The Challenges of Being a Skeptic

2 Jun

by Brianne Bilyeu aka biodork

In 2009 I discovered The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. Shortly thereafter I started reading skeptical blogs and books and listening to other skeptical podcasts. In 2010 I found local meetups and attended my first skeptics’ conferences. Along the way there have been ah-ha! moments, but there have also been challenges.  More on the challenges in a minute.

Skepticism provides for me a way of looking at the world, at evaluating the massive amounts of information that come to us every day. Skeptics have a wide range of interests – politics, medicine, economy, science, the gamut of human rights and social issues, paranormal investigation, and religion, to name a few. But what we all share is a desire to base decisions and beliefs on plausibility, probability, logic, objective evidence, facts and data, rather than on superstition, the unknown, popular opinion, fear. None of us like to throw our hands up and say, “I guess we’ll never know!” or other indulgences of laziness. Not knowing something is okay when you’re a skeptic. Admitting that there is more to learn is exciting, rather than depressing.

For skeptics, attention to detail, narrow focus on specific claims and adherence to rules of a system are key! But I know myself; I have a penchant for pedantry, and so I work very hard to not act like a “know-it-all”, or in grown-up speak, an anal-retentive asshole, when I’m around non-skeptics.

Segue to the aforementioned challenges…

So it’s a bummer to get eye-rolling from close friends and family when I talk with them about topics that warrant some skepticism. Granted, it’s weird for them because they’ve seen me change over the past year. I’m a pretty accommodating person – I want everyone to be as happy and civil as human nature will allow. I used to do a lot of shoulder shrugging and, “hey, whatever works for ya” in regards to woo like aliens, reiki, homeopathy, voting Republican (oooo…zing!). But in the past couple of years I’ve started actively questioning the claims made by proponents of woo, and I say, “It couldn’t hurt” a lot less than I used to.

And now I’m A Skeptic.  I’m close-minded because I won’t be open to “energy” of the woo kind. I’m arrogant or in denial because I think that ghosts and alien abductions are more likely to be tricks of the brain that we play on ourselves rather than actual visitations. I’m a lazy thinker and a Big [insert offending government agency or corporation here] Zombie because I trust the authority of the CDC and my doctor. Once I was even accused of being a cult-like follower of skepticism by an aunt who believes in homeopathy and not vaccinating her daughter. I’ve gotten pitying looks from friends who think that being science-minded and skeptical means that you can’t be enraptured by the wonder and mysteries that the universe still holds for us little, tiny human beings.

All of these accusations can of course be refuted, but then I sound even more pedantic (and more like I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid) than I did when I got into the original conversation.  How do you guys keep yourselves in check when speaking about skeptical topics with non-skeptics?

One last thing on the challenges of being a skeptic: Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted as saying, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway.” Taking a stance on anything is a risky thing to do, so most people won’t. As a skeptic you decide to make the time to educate yourself on a subject, you put together and evaluate the evidence, and then you muster the courage to adopt opinions and make decisions. And if it turns out that the best available information at the time led you to the wrong conclusion, as a skeptic you must be strong and admit your error, revise your conclusion and move on with life.

That’s a good challenge, and one which I happily accept.

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4 Responses to “The Challenges of Being a Skeptic”

  1. Erin June 2, 2011 at 11:33 am #

    It’s almost worst when people accuse you of “following the ‘religion’ of skepticism” just because they have no words to understand what you’re saying. When you follow the tenets of research, questions, hypothesis and testing, they tend to focus on that word ‘tenet’, because they seem not to understand the rest of those words.

  2. Madeline June 2, 2011 at 1:58 pm #

    I struggle with this and the misinformation about food these days. It really gets under my skin when people repeat misinformation about food, but I know from experience that the best I can expect from trying to correct them is for them to glaze over and ignore me, and the most likely outcome is outright hostility. Because of my job, I must be a tool of the establishment, not someone with year of schooling and and inside view into said establishment…

  3. mully410 June 2, 2011 at 9:26 pm #

    Great post. I often feel the same way. I usually attempt to ask questions: Why do you think that works? What mechanism might be causing that? What are some other possibilities for that? I’ve learned I won’t change someone’s mind in a single conversation so I take baby steps in the hopes they’ll think more about it later.

    The hardest thing for people I know to “get” about me is that I’m comfortable saying “I don’t know.” Lots of people have to have an answer for everything so they resort to aliens, god/God/gods, bigfoot or whatever as an explanation.

  4. Nathan DST aka LucienBlack June 4, 2011 at 2:10 am #

    Plato may have had some odd ideas that don’t exactly work, but the Socratic Method he used can be a very good way of getting people to think, without necessarily coming across as pedantic. Of course, some will suspect what you’re up to, and refuse to answer questions, or treat the questions as insulting, etc. In other words, any technique has a possibility of failure. Nonetheless, I’ve used it with some success in the past.

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