Friday, October 29, 2010

I’m still doing it wrong

But this time for a different reason.

Apparently I spend too much time in meetings about being skeptical.  If I didn’t, I could spend more time changing the world.  This is due to a well-known phenomena that you can see on every single newspaper comments page in the world every single day: nobody is capable of doing more than one thing.  Governments can only help either the young or the old but never both.  Scientists can only chase funding or do science but not both.  And if the latter, they can only do useful science or useless science, with the commenter as the sole arbiter of which it is (note: it is invariably decreed to be useless).  And skeptics can either go to meetings to congratulate each other on their cleverness or they can help the children.  Isn’t it about time I thought of the children?

It turns out that people can do quite a lot of things, really.  Governments do lots of things at the same time.  Scientists chase funding for science which they then immediately do.  And skeptics can, if they wish, go to meetings and do other stuff. 

The thing is that not all skeptics share the goal of converting people, nor is there any reason why they should. Many enjoy the company of like-minded people and discussing topics relevant to their interests regardless of whether those interests include spreading a skeptical message. As it happens, I’m someone who does want to spread the message and I attend skeptical meetings partly for that reason: I've never left one without having learned something. Sometimes I learn more about how critical thinking might be spread or about causes I haven't heard of elsewhere or about new skeptical resources.  I also frequently hear inspiring stories of people who have let go of a debilitating belief and witness or hear of skeptics being thanked sincerely for their help in the coming about of an epiphany.  This is a welcome change from the very familiar charge of our being spoilsports and reminds me why I do it.

What makes Alom Shaha think that I don't leave those meetings inspired and go out and do decent skeptical work in the community?  What makes him think we can't do both?  What, especially, makes him think lots of skeptics aren't already doing good work with children or adults regardless of whether they also go to skeptical meetings? 

I'd like to think I've done a small amount of good over the years.  I could do more, but I'm not convinced I could do more by cutting down on interaction with other skeptics.  I also see people being brought together: often people who have felt isolated within their community because of their skepticism and/or atheism who are then intensely relieved to have found like-minded people. All this stuff is useful for achieving a variety of goals.

Finally, Shaha mentions the skeptical 'movement' in the context of what - according to him - it 'should' be doing.  I'm by no means convinced that there is any such movement. There's a skeptical community by definition, but a movement would seem to imply shared goals and methods and motivations that I don't think really exist.  I'm not even convinced that such a thing should necessarily exist.  While I think the world would benefit from more skepticism, there might be lots of ways to achieve that.  People going around being skeptical; showing people it's OK to criticise religion; that it's unwise to blindly accept what we're told by people anxious to sell us medicine; that skepticism is something fun rather than only pompous nay-saying.....mightn't this also help to spread skeptical attitudes? 

I think it could.  Perhaps one way to make critical thinking more mainstream is to just be increasingly cool about it.  The more familiar we get with not bending over backwards to be sensitive to people’s foolish beliefs'; the more we’re comfortable with enjoying being skeptical and interacting with other skeptics; the more fun we have in these interactions; then perhaps the more we mainstream the ideas that underlie skepticism.  Mightn’t this help create an environment where it’s easier for people to fall into skepticism as a default position?  It currently seems as though credulity or even anti-skepticism seems to be the default position of many.  Wouldn’t it be cool if just by coming together and having a laugh we could help shift the default in the other direction?

The problem with people imagining movements is that they tend to imprint them with their own goals and methods.  While I'm delighted when skeptics organise around some common goal, I prefer the guerilla approach. Pick your battles, use the skills you happen to have and by all means go to skeptical meetings to recruit or be recruited. 

And stop telling people how to be skeptical!

H/T Ophelia Benson

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