This blog is a focussed experiment. I wanted to test my ability to publish and produce a taut multi-media blog on something. I attended TAM7 in July. It struck me as the perfect 4-day crash course. The "course" didn't go as well as I hoped, but I learned a lot. I'm continuting to update as I have the opportunity to - eventually I'll have covered the entirety of my experience at the conference.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Confessions of an Asshole Skeptic

I used to think of myself as a 'bad skeptic' – actually I AM a bad skeptic in a host of ways, but that's beside the point. I used to think of myself as that particular type of bad skeptic that can't express their skeptical opinions without coming across as a dickhead.

This is a pretty common stage for freshly minted skeptics to go through, so I don't feel particularly self-victimized or otherwise special for it. Typically it's the sort of thing that people eventually grow into. They learn that there are ways to bring skepticism into a conversation without scoffing or sounding elitist.

Tactics for being a 'softie skeptic' (uh-oh is my bias showing?) include couching the skepticism as a series of questions – drilling down through the bullshit by making the other person confront their own rational failures; or by addressing the common ground and building a bridge to a more evidenced position. I am far better at the former than the latter, but neither is really where I live.

I have always been more of the truth-screaming variety of person in general. I do not suffer fools much at all, let alone gladly. As a consequence I have never really been prone to trying to make my skepticism easily digested. I recognize the value of it, but I don't often exercise it.

A few cases in point:

Back when Provost Pictures had our first media explosion (it was a slow news day and our story caught national attention) I was in the middle of interview three or four of the day – it was a live interview on the radio, TO a radio station in the Okanagan Valley where the lake is that Ogopogo (the subject of our film) is imagined to live in. Much to our publicist's horror I said, on the air "Only whack-jobs believe in this thing!" Yeah. Not such a great move.

That burst of media had not been expected at all, and we were not prepared. Had we been prepared we would have known that we would be asked if the Ogopogo exists and would have prepared answers that wouldn't alienate listeners or be lies. Indeed, by the very next interview, minutes later, we'd figured out a polite way for me to avoid saying I don't believe. Something to the effect of "Well, I believe in evidence, so until it's proven that it doesn't exist I'll withhold judgement." Of course, any science or logic minded person knows that you can't prove a negative... anyone who wanted to put more than a moment's thought into it would see through to my sub-text, but on the surface I wasn't denying Ogopogo's existence.

As an in joke, we wrote both these thoughts into the mouth of one of the characters in the film – the character I played.

On our second date I blurted out in response to something Jodie had said about a friend getting energy-based healing, "Reiki is so full of shit!" It was kind of rash seeing as I liked this girl a lot on those first two dates. But then again, if she couldn't handle my scoffing attitude, we weren't going to last.

But we did last.

Last week we were at a party. Later in the evening I was on the periphery of a discussion between two 20-somethings that culminated in a statement that read to the effect of: "It doesn't make sense. Why would a company make a drug that could cure a disease when they can make more money with drugs to treat the symptoms?" I dug deep and tried my hardest to inject a sensible answer without being an asshole about it. "Perhaps because pharmaceuticals are a competitive industry and a company that cures a disease are going to corner that market, making all competing products obsolete?" I could have continued, but it was clearly pointless. I was shot a pair of looks that clearly stated to me that I had bought in to 'the man.' Yep, it's official; I am one of those older sheeple who cannot be trusted.

Soft-peddling my skepticism is clearly not my bag. Never really has been – even when it was fledgling knee-jerk skepticism.

While there is definitely some value in trying to make my points digestible, it simply isn't in my temperament to put in the effort to do it all the time. I've faced it, I am an asshole skeptic. Simple as that. If Dawkins can (and I do believe he is absolutely right) espouse the value and need for militant atheism, then I reserve the right to be a hard-to-swallow skeptic.

I think there is a place in the world for both approaches. Without a doubt, the rational position is going to be good for pulling on-side the fence sitters and those who are on the verge of a break-through in their critical thinking skills, but at the same time, I think there is also a case to be made for the truth screamers. Anne Coulter (my fingers burn just typing in her name) and Michael "I Wish He Weren't On My Side of the Political Spectrum" Moore each have made careers out of their outrageous declarations, right or wrong. Why can't there be a place for irrational rationalism? It's not going to be the best place to make effective arguments, but what good do effective arguments have against the Gish-gallop? Penn & Teller's Bullshit! heads in this direction. The point of this sort of skepticism is to draw attention to issues with the force of one's claims – with intensity and flare.

I'm still honing this principle, but it seems to me that making (seemingly) outrageous claims that happen to be based on reality is largely un-explored territory. I am not a great debater, but I don't think that is the foundation necessary for this. The cornerstone is in fact a willingness to cry "Bullshit!" without getting mired in the minutiae of facts, yet without ignoring the end result of the facts. Yes, it will on the surface occasionally wear the skins of the other side – it's hard to shout "Bullshit!" without at least the impression of an ad hominem attack being an inevitable part of the mix. This is the kind of skeptic I am naturally pre-disposed to being, though I expect that there is someone out there better suited than I am at taking it to its extreme.

Perhaps you are that person. Perhaps you aren't. But if you find that any of this rings true to you and that you find that you agree with the intellectual position of the skeptical community, but aren't really equipped with the skills to be a well-behaved debater and/or aren't tempered to be the sort that "won't stoop to the level of the opposition" keep in mind that perhaps the generally accepted notion that we as skeptics don't behove ourselves by stooping to their level is itself BULLSHIT. It's a false dichotomy! There is a spectrum of possible responses and the default position on the side of polite response is NOT the only option. The process of rational-thought is definitely the way to go when it's time to finish the fight. It MUST be the way, but in order to engage certain elements of the public, antagonizing them and making them mad may actually make them hear and think about parts of the argument that they aren't currently hearing. It's not the answer for everyone, of that I am sure. But being a little outrageous gets attention and without attention from someone who isn't already on-side, what is the fucking point? We're just preaching to the converted.

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