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The Skeptical Virtue of Seriously Just Being Quiet

Apr. 10, 2018 by | Comments (14)
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, “cultural 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.

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