I’m sitting here with my first coffee, on my first morning home from The Amazing Meeting 9 conference in Las Vegas—in many ways, the pivot point for the skeptical movement (at least in North America).
As usual, I came home with a lot to think about.
It was a conference that spoke to many of the recurring themes of my own work. Notably, many speeches explicitly tackled the practical aspects of effective, empathetic communication—and especially, the ways in which effective activism depends on well-considered messaging. I would go so far as to call that DBAD-related discussion of communication the theme of this year’s TAM: touching people emotionally, understanding their stories, telling the stories of science and skepticism in ways that people can hear and support.
JREF Communications Director Sadie Crabtree brought her strategic communications experience to bear in what was almost a tutorial on communication, urging skeptics to formulate our messages in ways that anticipate and avoid obstacles to understanding (to which end, we should avoid insider jargon such as “woo”) and speak to the better nature of the audience (we’re not attacking ignorance, we’re “giving people the knowledge they need to defend themselves from scams”). She emphasized opportunity cost, which is an aspect of skeptical communication that is often overlooked. For example, political campaigners understand that they will lose support whenever they choose to run negative attack ads. Knowing this, they must attempt a cost-benefit calculation, balancing audience disgust against audience mobilization. (I’d note here that Crabtree’s presentation draws upon the insights of the fundamentally amoral arena of marketing or public relations. Scientific skepticism faces academic ethical constraints—such as truth-telling—that win-at-all-costs marketing does not.)
Crabtree’s practical approach was bookended by union organizer Desiree Schell’s historical review of the role of radical and moderate voices in social movements such as civil rights and feminism. While radical splinters can sometimes help to make moderate reformers look more mainstream and palatable, this “Overton Window” metaphor has many limits. As Schell noted (she and I have talked about this many times) the audience must be able to clearly see the difference between the radicals and moderates—and more important, they must be motivated to care that there is a difference. If it’s easier to write off both groups based on the loudest voices rather than discriminate between them, that’s what will happen. To this, I would add that the Overton concept (an idea raised often over in the atheist movement) is a post hoc description of how events have played out in some cases, rather than a predictive strategy. The opposite outcome can also emerge, with radicals (“legalize heroin!”) making otherwise mainstream positions (“decriminalize marijuana”) appear more fringe, rather than less. In any event, as Schell explained, the role of radicals tends to be self-limiting. While radicals helped more moderate civil rights campaigners gain traction for their messages, Schell asks, “When was the last time we heard from the Black Panthers?” Over the long term, in many movements, it is left to centrists to do the unsexy heavy lifting.
Schell’s take-home message? “We must try to engage people on an emotional, compassionate, value-driven level. And at the same time, when the situation calls for it, we need to consider ways to pressure the people who don’t agree with us, to do what we want anyway.” Either way, messaging is king.
The best way to figure out what has a good chance of working, is to clearly state your objective, and determine which messages and tactics have a realistic chance of achieving the result you want. In some situations, you’ll want to be loud and in your face because it has a better chance of achieving your objectives with your target audience. In others, you’ll choose to be empathic and compassionate, because it has a better chance of achieving your objectives with your target audience.
I’m reminded here of the legendary Joe Nickell’s investigation-centric line about debunking: “If you go into these mysteries with an eye toward solving them, any needed debunking will take care of itself.” Similarly, when we take seriously the necessity of having specific goals (as Phil Plait’s 2010 DBAD speech asked, “What is your goal? What are you trying to accomplish?”), picking a specific target audience, and crafting messages that speak directly to that audience, civility largely takes care of itself. Being objective-centered, being civil, being accurate and fair and science-based—to a very large extent, and very often, these are all synonyms.
Newcomer Dylan Keenberg presented a paper that spoke to this synonymy. He described the method of Rogerian argument, which hinges on an immensely powerful technique: begin each round in a debate or argument by describing your opponent’s position in a way that is acceptable to them, and don’t proceed until they agree with your description. This exercise in accuracy automatically rules out name-calling, weasel-words, straw men, and exaggeration. It is also disarming, minimizing defensiveness at the outset, and reducing it further with the trust established over successive exchanges. While this works best when both sides agree to follow the Rogerian process, it is also effective when it is unilateral: when we strive to embody the scientific value of accuracy, we will also tend to break down barriers.
I quite enjoyed a paper presentation with a contrasting conclusion by another newer voice (this one from over in the atheist sphere), the confrontation-oriented Ashley F. Miller. I was unable to reconcile what I saw as a tension between the bulk of her presentation and her conclusion, but the body of her talk spoke to the emergent theme of the conference: it’s important to connect with people on an emotional level. The examples she provided, quantifying audience reception to television ads from both sides of California’s 2008 Proposition 8 debate about same-sex marriage, underline the arguments for civility and positive framing. For example, Miller played the powerhouse “Princes” ad (video). While this definitely engaged audiences on an emotional level, it relied on existing anti-gay bigotry without requiring audiences to view themselves in that unflattering light. Instead, it played on parents’ concerns about losing control of their children’s moral education, framing Proposition 8 in terms of positive values (“Protect Children”). As Miller’s graphs showed, this positive spin was powerfully effective.
All of this was put into context by the show-stopping speech of TAM9, by social psychologist Carol Tavris. Her powerful talk—approachable yet challenging yet inspirational—was the buzz at the private Skeptics Society dinner this year. Michael Shermer and I were almost tripping over each other to describe the talk to those who had missed it. The JREF has announced that TAM9 speeches will eventually be made available online; my hope is that this will be among the first.
A long-time campaigner in the skeptical trenches, Tavris has, more than anyone else in recent memory, elucidated the psychology that makes unpalatable messages unpersuasive. The root problem? “Cognitive dissonance,” which is the discomfort we feel when our beliefs conflict with each other or with our actions. People are very good at resolving this discomfort through justification. Consider common responses to the presentation of unwelcome scientific information: “Doctors would say that, because they’re in the pocket of Big Pharma” or “Yes, according to a bunch of cynics.” This is a problem CSI Fellow Barry Beyerstein discussed shortly before his death:
[T]ime and again, we were being dismissed, effectively but quite unfairly, by opponents who can’t counter our scientific critiques. They were able to avoid having to answer us by saying, “Oh, they’re just a bunch of stalking horses for the atheists who can’t stand anything that is even vaguely spiritual. That’s why they’re really picking on us; they claim that it’s a scientific dispute, but it’s not.” This ploy gets them off the hook by slight of hand—they avoid having to debate substantive criticisms by attributing ulterior motives to us.
As Tavris emphasized, this sort of dismissive response to skeptical arguments does not require any malicious strategy. It’s simply how humans work. Our brains are adept at rejecting ideas that make us uncomfortable—and the more uncomfortable we are made, the stronger our beliefs become. (I’m reminded of one influential guru’s warning to confrontationists: “You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.”)
A major stumbling point here is the tendency for skeptics to see paranormal or pseudoscientific claims as profoundly stupid. Even when we attempt to distinguish between the belief and the believer, these are as a practical matter the same whether we like it or not. To this point, Tavris described an argument she had with a friend over a skeptical matter. Tempers rose until Tavris’s friend finally blurted out, “I have an IQ of 165! I have a Ph.D.!” This response is of course a non-sequitur (on factual matters, fools and geniuses are all identically at the mercy of the accuracy of our sources) but it made things suddenly clear to Tavris in a way she had not understood before. While Tavris had thought she was debating scientific facts, her friend was hearing something else: that Tavris thought she was stupid. When we make people feel that way, we’ve already lost the debate.
The path this stark psychological reality sets for skeptics is clear: craft messages that anticipate and avoid creating unnecessary dissonance. This dovetails exactly with the advice given by Sadie Crabtree and the other speakers at the Amazing Meeting 9: understand the “other side’s” arguments, and describe those arguments fairly; speak to people with respect; appeal to the better nature of the audience; and, perhaps most important, put unfamiliar skeptical information in context alongside the values that people already hold.
I will probably return to some of the lessons of The Amazing Meeting 9 conference in future posts. (In particular, the panels on the “Ethics of Paranormal Investigation” and “Diversity in Skepticism” raised very substantial issues for further discussion.)
For now, it will suffice to say this: once again, The Amazing Meeting has lived up to its reputation as the greatest summit for skepticism in North America — and once again, I have returned home challenged, inspired, and rejuvenated. I can hardly wait for next year!