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On the "Softly, Softly" Skeptical Approach

by Bruno Van de Casteele

April 27, 2014

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Donate Earlier this month, ghost geek and known UK skeptic Haley Stevens wrote a long article on her blog "Hayley is a ghost". It is well worth the read. She talks about how one could describe your skepticism: "loud and proud" (agressive) or "softly, softly", arguing that a good skeptical approach is a healthy mix of both. Although I don't mind sometimes an agressive approach, I prefer the "softly, softly" part. Reading the post, I remembered a skeptical conversation I had last year.

The setting was a social event in my village. I got into conversation with someone I knew from other settings, and he was talking about the piece of land he was cultivating. As he was explaining what he all did, he mentioned casually that he followed the advice of a neighbour to plant only according to "earthlines" (ley lines).

Now what did I have to do? Draw my skeptical sword, cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war? No, because firstly that is not my character and secondly I didn't want to. The guy is a well-respected, intelligent person, and I surely wanted to continue that conversation or work together in other settings.

What I did was the advice once given by George Hrab on his podcast (Geologic Podcast), and simply asked questions. I thus learned that when earthlines crossed water underground, that was a bad thing for plants and animals. He even provided anecdotical proofs that he moved a crop from one place to another, on suggestion by (and after "investigation" from) his neighbour, and got a huge increase in produce. I continued to ask questions, prodding a bit here and there, and learned some more anecdotes. I also managed to get in a little doubt, for instance he was unable to explain why it would or could work, and he also wasn't sure if it was underground "presence" of water or if it were "streams". At the remark that the earthlines were 10m apart, I also wondered aloud if that was on our latitude and if that was also the case on other latitudes. But, at every stage I didn't reject outright and just kept asking questions.

In all, nothing really happened, and no one changed opinion. Someone else intervened in the conversation and we talked about other things. And still, I think that was one of the better skeptical conversations I had, and was much more effective than an outright attack would have been. I like to think that I managed to slip in a small grain of sand in the mental machinery (especially "how could it work?") and that when this person talked again with his neighbour, he would start to realize the holes in the entire story.

However if I would have attacked outright (assuming I knew anything about ley lines), the only thing that would have happened is a defensive hedgehog position, fortified by "I have seen it work". That would have let to nothing, and would have blown any future communication. I therefore think that "softly, softly" is a better skeptical approach.

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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