Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Intellectual Superiority. How To Turn Believers Away From Skepticism In One Easy Step.




I recently wrote a post regarding the reasons why the Ouija board is still an object of trepidation for some in the "believers" camp of the paranormal community. I'd say it's probably one of the most negatively received things I've ever written. The type of negativity I received was along the lines of "Well Ouija boards are BS!" or "Ouija boards are a game nothing else!"

Well, yes. But that wasn't the point of the post. There is no question of how Ouija boards work, that the mechanism behind the moving planchette is the ideomotor effect.The fact is, there are other more interesting questions about the Ouija board than is it paranormal or not. Why does it still have an aura of mysticism? What can we do to dispell the ignorance surrounding the board? People posting comments such as those I mentioned above, clearly didn't read what I posted. They may well not be interested in such questions. That's fine, but why comment on something you couldn't be bothered to read?

The push back revealed a more worrying negativity, though. It's something that I come across frequently on the more "skeptical" sites my blog is linked to. "If people believe X, they must be stupid." I can't tell you how disappointing it is to read other skeptics commenting like this. As a skeptic we are often accused of an affectation of intellectual superiority and this is exactly why. It's especially disappointing when someone like Jon Donnis of the BadPsychics network takes this stance:


Jon, if you are not aware of him or his work, created the Bad Psychics site and blog. At one point the site was, in my opinion, one of the finest skeptical resources on the internet. I first came across it when a family member was scammed out of a large sum of money by a psychic featured in Jon's huge directory of paranormal fraudsters. At that point, I was unsure how psychics were using well-worn tricks to scam believers, but it wasn't until I spent hours reading the site and the suggested links that I could nail down my disbelief. I became informed thanks to Jon, and I'm sure many others could tell the same story.

I literally would not be writing this blog, if not for Jon and the Bad Psychics site. It was immeasurably influential to me and introduced me to skepticism and it's application to the paranormal. Nor, would I be studying physics, my love of science being a direct result of my introduction to skepticism.

I really don't think Jon would've gone to such effort if he just believed that those that came to his site to question psychics were "dumb" if they hadn't already made their mind up on the subject. He would not have set out to educate and inform unless he knew that misinformed and uninformed are not synonymous with just "dumb". The former can be changed with education and well presented and supported arguments, the latter cannot.

Ignorance can be dispelled.

As skeptics, or even skeptical believers, we can't ever lose sight of that. Maybe Jon has become somewhat jaded, maybe he was having an off day. Who knows. Also, Jon fails to delineate between ideas and those that accept those ideas. The idea of a spirit pushes a planchette around a wooden board may well be dumb, but one doesn't have to be dumb to accept it, maybe just lacking knowledge of a robust counter-argument to the idea.

 Let's face it, dismissing believers as "dumb" is thunderingly unproductive at best, arrogant and snobbish at worst.

One of the major points I was attempting to make in the aforementioned Ouija board post, which many people seemed to miss, possibly because I didn't explain it well, was that there are cultural reasons why Ouija board belief is widespread and difficult to overturn. I put this to Jon and he responded:


Firstly, the idea that we should we now class people who watch and believe in Most Haunted as an ethnic minority whose beliefs need to be respected is utter nonsense and something I've never argued. Ever. I don't think ANY IDEAS, should be protected from criticism. But we can debunk, disprove and even ridicule and rubbish these beliefs, without insulting and more importantly alienating those that hold them. Also, the post focused on a slightly deeper cultural influence than a ghost hunting TV show aired on an obscure UK digital channel twelve weeks a year. I think I'll sum up the tactic of augmentation that Jon has attempted to use here with an image:


Another point I'd raise is that from the above statement it seems apparant that Jon thinks critical thinking skills and common sense are both synonymous with each other and innate, whilst I don't think these two qualities are synonymous at all. Take many of the ideas progressed by science using methods ultimately founded on critical thinking, which are deeply non-intuitive and buck the notion of "common sense". For example, Newton's proof of the fact that objects of different masses free-fall at the same rate. That's a deeply non-intuitive idea.

Tackling Jon's other assertion, common sense may well be innate, or it may develop naturally, but critical thinking isn't and certainly doesn't. Critical thinking has to be taught. How would I evidence this? Well if critical thinking was innate the development of the scientific method and the scientific revolution would likely have occurred much sooner in our development as a race. Let's face it, we've no chance of teaching people to think critically whilst also calling them dumb!

Also, I've got to say, even though I think Jon was being somewhat flippant, the idea that neutering people who hold a certain belief will end that belief is absolutely stupid. You do know that belief in the paranormal isn't genetic, right Jon? Of course you do.

If someone, somewhere believes something that you can see is patently nonsense, something like a Ouija board or even a blatantly photoshopped mermaid picture, there are two routes available to you. You could adopt a position of intellectual superiority. You could laugh and sneer at believers, call them "dumb" or "stupid" or whatever. You could dismiss any attempt at discussion or debate about the phenomena in question as pandering to idiots. Unfortunately, there's then a danger that when you engage in your next debunking you'll simply come across as a poser who engages in skepticism to display your intelligence to an echo-chamber filled with people who agree with you. You can't be attempting to impart the usefulness of critical thinking to those you've already dismissed as "dumb" for not having prior knowledge of it, can you? There's also the downside in taking this approach, that you'll confirm the accusations of ardent believers that skeptics are close-minded naysayers. All you'll achieve is to make the job of those of us who tell believers that there is a great divide between a skeptic and a cynic,  have to work much harder in our attempts to dismiss ignorance and educate.

Alternatively, you could just try outreach instead.

You could adopt the mindset that believers aren't idiots, they are misinformed, and you can attempt to dispell that misinformation. You could attempt to make accurate information more readily available to believers Perhaps you could try to remember that you yourself were likely in that position at some point, then you stumbled across the site of someone like Jon Donnis and as a result of his passion and hard work the scales fell from your eyes.