A Skeptic’s View

There are a number of points on which I agree with Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. Many of them are even included in Unscientific America. I agree that the general media’s relationship to science has nothing to do with promoting science and, therefore, media doesn’t promote science effectively. I agree that the scientific community misses opportunities for outreach to the general public. I agree that we can’t assume that scientists will communicate effectively without training. I agree that academic tenure and promotion committees discount outreach and teaching all too often (although they’re much less likely to do so when a communicator reaches the status of someone like Sagan, whose fame would be a draw for students and donations).

However, I haven’t been inclined to take the book terribly seriously. I’ve mocked Sheril and Chris for applying certain double standards to their communications and those of scientists and atheists. I’ve pulled together some prior objections to their message that the book doesn’t address and new objections to some of the points in the book. But I haven’t spoken to the book directly myself, and not because I don’t appreciate Chris and Sheril’s prior work or think they shouldn’t be taken seriously themselves.

The reason I haven’t addressed the book is because there’s been something nagging at me about it that I haven’t been able to put my finger on. There was a connection I wasn’t making. Then, while planning for a project meant to promote general skepticism, I finally got it. It shouldn’t have taken me that long.

The scope of Unscientific America is too narrow. There are problems in our collective understanding and acceptance of science, yes. However, these are the same problems we experience in many parts of our public life. Politicians have the same difficulties in engaging the public in their work as scientists. History experiences the same denialism and conspiracy-theory mongering that’s found in debates that should be purely scientific (and long settled). Media coverage of crime is as badly slanted toward the sensational, or more, as any scientific reporting. Our poor understanding of advertising claims is hardly limited to the pseudoscience of “natural” remedies.

No, the problem is much wider than that described in Sheril and Chris’s book. These are problems stemming from a general lack of the fundamentals of skepticism: curiosity and critical thinking. Unfortunately, that means the solutions they propose aren’t likely to help as much as one might hope.

Scientists can talk forever. They can do it eloquently. They can express their passion and the wonder they find in discovery. They can be funny and clever and humble. But a listener who isn’t prepared to engage with the material will, at best, walk away with a slightly better view of scientists and about two and a half facts with which they can impress those of their friends who are impressed by that sort of thing.

This won’t prepare them to deal with the next scientist they come across, who might be a chemist working in an oil refinery who doesn’t “believe in” anthropogenic global warming, or maybe an astronomer entranced by the majesty of “the heavens” who tells them that evolution can’t result in new species. It won’t give them the tools to determine whether that scientist is someone to be trusted on that subject. It will just make them feel better about taking someone else’s word for things that make their life more comfortable. That doesn’t help us. It doesn’t help them.

So what can we do? Ah, that is the question, isn’t it?

The answers to this won’t be easy. Skepticism isn’t easy. It requires concentrated effort in a society designed around distractions. It requires time and effort that anyone living at a subsistence level doesn’t have to spare. It requires habits of thought that have negative social consequences. The person who upsets the standard order is generally not popular.

However, the situation is far from hopeless. One of the better ongoing conversations at SkepchickCon this year was about how we lead people to skepticism. Masala Skeptic had some great suggestions about being a safe (non-mocking) place to bring questions that need a skeptical viewing, not having all the answers (being willing to say, “I don’t know either. Let’s find out.”) and not pushing too hard for agreement. Others threw around ideas about keeping schools from suppressing the innate curiosity of children. We talked about the need to reclaim the word “skeptic” from the denialists.

All of us came away from the convention invigorated by the reception we received and determined to do more to promote skepticism generally. None of us, however, think that the strategies and tactics for this will fit within a slim book. This will take broad and diverse effective behavior.

So while we’re all out here following our chosen paths, what else do you think people can do to promote skeptical thinking? And maybe more importantly, what are you doing?

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17 Responses to “A Skeptic’s View”

  1. July 29th, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    A couple of comments:

    1) the problem may be wider, and I essentially agree with this point, but I’m not sure if all of the solutions can be applied widely. It may be that science offers special opportunities to increase positive and productive public engagement. Indeed, “engagement” may be a resource that different fields of endeavor are competing for (even if they don’t know it).

    2) Regarding the conversation at SkepchicCon: I noticed that some of that conversation actually invoked (and the invocation was by alleged skeptics in the audience) a lot of non-critical, non-skeptical thinking. For instance, at one point we heard a barrage of feishized old saws about testing and how testing is ruining education, and that this is the main problem.

    The situation is exactly as Doyle has Holmes complain to Watson: Only by applying The Method generally can one hope to gain success across a wide range of circumstances. Learning to react to only limited kinds of situations will eventually fail the investigator.

    The heterogeneity in match between topics and areas of interest ensures that there will be a lot of people who seem to practice skepticism in one area (say, education and the evo-creo debate) but who have totally woo-ed out points of view in other areas (like medicine or health). In fact, even knee jerk skepticism requires critique. Many skeptics probably think that this statement is true:

    “Traditional medicines based on concoctions of plants and other natural materials don’t work”

    A skeptic who believes that is not a skeptic. They are a person with a belief about plants and other natural materials.

  2. July 29th, 2009 at 4:57 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    I suspect that every area in which we can apply rigorous examination of evidence and methods offers unique opportunities. I’m not sure why science should be extra special compared to, say, analysis of claims made in advertising, which concretely affect everyone in immediately visible ways. Understanding science as a process of rigorous examination, yes, but as a subject area, no. In fact, I think that focusing specifically on science ignores the problem of siloed thinking that you bring up.

    I certainly agree that people do not apply skeptcism uniformly. Any thoughts on encouraging them to do so?

  3. July 29th, 2009 at 5:34 pm

    Mike Haubrich, FCD says:

    The heterogeneity in match between topics and areas of interest ensures that there will be a lot of people who seem to practice skepticism in one area (say, education and the evo-creo debate) but who have totally woo-ed out points of view in other areas (like medicine or health). In fact, even knee jerk skepticism requires critique. Many skeptics probably think that this statement is true:

    “Traditional medicines based on concoctions of plants and other natural materials don’t work”

    This also brings in a knee-jerk reaction to GMO’s, in which people react to Bt as if it was a Frankenstein Monster. GreenPeace and their activism in Europe against the use of GMO crops is decidedly not a result of proper skeptical processing. It’s just “anti.”

    Advertising and sales are definitely structured to lead people away from critical thinking, and I think that at Camp Quest they spend time on this issue. Of course, I could be wrong on that. I’ll have to check it out.

  4. July 29th, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    No, I don’t think science offers special opportunities to the exclusion of other areas. Well, maybe some … areas of life that can kill everyone or feed everyone might be special, so things having to do with medicine, the food supply, and warfare may get special attention. Sex gets special attention. It may be that the Langauge Arts lack some opportunities that things that can be in video games don’t lack, and so on. But I’m not actually making an argument that Science has special opportunities uniquely. Rather, I’m arguing that a general non-skeptical phenomenon … as a way of thinking … can blanket the land in ignorance, but getting the blanket off may require a mixture of tools.

    People need to be fitted with shock collars, and when they act non-skeptically …

    BBSSSSSSTT

  5. July 29th, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    MadScientist says:

    I don’t know what to do other than be less tolerant of nonsense. Instead of “that’s nice” or keeping quiet, people have to say “that’s wrong”. One thing that annoys me is how many people treat their children like idiots and have stories about tooth fairies and santa claus because “they’ll be fun”. Why not teach kids to use their brains instead? It’s rather pathetic that so many people feel they must retreat into a world of fantasies for fun. I wouldn’t deny people their fantasies – people need to learn to use their imagination – but they do need to get a grip on what’s fantasy and what’s not, and there are plenty of fun things to do which don’t involve fairies of any sort.

  6. July 30th, 2009 at 7:41 am

    Epicanis says:

    The fundamental problem (I would argue) is part of the fundamental nature of humanity:
    1) People are lazy.
    2) Thinking is work.

    Getting people to overcome this will require a major change in culture, especially here in the US, where we seem to have a deeply ingrained preference for “authoritative” over “intellectual”.

    I don’t think there can be any dramatically effective cure for this. Perhaps the only effort that might have a real chance of long-term positive effect is for as many people as possible to be seen applying practical skepticism publically, in as many different contexts as possible. (“Hey, check these labels out – the “light” apple juice costs the same as the “regular” apple juice, but if you look at the label it’s obvious they’re ripping us off – it’s half the apple juice, topped off with tap-water!”).

  7. July 30th, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    Philip H says:

    Stephanie,
    I think these are your two most important paragraphs:

    The scope of Unscientific America is too narrow. There are problems in our collective understanding and acceptance of science, yes. However, these are the same problems we experience in many parts of our public life. Politicians have the same difficulties in engaging the public in their work as scientists. History experiences the same denialism and conspiracy-theory mongering that’s found in debates that should be purely scientific (and long settled). Media coverage of crime is as badly slanted toward the sensational, or more, as any scientific reporting. Our poor understanding of advertising claims is hardly limited to the pseudoscience of “natural” remedies.

    No, the problem is much wider than that described in Sheril and Chris’s book. These are problems stemming from a general lack of the fundamentals of skepticism: curiosity and critical thinking. Unfortunately, that means the solutions they propose aren’t likely to help as much as one might hope..

    Unfortunately, I disagree with your first premise, that the scope is too narrow. One of the things a skeptic, particularly one schooled as a generalist (either by life or by a more formal process), will note is that when big, over-arching issues like this are surfaced, the societal tendency is to bite off more then is reasonable in trying to respond. Then, when that fails, because it was too big a start, society tends to abandon the matter all together, resultin gin very little progress.

    Having observed this, Chris and Sheril decided, intentionally I think, to limit their discussion to the sciences. Both are far more knowledgable in science issues an dpolicy then they are in, say, educational theory, or foreign affairs (although Sheril’s musical knowledge rivals many folks I know). So, by focusin gon the issue about which they have th egreatest knowledge, they can potentially have the greatest impact.

    Do they surface a lack of skepticism in Unscientific America? Not as an explicit thread, but my read of the book is that it is an undercurrent. When, for example, they talk about training scientists to better communicate across cultural divides, I draw the conclusion that one of the things scientists need training in is how to use scientific methods to analyze challenegs, whether the challenge is scientific or not. That scientific method, at is heart, is focused skepticism (albeit in a very classical sense).

  8. July 30th, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    John G says:

    A delightful essay. Thank you.

    Perhaps a partial solution is that people of all ages need more role models. I have trouble thinking of scientist today who is talked about among school aged children the way Carl Sagan was.

    The creationist astronomer, whom I’ve observed, speaking to a 1000 people at a large church is a powerful role model whose message stomps on that from a few good teachers. Scientists and science enthusiasts (me) need to join the teachers by keeping the science clubs alive (I do) and setting up community and school activities (I do this too).
    John G

  9. July 31st, 2009 at 11:54 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I agree that science clubs are cool, both after school and independent. Now if we could just get the ones who are marginally interested in joining the clubs to get involved.

  10. July 31st, 2009 at 8:13 pm

    Lou FCD says:

    I’d like to see critical thinking formally added to public school curricula, but that’s not going to happen tomorrow.

    It’s interesting that you bring up advertising specifically. That’s where I first introduced my kids to skepticism and critical thinking. Watching TV with them, I’d talk to the TV.

    “Our product is 30% better!”

    and I’d say out loud

    “30% better than what? Better than your old product? Better than your other product? Better than the competition’s? How do you know it’s better? Did you ask people? Did you do tests? How do you test that?”

    At first, the kids would usually get annoyed and leave the room, sigh, whatever. I’ve rarely been more proud of them though as the first time I heard each of them do the exact same thing. Talk to the kids? Nah, talk to the TV. :)

    The point of course is that being publicly vocal can be effective for anyone within earshot. As or more effective than teaching directly? I don’t know, but certainly effective in addition to teaching directly.

  11. July 31st, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I am now %30 more convinced that you know what you are talking about, Lou.

  12. July 31st, 2009 at 11:34 pm

    Lou FCD says:

    30% more than what, Mike? Than you were before? Than you are that Steph knows what she’s talking about? Than Steph is that I know what I’m talking about? How did you arrive at that number? How did you test that? Was there blood involved?

    More importantly, was there nudity and are there photos?

  13. August 1st, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    Jason Thibeault says:

    And I’m 30% more convinced that this is a great teaching tool for kids, Lou… genius!

    I have no idea what kind of test would determine levels of conviction that involve both blood and nudity outside of pagan ritual. Not that I’m AGAINST that, mind you.

  14. August 2nd, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Ophelia Benson says:

    You’re pretty much describing the ‘mission’ (horrible word) of Butterflies and Wheels – gathering all the different instantiations of nonsense in one place so that everyone can see what they have in common. An article by the historian Richard Evans was one of the first I published; one by the classicist Mary Lefkowitz was another.

  15. August 2nd, 2009 at 10:18 pm

    Glendon Mellow says:

    MadScientist, I totally hear you on the frustration of how to respond. Someone says something that is an outrageous affront to obvious logic under the religious umbrella, and it’s deemed intolerant to criticise in any way at all. I’m in management, and treading carefully around employees is a tiring exercise.

    I understand but disagree with you about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy however. I tend to think of those, as Dale McGowan of Parenting Beyond Belief has called it, “the ultimate dry-run“.

  16. August 3rd, 2009 at 7:37 am

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Ophelia, horrible word or no, one of the joys of this mess has been spending more time with Butterflies and Wheels. Thank you for what you do there.

    Lou, I would love to see more on that. That’s the kind of simple planting the seed and letting it sprout on its own that we were talking about at the con as a way to get around defensiveness.

    Phil, I mean too narrow in that by focusing on scientific knowledge and the communications of scientists, they’re focusing on pushing information instead of the exchange and evaluation of information. It’s neat to say, “Here are some ways to make a tough topic palatable,” but ultimately, selling science over crap is a war we can’t win. We don’t have the easy answers on our side, and easy answers are what sell to the majority. Unless we get to the point where easy answers make people nervous enough to at least ask questions, we’re in trouble.

  17. August 9th, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I’m all for blood and nudity, if I can get a grant for it.

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