If you’re someone who engages in the skeptical movement, what are the goals you hope to achieve in doing so?
I’ve been slack with my blogging lately, and I’ve had this post by Daniel Loxton bookmarked for so long that I’ve forgotten most of what I wanted to say about it. But I know I wanted to bring up the idea of being goal-oriented in one’s approach to skeptical issues.
This has been a common theme with Daniel Loxton’s posts to Skepticblog. He often urges skeptics to consider what effect the way we communicate our ideas will have on our potential audience, particularly those who don’t agree with us. He advises against using sweeping terms like “woo” to dismiss popular ideas that have no basis in reality.
The idea is that, while someone who thinks homeopathy looks like a useful treatment option might be open to learning about how ineffective it actually is, they’re less likely to listen to you if it sounds like your opening gambit is “that’s a load of horseshit and you’re an idiot for buying into it”. And, importantly, we should consider how our language might sound to someone on the other side of the issue, even if we don’t mean to insult them by curtly implying that homeopathy’s a load of horseshit.
The basic principle of basing your actions around the outcomes they’ll produce is a hard one to argue with. But sometimes the outcomes need to be considered more broadly. There was quite a backlash against the Don’t Be A Dick philosophy first described by Phil Plait last year, as many people irately defended their right to mock and satirise ideas that are unworthy of our respect.
Phil’s main argument concerned the outcomes of our actions; he asked his audience to consider how often they’d been persuaded to change their minds “because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot”. But outcomes were also a prime consideration of those who opposed him. If we feel obliged to pussyfoot around believers’ delicate sensibilities, they said, and are never allowed to use anything as blunt as sarcasm, and have to live in fear of hurting anyone’s feelings even the slightest, then we’ll never get anything done.
The kind of confrontation Phil describes is obviously not constructive. We should certainly all aim to be more goal-oriented than to shout abuse in anyone’s face, for any reason. I know I’ve been guilty in the past of making comments with no other outcome in mind than to make myself feel better by retaliating against a perceived slight; it’s always worth looking further forward than this, or you’re in danger of simply ego-stroking with no regard for others’ perceptions of you.
But another goal worth striving for, when considering the skeptical movement more broadly, is to make sure that those skeptics who are trying to form a constructive part of a community – possibly atheists who’ve lived a sheltered religious life and are only now discovering a group of people who think like them – still feel like autonomous people, with a place to express themselves freely among like-minded folk, even in moments of frustration and anger, and who don’t feel obligated to act guardedly even among their allies for fear of being lectured about the importance of cultivating an amiable public image and being sufficiently goal-oriented.
In other words, shouting other skeptics down if they don’t constantly present a perfectly acceptable and approachable front to believers is another great way of not getting anything done.
I should clarify that that’s not how I’m characterising any of Daniel Loxton’s articles, and I’m not convinced that there’s any such pall of fear at causing offense hovering over the skeptical blogosphere as a whole. But it’s a danger that’s evident when some people are too keen that nobody should ever Be A Dick.
And in the other direction, there are some people who, if you even raise the question of how people not in agreement might respond to something, and suggest that the tone of an argument is worth considering, will damn you for making concessions to the woo-mongering idiots, and accuse you of being that most hideous of ghouls, an accommodationist. Which isn’t necessarily the case either.
Of course our actions should, ideally, only be taken with a view to the effects they will have. But I think some sort of balance between the specific details and the big picture needs to be found.
How close do you reckon I am?