Woo Triage

I commented on the recent thing at the Universe blog, but I think the author’s comments in the section where my post never quite materialized warrant some additional commentary, spinning off into something a little more in-depth. I have two fairly distinct things to say with regard to the matter, so in the interest of actually finishing a post in a timely fashion, I’m writing this as a two-post series. Let’s begin!

First, the sour grapes:

I don’t want to seem like I’m backtracking (and I’m very sorry to have typecast Skeptics as fuddy-duddies), but it seems I’ve made too broad an argument about something specific. […] I hate to say that the authoritarian, joyless zeal with which you’ve taken to shredding my point of view is, in effect, exactly what I’m talking about.

Yeah, far be it from a group that you’ve painted negatively with a common, obnoxious, tiresome stereotype to respond to that stereotype with some degree of authority (i.e., being relatively sure of what we’re talking about) and without joy. I suppose we should append a little smiley emoticon every time we sigh, roll our eyes, and start drafting the usual response to inane comments like ‘you just want to tear things down’ and ‘what’s the harm of UFO belief’. What if I said that women make terrible scientists and science fiction authors because they’re too emotional and romantic and not analytical enough? Or that a woman can’t be President because she’ll make the White House pink and bomb someone every 28 days? I wonder if debunking those common, inane canards would make you particularly joyful.

:D

Of course, I tried really hard to infuse my response with joy and humility and giving-the-benefit-of-the-doubt (it’s hard to noun that verb), but it never got out of moderation. Further, the first video in your post–the one which sparks your criticism of skeptics–is apparently presented to criticize Bill Nye the Science Guy. Because as everyone knows, no one is more joyless or authoritarian a mere “debunker” as Bill Nye the Science Guy. And maybe it’s just that my heart is shriveled to a third of its normal size due to years of cynical debunking, but I thought Treppenwitz and Skeptical Ginger also tried to inject some joy and humility into their posts. But I suppose it’s easier to broadly dismiss anything that doesn’t fit your preconceived bias than to concede any point. “I’m sorry for what I said, but this proves that what I said was right” is not an apology.

:D

On to the more substantive points:

In any case, I’m not speaking to any political form of pseudoscience — excuse me, in my bubble, I forget this is a charged subject. Anti global warming “science,” the dinosaurs-and-humans-together stuff, health quackery: clearly a worthy cause for debunking of all kinds.

I guess this may be a place where the sort of hardcore skepticism we typically engage in can seem unwarranted and off-putting. If you divide the woo-world into “harmful woo” and “harmless woo,” then using the same approach for both sets might indeed seem over-the-top.

But skeptics on the whole, I think, don’t make that distinction–at least, not with regard to arguing against it. It’s the same question/criticism that atheists face: why go after the liberal religious people when they’re mostly on our side? In both situations, the answer is basically the same. A person’s beliefs do not exist in a vacuum. The beliefs we hold–and the way we arrived at those beliefs–affect the other things we’re willing to accept and the actions we take. If people could just hold compartmentalized beliefs that had no real effects, then we’d have no real impetus to argue against them.

But that’s not the case. You needn’t look any farther than, say, Mike Adams to see how irrational beliefs beget irrational beliefs. I don’t know enough about Mike to know what beliefs or system for accepting beliefs kicked the whole thing off, but if I had to guess I’d say that his belief in the healing power of alternative medicine led to his rejection of science-based medicine, which led to his distrust of the pharmeceutical industry, which led to his distrust of the government, which is why he thinks 9/11 was an inside job. On one hand, it’s hard to see how “these herbs made my cold go away” can lead to “WTC 7 must have been a controlled demolition,” but the intermediate steps are incremental.

Mike’s an extreme example, sure. And I freely admit that my impression here is based on anecdotes rather than data. But I imagine it’d be the experience of most skeptics that crank magnetism is a strong force indeed: religious fundamentalists seem more likely to believe in possession and witchcraft, newage crystal enthusiasts seem more likely to believe in alternative energy medicine and psychics, and so forth. I’d be interested in seeing a rigorous study done, but I’m not aware of any.

See, it’s not that people just have some irrational belief, it’s that the irrational belief is emblematic of larger potential problems. People have standards for what beliefs they’re willing to accept and what ideas they’re willing to entertain. For skeptics, these standards are set by science and evidence; for believers of various stripes, the standards are set by the tenets of their religious beliefs or the details of their conspiracy narratives, and so forth. The beliefs–and thus, the standards which inform those beliefs–inform how the people who hold them will act, think, worry, vote, and otherwise affect other people around them.

And the effects range from the trivial (Bigfoot enthusiasts buying books on Cryptozoology, Spiritualists buying Ouija Boards) to the wantonly destructive (parents killing their children through religious-based medical neglect, governments condemning people to death through HIV/AIDS denial). No one denies that, which is why you’re more likely to find outrage over Jenny McCarthy than Jeff Meldrum.

But how much does a belief or belief system have to impinge on other people’s rights and well-being before it warrants debunking? Does it need to be death, as in the case of antivaxxers and HIV/AIDS denialists? Does it need to be widespread impending catastrophe, in the case of climate change denialists and GMO fearmongerS? You see no problem, apparently, with the New-Agers and the cryptozoologists; is it similarly unproblematic when legislators waste time and resources on protecting Bigfoot or investigating remote viewing? How much of my tax money has to go to pseudoscience and quackery before I have legitimate cause to be upset?

One of my biggest problems with all kinds of woo-woo is that it has this tendency to completely invert people’s priorities by providing them with imaginary worries and concerns that supersede real worries and concerns. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists become more concerned with remaining pure and sinless than with treating their life-threatening diseases; religious fundamentalists become more concerned with the coming Apocalypse than with helping create peace in the Middle East or fight climate change; conspiracy nuts become so fearful and distrustful of the secret plots of their governments that they overlook real harm that the governments are doing under the light of day. One of the best examples I can provide personally comes from Debra, the conspiracy theorist whose belief in a vague Satanic Illuminati plot to kill most of humanity and enslave the rest, led her to stockpile canned goods, panic over being potentially followed by Men in Black, and seek out truth in comic books and satirical videos. Meanwhile, she had a fairly young son, and had altered her plans of travel and family vacations and entertainment so that she could instead spend the money on supplies for when things got bad.

On one hand, the only people she’s harming are herself and her family, so why should I care? It’s her money, and she can do with it as she pleases, and it’s really no skin off my nose. What purpose is served by arguing against her beliefs if they don’t harm me?

And on the more relevant hand, why wouldn’t I care? Here’s a relatively normal, relatively healthy woman whose irrational beliefs have caused her to make major alterations to her life in order to prepare for a coming catastrophe that will never actually come. In doing so, she misses out on time with her family and causes herself all manner of considerable, completely unnecessary fear and worry. What kept hitting me, over and over in the conversation with Debra, was how tragic her story was. I felt really sad for her, and angry at the Alex Joneses and Jim Marrses who had actively harmed her life by spreading these false beliefs. I argued with her not so I could prove that I was right, but so that I could convince her to seek professional help and maybe have more time to spend with her son than with the phantom enforcers of the Illuminati. I argued with her not because her beliefs harmed me, but because they harmed her.

This is why we argue against even harmless woo: because it so rarely is. Even if it isn’t influencing legislation or policy, even if it’s not killing people or speeding along environmental catastrophe, it’s still affecting people’s lives and doing so in a negative fashion. I “debunk” because I think people’s lives are generally better if they’re employing critical thinking and scientific reasoning. I “debunk” so that I can help people stop living and thinking according to the dictates of fictional narratives and start living in the real world. “Debunking,” as I said in my comment, is a first step–and a necessary one–in the general process of education. And education, as far as I’m concerned, rarely needs justification.

:)

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3 Responses to Woo Triage

  1. Something just struck me, being as I'm the wielder of the Editing Stick:'joyless zeal' is almost an oxymoron. 'Zeal' implies enjoyment, at least in the connotative sense.So, this person fails at words as well as argumentative logic. Not that that's a surprise though.

  2. Arren says:

    I vehemently disagree, Philosophizer: "joyless zeal" is an exquisite phrase, elegant in its precision……Alright, so that's the only point on which I disagree.

  3. You know, Arren, you're right in that 'joyless zeal' really does capture the feeling perfectly. I guess I just don't feel like writer-crazies should be allowed to break the rules until they've proved they do so out of knowledge rather than ignorance…

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