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Sugarplums of the Apocalypse?

by Daniel Loxton, Jan 05 2010

Sugarplum_explosionI love Christmas. It’s my favorite time of year, in exactly the way skeptical comedy-rocker Tim Minchin describes in his small, moving Christmas song “White Wine in the Sun”:

I’m looking forward to Christmas
It’s sentimental I know, but I just really like it…

Though I’m not expecting a visit from Jesus,
I’ll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They’ll be drinking white wine in the sun…

Like Minchin, I look forward to the holiday season as a time to gather together old friends and family. In this era of scattered relations, weekend work, and ceaseless worry, what could be more important than a chance to reconnect?

I’m sure many skeptics share that feeling — and share my familiarity as well with the timeless sounds of the holidays:

“The tree is lovely this year!”

“Can you pass the gravy?”

“I’m absolutely certain the Pentagon was hit by a cruise missile.”

Dances of sugarplums, indeed.

A season for Magic?

The Skepticism 2.0 environment, linking as it does a small community of like-minded people across continents, helps to obscure an important truth that Christmas lays bare: virtually everyone believes weird things.

Sampled from an illuminating graphical primer on 2012 at

Sampled from an illuminating graphical primer on 2012 at

At one meal this holiday, a member of my immediate family went straight from “Have you tried the carrots?” to “But I guess we won’t have to worry about it after 2012. The alignment with the galactic center….” (She was relieved to hear that a much closer alignment took place without incident in 1998.)

On another relaxed evening — the cold weather equivalent of Minchin’s white wine in the sun — another immediate family member took me off guard with his 9/11 conspiracy ideas. I’ll paraphrase as closely as I can recall:

So, as skeptics, what do you think really happened with 9/11? Of course the problem with all conspiracy theories is that they’re too big and hard to keep  secret. But I saw this movie, Loose Change… You have to watch this thing.

Even if you don’t believe everything it says, you’ll come away convinced: no airplane ever hit the Pentagon. It had to be a cruise missile. And, there’s something very wrong about that Flight 93, too.

I realize there are real problems with conspiracy ideas, but if no plane ever hit the Pentagon — and I’m convinced that’s the case — then the whole rest of the official story unravels. So I’m left thinking, “I don’t know how they did it. But if they did, we can’t trust anything they tell us about how our society works.”

You’ll note a couple of things about this. One, it contains some fine skeptical sentiments: distrust of authority and received wisdom, and also suspicion regarding far-fetched-sounding conspiracy theories. On the other hand, it fails to address key information, such as the many civilian eyewitnesses (and even professional news reporters) who watched Flight 77 as it approached and plowed into the Pentagon; the evidence gathered by the forensic experts at the Pentagon (such as the body parts of the passengers); the live cell-phone descriptions of the hijacking of Flight 77 by the doomed passengers; or the flight control radar tracking of the incoming plane (with eyes-on identification by another aircraft).

Secondly, you’ll note that this conversation is a major bummer — a bummer that will require me to finally watch the debunked conspiracy film Loose Change.

I have long advocated for skeptics to watch the fringe films that the public fixates upon. It’s an ethical requirement if we’re going to comment on those films. (I thought it was problematic that some commentators began public critiques of Expelled with the phrase, “I haven’t actually seen the film, but….”) In fact, this is one of the key differences between paranormal schlock and responsible skeptical investigation: consulting original sources. There is no substitute.

Watching these films can even be fun. Zeitgeist was a late-night party flick at our place soon after it emerged, as was comedian Ben Stein’s slapstick farce Expelled — but so far I’ve managed to avoid Loose Change. The fact is that dealing with 9/11 “truthers” is a chronic pain for skeptics (just watch the comments on this post). Also, other skeptics have already taken the bullet on this one, specializing in critiques of this and other conspiracy theories. (This interview with Mark Roberts on the Skeptic Zone podcast shows what I mean.)

Family First

So, apart from my date with Loose Change, are there conclusions to draw from this informal holiday post?

Well, just what you already know: that being a skeptic in social settings can be a challenge. Skeptics get cornered with paranormal tales the same way doctors get cornered by medical stories. That can be a hassle, and I have no magical solution for it. But I do have general advice:

  1. Your relationships with your loved ones matter more than being right;
  2. A paranormal anecdote or argument is always an opportunity to shut up and learn;
  3. Skeptical information shared with respect and empathy is likely to be heard the same way.

For more thoughts on navigating the human side of skepticism, I might recommend:

  • Brian Dunning’s “How to Be a Skeptic and Still Have Friends,” available as a text transcript or Skeptoid audio essay.
  • My informal Skepchick podcast chat about civility and skepticism with MonsterTalk‘s Blake Smith and Skepchick Maria Walters.
  • The wonderful new podcast Actually Speaking: Exploring the Human Side of Skepticism. Hosted by Mike Meraz, this show is intended to focus directly and specifically on these issues of social interaction, outreach, and communication. In the episode “Realistic Expectations” the host addresses exactly the sort of conversations we’ve been talking about here. Why do skeptical conversations with loved ones so often go wrong — and how can we help them go right?

Like Daniel Loxton’s work? Read more in the pages of Skeptic magazine. Subscribe today in print or digitally!

24 Responses to “Sugarplums of the Apocalypse?”

  1. clockworkjim says:

    I disagree completely with rule number 1. Because they are your family, you owe it to them to inform them of their mistake. I wont start the conversation, but if they bring it up, I feel it is my duty to speak. They are more likely to listen to you, hopefully, then a movie on the internet. They may hate you, and think you suck, but you told them the truth.

    Instead of a conspiracy theory, say your family member believed minorities to be a lesser class of humans. They throw out some facts and statistics that someone on the net claims to show this to be the case. Let us say they give some social darwinist, pro eugenics argument for the case. Should you still respect their views? Should you still be okay of they choose not to listen to you?

    • To be clear, I did talk with my family members about their ideas this holiday season (and now I am blogging about some of them).

      My point is more general: skeptics need to find ways to navigate their own social landscapes — landscapes that inevitably do (and always will) include many paranormal and pseudoscientific beliefs.

  2. Jim Lippard says:

    I watched all of Zeitgeist: The Movie and most of Zeitgeist: Addendum and assembled some basic criticisms and links to more comprehensive critiques here:

    “Loose Change” has a dubbed critique version called “Screw Loose Change”:

    My favorite piece of evidence that Flight 77 and not a missile hit the Pentagon is the pattern of light posts that were knocked down:

  3. Max says:

    The latest Skeptoid episode addresses this issue as well.

  4. Karla McLaren says:

    I think a central issue is whether you think a person with differing views has them as a function of a character flaw. If you do, you’ll either throw your hands up in defeat, or talk down to them as if they’re damaged. Neither approach will go over well.

    I was thinking the other day about the amazing human brain, and how much unbelievably fabulous stuff was engineered, built, composed, chemically altered, and created … all while people thought the Earth was flat, or that the Earth was the center of the universe, or that germs arose spontaneously and bathing caused the flux. I get chilblains and the vapors just thinking about it!

    No one would say that the engineers of the Taj Mahal or any of the other Wonders were idiots, or not worth conversing with because they espoused spiritual, racist, homophobic, or xenophobic beliefs. It’s important not to “halo” people’s entire worth as human beings just because they have beliefs you can’t tolerate.

    If you want to be a source of information for others, it’s all about the connections you create and nurture (and rebuild if you’ve done something thoughtless). Just being a smartypants? That’s not gonna fly, Wilbur.

  5. Thanks for linking to the Skeptic Zone interview, Daniel! :) I think it remains one of my faves. :)

  6. Trimegistus says:

    I definitely agree that picking your battles is important. However, you left off what is probably the MOST vital advice for skeptics during the holidays: this is not the time to cast doubts on religion. Seriously, just don’t. Unless your family are some kind of Wicker Man neo-pagans planning to sacrifice your niece at dawn on the solstice, just let it drop for once.

    • cabbo says:

      Actually, this came up on our table, slightly. Usually, when this kind of debate pops up, I’d be right on it, with all the usual counter-points etc.
      But, this time, my father (who may or may not be a believer, can’t be sure) picked it up. He said that he had stopped going to church because the preacher attacked the masonic (freemasons, whatever) based on hearsay and bulloney. After that it became clear that the only thing the man did was attack organisations or ideologies that he knew nothing about, and raised money to set up ‘boy’s brigade’ buildings in impoverished countries. Weirdly, though, it never reached the higher point of the argument (is it real or not?), because that stopped the debate dead.

  7. Kenneth Polit says:

    My paternal grandparents were German(my great uncle served in the Weirmacht). My maternal grandparents were holocaust survivors. So any family gathering was like tap dancing in a mine field. My strategy has always been,”What’s there to eat?” and “That was delicious.” and keep my big trap shut.

  8. Flyingfens says:

    Wow Karla!
    So concise well said. Now I’ll have to immediately start to read everything else you have written on the subject.

  9. Markum says:

    I like to point out how anybody can post any view/evidence/theory on the internet, and the search engines will find that information. So, when confronted with “Obama said he wants old people to die early” (a word-for-word quote from a conservative relative), and other unbelievable statements, we run to the computer. As a warm-up, I usually start with youtube and google. The battle is no longer personal, and the “skepticity” level of the discussion quickly rises as the believability of the various media sources is debated.

  10. cabbo says:

    If you are properly armed with the correct arsenal of information and are civil in debate, then I fail to see how a mass breakdown of a relationship can occur out of these kinds of arguments.

    “I watched this movie/went to church and heard/etc…., and it/he/she said that…”

    “sceptical counterpoint backed up with evidence”

    “Oh, well then.”

    Unless the other party is clinically insane, or you have chosen poorly your form of evidence. And when it comes to those debates in which the evidence can never be 100% certain (but is very, VERY close to), then we should all know by now how not to offend the believing party. If it comes to an argument where you have no evidence, then there might be a problem. If you have no evidence to back up your scepticism, then all you can do is doubt. Don’t get into this kind of argument unless you know you are either going to win, or have the other person institutionalised.

    • Max says:

      “I took my child to a dozen doctors, and nothing helped, but this homeopathy is the only thing that provides some relief, thank God.”

      “It’s just a placebo effect, and there’s no evidence of God.”

      “Oh, well then, have some wine in your face.”

  11. Jamie Kahn Genet says:

    There is almost always zero point to arguing with people who prefer fantasy to reality, or are unable to tell the difference. It is an utter waste of time IME.

    The only exception is if I think they’re misleading others – that annoys me far more than people being stupid on their own, and causes more long term harm. Then I will speak up, but otherwise I’ll grin and bear it, try to tune it out, or just walk away if it’s really irritating.

    • There is almost always zero point to arguing with people who prefer fantasy to reality, or are unable to tell the difference. It is an utter waste of time…

      The counter to this argument is the observation that most skeptics started as paranormal believers. I certainly did.

      My own experience is that most people exposed to skepticism over the long term drift in that direction. (This has been the case with many of my own friends and family, in any event.)

      • Jason M says:

        I agree with Daniel on this one, none of us is immune to false beliefs. I came to skepticism the same way: after believing in some silly things for a quite a while, I slowly drifted over as the evidence piled up. It takes people a while to adjust to a new worldview, but I think most are capable of it. And even if they can’t come all the way right away, they are still capable of learning some aspects of skepticism that they could potentially apply more widely to their own lives.

  12. mania says:

    I keep trying to keep my mouth shut but they (creationists, truthers and deniers) just annoy me to no end. I find it unbelievable the views people hold and it is so hard to try to form a dialog with imbeciles – it gives them way too much credit.

    there is hope. i used to be a creationist (only because I was raised that way). sound reasoning, education and skepticism were key to my enlightenment, but sadly, these qualities are lacking in the average person.

    I am glad there are people like me out there, but it’s still far to uncommon to be a freethinker in America. maybe someday, but right now I feel very oppressed.

  13. Lisa S says:

    Back in the Shirley McClain, Out on a Limb era, I attended a Learning Annex class in New York City on some New Age philosophy of some sort. We were being taught about how reincarnation works and how you were actually oder than your parents etc.

    There was a polite skeptic present, but instead of attempting to prove the instructor wrong he simply asked “How do you know these things?” And the answer was something along the lines of, “Well, I just do” as no other reason could be found.

    Simply overhearing such a polite exchange was influential and thought provoking and more than enough for me.

  14. Jeshua says:

    Reminds me of a conversation i had with a friend when he looked up at the moon and declared, “You know they’ve discovered there are pyramids on the moon exactly like the ones in Egypt.” He just happens to be a grade-school teacher, so I asked him where he heard that pearl of knowledge. He stared at me in disbelief for a few seconds and then blurted out, “Why that’s just common knowledge!”

    I thought my brother-in-law was going to die laughing when i said, “Not among anyone i know.” At least that ended the conversation.

  15. George says:

    Skepticism: The inability to consider any concept that’s outside the skeptics field of knowledge. E.G. I have no understanding of astronomy so I doubt the conspiracy theorist who tells me it is a sphere.
    I believe in being skeptical but I get hold of the facts before I shoot my mouth off. Mainstream media is usually suspect. Why? Because the TV network is usually owned by the same people who have a lot to gain by propagating the lie.
    The example of the professional reporter who claims to have witnessed body parts at the Pentagon doesn’t prove a thing when physical, scientific data as well as suspicious behaviour [e.g. refusal to provide the actual video frames showing the actual jet passing through the walls] questions the official story.

    • Roger says:

      Skeptics should be critical thinkers but they are not, they accept today’s perceived reality as set in concrete and go around picking fights with any alternate view blissfully ignorant of the fact that the reality we are served up by the owners of this planet is a total and complete manufactured lie. The evidence is all around but their double standards for evidence automatically protect the lie.
      They are the Trumans of this world but even when their boats hit the wall at the rear of the set they still refuse to see reality, telling themselves that they’ve had some sort of a breakdown.
      Most science fiction is reality, the lie is hidden in PLAIN VIEW. The movie “Truman” is exactly how it is. The so called Paranormal is actually just plain old science, recent breakthoughs in quantum physics are showing this. The recent uncovering of scientists conspiring to manufacture the global warming data is the tip of the iceburg, science is funded by those who want the results for which they’ve paid.