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Burning the Mean and Disparaging Skeptic Straw Man

Sounds Sciencey

Sharon Hill

March 1, 2013

Straw Man photoPhoto by Nathan Nelson.

Does “skeptic” equal nasty, obnoxious and shouty? No? Then why do we get automatically tagged with those characteristics even when we are not? The word carries some connotations. But that ought not bar an exchange between skeptics and believers. We have some bridges to build.

Disclaimer: This whole piece revolves around mistaken assumptions that observers make. One problem with much of the discussion between skeptics and believers has to do with semantics. Just using the terms “skeptics” and “believers” is limiting and mistaken in many ways. But, I feel I have no choice to use these terms to make this piece reasonably understandable. I am completely aware that this is problematic and I ask that you see this as a panorama, not as sticking people in labeled boxes.

“I meet more skeptics (online) who think ‘being a skeptic’ is just a license to be an arsehole with impunity.” -@finalcontext on Twitter

This is part one of a soul-searching activity. I’d bet many people who have been around for a while will see this as well-worn territory. But in order to really learn a lesson and make a personal change, sometimes, you just have to go down that road yourself. So here I go.

I’ve found myself in the unwelcome position of the Skeptic in paranormal and fringe discussions. Just as the Internet has been a boon to all kinds of fringe topics, it has also allowed those practicing scientific skepticism to get under the claimant’s skin and ask for explanations and evidence. Gee, that makes them mad. Some of us aren’t even trying to be mean; we're just digging for truth.

For a time, on a major cryptozoology blog, my comments were edited or deleted whenever I was deemed to be critiquing the post. When I wrote for a Bigfoot blog about the importance of being critical and digging into claims, I was told by other Bigfoot researchers to go away (http://www.bigfootlunchclub.com/2012/12/the-skeptical-eye-on-bigfootery.html) and that I was not wanted there. Thus, I gave up trying to participate in cryptozoology forums. It was pointless.

Still wanting to share my ideas, I continued to engage where I could. There is little sense in spending time in skeptical circles if you wish to be involved with those who are really into the subject. As a seasoned skeptical advocate, my goal was to invite the general audience into a different way of thinking about things. I could point out where mistakes were made, when they were being sciencey, not scientific, where assumptions were taken as fact and that BIG questions remained. That is, assuming they wanted those things. Often, they don’t. They just want to be reassured in their own ideas. And, no matter how objective I thought I was, it was all uphill.

Hi, Let’s Chat

Circumstances came to pass whereby I made a connection with a podcast host who is an avid observer of the paranormal world. Tim Binnall of Binnall of America Audio invited me on his show. This was the first time a capital-S Skeptic was a guest. We talked for over two hours. You can listen to it here (http://binnallofamerica.com/boaa020513.html) and judge for yourself how you think I presented the skeptical viewpoint on the world of the paranormal (and questionable claims across the board). Tim was open to what I had to say even though there were some preconceived notions. We discovered we had a lot in common. We had a very normal, interesting, and cordial discussion. It was also fun and we learned from each other.

I believe an important reason for why the discussion between Tim and I was not a DEBATE, but rather a discussion that generated light, was that we had mutual respect for the views of the other.

Both Tim and I were curious how the show would play with his regular listeners. The feedback was 75% positive, better than Tim expected. Of course, there were those who simply did not like it. It was a response I had seen before. They could not stand listening to me for some reason, usually in reference to tone or attitude. Since I'm now used to the idea that I will be dismissed as the “Skeptic” before people will even listen to what I say, I accept that they will be on defense perceiving that I'm starting off on the wrong side of the issue.

“Skeptic” is used quite frequently as a slur or pejorative in the believers’ circles. Rarely am I called out on what I say about science. Rather, when people don't agree with the skeptical position, they frequently offer nebulous and dismissive excuses for why I should shut up or go away. This is revealing. I’ve offended them in some way. I read all comments on my work but mostly I find the outwardly negative ones are weak, personal, or not arguments about the facts but about feelings. Skeptics clearly make believers feel uncomfortable. Sorry about that. But, for reasons I'll explain in a future Sounds Sciencey, that's the way it is. Get used to it. Criticism against paranormal claims isn’t going away.

I'm very active on social media, where, because of researching stories for Doubtful News (http://doubtfulnews.com), I follow and interact with pro-paranormal outlets. The outward bias towards skeptics is painfully obvious. I cringe when I see examples like this (taken from public accounts on Twitter):

Any skeptic saying their attacks are just out of need for critical thinking has to explain why not 90% of the rest of things.

Time would be better spent using science to actually better our lives, than, say, tell the guy in the tin foil hat he's SO WRONG.

Dammit, candle in the dark civilization collapsing ZOMG the believers are bringing us all back to the level of the apes!

Burn the heretics! Or at least bore them to death by replacing their fairy tales with science journals.

If these folks want to make a difference to the world, spend same amount of time doing charity work for cancer kids etc.

To clarify, I took the Twitter quotes out of their context of two individuals having a bit of fun bashing skeptic straw men. The commentators themselves, of whom I am on (hopefully) friendly terms, are smart and have little problem applying critical thought when they choose to. But this topic has hit a sensitive spot and unleashed some barbed commentary.

Notice the language. Words like “attacks” and “burn” suggest that the skeptic tactics are perceived as mean and nasty.

What's going on here? Well, the sentiment is clear—we skeptics should stop spoiling the ghost hunters fun or impinging on freedom to hunt Bigfoot without ridicule. We should take our books and go home; leave the paranormal alone, it’s harmless. Nope. Not going to happen.

There are good reasons why Skeptics like to poke at the paranormal. However, opinion and critique is hugely complex because people and situations are complex. We come from different backgrounds. We have different education, interests, values and mindsets. One Twitter conversation-follower helpfully tried to tell me not to be the Daffy Duck that barges in to tell Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny that it IS indeed RABBIT season, not DUCK season. This was also a straw man of a Skeptic. I do not barge into conversations and yell to the point of flustering myself beyond clear-headedness. I only venture in where I feel I can contribute a meaningful point.

Skeptics as Obnoxious Know-It-Alls

This is the Skeptic straw man at its most basic: Skeptics are shrill and obsessive.

If I was dismissive and rude in exchanges, dialogue would usually end there or go round and round. Most people don't actually find me to be that way in direct discussion, but, in what seems like a heuristic used by paranormal advocates, I am, by default, painted as the stereotype Skeptic. It’s an EASY, one-word way to poison the well. It happens very often. I don't like it and it prevents meaningful exchange. I will call people out on it and they often back off the generalization.

I asked my pro-paranormal friends (mostly those who entertain fringe stuff but are not sold on it; I will cheekily call them the “paramiddlers”) what was wrong with Skeptics. I also peeked into comment threads and at opinion pieces that were less than kind to inquiring minds. What follows is what non-skeptics think about Skeptics. I also include a bit of commentary about the validity or invalidity of these assumptions. (Devil’s advocate-type speech is in italics, just to be clear I really do not mean that to be taken literally.)

1. We practice scientism.
If you can't use science on it, it doesn't matter. There is truth to that when it comes to finding out reliable information. But does science solve everything? No. It's a flaw to think that science is the be all and end all for all situations. There are other considerations to take into account. Don't worship the science god.

2. We act overly serious and have an inflated sense of self importance.
Skeptics suggest they are superior in intelligence to those who believe in the supernatural or other non-scientific ideas. I'm pretty sure non-skeptics think we stay up late looking for things wrong on the Internet in order to “do our job.” Our goals may include stamping out nonsense with the premise that “if you buy into this stuff, you are a lesser human being.” Some don't believe Skeptics are promoting critical thinking on the basis of virtuous goals. They don't believe that we care about strangers’ lost money or trauma but that we just want to be right. Yep, there are such people out that DO only want to be right.

3. Skeptics enjoy telling people how to think.
We're going to tell you to follow the scientific method because it gives you the right answer. If you don't, you're just wrong. Time to give up your fairy tales and learn how to think critically. Is the acceptance of non-scientific ideas a symptom of not being able to think clearly in other things?! Ah, those self-righteous people are in almost every forum, aren’t they? Those people ARE annoying. No one wants to talk to them.

4. Our goal is to change minds.
Online forums are a good place to observe construction and execution of arguments good and bad. It's amazing how some who are really devoted to the debate will return to pick every piece of the last reply apart. For many of us, our goal is not to change minds since that outcome is highly unlikely, especially in the online setting. We aim to just put another approach or view out there. I'm okay with whatever you believe as long as it doesn't directly affect me. I'm also fine with remaining friendly with those who don't share the same conclusion as me. We lose friends and acquaintances FAST if we close the door just because we disagree with them on one thing.

5. Skeptical activists are shouty, obnoxious, and will shut discussion down.
Pop culture skeptics are scoffing and nasty. This is not a useful approach in communication. I've witnessed many occasions of so-called skeptics attacking Bigfoot believers, UFO witnesses, and ghost hunters. They do, indeed, act like they get their jollies out of bursting bubbles and ruining a fun time. I've been told to be less forceful in jumping into a conversation and yelling (which I don't do because then I’d be typing in ALL CAPS). If I make a point that derails or shuts the discussion down, that’s not necessarily being obnoxious even though it made you mad.

6. We invoke the slippery slope argument.
A very common banner the Skeptics wave contains this warning for humanity: If left unchecked, people who participate in these unscientific pursuits will end up with an overall anti-science mentality. They will reject reality! Belief in nonsense will lead humanity backwards into the dark ages! That a well-meaning exaggeration but it's untrue. People have this slick ability to pick and choose discordant things to believe in. It does not follow that ghost hunting is a gateway to witchcraft or to rejecting germ theory. That's ridiculous. Don't underestimate the power of cognitive dissonance.

Make no mistake; there ARE certainly many Skeptics who do some or all of the above some or all of the time. They even commented that a Skeptic SHOULD do the above items when I asked for input on this topic. But to say “ALL Skeptics are X” is not true. While many “skeptics” do deride and berate, there is a growing contingent that abhors that behavior.

I would also point out that proponents and debaters of non-skeptical ilk often have an inflated sense of self importance, pseudoscientists especially. If skeptics can be accused of practicing scientism, non-skeptics can be equally accused of disregarding the importance of the scientific process to humanity. Plenty of paranormal advocates have told me to think in terms of quantum theory and to not be so closed-minded. As I mentioned, I've had many rude Bigfoot believers tell me to go pound sand outside their playground. So, the invectives thrown at skeptics can often be turned around quite easily. Throwing stones...glass houses...just saying...

In summary, I’m not Daffy Duck but I and other Skeptics have in the past and probably still do come off as obnoxious know-it-alls. Viva la diversité! It makes the world a more productive and interesting place. There are ways to deal with that but it pays off to look beyond the behavior to see if there is any substance there.

Who is Winning?

Let’s go back to my discussion with Tim Binnall on his show. There was a surreal moment when Tim stated, in a “let’s face it” tone, that “skeptics are winning” in the battle of the paranormal. Really? I was shocked. How can skeptics be winning when the major outlets for weird news are non-credulous? When paranormal TV shows vastly outnumber shows with any semblance of skepticism? When paranormal conferences and book sales sweep skeptical-themed cons and books?

Skeptics are but a small voice!

“Pardon?” the paranormalist may say. “Skepticism is given a place of authority in the media.”

Hang on. I think I see the confusion.

SCIENCE is given a place of authority (http://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/scientific_its_just_a_catchphrase/). It still has that respect regardless of the minority that distrusts it. Science is one important tool within skepticism. Not everyone may feel comfortable dealing with science topics but EVERYONE can practice good skepticism by asking questions and recognizing quality information in consideration of a claim.

That rolls me back to the theme of this web column: Many paranormalists and pseudoscientists aim to look and sound sciencey because it’s convincing and because of that sense of authority it engenders. Once you know what to look for, it is not that hard to recognize what is real and what is a put on.

In the discussion between Tim and me, it was not about winning. It was about understanding the various approaches to paranormal and fringe topics. Over the past few years, I’ve heard from many paramiddlers that want to understand. Just like me. There remains, unfortunately, such a tension between the camps that a new approach must be initiated from both ends. There certainly IS common ground, we just need to lighten up and be less judgmental. I was recently reminded of the cooperation between Ray Hyman and Charles Honorton on the Ganzfeld experiments (Source: http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4348). They jointly published a “Communique” on their efforts to investigate this subject. Wouldn’t it be great to see something like that again? We can surely say that a through and fair inquiry was made into that data from both sides regardless of the differing conclusions reached. I think that’s a common goal—fair inquiry. That is, assuming you really want to know the answer (topic of part two of this Sounds Sciencey discussion).

I would hope that my attempts to be civil, non-dismissive, and understanding would do something towards busting this mean and nasty skeptic straw (wo)man but I doubt it. I think there may forever be the thought of skeptics as shrill obsessives. I don't plan on giving ANY paranormal claim a pass but I do plan on remaining fair-minded and polite as best I can. It would be nice if the claimants took a charitable view of why Skeptics are so interested. We love the subjects too!

I'm perfectly willing to have more “bridge building” conversations and facilitate better exchanges between skeptics and non-skeptics. I anticipate it will NOT go too smoothly. But I hope it goes. My goal is to participate. If you find value in my contributions, great. If not, that's all I can do. I can't make you accept or discard anything. I’m not the bad guy. I’m just curious.

I acknowledge those who contributed their brain droppings to this piece: Tim Binnall, David Bloomberg, Jeb Card, Barbara Drescher, Brian Dunning of Skeptoid.com, Cullan Hudson, Tyler Kokjohn, Daniel Loxton, Greg Newkirk, Ben Radford, Red Pill Junkie, George Stadalski, Ken Summers, Greg Taylor, Jeff Wagg, @AnomalistNews, unnamed shouty Skeptics.

Comments on this piece can be sent to shill@centerforinquiry.net. Feel free to send some, I’m open-minded.

Sharon Hill

Sharon Hill's photo

Sharon Hill specializes in issues of science and the public and runs the Doubtful News website. Sharon can be reached at shill@centerforinquiry.net.