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Horse-Laughs, the Rapture, and Ticking Bombs

by Daniel Loxton, May 24 2011

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 constructive 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

Last Resort?

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.


  1. 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.)
  2. Kurtz, Paul. Skeptical Inquirer. “Debunking, Neutrality, and Skepticism in Science.” Spring 1984. p. 239 – 243
  3. Gardner, Martin. Science: Good, Bad and Bogus. (Avon Books: New York, 1981.) p. xv
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58 Responses to “Horse-Laughs, the Rapture, and Ticking Bombs”

  1. Great post, Daniel. That said, I would agree with Gardner’s last comment, at least in part. Many people don’t give up old ideas, and, of those who do, it’s often a secular “leap of faith” from inside them as much as anything.

    As Steve Gould noted in many ways and forms, life is massively contingent. Nowhere is that more true than inside the individual human psyche, in my opinion.

    That then said, though, we never know how we will impinge on another’s internal contingencies and, the soft word is more likely to have an impact. It’s like nuclear fission — too energetic a neutron just bounces off the nucleus; a kind word may have the right “capture cross section.”

  2. In Harold Camping’s defense, he has stated that the 21st of May was the spiritual beginning to what will steadily transition toward total rapture on October 21st. That, he predicts, is the true coming of the end of days. It’s kind of like the Police Academy franchise. Amusing at first.

    The only thought that warms my cold, dead heart is the fact there won’t be any crank around to say “I told you so” should we ever be unfortunate enough to be present during a cataclysmic event such as the one’s promoted by these moronic faith blowers.

  3. Chris Sasaki says:

    Excellent, thoughtful post. I’d agree that mockery accomplishes nothing, and that people aren’t persuaded by arguments to give up their beliefs. Where’s the middle ground? I like Chris Mooney’s advice from “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science” (Mother Jones): “If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction…In other words, paradoxically, you don’t lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values—so as to give the facts a fighting chance.”

  4. Michael says:

    Your post restored some balance in my mind after reading various skeptical takes on this Rapture nonsense. Cussing or raging at stupidity won’t make it go away. Mocking disappointed believers who were infected with a metastising delusion won’t save us or them from future stupidity. One horse laugh may be worth a thousand syllogisms, but laughter lasts but a moment.

    Of course we need to recognise the absurd and get whatever pleasure or schadenfreude we need from it for our own comfort in a largely irrational world. But our skeptical balance should always be skewed toward reason and argument. Otherwise skepticism risks being nothing but entertainment for a knowing in-group.

  5. Chris says:

    I don’t see how the ticking time bomb changes anything. Just because there’s no time for proof or argument or education, doesn’t mean that suddenly mockery will start changing minds. And if mockery *could* change minds, then why not use it all the time?

    (I generally feel OK about mocking ideas as long as I don’t mock the people who hold them. Clouds of believers wafting up into heaven is funny; people spending their life savings on a mistake is tragic. But I honestly don’t know if mocking does any good or just makes me feel smarter-than-thou.)

  6. Colin says:

    Mockery works best when the evidence is indisputable and the recipient is extremely arrogant because that’s when the fence sitters will see that the believers lack the logic and credibility to defend themselves from ridicule. Where skeptics get themselves into trouble is when they fail to support their teasing (or emotion-based arguments) with quality science.

    I see this all the time with the vaccine debates. We let our adversaries throw out a list of poor quality mouse studies, dubious sounding ingredients (monkey kidneys), and accusations that we are pharma shills, but the most common response that I see is that antivaxxers are idiots who are killing children.

    Another problem that I’ve noticed has been when my fellow skeptics become quite cocky and jocular about trashing someone’s possibly (not probably) true belief. For instance, JFK’s assassination can be quite a tricky plot to untangle. For me, Vincent Bugliosi did an excellent job deconstructing why Oswald was the lone assassin, but it took him thousands of pages to swat down many credible and incredible arguments for conspiracy. It’s easy for me to empathize with those who’ve invested themselves in such a conspiracy theory because there are multiple lines of misleading evidence obscuring the truth.

    That all being said, I was once someone who was neutral on issues like acupuncture, and was convinced by skeptics who tormented me with mockery and evidence. I admit that if it weren’t for the evidence, I would have remained a supporter of alternative medicine. So, let’s remember that both sides can be vicious and unkind, but only the skeptics have evidence on their side. And that’s what matters.

  7. Karla McLaren says:

    I think it takes a great leap to really put yourself in the mindset of someone who is your antithesis. But it’s a really important leap to make.

    I wrote this: “If we mistakenly or condescendingly separate what Camping’s followers did from the totality of meaningful and valid human behaviors, we miss important learning.

    Doomsday, end-times, and supernova prophecies are absolutely commonplace in human history. Understanding these prophetic tendencies is an important part of understanding ourselves.”

  8. Nicole says:

    For some reason, I don’t think that “drastic measure” on the part of “we fun loving gaggle of skeptics” is going to do much of anything in a “time bomb” situation, whether it be ridicule or otherwise. Someone who is seriously in fear of the end may only listen to a close, personal, trusted source. It’s a good idea to step in and help a friend who is wrapped up in such things, with the level of involvement scaling to the seriousness of the fear. However, I don’t think any public display or attempt can be that useful. I hope I’m wrong and would welcome ideas!

    • Karla McLaren says:

      I agree, Nicole. I lived in an end-time cult, and there’s a very closed-in mindset there. If others did not believe in the end, then they couldn’t possibly be reasonable people. So it was easy to discount them. If they used ridicule, that discounting became much easier to do. They were not only unreasonable; they had no manners!

      This is a version of what I say now to my friends in the new age who are doing things that are iffy, “You know, I’m concerned about X, but I trust your intelligence and your ability to figure things out. I have some information about X that you might find helpful, and if you want to hear it, I’m available to talk about it.”

      And this is a version of what I say if they’re heading into something dangerous, “Look, you’re more important to me than any religion or ideology or rules of politeness are. I’m really concerned about this and I’m worried that you’re going to be hurt. Please rethink this.”

      In both instances, the person maintains their dignity and their autonomy. Maybe they listen and maybe they don’t; I can’t control anyone and I can’t control the outcome or the world. But what people hear is that they are important and that I’m willing to talk about some very difficult issues on their behalf. I haven’t lost anyone yet.

      Sure it’s fun to mock and snark and rail; but it’s a kind of fun that tells people you aren’t trustworthy.

    • Tom says:

      I think you are right. There is probably nothing that can be done to help people who are susceptible to this sort of thing. A “horse laugh” isn’t going to be heard by the people Daniel is trying to help.

      There is an undercurrent of regret in Daniel’s post, which is understandable. “Why couldn’t we stop these people from blowing their life’s savings?” Sometimes you just have to shake your head at human nature and recognize that there is nothing you could have done to stop this.

  9. badrescher says:

    Thought provoking post.

    I think there is a place for public humor, but only where humor is expected (I’m thinking of TV shows like The Daily Show or SNL)regardless of the target. I do not believe that relatively private chuckling is comparable to public ridicule, either.

    However, I maintain that laughing in the face of believers, especially without even examining the evidence they claim supports that belief, is counterproductive and sometimes just plain mean.

    I do not think that the urgency of the situation changes that because it does not change the way that people respond to such ridicule. In fact, I think it is all the more important to avoid those approaches which, at least for the short term, tend push people in the other direction.

    • This is my own feeling as well: the higher the stakes, the greater the need for caution and care.

      • MadScientist says:

        I think the higher the stakes the more forthright you should be. Pussyfooting only gives people the impression that the idiot you’re dealing with may be onto something after all.

      • Somite says:

        Exactly. The only sentence that religion deserves is

        “There is no evidence or mechanism that supports those claims”.

        If that is being strident or constitutes mockery then so be it.

      • Somite: I don’t think that’s mockery. That’s just a straightforward statement of your position.

  10. BillG says:

    Mockery? Harold Camping is an megalomaniac, if not to be ignored (to starve his endless warped ego) merits scorn and ridicule just short of Jim Jones.

    Personal beliefs or succinctly faith, deserves no disparagement until you peddle your views which are dangerous and moronic. Mr.Camping, what would Jesus think?

  11. Jonathan Figdor says:

    So I guess we need to be quietly respectful of the Raelians, as well? Come on, think before you type, Daniel. The implication of your article is the end of comedy (if Jon Stewart can’t make fun of Xtian morons who believe in the end times, then why can he make fun of Republican morons who believe gays are immoral sinners?).

    • Come on, think before you type, Daniel.

      This is a theme I explore quite often; this article is consistent with the rest of my work. (See links above.)

      As to comedy: work in that context has its own rules, but it’s not the context I work in. I’m a skeptical investigator and science writer. In this context, education is the only game in town.

      • Jonathan Figdor says:

        I don’t think you’ve ever tried to explain that the world isn’t going to end to a deluded Xtian before, or tried to explain evolution in a quiet and reasonable debate to a Fundamentalist Xtian before. They won’t accept your evidence. They reject the authority of scientific consensus. You can’t have a conversation with someone who isn’t interested in listening to the evidence you provide.

        We are better of absolutely comically skewering these clowns, so that no one will even be able to think the thought, “geez the world is coming to an end, I better kill my kids” without instinctively laughing at the stupidity of such a plan. So you can either be helpful with us, or you can spend your time talking to the wall that isn’t interested in your facts, or your science, or your logic.

      • I don’t think you’ve ever…tried to explain evolution in a quiet and reasonable debate to a Fundamentalist Xtian before.

        I certainly have tried, both in my personal interactions and my professional projects. According to those who write to me about Evolution and Junior Skeptic, I even succeed now and again.

      • Jim Lippard says:

        “I don’t think you’ve ever tried to explain that the world isn’t going to end to a deluded Xtian before, or tried to explain evolution in a quiet and reasonable debate to a Fundamentalist Xtian before. They won’t accept your evidence. They reject the authority of scientific consensus. You can’t have a conversation with someone who isn’t interested in listening to the evidence you provide.”

        I have, many times, and I’ve tried to be civil and cordial to my best ability. The outcome for me has been that I’ve been invited to debate a creationist on a Christian radio station, I had numerous letters published in a Christian publication, I was invited to review a creationist book in a Christian journal (_Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation_), and I appeared in a creationist documentary film without having my points distorted. In short, I’ve been given a wider audience to make my points to Christians and creationists than I would have had I not been civil and cordial.

  12. MadScientist says:

    There’s just no reasoning with some folks and one of the remaining options is to put on a show to let everyone know what a fool those folks are. If you try to engage someone like Camping in discussions, you only lend credence to Camping – after all, people assume, you wouldn’t be talking to him if he were a complete dunce. I think it’s better to call an idiot an idiot and if people still fall for the fool’s words at least you know you’ve done your best and never pretended or given the impression that the idiot had any substance.

  13. Skepacabra says:

    There are indeed serious consequences to Camping’s predictions but if you can’t find humor in it while recognizing the harm, it will just make you crazy. Yes, we need to remind people of the harm, but I see no reason to pretend there isn’t additionally a humorous absurdity in these beliefs and the fact that believers will still cling to them even when the predictions clearly fail. Sure, it’s a dark comedy, but comedy nonetheless. The right approach is not to take ourselves too seriously and lodge sticks up our behinds but to follow in the footsteps of the great satirists and ridicule the hell out of these unintelligible ideas while showing the world how great life is when one doesn’t subscribe to them.

  14. tmac57 says:

    How about this:A worldwide campaign by Skeptics that says…

    “Every day it is the ‘End Of The World’ for people who die from diseases that are easily preventable by a simple action:


    Do your part to stop ‘The End Of The World’.”

    This could be a double edged sword that puts the ‘end times’ hysteria into a real world perspective,and provides a tangible and positive message to genuinely save lives.

  15. Retired Prof says:

    In New Orleans, back in the 19th century, dueling was popular among young upper-class men. Laws did nothing to stop the practice. Sermons–neither the earnest moralizing kind nor the fire-and-brimstone kind–did nothing to stop it.

    What stopped it was this: the editor of the Picayune newspaper began running satirically overblown reports of the glorious exploits achieved by stalwart heroes in the early morning mists. Readers guffawed. Within little more than a year, young twits stopped challenging each other to duels.

    In this case, the ridicule was directed at a practice, not a belief system, so the analogy with eschatological delusions is not perfect. Still, it suggests that ridicule directed at Camping’s massive delusion may inoculate a few people against the next millennial charlatan that comes along.

    In any case, we should not give up the option of satire. Laughter works like the howling of howler monkeys: to unify those who do it together and exclude (or often, in the case of human laughter, humiliate) those who are laughed at. Humiliation is a powerful tool for changing behavior. We should use it liberally on the perpetrators of error but sparingly on its victims, if at all.

    • gdave says:

      I’m a bit skeptical of this story. Was it really that simple? One newspaper editor ridicules dueling, and bang, it’s dead (pardon the pun) within a year?

      Even taking your account at face value, it seems ridicule was only one part of a much larger social complex at work. As you note, there were laws against dueling, and preachers excoriated it. There was obviously a fairly widespread belief, perhaps even an emerging social consensus, that dueling was a Bad Idea.

      Is it possible that editor’s ridicule was just the last straw in an already likely change in conduct?

      Or that his ridicule was simply a reflection of a broader social consensus that was emerging at the time? That is, that it was only when dueling was in its final death throes (sorry, tasteless puns seem unavoidable on this subject) that the editor of the Picayune decided to ridicule it, knowing that his audience would appreciate the ridicule of a tradition now widely acknowledged to be ridiculous?

      In either case, perhaps the editor’s ridicule was the follower, not the leader, of a social change. Do you have a reference for any sources which make a compelling case for the editor’s ridicule actively driving the change?

      • Retired Prof says:

        Your skepticism is well justified, of course.

        I got this story from a book compiled during the Depression titled _Gumbo Ya-Ya: A Collection of Louisiana Folk Tales_. My copy is in storage, so I can’t review the story or cite page numbers. But the nature of the source shows that your important questions likely can’t be answered yet; they would, however, make good research topics for an enterprising grad student in history/sociology.

  16. Robo Sapien says:


    The world as you know it is coming to an end, one stupid belief at a time.

  17. DeLong says:

    What is truly shameful about Harold Camping is that the Constitution and the tax laws protect him from what skeptics and non-believers could equate with lies. If Camping had been advocating, with the same assurance, a car that could get 1,000 miles per gallon, with promises to deliver said car on May 21, 2011 to those who put a deposit for purchase, then it is likely that those who wanted to buy the car could go after him for fraud once it was known the car did not exist. However, with a religious promise, protected by the First Amendment, Camping can just say that the Rapture will be another day. The tax laws also protect him since he does all of this under the guise of a religion with a non-profit tax exemption. Religions never have to guarantee anything, ever.

    • Retired Prof says:

      Yes, this is one of many irritations and inconveniences entailed by the Bill of Rights. On the whole, it’s better to put up with them than to try to improve the situation by nibbling away the rights by declaring exceptions. The new unintended consequences would probably be worse than the ones we’ve got now.

    • gdave says:

      “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” ~John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859

  18. Steve says:


    I’m as interested in changing minds away from superstition, magical thinking, pseudoscience, and doomsday prophecies as much as the next person, but I also enjoy a good, gut-busting laugh. What am I to do?

    Sometimes, the only rational response to the utter absurdity of this universe is laughter. I’ll laugh at anyone, at any time; including skeptics. All this hand-wringing about whether mockery is good for the skeptical cause is…well, laughable.

    Life is strange and far too short to waste much time worrying what nut cases (whether they are skeptical or gullible) think of me. I’d rather spend it, as Mencken suggests, “roistering down the highways” because that sounds like a lot more fun. To paraphrase some cowdude on some movie I may or may not have seen, “there’s a lotta people out there in need of mockin’”

    Good Day, Sir!

    • gdave says:

      Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from having a good laugh at the latest antics of those “crazy xtians.” I personally have had hours of fun at Daniel B. Evans’ marvelous Tax Protester FAQ – at least until I got to the part where he discusses a number of prominent tax protesters and their futile struggles, where it became sadly apparent that many of them may suffer from genuine and debilitating mental illnesses.

      The question at hand here isn’t whether its ever appropriate to laugh at a “wooster” or privately mock them, but rather, whether it’s useful for an activist skeptic (a regular contributor to skepticblog, for example) to employ ridicule as a means of persuasion.

      I personally wouldn’t characterize Daniel Loxton’s post as “hand-wringing about whether mockery is good for the skeptical cause”, but rather a serious and useful discussion of how we, as skeptics, should accomplish our goals. Your mileage, of course, may vary, especially if you are not coming from the prospective of a “skeptical investigator and science writer” for whom “education is the only game in town.”

      And a good day to you, too, sir.

  19. gdave says:

    I’ve got a few thoughts on this subject, more than will comfortably fit in a single comment, so I’m going to be breaking up my response into a few comments.

    First of all, how effective is ridicule in changing peoples minds? Does it work at all? If not, as other commenters have pointed out, the “ticking time bomb” scenario is irrelevant.

    The “ticking time bomb” scenario was often raised in the debate over “enhanced interrogation techniques” (aka torture), with proponents often simply ignoring the fact that if torture were more likely to yield no use intelligence or, worse, misleading intelligence (the torturee lies about the location of the bomb and how to defuse it), than it is to yield useful intelligence, torture is not a useful option. It’s also not useful if other, more humane, techniques work at least as well.

    Of course, if torture results in timely and reliable intelligence, and works better under tight time-constraints than other options, it might be useful in a “ticking time bomb” scenario.

    So what is the state of the research on ridicule as a means of persuasion? Is there good (or any) evidence in the social science research that ridicule is effective? If I recall correctly, Daniel Loxton’s previous posts on these matters seemed to indicate the bulk of the evidence is “no”, but I’m certainly willing to be convinced by evidence to the contrary. I’m personally less likely to be convinced ridicule works by being ridiculed for being skeptical of ridicule. :)

  20. gdave says:

    Comment, Part 2:

    It seems to me that ridicule (or at least humor) can be divided into in-group and out-group.

    When those in-group make fun of themselves, they use mutually understood jargon, references, and assumptions. The result can be quite humorous to those in-group, but incomprehensible to those out-group. And skeptics, pretty much by definition, are out-group to the followers of Harold Camping and similar groups.

    Out-group ridicule also uses mutually understood terms, references, and assumptions, but mutually understood by those outside the group being ridiculed. This can be quite humorous to those out-group, but is likely to be perceived as hostile, ignorant, or even bigoted and hateful, by those in-group.

    For example, I play Dungeons & Dragons, and other role-playing games. I’ve known many fellow gamers who hide their hobby from others, out of fear of ridicule, and even some who have left the hobby for that reason (often for fear of, or experience of, ridicule by a girlfriend or wife – it’s a heavily male-dominated hobby). But I’ve never known anyone who changed his mind about D&D due to ridicule – it changed behavior, but only superficially. As long as the threat of ridicule can be avoided, many of those same folk I have known have returned to the hobby.

    Or, take homeopathy. In any skeptical blog post on the subject, I can guarantee at least one comment along the lines of “If water has a memory, why doesn’t it remember all the fish poop that’s been in it?” While this kind of line can be humorous to a skeptic, it’s nonsensical to a homeopath. It ignores the elaborate succussion rituals which are used to prepare homeopathic remedies. To a homeopath who subscribes to Benveniste’s “water memory”, it’s the succussion ritual that creates the memory structure, and it must be done very carefully and precisely to formulate an effective remedy. And no, I am not defending homeopathy. I personally consider it nonsense. I’m just pointing out that to a believer, many skeptical attempts at ridicule are ignorant and nonsensical.

    On the other hand, fear of ridicule may prevent many people from trying D&D or homeopathy in the first place. So while I don’t think it would be at all effective in convincing a follower of Harold Camping, it might help to reassure someone who is just wondering whether there really is something to all of this end of the world stuff. But even for that to work, I suspect the ridicule must come from someone with some form of cultural authority. More on that in a later post.

  21. gdave says:

    Comment, Part 3:

    I think culture authority is vitally important in understanding ridicule. If someone in a position of cultural authority ridicules something, an audience member is likely to view the subject as something ridiculous. However, if members of a socially marginalized group with little or no cultural authority (oh, for example, skeptics) ridicules something, an audience member is more likely to view the would-be ridiculer as being ridiculous.

    This ties in closely with the idea of in-group and out-group ridicule I outline above. Someone with little or no cultural authority is likely to be perceived as ignorant, hostile, even bigoted and hateful, rather than as sharply insightful and humorous, particularly if the listener is already pre-disposed towards the subject being ridiculed (i.e., the very people we skeptics are trying to reach).

    I also think ridicule is more often useful, and used, not to make an otherwise reasonable-seeming idea seem ridiculous, but rather to emphasize how ridiculous an idea that an audience member already thinks of as being at least a little bit unreasonable really is.

    In the case of Harold Camping in particular, ridicule might be helpful with Christians who are already uncomfortable with Camping’s end-times theology, but are perhaps a bit concerned that there might really be something to it. But I personally think a simple presentation of what Camping is actually doing (simplistic numerology with no actual basis in the understanding of the Bible and prophecy shared by most Christians) would be more effective. And for committed followers of Camping, I suspect ridicule will just spur self-defense mechanisms, and, if anything, encourage them to double-down on their belief and commitment.

    This leads into my next point (and comment post), that ridicule is probably most effective when the subject is enabled to ridicule itself.

  22. gdave says:

    Comment, Part 4:

    One particular case study I’ve seen brought up in previous discussions of ridicule was the Superman radio/TV show taking on the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s. The ridicule the Klan was exposed to is credited by many scholars with seriously damaging the Klan, and would seem to offer a model of effective ridicule. But the lessons skeptics should draw is perhaps a bit more complex.

    For those unfamiliar, in the 1950s Superman was not only a comic book hero, but also had a wildly popular radio and then TV show. The writers and producers decided, with the help of a courageous Klan informer, to cast the KKK as villains in the show, and exposed them to a great deal of ridicule.

    For lessons skeptics might learn, first of all, Superman had tremendous cultural authority in the 1950s. It’s difficult to imagine in today’s fragmented media universe, but in the 1950s Superman was an almost universally popular cultural icon. It would have been difficult to find a young American boy who didn’t read the comic, listen to the radio show, and later watch the TV show, at least occasionally. And it would have been difficult to find a parent of a young American boy who was not familiar with Superman, either through their child, or from their own youth.

    He was not viewed as an advocate for any particular cause, but rather as perhaps THE quintessential idealized American hero. He had a level of not only cultural authority, but innocuous cultural authority (he was just a children’s entertainment character, after all), that modern skeptics can’t hope to match.

    Second, the show didn’t actually really ridicule the KKK. They were presented, within the context of the show, as a serious and competent threat. But they were a serious and competent threat within the context of an extremely popular but (at least to adults) fairly silly children’s show. The show didn’t ridicule the KKK, but the context it put them in opened them up to ridicule by the audience members themselves.

    Even more, thanks to that courageous informant, the writers and producers were able to incorporate authentic KKK terms, titles, and organizational details into their shows. In part, the damage this did to the KKK was not due to ridicule, but to revealing simple facts commonly known inside the group, but not to outsiders. The KKK literally shrouded itself, to create an air of mystery and terror. It was very much a secret society, even if many of its members were publicly known. Just the simple revelation of many of its mundane and trivial secrets, and the fact that it seemed helpless to effectively retaliate, or to even plug the leak, helped to puncture its aura of fear and power.

    Of course, another part of the damage was the ridicule. Any coherent group will have its own distinctive jargon, titles, and system of organization which will appear at least faintly silly to outsiders. Secret societies, in particular, often use oaths, proclamations, and terms which sound deeply portentous when said in the Right Tone of Voice, in the right context, but which sound deeply pretentious out of context. And even by those standards, the Klan was pretty silly. They had a habit, for example, of replacing the initial consonant of as many words as possible with a “kl”, or making up entirely new words with an initial “kl”. My personal favorite was their central ritual book: the Kloran (I guess Klible was too silly even for them).

    The point of the above is that the show itself didn’t mock their terminology – the KKK characters on the show used it completely seriously. But a low-wage actor on a low-budget children’s TV show trying to make silly dialogue sound serious makes itself an easy target for ridicule by the audience.

    So, I don’t know, maybe if Sesame Street had the Count seriously trying to explain Camping’s numerology, the resultant ridicule might be effective. But I don’t think open ridicule by some marginal bloggers, or a better known but divisive figure (Richard Dawkins, for instance), is likely to achieve the same result.

  23. gdave says:

    Addendum to my above comments:

    Of course, I could be wrong. There may well be convincing evidence from the social sciences that ridicule, even from out-group, or from socially marginalized groups, is an effective tactic (or, indeed, that skeptics aren’t as socially marginalized as I think they are). I stand ready to revise my opinions in the light of contradictory evidence (or at least I’d like to think that I do).

  24. Chris Howard says:

    Sarcasm assumes that the audience, as well as the intended target, possess an intellect. This
    May be a false assumption. ;-)

  25. Chris Howard says:

    Good cop, bad cop. Very effective.

  26. Rick says:

    While I agree that it’s very sad for the children who didn’t have a choice in the matter, I don’t agree that adults, especially in the technological west, should not be subject to ridicule in superstitious outlandish beliefs such as the May 21, 2011 rapture. In my opinion, they are completely without excuse. Having said that, I had some limited contact with some of Campings followers and I tried and tried to get them to see their error and realize that they had been duped by a con man that used cult 101 tactics on them. Many of these folks ridiculed me, my family, and even my profession. As far as I know, I didn’t convince or persuade not one single person of his/her error. Even after May 21 and nothing, most just went with Campings rationalization of the failed prediction by spiritualizing the event and latched on to the October 21, 2011 FINAL end of the world date. By the way, I guess I’m the true prophet, I predicted that this would happen and it did validating me as a true prophet! HA! Anyway, I seek to educate because it was me who was educated through books and articles written by skeptics. I always have to explain to believers that I was a Christian for over thirty years because most just assume that I had always been a non believer. of course they then question that I was ever a true believer to begin with. It just seems that very few will ever come over to the thinking side no matter what! I try to stay optimistic about the future, but it’s tough!

  27. Chris Howard says:

    Is it okay to wound pride, and ego, and be critical of an others beliefs, even at the point of ridicule to curb potentially dangerous behavior, and possibly save a life? I’d much rather have hurt feelings, and a wounded ego, over a dead daughter, but that’s just me.

    • gdave says:

      Of course it’s “okay to wound pride, and ego, and be critical of an others beliefs, even at the point of ridicule to curb potentially dangerous behavior, and possibly save a life,” and, of course, we all would “much rather have hurt feelings, and a wounded ego, over a dead daughter.” But if ridicule does not, in fact, “curb potentially dangerous behavior,” or worse, if it makes someone less likely to listen, and less likely to change their behavior, than it’s just not useful. Even if ridicule works, but less effectively than calm, respectful, and patient engagement, than it should not be used.

      Again, if ridicule doesn’t work, than all the moral justifications in the world are simply irrelevant.

      Moreover, I’m not at all clear whose lives would be saved by ridicule in the specific case Daniel Loxton presents in his post. Are you aware of any of Camping’s followers whose lives were saved, or could have been saved, by ridicule? At most, I am aware of a few isolated suicides that may or may not have been influenced by Camping’s prophecies. Do you really think some skeptics ridiculing those prophecies would have had a significant counter-acting in those cases?

  28. Jeff Wagg says:

    Excellent post as always, Daniel. I once brought up this issue with a prominent skeptic, and their response was “well, this is how the other side behaves.” My only response to that is, “We’re not on the other side.” I think as skeptics we have an obligation to be understanding of people who have unfounded beliefs because we know how easy it is to have them. We’re the ones that can explain how easy it is to be fooled, and mistaken, and because that, I feel we’re called to compassion rather than ridicule.

  29. Chris Howard says:

    Daniel, I understand Sexism, and Racism, and I believe that they are perfect targets for ridicule. Any cruel belief should be ridiculed. Wounded emotion may act as a catalyst to engage thought. The smack in the face that says “Wake up! You’re being ridiculous, and it just might cause you, or someone else, great harm.” Sometimes tough decisions require tough behavior, and if that means that someone will think me a “dick” so be it. Some times we just have to man-up, and do what’s right, feelings be damned. Ultimately, if you don’t want to be made fun of, listen to that nagging, inner skeptic. That little voice that tells you that what your believing is poppycock. Otherwise, take responsibility, and learn to suffer the slings and arrows for blind faith in an idiotic belief, whatever that may be.

    • tmac57 says:

      Yes,there is surely a place for ridicule,when the issue at hand,almost demands it.Take for example some of the more effective pieces on the Daily Show,where they piece together video clips that clearly demonstrate the gross hypocrisy of their target.It would be hard to argue that that is less effective than if some talking head just recited examples of contradictory statements in a matter of fact way.The absolute key,from a skeptical and rational point of view,is that the ridicule is based on accurate information,and not just a rhetorical trick,or simple demagoguery.Our aim,after all,should be to expose the truth,not just to win an argument.

  30. Chris Howard says:

    I just ran across this article, on NPR. It’s a bit sarcastic, and I’d like everyones opinion on it. Do you believe it to be persuasive, or not?

  31. Kenneth Polit says:

    Of all the ridiculous beliefs out there deserving ridicule, religious belief is the kind that should be mocked the most. The reason being that religion has had an unfair advantage throughout history. The idea that mocking religious belief is somehow rude is ludicrous. Bad ideas are bad ideas, no matter how many people hold them sacred. The religious mock science everyday with the idiotic concept of intelligent design, but point out the fact that there is no evidence that Jesus ever existed and you are suddenly hostile to faith. These people want it both ways, because they have had it both ways for so long. I say, enough is enough. The gloves are off and they are staying off.

    • Ender says:

      Ha! From someone who so belligerently swaggers around missing the point your threat to take off the gloves is more amusing than emphatic.

      Suffice it to say that ‘mocking’ by definition is rude, no matter who you target; No one is suggesting that its rudeness is the reason not to mock; and you appear to have merely skimmed the article, missed the point, and bashed away at the keyboard angrily.