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What's A Poor Skeptic To Do? PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Jamy Iam Swiss   

The Beatles

A new poll was just released by Public Policy Polling, concerning Americans’ belief (and disbelief) in conspiracy theories. This headline from MSN.com tells the story well, especially for skeptics.

True dat.

Among other results, the poll reports that:

21% of voters believe the government covered up a UFO crash at Roswell (27% of Romney voters believe in the cover-up as compared with 16% of Obama voters)

20% of voters believe there is a link between childhood vaccines and autism, 51% do not

13% think Obama is the Antichrist

 9% of voters think the government adds fluoride to our water supply for sinister reasons (not just dental health)

 7% of voters think the moon landing was faked

  5% of voters believe that Paul McCartney actually died in 1966

  4% believe that "shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our societies."

 14% of voters believe in Bigfoot

What’s a poor skeptic to do?

I confess that one great temptation may be to curl up into the fetal position and take a long nap in the closet.

Another might be to go make a stiff drink, open the window, and lustily sing a cover version of “It’s The End of the World as We Know It.”

Or still another option: quit this skeptic racket and go to work in support of a different cause. Maybe fighting to restore the proper use of the word “hopefully.” Or getting news anchor-people to correctly use the word “literally.”

Y’know – something that stands a better chance of success than the battle for rational inquiry.

But then one begins to think about the stakes. Doesn’t one?

The misuse of “hopefully” and “literally” drives this language pedant a little nuts at times, but the stakes are relatively low, as compared with the costs of irrational thinking and uninformed decision-making. It might be harmless to believe that Paul is dead, it might be annoying or even silly to think that the moon landing was faked, but the same thinking – or lack of it – that leads to these kinds of faulty conclusions and ignoring of the evidence also leads people to believe that there’s a link between childhood vaccines and autism. And that’s a dangerous conclusion with real-world consequences. My kids may be attending school with unvaccinated children, and that in turn presents a risk to the health of my children.

Bad thinking is a slippery slope, with a bed of dangerous and life-threatening ideas waiting to land on at the base. The way people analyze evidence and reach conclusions about what is and is not true leads to action that in turn has real-world consequences – for me. And for you.

And that’s why I’m a skeptical activist.  

No less than CSICOP founder Paul Kurtz came to argue that paranormal and cryptozoology claims were no longer important and that skeptics needed to go after bigger fish in the fish market of ideas. This is turn led others to the notion of so-called Skepticism 2.0, and the charge that “Bigfoot skepticism” was an old-fashioned, out-of-date irrelevancy, and that the scientific skepticism movement needed more meaningful targets.  

Really? I don’t think so. Fourteen percent of American voters believe in Bigfoot. And Bigfoot is a great way to introduce people to the tenets of critical thinking and skepticism. It’s fun for kids to think about. It’s a fine example for adults of how to consider evidence. Bigfoot is a fine way to create better citizens, because clearer and more rational thinking makes for better decisions, better citizenry, and a better world.  

As Daniel Loxton has written about the work of skeptical activism, “That work is important. And it’s hard. We’re under-funded, we’re overwhelmed, and it’s often hard to see the stakes. Who cares about yet another distasteful little scam?

Yet, somebody has to do it. I can’t drive that point home hard enough. The job isn’t done. It will never be done. The need for this work has not diminished just because we grew sick of doing it. People have no less need to hear the message just because we grew tired of saying it.”  

Then again, there is that black carnation in Paul’s lapel on the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” film.  

Just sayin’.

 

Jamy Ian Swiss is Senior Fellow at the JREF. He blogs regularly at randi.org.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
I think some of the "conspiracy theories" in the poll are a bit over stated.
written by sibtrag, April 05, 2013
For example: "29% of voters believe aliens exist"

Well, many people (including a large percentage of skeptics) believe in abiogenesis (rather than life springing from a Creator). In that case, there is no reason to assume that life formed only on this planet in the entire universe. Boom...some quite logical, skeptical people can believe that aliens exist[ed], even if there is no evidence for there existence.

Also: "Voters are split 44%-45% on whether Bush intentionally misled about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."

Well, Bush claimed knowledge of WMDs that were never found. Was he mistaken, misled or misleading? That is a question for history to answer, but it is hard to label any of those choices as an irrational belief.

"15% of voters think the medical industry and the pharmaceutical industry “invent” new diseases to make money"

Well, I certainly don't think that's a wide-spread phenomenon, but when one considers "male-pattern baldness", "botox" and other cosmetic procedures and possibly the widespread diagnosis of ADHD, there is room for thought.

11% of voters believe the US government allowed 9/11 to happen

Hindsight is 20-20. But, there were reports which later turned out to be warnings.


My point is that some of the polled questions (including those referenced above) are indeed quite laughable, but all 20 are not nearly of that quality.

Finally, if someone had trapped me on the phone or in person asking such strange questions...I may have been tempted to answer that, for instance, the moon landing was faked, just to play around.
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written by rosie, April 05, 2013
The "conspiracy" ratings are more significant and quite plausible. But what percentage of people lie to pollsters on principle?
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Useless
written by CLamb, April 05, 2013
"29% of voters believe aliens exist"
I'm surprised it isn't 100% considering you must certify that you are not an alien in order to register to vote.

I'd love to know what percentage of the poll responders understood the questions and answered truthfully.
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written by RobertoDebunker, April 05, 2013
Belief that UFOs are a real phenomenon usually polls at about 50%. Belief that the government is 'covering up' UFO facts runs even higher (which makes no sense - if one doesn't believe in UFOs, then what could the government be hiding about them?). There was a lot of controversy over Kurtz' 'mission accomplished' statement concerning the paranormal, skeptics need to re-gain the focus on this that we once had.

Robert Sheaffer
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Actually...
written by Michael Dawson, April 05, 2013
One thing a skeptic might do is acknowledge how low those numbers are. It's not like any of them approach a majority. A skeptic might also point out the gulf between what the general public favors and what is on and off the political table, as it is run by TBTP.
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written by Gr8wight, April 05, 2013
What frightens me is the political clout of these people. Only 9% of people believe there is something sinister about fluoridation of municipal water supplies, yet they are enough to cause municipalities to seriously question, and in some cases discontinue its use.
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written by FrankH, April 06, 2013
Maybe fighting to restore the proper use of the word “hopefully.” Or getting news anchor-people to correctly use the word “literally.”

...

The misuse of “hopefully” and “literally” drives this language pedant a little nuts at times

I think you might be literally flogging a dead horse. smilies/wink.gif However, this language pedant is upset at you claiming to be a language pedant yet being happy to incorrectly split your infinitives. smilies/cry.gif
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written by gmartincv, April 06, 2013
What is wrong with splitting infinitives? Especially what is wrong with splitting infinitives if doing so adds clarity or emphasis. I know that there are no split infinitives in Latin which is where this stupid rule in English seems to have come from. Languages which form the infinitive by changing the verb ending can't have split infinitives. Why should English be bounded by that?

George
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@ George
written by FrankH, April 06, 2013
Did you miss the smilies?

It wasn't a particularly serious reply, just a light-hearted observation that a language pedant doesn't get to choose which arbitrary rules he chooses to observe and which he chooses to ignore. smilies/smiley.gif
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