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The Skeptical Virtue of Seriously Just Being Quiet

  

Category:  Health, Science & Technology

Via:  randy  •  6 years ago  •  30 comments

The Skeptical Virtue of Seriously Just Being Quiet

Apr. 10, 2018 by   Daniel Loxton   |   Comments (9)


This post is something of a personal reflection. If you’re looking for some straight up debunking, my   latest is here .

Recently I attended a dinner party as the guest of a new friend among people who’ve known each other for decades. After dinner, the conversation turned to a story that had puzzled and intrigued the hosts. They were excited to share a YouTube   video about a black leopard whose behavior was allegedly improved through the intervention of an “animal communicator” (pet psychic).


Junior Skeptic cover

Cover art for   Junior Skeptic   #66 , bound inside   Skeptic   Vol. 23, No. 1 . Illustration by Jacob Dewey.


Now, this is a literate, philosophical bunch. They like debating, speculating, and devil’s advocacy, so they didn’t much mind that my friend found the claims of the video preposterous. After some lively verbal fencing, she turned to me in exasperation and said, “We have a professional skeptic right here! Daniel, you write about this stuff for a living. What do you think?”

Well, I had thoughts. But I   said the minimum: that I hadn’t yet looked professionally at the specific topic of pet psychics, and that the video was a constructed narrative whose claims we should neither accept nor reject without checking. (Then I went away and actually did spend weeks researching and writing a   lengthy critique of pet psychics   for the pages of   Junior Skeptic .)

What I said was true. But it’s also true that I might have contributed more to that conversation in other periods of my life.

Saying Stuff

I’ve come to notice how often I’ve felt myself impatiently waiting for an opening to jump into a paranormal conversation and explain something about the topic at hand. I’m polite, of course, and usually I don’t mean to intervene or change anyone’s mind—not in a social setting. It’s just that I   love   these topics, and   I know something about them , and I want to share what I’ve learned.

“When you’re in love,” said Carl Sagan, “you want to tell the world.” He was talking about science, which is a bit different from my primary passion. I’m   specifically   passionate about the   study of   paranormal, pseudoscientific, and fringe claims — science-informed scholarly understanding of topics that are conceptually weird but (in aggregate) so commonplace as to be almost universal. (We’ll just call these topics “the paranormal” for short.)

Wanting to share isn’t a bad impulse. Problem is that I wind up   not listening —not as deeply as I could, anyway.

I’m becoming more aware that explaining stuff comes with costs, even when it’s received in the spirit I intend (often it isn’t). Sometimes people I care about feel reluctant to fully share matters of importance to them. “I feel weird talking to   you   about this!” laughed one friend the other day. Well, heck. On a personal level, that’s not what I want.

But I’m writing this to put my thoughts in order about another cost, a cost to my work.

Shhhh…

For better or worse, my habit of   saying   stuff has been disrupted during a challenging period in my personal life—a period when I’ve needed connections with friends a lot more than I’ve needed to hear myself talk about skepticism.

And so, quite by accident, I’ve found myself rediscovering the skeptical virtue of seriously just shutting up for a while.

Being quieter has renewed and sharpened my awareness of a deep truth about humanity: the paranormal is   everywhere . It isn’t a sideshow. It’s right there on the main stage, a central part of the human experience. Paranormal beliefs are folded into the daily lives of billions of people, shaping the ways they navigate the world. I see it every day in the people I care about. The paranormal is   meaningful   to people.

Paranormal beliefs don’t exist in isolation, merely true or false. People use them, embody them, fold them into the fabric of who they are. Paranormal beliefs are among the tools people reach for as they navigate grief, find community, express love for their families, find agency, and seek meaning.

The primary goal of my work in skepticism is deep understanding of those beliefs . But I   don’t   always understand them—not as well as I want to. And when I’m busy explaining what I   do   know, I miss opportunities to understand better, to learn things I don’t know, things   I don’t know I don’t know , and—most important—things I   can’t   know. Not personally. Not without help.

Blinders

Here’s the thing:   absence of belief limits my vision . All around me are people with experiences I simply cannot have. They see things I can’t see, live in worlds I can’t visit. A difference of belief is a chasm of otherness, and I want to bridge those wherever I can.

I want to know how these things look from the inside, how these beliefs and experiences   feel   to smart, critical, good-hearted people with perspectives I don’t share. We can’t truly know what we’re talking about as skeptics if we don’t fully understand what the other guy is trying to say. I’ve urged skeptics to embrace the   value of intellectual vertigo —the experience of opening ourselves to the persuasiveness and   reasonableness   of weird beliefs to such an extent that we can glimpse the alternate reality the other guy sees. But that vertiginous viewpoint isn’t always easy to achieve. Sometimes it’s like trying to   peer through a brick wall .

My blindness is uneven, my vision patchy. I can see further into some topics than others. It’s one reason I’ve given   emphasis to cryptozoology in my skeptical career. I know, or at least remember— ephemeral as memory may be —what it feels like to believe there’s a Bigfoot, to feel certain that sea serpents lurk out there to be discovered. Other beliefs I can understand only by analogy–or, perhaps, by listening to someone who experiences that belief from the inside.

We’ll take an extreme example, not from my own social circle so far as I know: what does it feel like to think that the Earth is flat? I literally have no idea, no more than I know what it is like to think that triangles are round. And so my articles on that topic answer the easy questions: what do Flat Earthers say, and are those claims correct? (Spoiler:   they’re not .) But the harder questions hang there, waiting to be known.

Understanding Matters

For all that this post is about being quieter more often, at the end of the day I   do   want to say stuff—sometimes loudly. I’m in favor of education, outreach, and, yes,  skeptical activism . I often   downplay   arguments from harm as a justification for scientific skepticism, but the   fact remains : “when paranormal beliefs burn out of control, people get hurt.” Sometimes it matters that   someone tries to do something . ( PDF )

But outreach requires communication, and communication requires understanding. That understanding is most vital on exactly those topics on which skeptics most wish to pursue educational outreach, to intervene, such as the psychic industry or alternative medicine. In professional health care, “c ultural competence” is an ethical issue. Health care workers wish to understand and reduce cultural barriers to access to care—barriers that could otherwise cause harm to patients. For our part, skeptics routinely critique ineffective, unproven, exploitative, and unsafe treatments in alternative medicine, but we do not always succeed in communicating with the people who could most benefit from hearing the perspective of  science-based medicine . We know that we don’t, because they tell us so. 

As former New Age author Karla McLaren   warned skeptics   in a 2004 critique,

Why…do I have to spend so much time translating on the skeptical sites I visit-or just skipping over words like scam, sham, quack, fraud, dupe, and fool? Why do I (the sort of person who actually  needs  skeptical information) have to see myself described in offensive terms and bow my head in shame before I can truly access the information available in your culture?


Naturopathy critic Britt Marie Hermes recently  echoed this sentiment in a   Guardian   story, noting that the “grumpy” cultural tone of the skeptical literature can be off-putting for those in need of information, and that skeptics may not always understand the motivations that draw patients and practitioners to alternative medicine in the first place. Claims, beliefs, practices—these are all about   people .

“If we want to successfully communicate with someone,” McLaren explained, “we’ve got to understand not just their language, but the cultural context from which their language springs.” Without that understanding, “the skeptics have not yet been able to speak in a way that can be heard.”

Projects, goals, and outcomes vary, but I think this is typically still the case on most topics that skeptics address. Sometimes that’s fine—a lot of my work is intended for skeptics or interested neutral readers, not as outreach. But sometimes we   want to be heard   by the people who are least open to our information, who are also the people we may least understand. That   is   a problem.

And so I’m thinking about that. And I’m listening.







Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of   INSIGHT at Skeptic.com   and of   Junior Skeptic , the 10-page kids’ science section bound within   Skeptic   magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s   full bio   or his   other posts on this blog .

https://www.skeptic.com/insight/skeptical-virtue-of-being-quiet/?utm_source=eSkeptic&utm_campaign=0eae6096f8-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_04_10&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_8c0a740eb4-0eae6096f8-73191905&mc_cid=0eae6096f8&mc_eid=32aadf0916



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Randy
Sophomore Participates
1  seeder  Randy    6 years ago

Sometime Skeptics, such as myself, often fall to easily into the trap of just scoffing at issues such as alternative medicine by pointing out how it doesn't work (and in the vast majority of the time it does not) rather then taking the time to communicate with the people who do believe that it does and to find out why they believe that it does. If we just constantly tell them that what they believe is wrong then a door is shut perhaps never to be opened again. However if we spend sometime silently listening to them, even to the parts that we believe to be patently absurd, then at least there is a two way communication and perhaps we can introduce them to new thoughts and ideas by showing them the values of modern medical therapies in a manner that is not forceful or insulting to their beliefs.

 
 
 
Skrekk
Sophomore Participates
1.1  Skrekk  replied to  Randy @1    6 years ago

I fear he's saying that pet psychics aren't legit.    That's a huge disappointment and it means I've wasted tens of thousands of dollars trying to communicate with my deceased pets.    I've been had!

 
 
 
Randy
Sophomore Participates
1.1.1  seeder  Randy  replied to  Skrekk @1.1    6 years ago

Really? It's always worked for me? My late and cremated dog Harry and I play all of the time? It's kind of dusty, but what the hell.

 
 
 
Skrekk
Sophomore Participates
1.1.2  Skrekk  replied to  Randy @1.1.1    6 years ago

That's kind of the way I felt when I was in a small chapel in Sicily which was decorated with paintings whose frames contained various bones of their saints, ie "relics".    They looked like dice and marbles which would have been a better use for them anyway.

To the author's point I'm not sure any real communication is possible here.   One person is grounded in facts and the other in superstition or at least a fervent desire to believe in the absurd.    But I still hope that Nessie is real.

 
 
 
TᵢG
Professor Principal
1.2  TᵢG  replied to  Randy @1    6 years ago

If one is open to review the evidence and listen to the arguments then if one is not persuaded there is no reason to feel the slight bit guilty.   Rejecting ideas that seem implausible (or impossible) without consideration is a poor practice but rejecting unsubstantiated claims is not.

 
 
 
Galen Marvin Ross
Sophomore Participates
1.3  Galen Marvin Ross  replied to  Randy @1    6 years ago

I have seen it many times in conversations, especially with my children, we will talk at people and, not listen, we hear but, we fail to listen to the words that are being said and, in what context they are being said. We come into a conversation with a pre-conception of what we believe to be true and, fail to listen to what the other person is actually saying to us about a subject so, it is possible that we miss what might be a new idea we did not consider before. I will reference the former Speaker John Boehner here, he was against Pot, now he is working for a company that sells legal Cannabis, something or, someone changed his mind about it, in other words, he listened to someone instead of just hearing them.

 
 
 
Trout Giggles
Professor Principal
1.3.1  Trout Giggles  replied to  Galen Marvin Ross @1.3    6 years ago
something or, someone changed his mind about it,

Money changed his mind. That's what this skeptic thinks anyway

 
 
 
Galen Marvin Ross
Sophomore Participates
1.3.2  Galen Marvin Ross  replied to  Trout Giggles @1.3.1    6 years ago
Money changed his mind. That's what this skeptic thinks anyway

LOL, either that or, someone slipped him a pot laced brownie and, he found out it was better than booze.

 
 
 
Trout Giggles
Professor Principal
1.3.3  Trout Giggles  replied to  Galen Marvin Ross @1.3.2    6 years ago

laughing dude

and no hangover!!!!

 
 
 
Galen Marvin Ross
Sophomore Participates
1.3.4  Galen Marvin Ross  replied to  Trout Giggles @1.3.3    6 years ago

laughing dude

 
 
 
Randy
Sophomore Participates
2  seeder  Randy    6 years ago

 For our part, skeptics routinely critique ineffective, unproven, exploitative, and unsafe treatments in alternative medicine, but we do not always succeed in communicating with the people who could most benefit from hearing the perspective of  science-based medicine . We know that we don’t, because they tell us so. 

“If we want to successfully communicate with someone,” McLaren explained, “we’ve got to understand not just their language, but the cultural context from which their language springs.” Without that understanding, “the skeptics have not yet been able to speak in a way that can be heard.”

This has always been a problem with not just people such as myself who are actively skeptical, but with people in professions such as medicine and, surprisingly, religion. Many doctors go through med school with no exposure to or understanding of how to deal with people who believe in faith healing or pray healing and many mainstream religions also have little experience in dealing with these people that they, quite frankly, consider to be in extremist sects.

There have been many medical drama TV shows of Doctors trying to deal with parents who have extremely sick children or even infants who believe the only prayer can save their child or who do not believe in blood transfusions or IV's. Many of the Doctors and I would venture many of the viewers wonder how could parents watch their own child, that they obviously love, head toward death when there are treatments that will not only possibly help, but will in fact cure their child and save it's life.

Then there are members of mainstream religions who also do not understand this. While they respect the parents right to their faith, they too actively try to intervene on the child's behalf to save it's life by appealing to the parents belief in God and try to get the parents to change their beliefs based on the question of is this what God really wants.

Personally I don't believe that, in spite of what faith the parents follow, that they have the right to decide to allow their child to die because their child is a separate human being with rights of it's own  but who can not decide on it's own if it believes in the same God (or any God at all) in the same way their parents do. The child has not had a chance to grow up enough to be presented with the options of religions and faith and been given the chance to choose one or to choose none for themselves and the parents do not have the right to make that decision for them because their child is not their possession. In this decision the child should be made a ward of the state and be treated by the Doctors to save it's life because anything else would be child neglect manslaughter.

 
 
 
Skrekk
Sophomore Participates
2.1  Skrekk  replied to  Randy @2    6 years ago
Many doctors go through med school with no exposure to or understanding of how to deal with people who believe in faith healing or pray healing

That's because doctors know that they're really god.

.

 the child should be made a ward of the state and be treated by the Doctors to save it's life because anything else would be child neglect manslaughter.

It probably depends a lot on the state but I think that's generally what does happen - a court intervenes and appoints a guardian ad litem to represent the "best interests" of the child.    I agree with your sentiment on this - it's unfortunate that the law usually allows parents enormous latitude to make potentially harmful decisions for their child.   There was a recent such case involving a 17 year old Connecticut girl with Hodgkins who was forced to undergo chemo against her will and that of her mother.   Her cancer returned not long after the chemo ended.....and then she made the mistake of seeking quackery instead of medicine.

.

That said, I'm slightly conflicted based on some personal experience with child welfare interveners.....sometimes they butt in where they aren't needed and do more harm than good.

 
 
 
Trout Giggles
Professor Principal
2.1.1  Trout Giggles  replied to  Skrekk @2.1    6 years ago

In this case, I think the 17 year old is cognizant enough to make her own decisions regarding her health.

 
 
 
pat wilson
Professor Participates
3  pat wilson    6 years ago

 
 
 
Ender
Professor Principal
4  Ender    6 years ago

Is he trying to say that if I just shut up and listen, that would somehow make absurd theories plausible?

Rubbish.

 
 
 
Skrekk
Sophomore Participates
4.1  Skrekk  replied to  Ender @4    6 years ago

No, he's saying that he could get his point across better if he listened to superstitious folks and understood where they were coming from before debunking their foolish beliefs.   It might help a bit but I doubt it would increase his success rate much.

 
 
 
Randy
Sophomore Participates
4.1.1  seeder  Randy  replied to  Skrekk @4.1    6 years ago

I think that's what he is saying too. To be quiet for awhile and instead of just telling them that they are wrong, to listen to why they feel they way they do, What their culture reasons are for feeling he way they do. Trying to see issues from their point of view. Actually it's rather old advice. I also agree it would not increase ones success rate much, but at least it would be a learning experience.

 
 
 
Ender
Professor Principal
4.1.2  Ender  replied to  Randy @4.1.1    6 years ago

I disagree. What does one learn? If I sit and listen to someone telling me there is a ghost in my house, I still learned nothing. I just listened to bunk for an hour.

 
 
 
Randy
Sophomore Participates
4.1.3  seeder  Randy  replied to  Ender @4.1.2    6 years ago

To you it's bunk, but to the person who believes in ghosts it's not and to me there's nothing wrong with trying to expand my horizons a bit by trying to understand why they believe it. It doesn't mean that I will ever agree (I don't) but I still think it's interesting to find out why different people believe different thing. Maybe not necessarily ghosts, but it would interest me to find out why some people from some parts of the world or in some faiths or cultures believe in traditional medications or prayers or chants in their culture or religion over modern medications. There is nothing wrong with a little mind expansion. Think of it as brain candy.

 
 
 
Ender
Professor Principal
4.1.4  Ender  replied to  Randy @4.1.3    6 years ago

I understand wanting to expand and learn, of others and beliefs. I understand the phrase "when in Rome".

I agree that some things and traditions can be useful Ie. the native Indians were basically using the equivalent of aspirin. There are medicinal things that could be learned from plants, animals and even old tradition.

Yet when one tries to tell me that the earth is flat, I am not going to grow or expand my views by listening to basically, bullcrap.

 
 
 
Randy
Sophomore Participates
4.1.5  seeder  Randy  replied to  Ender @4.1.4    6 years ago

I can understand that. Though it might be interesting to listen to how crazy they are trying to explain it...especially if I was high.peace 2

 
 
 
Ender
Professor Principal
4.1.6  Ender  replied to  Randy @4.1.5    6 years ago

Ha. That I can definitely agree on. Hanging loose

Then again, I might wander off looking at plants or something...

 
 
 
Randy
Sophomore Participates
4.1.7  seeder  Randy  replied to  Ender @4.1.6    6 years ago

There is so much legal pot growing around here that when you drive past some of the several acre grow buildings the smell is overwhelming and the neighbors in some of the local towns complain. The town of Coachella (where the big music festival is every year (starting Saturday as a matter of fact) is even planning on zoning it's downtown strip as a series of bars where you can drink and smoke pot and pot shops to purchase your own, plus restaurants, sidewalk cafes and hotels. So if you ever come here you'll have plenty of plants to see as you are wandering around.

 
 
 
CB
Professor Principal
4.1.8  CB  replied to  Randy @4.1.5    6 years ago

The native Indians, to my understanding, use peyote as a type of religious supplication. For those of us who have not experienced peyote it is easy to criticize the hallucinogenic effects outright, but what is really happening certainly in the short-term is mind-expansion. Also, Timothy Leary, the LSD experimenter, comes to mind, no pun intended. Yet, science adherents could determine that such "activities" are of little or lesser value to man and seek to "terminate" any such usages even for individual subjective mind-expansion.

What are some of the unintended issues or problems removing substances and ideas from usage because they can not be quantified 'universally'?

 
 
 
Skrekk
Sophomore Participates
4.1.9  Skrekk  replied to  Ender @4.1.4    6 years ago
Yet when one tries to tell me that the earth is flat, I am not going to grow or expand my views by listening to basically, bullcrap.

I think he summed up what he's trying to accomplish here:

My blindness is uneven, my vision patchy. I can see further into some topics than others. It’s one reason I’ve given   emphasis to cryptozoology in my skeptical career. I know, or at least remember— ephemeral as memory may be what it feels like to believe there’s a Bigfoot, to feel certain that sea serpents lurk out there to be discovered . Other beliefs I can understand only by analogy–or, perhaps, by listening to someone who experiences that belief from the inside.

We’ll take an extreme example, not from my own social circle so far as I know: what does it feel like to think that the Earth is flat? I literally have no idea, no more than I know what it is like to think that triangles are round. And so my articles on that topic answer the easy questions: what do Flat Earthers say, and are those claims correct? (Spoiler:   they’re not .)

 
 
 
CB
Professor Principal
5  CB    6 years ago

I look at it from this perspective. Science is cool. Science adherents can somewhat become an issue when they sell science as KNOWING (which it does) and in the process displace other forms of knowledge and experience as inferior, obsolete, and of diminishing value. As the saying goes: "One man's trash is another man's treasure." Well, a specific group of adherents of the scientific method are advocating for throwing out all other traditional, cultural, social, and even emotional ways of processing life, pain, death, etceteras.

It is this seeking of the "universal -  common to all" that does not allow the individual to find something which works subjectively that one day may present a larger problem for believers in humanism. There are perfectly good REASONS for some matters to function best and sufficiently in the subjective mode of existence.

 
 
 
Skrekk
Sophomore Participates
5.1  Skrekk  replied to  CB @5    6 years ago
Well, a specific group of adherents of the scientific method are advocating for throwing out all other traditional, cultural, social, and even emotional ways of processing life, pain, death, etceteras.

He'd disagree with your first clause and agree with the latter half, the fact that many people find emotional value in superstitions or beliefs that are either ostensibly false or unprovable and irrational.   As he noted the belief in the supernatural and even things that are provably false are very widespread.

.

There are perfectly good REASONS for some matters to function best and sufficiently in the subjective mode of existence.

I think that's what he's trying to understand - what's the appeal or the benefit of a belief in ghosts, Jesus, Nessie, Bigfoot, a flat earth, etc?    He's trying to understand that so he can better communicate with those folks.    This part shows that:

Naturopathy critic Britt Marie Hermes recently  echoed this sentiment in a   Guardian   story, noting that the “grumpy” cultural tone of the skeptical literature can be off-putting for those in need of information, and that skeptics may not always understand the motivations that draw patients and practitioners to alternative medicine in the first place. Claims, beliefs, practices—these are all about   people .

“If we want to successfully communicate with someone,” McLaren explained, “we’ve got to understand not just their language, but the cultural context from which their language springs.” Without that understanding, “the skeptics have not yet been able to speak in a way that can be heard.”

.

I suspect the motives might be varied but likely have much in common with why right wingers fervently believe such things as Birtherism, that Hillary must be guilty of something including running a pedophile ring out of the basement of a pizza parlor which has no basement, that Trump is an ethical and honest man, etc.    Same thing with the anti-vaxxers who exist across the political spectrum.   For some people there's a deep emotional appeal to such beliefs and that's probably why facts are irrelevant to them.

 
 
 
CB
Professor Principal
6  CB    6 years ago

Shrekk, I see I did not connect this message to your comment. I meant to.


Yet, people do tend to talk pass each other in routine interactive discussions. There is always some kernel of truth nestled in why otherwise rational people behave as they do which we may violently or "grumpily" protest. Let's step away from our 'pet' biases that always betray us.

I can tell you an account of a long ago former male friend who was really a truly nice person. But one day I found out he had a fetish: Head to toe latex erotica. He "performed" his fetish by himself in my presence once. He and his latex were "lovers."  I was perplexed to say the least—still am today.

It did teach me a valuable lesson about "kink" and fetishes - those who spend their time inside those 'worlds' develop languages, attitudes, behaviors, and "solutions" for themselves. None of that is for me, but I would never suggest they should all stop because of my judgement of it as having no redeeming value/s.

* Note: I hope that makes a solid point without crossing any CoC lines.

 
 
 
JBB
Professor Principal
7  JBB    6 years ago

One of the least used and most effective tools for good communications is the ability to shut up and listen...

 
 
 
T.Fargo
Freshman Silent
8  T.Fargo    6 years ago

One immutable fact:  If you're talking, you're not listening.  If you're not listening, you're not learning.

 
 

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