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Thoughts on The Amazing Meeting 9

by Daniel Loxton, Jul 19 2011

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!


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43 Responses to “Thoughts on The Amazing Meeting 9”

  1. John Greg says:

    Sounds like some interesting and constructive approaches to communications strategy and method.

    Did PZM hop up and tell everyone how completely wrong it was?

    • MadScientist says:

      I’m sure he did because that’s just what’s expected. He would have made Baby Jesus cry through it all.

    • Linda says:

      PZ did remind us that different ways of communicating effect different people. He related that he’s received many correspondences expressing thanks for ‘opening their eyes.’ Some people need a thunderbolt, when the thunderbolt is clear, concise and well directed.

  2. Daniel, re Carol’s talk, a phrase I’ve used on my blog a few times is “emotional dissonance.” As cognition is not done as a sterile intellectual exercise, as her own example with her friend notes, I think we need to stress this more.

    • badrescher says:

      The term “cognitive dissonance” is actually much more appropriate. Cognition encompasses much more than logical reasoning. Also, emotions are only one source of cognitive dissonance.

      • Understood on what “cognitive” entails. That said, it’s my guess that the “average Joe/Jane” thinks “intellectual” when they hear the term “cognitive,” though, or may at the least think the “intellectual” is being emphasized to the degree of less to much less attention on the emotions.

        And, that, in term, gets to the “image of skepticism,” if you will. My skepticism (or better yet, per David Hume, my empirical stance) is driven by the interaction of the passions and reason.

        Obviously, emotions are visible when one is being a dick, rather than when one is not … but showing positive emotional reasons for skepticism is the “hearts” of the “hearts and minds” battle.

      • badrescher says:

        The term comes from the cognitive psychology literature and using some other term would not only confuse matters, but it would likely be incorrect.

        For example, “emotional dissonance” implies that emotions are to blame for poor reasoning, which is usually not the case.

      • Chris says:

        I, and other people have had many online discussions like the ones Carol spoke about with her friend. Except I do have a child who is disabled and did have seizures due to a real (now vaccine preventable) disease, and many of the participants in the Respectful Insolence and LeftBrainRightBrain blogs have children with autism and other disabilities.

        So our responses when we get the “I have a child with autism, etc and you don’t know what I have to deal with” is to explain that we know exactly what they have to deal with. The reaction is either the person calms down to talk rationally about the actual evidence, or they get even more bullheaded and resort to insults.

        It is interesting to watch the differences in responses. Some have actually been swayed, but others dig their heels in even more (especially if they frequently participate on the Age of Autism blog).

  3. Somite says:

    “Either way, messaging is king”

    This phrase is a complete turn off to me. Skepticism is the complete opposite of messaging which is the main tool of our cultural competitors. We should use communication tools but only secondary to the truth and without cherry-picking our skepticism. We will not be taken seriously as skeptics unless it is perceived as a discipline.

    As a counterpoint here are PZs words which I very much liked:

    “Don’t forget: the truth is our pole star, science is the vessel we use to progress, and a passion to explore and learn is the engine of our purpose. If we lose sight of that in our concern to be gentle with those who impede us, we’ll lose our way.”

    • You won’t get any argument from me on that one. If it’s a choice between either forthright description of current scientific knowledge or palatability, I’ll take honesty and accuracy every time. (As I note above, “skepticism faces academic ethical constraints—such as truth-telling—that win-at-all-costs marketing does not.”)

      But that’s rarely the choice we have before us. In most cases, truth-telling is the given, and we must then decide how exactly we’re going to attempt to do that: shouting? underwater? in song? while juggling? Given those choices, I’ll take the most effective communication tools I can find.

      • MadScientist says:

        I’m sure lying would have its place (as Randi himself is unashamed to admit), but if someone develops some notion that lying is OK in most situations then they are simply incompetent as an educator/communicator. I’m one of those folks who goes into a rage whenever I visit one of those ‘hands-on’ science museums and see some scientific fact described and then badly faked rather than simply and elegantly demonstrated.

      • MadScientist says:

        Whoops – some small clarification – I’m referring to Randi’s story about lying to his grandfather as his grandfather was dying. I have never known Randi to lie when talking about woowoo (though he does use his skill at deception to make points).

    • pxcampbell says:

      Hmmmm…. I sense that this blog entry raised some cognitive dissonance among some skeptics….

      Effective and empathetic communication is not about lying, sugar-coating, inaccuracy, obscuring or cherry-picking. Not at all. Effective and empathetic communication (aka “messaging”) is about communicating precisely what we want to communicate in a way that is effective — as in the audience actually hears, absorbs and is moved or convinced by the dialogue.

      Empathetic merely means that you take into consideration the other person’s perspective (which a good skeptic is trained to do — look at an object from every angle, not just one). Tavris’s story about her PhD friend is enlightening — often people who have spiritual beliefs feel as if we consider them stupid. Stupidity/intelligence are objectively real and it’s important to acknowledge that the believer is intelligent. Reinforce that repeatedly — before, during, and after your otherwise unchanged argument — and you increase your chances of being effective.

      But I suppose that leads to another point: is the goal of Skepticism to “convert” believers? Or is it to simply assure that the “truth is out there?” (1) If that, then I’d wager that the believers will always outnumber and out-voice us. If a part of the goal is to be convincing, to convert, then we must be embrace the evangelical aspects of our particular system of beliefs.

      On another point — Skepticiam *is* an individual system of beliefs. Which, I think, is also “faith.” Therefore, another point that we can’t ignore is that believers see us the way they see themselves — as people who choose to believe the way we do. Often, they can’t even see past their reality that there is a choice regarding “truth.”

      At the end of the day, we will never convince anyone if we continue to disparage believers’ intelligence and cognitive abilities, and disregard a fundamental notion of fairness and equality — that everyone has a *right* to his/her beliefs. (Okay, the latter is debatable as a truth… but you-all are so much smarter than the average bear so you get what I mean.)

      So — who rankled at my subtle insinuation that I don’t really think everyone who is a skeptic is of above-average intelligence? If you are one such — then you have just experienced how a believer feels when they hear us talk without validating them as human beings.
      (1) Couldn’t help myself from using that quote — a pickle and a pat on the back for readers who recognize the tagline.
      (2) What’s a good scientific argument without a few footnotes?

      • John Greg says:

        pxcampbell said:

        “Skepticiam *is* an individual system of beliefs [sic].”

        No. Skepticism is a method, a way of approaching, analysing, interpreting information.

        It is most emphatically NOT a system of beliefs.

      • tmac57 says:

        Not to mention the: “Which, I think, is also
        “faith.” ” part of the comment. That’s like shouting fire in a crowded theater on a skeptical blog.

      • pxcampbell says:

        Which you emphatically believe is the only way of finding truth. You have faith in the methods. You believe that the methods are true.

        Skepticism must allow that there is at least the possibility that that system could be flawed. To dismiss any potential for flaw is to be – well, not very skeptical.

        BTW – I am a scientist, and I profoundly believe that science is truth, and will lead the human race to its salvation. So I’m a skeptic too — perhaps an uber-skeptic.

    • Grisha says:

      With all my respect to the work PZ is doing it is almost religious approach. He think that he know what the truth is and even how to reach it. Maybe it is not bad manners, but sloppy philosophy?

  4. BillG says:

    Should we be skeptical of skeptical teaching methods? Hard sell, soft sell, DBAD (or being a dick) can be equally effective or useless as one size does not fit all.

    Stay with the facts/science, certainly, however some are ignored and others break through. The “aha” moments rest on the individual.

  5. Ticktock says:

    One thing that I touched on in my contributions to the parenting workshop is that we need to be aware that these tone debates are often directed at skeptics who are communicating to the public. Within our own personal social spheres, it would be detrimental to our relationships to take more hard lined tactics. Even people who feel passionate about their right to be an ass should reconsider that method of persuasion when it comes to friends and family. Because that is one audience you don’t want to lose.

  6. Cory says:

    Excellent report on TAM9. I wish I was able to attend. I was a little surprised to Ms. Schell refer to the Southern Poverty Law Center as an example of “objective-minded centrists”. While SPLC does do some good work, I view much of what they produce as fear-mongering to help raise funds. The SPLC is centrist only if your views are well to the left of the mainstream. Please don’t take this as a criticism of Ms. Schell since her podcast is among my favourites. However, in my opinion, the SPLC output has a decidedly anti-free-speech slant.

    • I apologize for the confusion: the phrase “objective-minded centrists” was my own, which I intended as a general contrast to “radicals” in any social movement. I’ve adjusted the text in an effort to make it clearer.

  7. Skepacabra says:

    I’m confused over the use of words like “radical” or “militant” with regards to the skeptical and/or atheist movements because we have no prominent radicals. I can’t think of anyone who commits violence in the name of skepticism or atheism like the “radicals” in past social movements. If the term is being attributed to someone like Richard Dawkins, then I dare say the word has lost all its meaning because Dawkins is just slight to the right of Mr. Rogers. If it’s PZ Myers who’s being considered a radical, he’s only slightly more aggressive in tone than Dawkins. Neither to my knowledge has committed violence or incited others to commit violence. If merely being passionate and firm in ones position is the new radical and something that is to be condemned by our movement, then our movement is doomed to get ignored.

    Believe it or not but Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck didn’t become influential because they were the model of polite and calm discourse. Nobody is suggesting we turn to dishonesty or screaming insults at our opponents, but unless some of us are willing to be at least a little more assertive and confrontational than science communicators of the past, no one is going to pay the slightest attention to us, just like they didn’t before. And why would they? The media thrives on controversy. Unless someone is putting up some kind of real fight, they’re simply not interested. We may not like the idea of advertising a strong, fairly hard-line position but as someone whose expertise is in media, I have to say its a necessary evil if one is to get heard over all the noise out there. That’s not to say we should behave like the WBC or PETA by being as offensive as possible to grab attention, just that it wouldn’t hurt to put up the occasional giant roadside billboard unambiguously calling self-proclaimed psychics frauds.

    • mcb says:

      “If the term [radical] is being attributed to someone like Richard Dawkins, then I dare say the word has lost all its meaning because Dawkins is just slight to the right of Mr. Rogers. If it’s PZ Myers who’s being considered a radical, he’s only slightly more aggressive in tone than Dawkins.”

      Perhaps from our perspective, but from the evangelical Christian (and conservative Roman Catholic, in the case of Myers) point of view Dawkins, Hitchens, and Myers are seen as very threatening and offensive (Harris, not so much, and why Dennett is regarded as an angry atheist puzzles me). Dawkins and Myers may also be perceived as threatening for the company they keep and the tone (and text) they tolerate at their forums.

    • Grisha says:

      Militant or radical is definately misplaced when used with Dawkins, Myers, etc.

      Militant would be someone who call for violence to achieve their goals. I do not know such people among atheists.

      Radical would be those whos goal is prohibiting or restriction of religion. Establishing state mandated atheism or theocracy would be radicalism.

  8. Max says:

    It boils down to making the audience feel smart rather than dumb. Ridiculing “others” can be an effective way to do that. It’s relatively easy when preaching to the choir or to fence-sitters, but even exposing and ridiculing a con artist can make his victims feel smart when it’s done right.

  9. James Randi says:

    Wow… I’m humbled by the fact that the events of TAM9 have given rise to such erudite and effective discourse under this Shermer banner. I must admit that I was so besieged by interviewers that I missed so many of the talks – Carol Tavris’ among them – that I have much catching up to do…

    Folks, thank you – first for embracing the skeptical view, and second for taking leads from what my dedicated staff offers at the TAM get-togethers. It’s gratifying to know that we serve the community in this way, and we now have to begin booking TAM10.


    And thank you, Michael, my good friend.

    James Randi.

    • Linda says:

      Thank you, James Randi. I’ve been describing my first TAM experience as Woodstock for Skeptics.

      • Grisha says:

        I do not think there were so much intoxication besides bacon and donuts.

      • Ubi Dubium says:

        I found the conversation at TAM intoxicating enough, no need for chemical assists. At the end of each day I was wavering between “OW, My brain is full!” and “Please sir, can I have some more?”

        And doughnuts and bacon totally rock. Thanks, Penn!

    • Thanks for giving us the opportunity to be a part of something a little bit bigger than ourselves, and to have these conversations.

  10. William M. London says:

    Interesting essay, Daniel!

    I’d like to read an essay by you (or other DBAD promoters) on the most popular confrontational, cognitive-dissonance-inducing initiative in recent years for entertaining while also teaching critical thinking: Penn & Teller’s Showtime series. It would also be interesting in a discussion of the various entertaining videos available on the Internet that are impressively satirical, sarcastic, or ridiculing about misguided beliefs.

    I have an idea for creating a video that would ridicule “The Secret” in an entertaining, humorous way. It seems to me that ridicule is the appropriate response, at least in mass communication, to such utter nonsense that is in “The Secret.” Is the avoidance of cognitive-dissonance more relevant to conversation than mass communication? Is there ever a place for ridicule (or must we make a ceaseless effort to avoid ridiculing anyone)?

    • pxcampbell says:

      Agreed — as long as your audience is on your side, then ridicule works well. I think the idea is the same — you have to first draw your audience into your circle (of influence — not to be confused with the cone of silence) before you can convince/convert them.

      I am a devotee of P&T — but I don’t know of any non-skeptics who watch it. So, I fear they may be preaching mostly to the choir. I’d love to see the show mainstreamed.

    • When people point to examples of the efficacy of ridicule, they usually have comedy entertainment in mind (Bullshit, South Park, Colbert, The Daily Show, George Carlin, etc). They’re right, of course: great comedy can sometimes educate, and it can even sometimes slip past defenses that straight-faced education efforts cannot.

      But comedy is a different game which plays by a different set of rules. Notably, audiences for comedy have volunteered in advance to accept the conventions of comedy. Also—and this cannot be stressed enough—most skeptics are not that funny. Projects like Bullshit are built on decades of entertainment experience by world class performers. Skeptics who are themselves world class performers won’t get much argument from me if they want to try to educate through snarky entertainment products.

      But even then, by and large ridicule rallies the base more than it changes minds.

      • Somite says:

        “But even then, by and large ridicule rallies the base more than it changes minds.”

        Reference please for non-ridicule changing minds. What the latest research says is that more information just entrenches what you already believe in. Sounds to me like the best intervention is before belief is formed.

      • Well, there’s a reason 90% of my time goes into creating skeptical and science educational material for children.

  11. William M. London says:

    Daniel wrote:

    “…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.”

    It seems to me that if a person with Ph.D. and a 165 IQ feels stupid in a debate, then that person has clearly lost the debate and is too stubborn to concede. The anecdote seems a bit irrelevant to the issue of proper communication style for skeptics since most people we try to reach are not as invested in their self-image as intellectuals who must be right as this Ph.D. I doubt that Carol Tavris was saying anything intentionally or explicitly demeaning to her friend while making her skeptical points. It doesn’t seem very likely that any kind of communication style is likely to win over people whose self-esteem depends on their view of themselves as brilliant and who have committed to believing in woo.

    Thomas Szasz put it this way:

    “Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all.”
    Thomas Szasz

    If Szasz is right, obnoxious skeptics won’t become less obnoxious in communicating skepticism without suffering injury to their self-esteem. Similarly, believers in woo really can never change their minds without admitting that they were fooled (just as I had to admit I was fooled when I learned that woo I took seriously was actually bogus).

    • tmac57 says:

      I guess the trick is to not let your self esteem be determined by stubbornly sticking to a previously held belief,but by your willingness to alter your world view when new information requires it to change. There is no shame in being wrong about something,that is just being human,after all.

    • Grisha says:


      I think you are missing the point Carol Tavris was making. She did not say anything intentionally or explicitly demeaning to her friend, but it still triggered irrational stubbordness in her friend.

      Tavris’s point is that it is in the human nature and Ph.D.s with IQ 165 are not exceptions.

  12. Skepacabra says:

    That’s funny because I find the position that there is only one true path to skepticism comparable to religion. Apparently the definition of religion can mean just about anything these when one is just trying to win an argument.