Though we are a diverse, independent, and freethinking group, we do not escape the trappings of tribalism. We gather around a set of basic tenets like scientific inquiry, reason, and the recognition of human fallibility, as brothers and sisters before the campfire, enjoying and protecting the light that fends off the darkness. This inevitable gathering of minds will be true of any group or movement, however young or loosely defined it may be.
When a skeptic, new to some topic or curious about a new development in a more explored one, asks, “I have a friend who believes x,y,z…how do I debunk this?”, or “Does anyone know any good arguments refuting x,y,x…?,” the group steps up. Whether on forums or phones, the consensus is put forth. I believe the skeptics who do this are asking the wrong questions.
Skepticism can foster true intellectual rigor and thus often provides the privilege of deep examination that not many of the lay public have the time or resources to commit to. However, this privilege too makes many a skeptic fancy herself an expert. Someone offers “evidence” of an alien craft, for example, and with debunking in mind, opinions are offered that may far out-step the boundaries of true expertise in favor of explanation. When backed into a corner, the wish to explain can disguise ignorance. Of course, coming at an investigation or query with an end in mind is the very hallmark of motivated reasoning, the antithesis of skepticism.
Modern skepticism, however unknowingly, has become a community of science communicators. Those who we look up to, the beacons of reason that we so embrace, are some of the best science communicators in the world. To live up to this, boots-on-the-ground skeptics take up the charge of communicating our science-based positions. While well meaning, an unfortunate consequence of this is that there arises a compulsion to offer an answer to every phenomenon, an explanation for every weirdness. Being in the minority, we feel challenged by the majority who feel the burden of proof is on us to explain the queerness of the universe. This can drive us far from our foundations of scientific inquiry, until we are merely reciting the positions of the group.
Shouting “confirmation bias!” at an argument is more a mantra than an explanation. The desire to explain some phenomena with debunking in mind, especially when most of us are not experts, has us throwing out phrases and stances that certainly sound more like clutching at straws to the curious inquirer. There is nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know.” In fact, it is more intellectually honest to say this in place of some explanation you heard the group whisper of. We try to shrug off the accusations of “armchair skepticism,” but much skeptical discussion on the Internet fits this bill.
We cannot come at questions with conclusions in mind. The askers see right through this, think less of us for it (or think us cynics), and most likely get very little from the exchange. It is far more important to treat every situation as a process of inquiry. For example, should we really have to go much further than explaining dilution rates to those who are curious about homeopathy? Yes, I think we should. Reiterating “the placebo effect” and “regression to the mean” does little to change the minds of users, at least in my experience.
As skeptics and communicators, we have to lead others through the darkness and towards the fire. Offering the consensus of the group, especially in place of saying a simple “I don’t know,” rings hollow for entrenched believers of all kinds. To quote a great man: “It’s not what you think, but how you think.” Showing some intellectual vulnerability instead of a false façade of expertise humanizes our positions. We want to teach reason, not offer up skeptical dogma (or what is perceived as such). And, again quoting another great man, if we can “teach a man to reason, he’ll think for a lifetime.”
Kyle Hill is the JREF research fellow specializing in communication research and human information processing. He writes daily at the Science-Based Life blog and you can follow him on Twitter here.