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Skepetiquette

by Phil Plait, Feb 04 2009

Being a skeptical blogger is easy. You can say what you want, and everyone assumes you’re just some antisocial jerk in his basement. Doing it in real life can be… difficult.

I sometimes have trouble in social situations because someone will say something that is perhaps not supported by reality, and I have wind up jumping right in. I don’t say they’re stupid or anything like that, but people identify with their ideas, so saying that an idea is wrong is basically saying they are wrong, and maybe even implying they’re stupid (or, more likely, they wind up inferring it).

It’s a delicate thing, trying to change someone’s thinking. Do it too strongly and you violate Wil’s Rule (in his banner). Do it too weakly and you may feel you’re not true to your convictions.

That’s why Allyson Beatrice’s post on Cocktail Party Physics about skeptical etiquette is so wonderful. It’s long, but well worth your time to read; it’s funny and true and may hit home. I have lots of friends I can call on their dumbosity, just as they do on mine, and we’ll laugh about it. But that’s not always true in every social situation… and it’s a minefield out there.

Not everyone who reads this blog is a self-identified skeptic (but I bet most of you are!), and some folks may be skeptical about some things but not others. Still, I just bet you deal with friends/family/strangers who talk about astrology/homeopathy/antivax stuff. What do you do when that happens? The comments are open.

24 Responses to “Skepetiquette”

  1. Lirone says:

    I’ve had some really difficult times with this lately. Not just awkward moments, but painful ones. The slightest expression of scepticism on my part leads to accusations that I’m not open minded. I try to explain the nature of my open-mindedness, and the principles which I accept and the sort of traps you can fall into.

    But at the end of the day it’s hard to actually question that someone’s experience actually means what they think it means, without them feeling attacked. Or that you don’t respect their judgement.

    The only partial solution I’ve found is to highlight that I question my own judgement and experience in exactly the same way I question theirs. Would welcome other suggestions, though.

  2. papu says:

    I was especially interested in Beatrice’s friend who was being treated for Lyme disease. Her friend may have actually had the disease, but giving a patient a fake diagnosis of Lyme disease is the latest scam in medical hucksterism. There are labs which will award a positive result for Lyme antibody to any sample sent them, allowing sham treatment with such things as “mineral bags” given intravenously at about a thousand dollars a pop. We had such a rogue physician in my locale who was treating hundreds of patients for a bogus diagnosis of Lyme disease and making a fortune doing it. When he succumbed to heart disease at a young age (interestingly, he also sold ‘chelation’) his obituary asked that donations be given to a particular autism research facility. When I investigated I found it was a mill devoted to non scientific “cures” for autism which was claimed to be caused by childhood vaccines. Even in death, we can still cheat the trusting and the gullible.

  3. Marvin says:

    With age comes immunity. I used to think old peoples’ comments about a lot of things were strangely unfiltered. Now that I’m approaching my seventh decade, I realize that there is nothing to lose by taking on the woo-practitioners and sloppy thinkers at every turn. If you haven’t made enough friends by 60, you probably never will. Let ‘em have it, publicly and without hesitation. Make sure your homework is done, though. Nothing advances the anti-critical-thought crusaders as quickly and effectively as a skeptic that can be easily and accurately dismissed with the facts.

  4. When I post online I don’t have to worry about how the content might affect family or friends. However, in real life this becomes a geniune concern. Though I’m now a widower, I was once at a social function of my wife’s employer and her immediate boss, a doctor, asked my opinion on the recently publicized ‘proof’ that acupuncture works. Normally, I would tear right into that, but in this case I did what I generally do when I experience a conflict between what I’d like to say and the potential for negative consequences to loved ones in my orbit – I demurred, based on a risk/benefit calculation. Where any negative consequences for countering woo aggressively would accrue to me only I fire away.

    In the instance where the person pushing woo is a friend, co-worker, or family member, I try to be tactful and usually say something like, “I have an alternative way to look at this if you’d care to hear it.” Where appropriate I also caution that “this might sting a little, and please don’t take it personally, but there are other ideas and other evidences to consider about __________ .” In other words, I tiptoe in, but deliver the same arguments.

    In that I live in a rural area of the Bible Belt, I encounter Christian fundies left and right. These I just leave alone as a very likely fruitless effort.

  5. Jesse says:

    Several of my beloved friends and family members believe adamantly in things like this. Some of them are dazzlingly intelligent, and have constructed intricate palaces of rationale to explain why It All Makes Sense. Others aren’t as good at that game, but these beliefs are deeply important to many of them. I think that’s very important to keep in mind: it’s easy to discount beliefs that seem patently silly, but the people who believe them have often integrated them deeply into their identities. Letting on that you feel the belief is silly is almost impossible to do without deeply insulting the person.

    I take two approaches, depending on the social context. People like my grandmother, who has studied astrology for longer than I’ve been alive and who is dear to me, get the most respectful treatment I can muster up. I sat down with her and showed interest in the field, trying to learn what makes it so meaningful to her. I learned a lot about her in the process – where she’s been, how she approaches her life, how she copes with problems. I try to frame the conversations around the idea that I don’t accept astrology myself, but I know it’s valuable to her and I want to learn about her. It is a person you’re interacting with, after all, and not an ideology.

    The other approach comes up in more casual social situations, like the parties mentioned in the post. These events are generally relaxed and friendly. It’s seldom appropriate to be directly confrontational or demeaning, but it’s usually fine to express your opinion. You just have to bear in mind that the conversation at these events usually carries the subtext that you’re trying to form casual social ties. You can have a polite, and even funny, conversation about what you do and don’t believe that can be very interesting to both parties. You just have to phrase it tactfully. A conversation could go something like:

    “What’s your sign?”
    “Oh, are you interested in astrology?”
    “A little bit. I mostly think it’s fun.”
    “I never really understood its appeal. How can you group so many kinds of people into twelve buckets like that?”

    You divert the conversation from an assumption that astrology is valid and relevant to a conversation about what is different and interesting about each of you. Most people who ask for your sign are just looking for a conversation starter, anyway. People who are serious and have studied it are sources of interesting conversations – there’s actually some modestly interesting math involved in the more complicated forms of astrology. It’s neat, from a puzzle-solving perspective. If the conversation is uncomfortable, you can generally pick something out of their response to change the subject to. If done carefully, you can often manage to be polite, make a friend, and express that you don’t find astrology believable.

  6. Mike says:

    I find I can turn my skeptometer off when I have to or at least only poke a little fun at people’s wacky ideas – after all we all want to be liked and asked to parties and not to be thought a twat who is also a party pooper. You don’t have to be a full on sceptic all the time!

    I am often asked my star sign and happily give it (Libra) – doesn’t seem to cause any problems.

  7. Dan Gilbert says:

    I recently was in a situation at the garage where I take my car for service. The owner, who I was meeting for the first time, was chatting with me about GhostBusters (the SciFi Channel) show and he told me about a “ghost” experience he had when he was a kid that left a lasting impression on him. To him, it was completely real and was an important experience. I felt no compunction whatsoever to try to convince him otherwise. I listened intently and asked questions about “what happened” and was actually quite touched by his story.

    That was a situation where someone is just relating a story, though, not trying to push an ideology or even unintentionally mislead people. It was a nice converstation and he didn’t ask me whether I believed in ghosts or anything like. It just wasn’t relevant.

    If I’d have tried to push the point of skepticism about ghosts, the conversation might have gone another direction… for no benefit.

    If someone starts challenging me or asking me questions, I’ll definitely take up the debate, however, and I’m lucky enough to have some wonderful people at work who love to have discussions of that nature… and everyone is always pleasant, polite, and respectful even though our ideas are at opposite ends of the spectrum. I love that kind of discussion!

  8. Jerry says:

    I have a large number of individual clients. Since my income depends on not offending them, I’ve had to turn off my critical thinking on many occasions and be generally agreeable to some asinine beliefs. Does this make me a whore? Probably.

  9. Billy says:

    This reminds me of Tim Minchin’s beat-poem “Storm” (search for it on Youtube; it’s quite a laugh) which chronicles one freethinker’s battle with maintaining civility in the face of a dinner party guest spewing forth superstition.

    The problem I notice is this:
    I want to argue logic and reason with people when I don’t agree with them. In matters of thought like politics, literature, medicine*, and the like this generally works out pretty well as I am a medical student at an academic institution that requires evidence for everything. However, even budding physician-scientists can harbor beliefs close to their heart that defy any logic. Some of these beliefs are even harmful to the lay public if they are given from an authority figure. If I enter discussion, however, I am met with a stone wall of indifference to reason (and I emphasize REASON here, not just “what my reasoning says is the correct opinion,” which is too often used interchangeably). These people are offended that I “don’t respect their beliefs” or whatnot. Is there any solution to this? I’ve come to the conclusion that the only truly polite, (read: inoffensive) thing to do is to just sit there and let them live in willing ignorance. If someone holds a belief that defies actual logic, not just logical opinion, you cannot present rational skepticism and expect a discussion that is both productive AND amiable. The other party will either become defensive or politely brush you off. This is why I mostly keep my “rational thoughts” to myself until I know the other person very well and we’ve had a few drinks.

  10. MadScientist says:

    @Lirone: You obviously have the wrong idea about being open-minded. In NewAgeSpeak it means “pulled brain out through nostrils and tossed it onto the floor”. So unless you’re an absolute moron, you can’t be “open-minded”. It’s the ‘New Age’ retort to anything that stinks of intelligence. ‘New Age’ itself is an oxymoron since it is a rehash of age-old rubbish.

  11. sonic says:

    What would it take for you to realize the universe is not a logical, rational place?
    How could someone approach you about that without you taking offense?

  12. Tuffgong says:

    All this really comes down to is how to deal with disrupting people’s opinions. It just so happens that the opinions are irrational and the retort is skepticism.

    I’ve found that if they are not a close friend, I really don’t care if I’m offensive. Respecting someone’s opinion for the sake of doing so only allows irrational and superstitious thinking to continue. Will you make a lot of friends? Not as many but it sure as hell separates those who get it from those who don’t.

    I happen to be a teenager in high school and this feel good new-age crap has a firm grasp on a lot of people and I have no problem taking them to task. If they want to make it an unintelligent yelling match, then they are not worth my time and not a person who deserves my attention. Of course this means I have to conduct myself properly but I always make that a priority.

    Even if you become someone’s enemy, if they second guess their beliefs or you disrupt them, it’s a job well done as far as I’m concerned.

  13. Billy says:

    @Tuffgong (12)

    I was the same way back in high school. That strategy works enough there, but as you start down a path in life that requires effective relationships with others, things get tricky. In school, you have people you like and people you don’t. You have to see them all every day and none of them really make a significant impact outside of your sphere of interpersonal interaction.

    The annoyingly-fickle real world is another game entirely: your livelihood will most likely depend on how much other people want your goods/services and how much they will do in return. This can mean giving you a salary in exchange for the work you do, patronizing your store in exchange for the products you sell and your relationship with the customer, or recommending you for a promotion in exchange for just being a likable person. It can sometimes work out that the people on which your life depends see things your way a good deal of the time; more often, though, you need to keep your more inflammatory ideas to yourself in order to keep order.

    A paraphrased classic example from medical training, a nonreligious doctor confronted:
    If a patient’s mother asks if you will pray for her daughter before a risky surgery, you can respond a number of ways:

    “You want me to pray to Asclepius or Yahweh? Both are just as fabricated so it won’t matter either way”
    This is a purely rational, albeit pretty heartless, response. We don’t have any more evidence for the existence of one than the other, and blinded prayer’s effect has never beaten the null hypothesis. The mother will be pretty displeased and you might get called in to speak to the hospital’s administration for things like that. Not a good career move.

    “Yes, I will.”
    If you don’t pray and don’t intend to, this is a lie. You are allowing the mother to feel good and doing nothing to stop an irrational belief. She’ll probably be pretty happy with your compassion, but you might feel as if you sacrificed your honor in lying to a patient’s family. Your dishonesty, if continuing, is likely to be noticed by your fellow doctors and maybe even your patients. Not a very good career move long term, but still the mother is happy for now.

    “Your daughter has the best care we can give and I personally will have her recovery in my thoughts every day.”
    You’ve supplied an alternative; she wants you to show that you care and you did. Most of the time, the family doesn’t really require more than that when asking for a prayer. At the same time, you didn’t lie; a good doctor caring for a patient should certainly think about her a great deal every day and give the best care possible.

    Something like the last option is considered to be the best move. It does nothing to quell irrational beliefs (that prayer will affect the outcome of an operation) but it makes you a better doctor. Some say that you should be slightly more honest and claim that you “are not one who prays” before reassuring the mother about your care as a physician, but the idea is the same: it is not always the best time or place to confront someone about the irrational beliefs.

    My apologies for being so verbose…

  14. tmac57 says:

    Here is the link for the Tim Minchin poem “Storm” that Billy mentioned.It is not to be missed if you haven’t already heard it!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ujUQn0HhGEk
    It seems to me that there is no “right” way to respond in such situations. You have to weigh the pros and cons of how your response might be received and if that will achieve the desired outcome.
    When I was a young man I did much as Tuffgong did, I was brutally honest and confrontational when I thought I was right. Like Billy I began to soften my approach as time went on ,to be more sociable and I thought, more persuasive.
    After many years of this approach I decided that it is difficult to change anyone’s mind, and I am temped to just let it slide when confronted with what I consider nonsense . But that tact is also decidedly wanting. So having gone through many stages of how to deal with woo, my advice is do what ever works for you.
    And, oh by the way, be prepared to eat your own words if something you now believe with great fervor turns out to be total crap sometime in the future. It has happened to us all.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Generally, when people are wrong, it tell them so. Most verbosely, using printouts and charts if I have to. I return to it every single conversation, even if they clearly indicate they don’t want to, until they either admit they were wrong, or break of the friendship. I used to think there was something to be said for being nice and respectful about people’s idiotic beliefs, but as the decades are flying past I’m coming rapidly to the realization that life’s too short.

  16. Shahar Lubin says:

    My repsonse to “what’s you sign” is “the one too skeptical to believe in astrology. Aquarius of course”.

  17. SeanJJordan says:

    @#15, Anonymous: stop your trolling. If you can’t sign your name, no one is going to take you seriously anyway.

    You know one issue that I have to be careful about? Chiropractic. Most of the people I know who see chiropractors believe that they’re doctors, and they aren’t willing to hear the facts. I’m only trying to help them; instead of spending thousands of dollars seeing a chiropractor that their insurance won’t cover, they could spend far less time and money seeing a licensed physical therapist whom their insurance will cover. Plus, they’ll actually get better! But they don’t want to hear it.

    So, unless they’re seriously injured and in genuine need of medical care, I bite my tongue and let it go. It’s their money to waste.

  18. chickenfish says:

    I suggest that what many consider as opinions, false beliefs or facts would be better described as assumptions. Most people I meet haven’t the intellectual stamina to develop a proper opinion. As a result folks fall into a state of mass assumption, assuming that they know what they think they know, usually from what they see on tv.

    So as a response when encountering a far out idea I simply ask questions and let the teller of the story determine for themselves that they only believe what they are telling, not know it.

    When one separates what they know from what they think they know we realize we know nothing or very little.

    In parting ghosts, flying saucers and the whole bit is quite fun and I don’t discount any of it. As a critical thinker I haven’t enough information to form a closed opinion on any of it so I am always happy to listen and ask questions when these topics come up.

  19. Mastriani says:

    Generally, there is a lesson learned early in life, through an elder who was an Italian immigrant to this country. Stout man, not only in physical structure, but mental fortitude and integrity:

    “People who have time to waste being offended obviously don’t have much work to be accomplished in a day.”

    Correct is correct, and an error is still an error. If you’ve sat up in bed and placed your feet on the floor, your first error of each day has been committed. It doesn’t stop after that either.

    I agree with what DA stated, in that there are times to perform risk/benefit analysis, which sometimes means the only option is to walk away. Otherwise, a sledgehammer and a smile will do quite nicely.

  20. smijer says:

    Well said. I have a lot of creationists in my family, and the sparks really fly sometimes. Lately, I do my best just simply not to engage anyone whose feelings I care about.

  21. Laih says:

    It’s a bit of a tightrope act, I’ve found. One of my very best friends swears up and down on a stack of bibles that aliens are visiting our planet, and that she has prophetic dreams. Another one recounts tales of hauntings, convinced the evidence presented can only be explained through paranormal means. A third knows, for certain, that dinosaurs existed at the time of Jesus. A fourth has told me that if she did my star chart, she could fairly accurately predict my personality and general life course. I have, on occasion, tried to point out the fallacy of their beliefs, and the fights that have ensued (mostly because I can become argumentative and they get defensive) were rather epic and disastrous. I value these people more than just their beliefs in silly things, and aside from the woo, by and large they are truly remarkable people, and all are very, very bright. And it is because I value their company over their critical thinking skills that I learn to just, well, leave well enough alone. Even if it does make me want to rant and rave.

    As other posters have mentioned, I do find that genuine curiosity and interested (and perhaps leading) questions often serve better in the whole “changing the mind” bit in others. And it often sparks great conversation.

    A religious friend of mine has asked me, on occasion, what’s the harm in letting people believe in what they want to believe, and at times, I’ve been hard-pressed to answer. A lot of my friends *do*, in fact, employ critical thinking skills, however, they don’t seem to employ these skills in all situations. And I’ve had to accept that I can’t change the minds of people who don’t *want* to have their minds changed.

  22. Jeff says:

    I just turned 61, and agree with the other early-middle-agers here that life really is too short to worry about the precious “feelings” of over-sensitive delusionals. I used to try to let absurd comments roll off my back for the sake of getting along, but eventually realized that made *me* uncomfortable. This was made easier by realising that I didn’t want to be around people who were so mentally undisciplined anyway, so the social costs were minimal.

    If I were the doctor being asked to pray for a patient, I would simply inform her mother that I’m not religious but would certainly do my best for her daughter. I do the same with my computer clients now, and have found that if you just admit your atheism practically everyone is okay with it. Most people still assume everyone has a religion and are at first a little shocked that anyone would be upfront about not having one, however I think I get some respect for being honest about it. Once we all know where each other stands we can have fairly serious discussions which do not become antagonistic.

    This is in San Diego, a conservative, politically corrupt town full of flag-wavers and bible-thumpers, but also the home of the Salk Institute where the Beyond belief conferences are held. I’ve never lived in the Bible Belt, though, so what works here might not work there.

  23. Kevin Browning says:

    I have a real hard time being skeptical living in northeast Kansas. I read a post from Rebecca Watson the other day talking about the skeptical bubble that she lives in with unbelievable envy. Aside from religion, my wife would probably be considered an a priori skeptic but that’s about all I’ve got. Everyone else I know is about as whack as you can get on some level or another.

    Another problem that I have is that I’m not a very good communicator. I definitely come off as being hostile and grumpy when I’m not trying to be. I also don’t remember details about things I’m not passionate about. For example I can tell someone why homeopathy is crap, or why vaccines are essential and not dangerous, but I find UFOs and astrology boring, so aside from saying that it’s crap, I don’t keep a lot of details about the argument in my head.

    Overall, I mostly just try to change the subject or stay away from conversations with people that I know will go down some crazy road. Sometimes I do think about getting more aggressive and let the chips fall where they may. After all, I stay away from talking to a lot of people anyway. What would be the difference if they were pissed and stayed away from me?

  24. ufobelieversareretards says:

    what’s wrong with calling out idiots? It’s fun and easy to do! If you do it correctly you can get the morons to take a swing at you then it’s game on.