As most of you will have heard, Christian radio mogul Harold Camping's predicted “Rapture” came and went on May 21st without so much as a trumpet sounding. This failure of prophecy unfolded to a clamour of Tweets and parties from the nonbelievers' side of the aisle. There's something undeniably funny about a confident prediction unfulfilled, and Camping's prediction couldn't have been much more confident: “We know without any shadow of a doubt it is going to happen.”
Still, personally, I had a hard time enjoying the circus. It seemed ghoulish to crack wise when so many hopes and dreams — and lives — hung in the balance. Belief, as we skeptics know all too well, cuts across lines. Beliefs unite the clever and the dull, the young and the old, the righteous and the wicked. Camping's fear-mongering meant good people sold homes, quit jobs, broke up families, or spent the college money on apocalyptic billboards. I worried especially about the kids lying awake that week waiting for the end of the world, just as I worry about the kids suffering artificial, unnecessary terror over 2012.
Horrifyingly, we know we have reason to fear for those kids. In California, one woman cut her children's throats with a box cutter in order to protect them from Camping's predicted “tribulation.” She wasn't the only one to take drastic measures.
My sense is that these deep human stakes were not lost on anyone, not really. For all their gallows humor, many of the skeptics and nontheists cracking jokes simultaneously empathized with Camping's followers, and with all those who were disturbed by his $100-million scare campaign — a campaign funded in significant part by the life savings of those same followers.
It's just that, what are you going to do in the face of something like that? Especially when, as was the case for most skeptics, word of the “Rapture” reached our ears just weeks or days before the scheduled event?
This got me thinking: could a situation like this be skepticism's own “ticking bomb” scenario? With lives in the balance and no window for the slower, more effective techniques of education, does ridicule become the option of last resort?
I've long encouraged skeptics to avoid ridicule, empathize with believers, and craft our communications in as careful and ethical a way as we are able. Against this rather staid view of skepticism, I've considered an often (mis)quoted comment from one of skepticism's founding spokespersons, the late, great Martin Gardner: “One horse laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.”
I'm a fan of Gardner's, so this argument has long echoed for me. It feels right, truthful. But it's important to realize that Gardner did not mean mockery should be the skeptic's first response. In a rather grouchy passage from the introduction of Science: Good Bad and Bogus, Gardner explains that ridicule is a response he reserves for “extremes of unorthodoxy” — a response to a subset of committed ideologues. (Commenting on this, Paul Kurtz cautioned, “one horse-laugh in its appropriate setting may be worth a dozen scholarly papers, though never at the price of the latter.”1)
Gardner borrowed the horse-laugh line (which Michael Shermer calls “Mencken's Maxim”) from social critic H.L. Mencken. Some readers may not realize that it was part of a rant against the concept of “constructive criticism” itself:
Of a piece with the absurd pedagogical demand for so-called constructiv
e criticism is the doctrine that an iconoclast is a hollow and evil fellow unless he can prove his case. Why, indeed, should he prove it? Is he judge, jury, prosecuting officer, hangman? He proves enough, indeed, when he proves by his blasphemy that this or that idol is defectively convincing — that at least one visitor to the shrine is left full of doubts. The fact is enormously significant; it indicates that instinct has somehow risen superior to the shallowness of logic, the refuge of fools. The pedant and the priest have always been the most expert of logicians — and the most diligent disseminators of nonsense and worse. The liberation of the human mind has never been furthered by such learned dunderheads; it has been furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe — that the god in the sanctuary was finite in his power, and hence a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.2
Here Mencken recommends this “heaving dead cats”-style protest instead of persuasion, rejecting any obligation to “prove his case.” I've long argued the opposite: that skeptics should voluntarily take up our own burden of proof, on the basis that, “Doubt is cheap. Finding out is hard.” After all, if we don't care about solving mysteries or educating the public, why have skeptics at all? People can not believe stuff just fine on their own.
Mencken was uncomfortable with the very idea of pedagogy (“a sort of puerile magic, a thing of preposterous secrets, a grotesque compound of false premises and illogical conclusions”), and he seems to have caught Gardner — one of skepticism's great teachers — on a bad day. Echoing Mencken's elitism, Gardner argued,
Those who are in agreement do not need to be educated about such trivial matters, and trying to enlighten those who disagree is like trying to write on water. People are not persuaded by arguments to give up childish beliefs; either they never give them up or they outgrow them.3
I don't have much time for the “skeptics are smart, everyone else is a dunderhead” argument. Truth is, we're all at the mercy of our sources, at the mercy of the things we are taught. No one is born knowing science or critical thinking.
But it is clearly possible to learn our way into a deep, deep hole. We can be taught that scaffolding concepts such as “ask for evidence” are vices rather than foundational virtues. We can be taught to hear skeptical language as violent, as necessarily pregnant with harsh meanings the speaker may not intend.
Once we find ourselves buried in those sorts of assumptions, it's a difficult, slow process to dig ourselves out. It takes time. Sometimes more time than we have.
Which brings us back to the Rapture. I believe there are extremely compelling reasons to avoid mockery: it hinders education when tested (despite Mencken's intuition) and it raises serious ethical problems as well.
But what of the “ticking bomb” scenario: lives in the balance, little time for education? I'm often told that there's a proper time and place for ridicule. Could “end of the world” panics be that time? I don't think I can accept that — but I open the question to you.
- Nathan, George Jean and H.L. Mencken. “Clinical Notes.” American Mercury Magazine. January to April 1924. p. 75. As reproduced by Google Books, here. (Retrieved May 24, 2011.)
- Kurtz, Paul. Skeptical Inquirer. “Debunking, Neutrality, and Skepticism in Science.” Spring 1984. p. 239 – 243
- Gardner, Martin. Science: Good, Bad and Bogus. (Avon Books: New York, 1981.) p. xv