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Steven Novella’s post last week on the complex topic of the ethics of speech was inspired by consideration of the ethics of “colloquial use of the term ‘crazy.’” This is an area of interest to me. I have often argued both for professional restraint in the things skeptics say and the manner in which we say them; and, for the importance of ongoing conversation on the ethics and efficacy of skeptical practice. But Novella’s post also had excellent timing, as I was already planning on touching on some of the thorny ethics at the intersection between skepticism and mental illness.
I should say at the outset that I have little in the way of solutions to offer. That’s natural and proper: I am not a mental health professional, so it should seem surprising (or reckless) if I had many answers—insofar as answers even exist. My professional experience in skepticism does suggest some troubling questions, however. As well, many people have personal or family experience with the tragedies of mental illness, serious addiction, or both. My own life has been no exception, so I confess that I feel acutely aware the topic.
That said, let’s look at some angles of interest.
One issue I have touched upon previously in Skepticblog (and which I discuss in some detail in my upcoming book with Don Prothero) is the misleading assumption of mental illness or dysfunction as a major factor in paranormal belief. Often this assumption is expressed in an informal or colloquial form. (Occasionally it is expressed more seriously as a hypothesis.) It’s not unusual to find skeptics referring to “the crazies” or “the woos” or the “tinfoil hat brigade” as somehow unusual—other and apart. The view of paranormal believers as social or psychological outliers, however, flies in the face of the science. Sociologists and pollsters know that the paranormal is in fact normal—that is, a large majority of people hold one or more paranormal beliefs, even when offered only a very short list from which to choose. Offering American adults a list of ten paranormal beliefs, for example, a 2005 Gallup survey found that 73 percent of Americans affirmed a belief in at least one of those ten items; 57 percent believed at least two of those items; 43 percent believed three or more.1
It hardly needs saying that those 73 percent of Americans cannot all be mentally ill. But it happens that social scientists have also drilled down into the question of mental health within subpopulations of paranormal believers or experiencers. For example, Harvard psychologist Susan Clancy’s studies of people who believe they have been kidnapped by space aliens revealed a population with generally ordinary mental health. (There was “little evidence that this was a particularly psychopathological group,” she wrote.2). Scoffers may feel tempted to view alien abductees as a convenient go-to example of a “lunatic fringe,” but that framing is profoundly unhelpful in the pursuit of scientific understanding of the topic of alien abduction. (I discuss Clancy’s work with abductees in more detail here.)
Even for the most hardcore “debunkers,” our goal is generally stated to be accurate information, not moral judgment. Remember the Spinoza quote that serves as the motto of the Skeptics Society? “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.” It’s the nature of prejudice to distort and conceal the facts. If we are serious about our truth-seeking, follow-the-evidence aspirations, then we may find it a useful practice to cull as many expressions of prejudice or assumption as possible from our public and private language. At the end of the day, as one Skeptical Inquirer letter-writer expressed in regard to alien abduction, “It is disrespectful and misleading to talk about individual human beings as though we can be easily be labeled either ‘crazy’ or ‘sane.’ ‘Sane’ people can have crazy problems”—such as believing they’ve been abducted by aliens.3
My points above concern essentially amoral methodological considerations: if we care about accuracy, then it follows that we should avoid making statements that are not true or which we do not know to be true. By similar reasoning, we should avoid prejudicial language—language that offers a conclusion prior to investigation. To call people crazy is to commit Sherlock Holmes’s “capital mistake.”4
But methodology is not the only concern. People are not robots. There are also ethical and moral dimensions to the language of labeling—the dimensions discussed by Steven Novella’s thoughtful recent post (which in turn was a response to Elyse Anders’ thoughts on the same topic). “Crazy” in particular often carries a connotation that the person so labelled is so incoherent or disordered in their thinking that their arguments or feelings may be dismissed out of hand—a particularly ugly suggestion when we know that some paranormal proponents and interested readers of skeptical content must indeed struggle with mental illness.
Now, this is not to snipe at Novella. I agree with his overall point that context matters when considering the appropriateness of language, and I join him in hoping that listeners extend some charity of interpretation to speakers. After all, I’m in the business of voicing stuff as clearly as I can and then hoping it will be received in the best light (often a vain hope on the internet). As Novella puts it,
[I]f we grant that there is a responsibility to civility if we desire to function in society, where does that responsibility lie? One premise of Elyse’s stated position is that the responsibility lies entirely with the speaker. Rather, I would propose that there is a shared responsibility. You can make a reasonable argument that speakers should make an attempt to be aware of the effect that what they say, including their word choice, has on others. I would also argue that people should make a reasonable attempt to not be thin-skinned, to not take offense where none was intended, and to accommodate for the vagaries of everyday speech.5
The speaker is a stakeholder in speech; so too is the listener or target of speech (rendering the “there is no right not to be offended” argument for confrontational approaches bankrupt, in my opinion). The ethics of speech are then a collaboration, an exchange, a balancing act. Nonetheless, in light of my years banging the civility drum, it will surprise no one that I place the heaviest burden for civility, accuracy, and due diligence on the speaker.
I know from personal experience that the word “crazy” in particular can derail dialogue. In an otherwise fruitful 2004 email interview with cryptozoologist Loren Coleman, I asked this colloquial, lighthearted question: “Are cryptozoologists crazy?” (I was deliberately fishing for a quote to the effect that cryptozoology is a reasonable pursuit given x, y, and z.) I was taken off guard by Coleman’s response—not because I disagreed with it, but because I had failed to anticipate it.
I’m sorry, but having worked closely with many people from various walks of life for over three decades, I find no humor in this question. Individuals with mental illness, bipolar disorders, and clinically defined personality difficulties are no joking matter.
To use words like “crazy” as a descriptor for anyone, let alone people that are conducting scientific research outside the mainstream, is demeaning and allows stigma to erect attitudinal, structural, and financial barriers.
According to Andrew Wahl, by the second or third grade children have already picked up on the fact “that people with mental illnesses are to be viewed less favorably than others” (Stigmatizing Media Images Affect Children). Mentally ill people are clearly not seen or treated as equal community members, and to reinforce this by labeling people that skeptics find silly or worthless is uncalled for.6
Well, fair enough. I apologized unreservedly, and rephrased my question. He was right—and I knew he was right, because of the challenges and sorrows of people I love.
Genuine Mental Illness
Skeptics may be too quick to dismiss unconventional beliefs or believers as irrational, but there is no question that we encounter mental illness in our practice. My inspiration for this post is a chapter from Carl Sagan’s book The Cosmic Connection. Sagan discussed the many different types of letters he often received from his readers—children, inventors, UFO enthusiasts, and so on. Among these, of course, were letters from people who were mentally disturbed, or in some cases even institutionalized.
But over the years there is one letter that stands out in my mind as the most poignant and charming of its type. There came in the post an eighty-five page handwritten letter, written in green ballpoint pen, from a gentleman in a mental hospital in Ottawa. He had read a report in a local newspaper that I had thought it possible that life exists on other planets; he wished to reassure me that I was entirely correct in this supposition, as he knew from his own personal knowledge.7
Sagan’s correspondent had, he wrote, managed to make contact with a number of ancient deities, including Jupiter and “God Almighty” (both patients at the same hospital). God Almighty took him on a spaceship tour of the solar system.
And this, Dr. Sagan, is how I can assure you that the planets are inhabited.… But all this business about life elsewhere is so much speculation and not worth the really serious interest of a scientist such as yourself. Why don’t you address yourself to a really important problem, such as the construction of a trans-Canadian railroad at high northern latitudes?8
Looking over the enclosed “detailed sketch of the proposed railway route,” Sagan was unsure what to say. “Other than stating my serious intent to work on a trans-Canadian railroad at high northern latitudes,” he wrote, “I have never been able to think of an appropriate response to this letter.”
I can’t either, and it’s not an academic question. This letter is not particularly unusual. I have received similar letters myself. I’m sure this is true of many of my colleagues.
What is the appropriate response to encounters of this kind? And more generally, how can scientific skepticism develop practices that take seriously the weight and the risks of our work? It is the nature of this field of study that people contact us about the transmitters in their heads, or the ghosts driving them from their homes. We report on families in crisis, discuss recovered memories of abuse, report on vitamins sold as treatments for serious mental illnesses. In that context, how funny can “crazy” possibly be?
For example, couldn’t the title of this post be justifiably criticized as inappropriate, even cruel? Indeed, shouldn’t it be? I couldn’t resist the mashup of Carl Sagan and Ozzy Osbourne, but why is my amusement an excuse? Who am I to be so flippant about Sagan’s story? The man in his story was institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital, for god’s sake. He was a person in trouble, not a punchline.
That’s true of a lot of people. So my question is, what do we do about that? I open the floor to you.
- David W. Moore. “Three in Four Americans Believe in Paranormal.” http://www.gallup.com/poll/16915/Three-Four-Americans-Believe-Paranormal.aspx (accessed Oct 1, 2012). For a detailed discussion of these and other data, see my upcoming book with Donald Prothero, Abominable Science (Columbia University Press).
- Susan Clancy. Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.) p 129. Abductees do tend, however, to have certain normal traits in common—including a higher than average vulnerability to creating false memories ina laboratory setting. See Clancy (2005) pp. 132-133
- Pamela Roberson. Letter to the Editor. Skeptical Inquirer. Vol.22, No.5. September/October 1998. p. 64
- “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” Arthur Conan Doyle. The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Volume 1. (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003.) p. 189
- Steven Novella. “Call Me Crazy, But…” Skepticblog. Sept 24, 2012. http://www.skepticblog.org/2012/09/24/call-me-crazy-but/ (accessed Oct 1, 2012)
- Loren Coleman. Email to author. Nov 23, 2004.
- Carl Sagan. The Cosmic Connection. (New York: Anchor Books, 1973.) p. 77–78. Quotes from the patient’s letter are evidently Sagan’s paraphrase from memory.
- Ibid. p. 79. Quotes from the patient’s letter are evidently Sagan’s paraphrase from memory.