptic D. J. Grothe from the Center for Inquiry posted an article on his blog about my appearance at Gnomedex — apparently, my talk was covered on the CNN live stream! Wow. I wonder how many people saw that?

And in fact that’s a legit question. During a break at Gnomedex I went into the lobby to grab some coffee. I was chatting to a couple of attendees, and they complimented me on the presentation I gave. One of them said something that made me laugh a tad ruefully: he said that he wasn’t all that interested in skepticism, but found that he liked the talk and became interested because of my enthusiasm.

I’m not saying this to brag (because I would never ever ever do that; I’m terribly modest about my overwhelming awesomeness) but because I think it’s a critical point. Sure, in my talk, I defined what skepticism is and what it isn’t. And I also hammered home the idea that skepticism is not a room filled with a bunch of angry, aging, white, balding and bearded men dismissing claims and deciding what’s right and wrong — skepticism is a dynamic process that everyone can and must do, it’s a way of looking at the world that keeps things from fooling us.

Skeptics and scientists have a major PR problem. People think we’re all humorless, cold and without passion. But that’s completely wrong! We run the spectrum: we’re happy, sad, angry, interesting, boring, awkward, calm, confident, silly, serious, smart, smarter — just like any group. We’re people. I think that gets lost somewhere between us and the people we’re talking to.

I’m really not any smarter or harder working or anything like that compared to your average active skeptic. But one thing I do is that I let my passion show. I love this stuff: I love science, I love understanding things, I love the process of figuring things out.

But the more general point I want to make here is that I spoke from my own passion. Anyone who’s read this blog for more than ten seconds knows how I feel about antivaxxers, for example. So when I was on stage, I made sure that came through.

I talked about groups like JREF and CfI that do top-down skepticism; professional organizations that put on big conferences, create magazines, host bulletin boards, and so on. But I really stressed bottom-up grassroots work, things like Skepchick (well, they’re on the cusp of grassroots versus big lumbering professional group), Robert Lancaster, Skepticamp, and so on.

And looking over the list of groups (both big and small) I showed, it hit me why they’re successful: they’re passionate. This passion may come out as humor, or concern, or anger, but the point is these sites are fun to read and these groups are connecting to people because they let that passion show. I read (past tense) far too many sites and blogs that phoned it in, and those don’t last long in my feed reader. If you want my attention, you need to show me that you’re worth it.

And you do that by showing me that you think it’s worth it.

So a little free advice to people out there trying to make a point: Let it fly. But remember, passion is a necessary but not sufficient component of any argument. After all, Apollo deniers are passionate, as are antivaxxers. So you need a lot more than that to actually make your point — you’ll need the evidence to back it up, and you’ll need a rhetorical style that isn’t like nails on a blackboard.

But passion is a good place to start. It’s where inspiration comes from, and people will respond to it.

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17 Responses to “The Passion of the Skepticism”

  1. Don’t forget GrassRoots Skeptics Dr. Plait. :) http://grassrootsskeptics.org

    And yes, I have found that with enthusiasm, you can really do a lot. I even managed to get students to stay awake for a class on Military Doctrine for crying out loud! (Not saying I have as much awesome as you, I DON’T!) However, that is a two way blade. I think that evangelicals and religious leaders have used their enthusiasm to sway crowds. Their passion also comes through, and then some. Us humans are way too easilly swayed by emotionally presented things as opposed to the content of those presentations. Like you said, we need to have the evidence to back it up. Now if we could only figure out a way to get people to understand what actually constitutes evidence!

  2. kabol says:

    i like how you pointed out that peoples’ passion for skepticism takes many forms. being fairly new to the skeptical movement, i tend to gravitate toward the humor end of things for some reason. i like to have fun :)

    i definitely have an underlying anger toward psychics. i suppose humor helps me control that anger AND have fun.

  3. James says:

    If you enjoy the sarcastic type of humor you’ll love Skepacabra

    http://skepacabra.wordpress.com/

  4. Rans says:

    One of the many passionate amateurs who has the chops to become a big name is Bronze Dog. He’s well-recognized in the corners of skepdom that I inhabit, both for great insight, and his well-constructed catlalogue of bad arguments (AKA Doggerel). As a resource for a budding skeptic, BD writes the kind of pieces that mix reason and passion in amounts that bring around great effects. It’s hard for me to point to a better blend of anger, enthusiasm, knowledge, and reason from anyone that doesn’t head a foundation of some sort. Robert Lancaster, maybe, but that’s it.

  5. Ranson says:

    Blah, that was me. Don’t know why the name got truncated.

  6. Deen says:

    Phil: the URL you gave for Robert Lancaster is no longer owned by him, after his domain registration expired during his illness. The correct address is http://stopsylvia.com/. (You probably knew this and simply used the old address out of force of habit, but I just wanted to be sure that those who haven’t been to his site yet would be able to find it)

  7. Rodger Atkin says:

    “angry, aging, white, balding and bearded” I resemble that remark

  8. Brian M says:

    Damn rites!

    When I encounter a creationist, I am no longer afraid to tell them what I think of their quaint little ramblings. I wear my RDF shirts just to piss people off, so I can get them talking. I won’t win their mind, but I may win those around me.

    Hell, I even get loud at my boss when he is non-skeptical, and starts asserting things.

    Viva la science?

  9. We’re people. Limited. Our knowledge is limited. Our knowledge capacity is limited to 1kg of grey matter mass worth of imprefect self-evoluted cell network that is supposed to understand a 14bn years mass, 10^26 times bigger than us. Our cumulated knowledge capacity is limited to the lenght of our short lives, the imperfections of our senses and representations, the imperfection of communication through the coding-decoding of language and even between several languages.

    If we chose to believe only what we already “know”, how can we advance our knowledge? Denying the existence of everything that we don’t have a rational, scientific explanation for, is like the denial of flight for “heavier-than-air” aircraft until not so long ago. What if we chose to believe and then try to explain rather than destroy and then explain?

    “Impossible” things have happened more than once since we are aware of ourselves. It seems to me that you chose to say that it’s impossible and argue, rather than check what happened. Shayna West, a 2-week pregnant woman falling at terminal velocity from an airplane on concrete, survived in 2005. Do you think it’s possible? So many things that you don’t have an explanation for are still happening, in spite of You. Don’t be angry. Don’t fight them.

    I don’t say that all the bullshit, scams and mischief that we hear are real – there are plenty of crooks, studpid and crazy people saying they’ve just seen a flying dragon spitting fire. Just that your denial is so angry that it might shut the door of knowledge. Intuition is a form of preliminary knowledge, too, for instance. Trust between people is important, otherwise we’d all be alone. Etc etc.

    Just thinking… You see what I mean, don’t you?

    • Max says:

      Did any skeptics say that Shayna West’s story was impossible?
      Her reserve parachute deployed improperly, she spun out of control but wasn’t in free fall, broke a lot of bones, and was saved by modern medicine. What’s impossible about that?

    • Max says:

      Denying the existence of everything that we don’t have a rational, scientific explanation for, is like the denial of flight for “heavier-than-air” aircraft until not so long ago.

      Anyone who’s ever seen a flying bird or tossed a paper airplane has seen convincing evidence of heavier-than-air flight.

    • Bobco85 says:

      I think skeptics don’t have a lot of patience for statements that don’t have corresponding evidence. It’d be foolish for a skeptic to hear a story and then believe it on the spot. That’s why a lot of skeptics go by a mantra resembling “That statement is nice, now prove it!”

      Skeptics give a lot of credence to good, well-formed evidence and research when it comes to figuring out situations like Shanya West’s. In her case, if you were to only say “Shayna West, a 2-week pregnant woman falling at terminal velocity from an airplane on concrete, survived in 2005.” and not give any more details, then it would be harder to prove without investigation. Btw, she was not falling at terminal velocity (120 mph for humans in freefall, according to Wikipedia) when she hit the ground, it was calculated at only 50 mph. Plus, she fell onto a paved (black-top) parking lot, not concrete, and black-top is softer than concrete.

      It’s little details like these that can give better validity to claims, and that’s what skeptics are after: the whole story.

    • Bronze Dog says:

      You should try actually understanding skeptics, Radu.

      Impossible” is a woo word, in my experience.

      “It’s impossible that there could be an alternative explanation! Therefore it must be psychic powers!”

      Our knowledge is no longer limited to our own heads: With communication and recording technology, research gives us the capacity to learn beyond our personal experiences.

      Of course, we’ll never know everything, but that’s why we use the scientific method to find out what’s going on when something weird happens. We may have limits, but we don’t use that as an excuse to assume we’ve already reached them. Woos, out of sheer lack of curiosity, prefer inventing magical explanations without evidence, and prefer to believe that mysteries are beyond our reach. Woo is a cynical and closed-minded way of life. Skepticism and science are much more optimistic and expansive by their very nature.

  10. Tim says:

    Radu-Windman

    Dear oh dear, this is exactly the kind of thing that Dr Plait is talking about. Shayna West did not hit concrete at terminal velocity – she had a parachute attached and was spinning out of control. That is definitely not the same thing as terminal velocity. Please review the attached video. Your ‘evidence’ is really not very convincing – have you got a better one?

    http://www.schooltube.com/video/9529/Shayna-West

  11. Jacco says:

    Radu – Windman, you are making a few wrong assumptions about skeptics. Please hang around and I hope you will see that, for instance, skeptics do not use the word “impossible” very lightly: simply because one can’t prove a negative. But when I claim that there is an orange elephant living in my mother’s backyard, skeptics don’t just take my word for it. They think of different explanations, for example:
    1. It is true, there is an orange elephant in my mum’s backyard.
    2. It is not true, the elephant is grey and in my mum’s backyard
    3. It is not true, the elephant is grey and living around the corner at the zoo
    4. It is not true, I am delusional
    5. It is not true, my mum is delusional
    6. It is not true, I am joking
    7. It is not true, I just want some attention
    and probably many many more.
    So when I insist 1 is true, it is my evidence against the skeptic’s evidence. If my evidence is “You have to believe me because my mum never lies”, than it just doesn’t stand up against the skeptic’s evidence (there is evidence of elephants living in zoo’s, evidence of people being delusional, evidence of people making jokes, seeking attention, etcetera.)

    I would suggest to stick around and give skeptics a chance. You won’t regret it (but you are allowed to be skeptical of that) :-)