When this blog was launched on an unsuspecting world, I immediately posted an announcement heralding its arrival to my Facebook wall, as well as a general e-mail to all my friends and family members who haven’t yet swallowed the social media kool-aid. Little did I anticipate the awesome wave of apathy that this news flash would generate.
I wasn’t expecting that everyone would go so far as to read the thing, but I did expect more in the way of congratulations, curiosity, or clicks of the “Like” button. What did I get? Crickets.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Nowadays I’m reluctant to tell people of my involvement in the skeptical movement, because the reaction is never particularly heartening. At best, they tend to look at me … well … skeptically.
At least I think that’s how they’re looking at me. Maybe it’s bafflement, or defensiveness, or amused condescension; I’ve seen suggestions of all these in various people’s reactions, even those who more or less agree with where I’m coming from. At worst, it’s as if I have just trumpeted my membership in the Narrow-Minded Arrogant Bastards’ League. As near as I can tell, those who are skeptical of skeptics seem to think that our main purpose in life is spoiling people’s fun.
Apparently I’m not the only one who isn’t feeling the love. This was brought home to me by the penultimate segment of last weekend’s NECCS conference, in which Richard Wiseman, Massimo Pigliucci, and Kaja Perina wrestled with the question, ”Why Is It So Difficult to Be A Skeptic?” Although it turned out to be an interesting and, thanks mostly to Wiseman, a frequently hilarious discussion, I came away realizing that there’s no easy solution to this glum state of affairs. We may just have to live with the fact that we’re offering something that no one wants. Or, at the very least, something no one thinks they want.
I admit I’m flummoxed. I don’t know how to breach the defensive wall that people throw up when they hear the word “skeptic.” Still, I think there are a few guiding principles that, if constantly borne in mind, may help to put a few chinks in that wall.
1. Make the case that pseudoscience is not just harmless fun, and that whatever “comfort” it offers comes at a terrible price. The website whatstheharm.net provides an incredibly useful service in this regard by detailing the real human costs of believing in fraudulent claims. If there’s anything fun or comforting about people losing their life savings to psychic con artists, or dying because they trusted some new age snake oil peddler, I’m not seeing it.
2. Stress what we’re for, not just what we’re against. As much as I relish seeing charlatans exposed, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we’re advocates for an evidence-based worldview, not just debunkers. The world as it really is is far more bizarre and fascinating than any of the fantasies spun by miracle-mongers.
3. Keep it funny. Entertainers like Johnny Carson, Penn & Teller, and Julia Sweeney have probably helped the cause more than all the essay writers combined. As the playwright Charles Ludlam once wrote, “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you.”
Those of us in the skeptical community know full well how damnably funny, sexy, and adorable we are. Sooner or later, the rest of the world is bound to catch on.