How to Be a Skeptic and Still Have Friends
When I first started the Skeptoid podcast, it was anonymous. I didn't give my name at all in the first 5 or 10 episodes. Why? Because I was afraid of offending my friends and family, afraid of becoming known as a hateful, closed-minded skeptic. I knew that skeptical outreach is an important educational task and needs to be done, but at the same time, I had to live with people. I have friends, neighbors, coworkers, and acquaintances. I'd long ago learned to keep my mouth shut when someone started praising the merits of some new paranormal thing. I reasoned that the best way to be a skeptic and a member of society was to broadcast my critical thinking analyses as far and wide as I could with the podcast, while shielding myself inside a safe little bubble of personal anonymity.
As you probably know, that didn't remain the case. My friends and family found out about Skeptoid almost immediately, but since they're great people I didn't really catch much flak for it, and they pretty much knew that I was skeptical anyway. I decided at that point that if I was going to do it at all, I was going to do it all the way. So I re-recorded all the early episodes with my name on them, and put my full name and picture and bio on the website. In for a penny, in for a pound; so the saying goes.
This doesn't mean that I go out looking for fights. I rarely go out of my way to proactively challenge a friend's belief when I happen to overhear them talking about something paranormal or pseudoscientific, and then only when it's appropriate to do so. Does it irk me when I hear them talking about how scary the ghosts were in last night's episode of Ghost Hunters, or how they're treating their back pain with reiki? Absolutely it does. And now, since they know that I'm "that skeptical guy", frequently they'll come up to me with something. More often than not, they saw on Action News last night that you can run your car on water, or that an old man somewhere is a proven psychic healer, or that an engineer has gone on record saying the Twin Towers were a controlled implosion. Usually they're snickering because they often believe that now they've got me, that now their evidence is irrefutable and they're about to go one-up on the skeptic. They ask me what I think.
And I'm not the only one who gets this. I frequently hear from listeners who find themselves in similar situations. Here's one email I got:
And here's another:
So there we have it. The problem: How to be a skeptic, and talk with your friends and coworkers when the subject comes up, without turning people off? Here is the solution.
Focus on where you agree, never on where you disagree. Start by finding common ground. No matter who you're talking to, they have some level of skepticism about something. Ask them, "Isn't there some myth you've heard that you don't necessarily believe?"
They'll answer "Well sure, Bigfoot, space aliens," whatever.
Tell them "I'm skeptical of Bigfoot for the exact same reasons you are. Tell me why you don't believe in Bigfoot?" And now you've got your friend telling you the very reasons you're skeptical of the new claim. The evidence is of poor quality, it's too improbable, whatever it is. Help your friend along. Point out more reasons to be skeptical of Bigfoot. Be familiar with our checklist of 15 warning signs to help you spot pseudoscience from Skeptoid episode 37.
And then, once you have a good list, apply that same reasoning to the new claim. "We agree that part of the reason Bigfoot is suspect is that we have low quality evidence coming from people with dubious credentials. We can also find those same problems with the claim that you can run your car on water. Also, we agree that one reason Bigfoot is improbable is that if it was real, we'd have known about it by now — people have been living in Bigfoot habitat for hundreds of years. We can say that same thing about running your car on water — science has known all about oxyhydrogen and electrolysis for hundreds of years and exploited it many different ways. It wouldn't have to wait for some guy on the Internet to claim to know something that science doesn't."
Feelings are hurt not so much when there is disagreement, but when someone is summarily proclaimed to be wrong. This doesn't just mean telling your friend that he's wrong, it includes telling your friend that the TV Action News is wrong. It's your friend's source, he found it convincing; and when you simply declare it to be wrong without having seen it, you come off as petty and dismissive. Avoid negative language. Avoid saying that anyone is wrong.
"That announcement you heard alerts us to the possibility that this new breakthrough is true, just as the recent Bigfoot news story alerted us that a Bigfoot body might have been found. But science doesn't determine the validity of a theory based on whether or not its proponents have sent out a single press release; an announcement that would be more interesting would be that the test protocols have been published and the experiment is being successfully replicated all over the world."
Find the common ground. "What are you skeptical of? Well, I'm probably skeptical of it for the exact same reason you are."
You can also accept your friend's claim as a great first step, and tell him what else you'd need to see to be convinced. When something's real, it's real; it can be defined, measured, quantified, and replicated by other researchers. When something's only published on the fringe, or reported from only a single source, that doesn't make it wrong yet; but it does mean that it has not yet been replicated by objective scientists following the same protocols.
Just because you can have this conversation in a positive and non-adversarial way doesn't mean you always have to have the conversation. I still find it best to simply keep my mouth shut a lot of the time. A neighbor knocked on my door with their acupuncturist's business card when I was suffering from some pain after one of my volleyball surgeries. That's a kindness, and I thanked them and left it at that. This way the neighbor remains my friend and the door is always open to have the conversation at a more appropriate time.
Spreading critical thinking by engaging in conversation with your acquaintances should be a way to build bridges, not to expose rifts. If you take one thing away from this podcast, it should be that point. Concentrate on where you agree. I've found that this has converted people who used to come to me as an adversary to challenge me with new claims into friends who seek out my opinion on stories that sound fishy to them.
The important first step is to allow youself to become known as a skeptic. Wear the T-shirts and have the books sitting on your desk at the office. When people know that you're the skeptic, they'll come to you when they want to challenge you. And when they come to you, you're not the jerk. Put yourself out there as a skeptic, and wait for the business to come to your door. When it does, handle it positively and show people that they're skeptics too, they just didn't realize it. When you can help someone to understand that they are already themselves a skeptic of something — Bigfoot, aliens, UFOs, celebrity psychics, whatever — your job is half done. It's like judo, use your opponent's strength against him. Help him redirect his own intelligence and existing skepticism towards the subjects where he has not yet thought critically. In this way, you can be a skeptic and still have friends — and, chances are, you'll even have new skeptical friends.
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