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Being a Friendly Heretic PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Richard Saunders   

richard on set 002aIn 1980 I sat in front of the TV to watch a popular talk show of the time, 'The Don Lane Show'. On this particular night one of Don's guests was a visiting skeptic from America, one James Randi. I had never heard of James Randi and to me he was just another guest. I'm sure most of you will now know of this famous interview, it's repeated every year here in Australia and has become a great moment in Australian television history. Don Lane become so angry at James Randi (as Randi dared to suggest that people like Doris Stokes and Uri Geller may not be really using 'psychic' powers) that he swept Randi's props off the table and said, "… and you can piss off!" and stormed off the set. I, like most viewers, sided with Don Lane. How could this little magician come on national TV and say those terrible things? I really thought at the time that ghosts, psychics, monsters, UFOs and such like were all real.

Now almost 30 years later I find myself being the TV Skeptic having appeared on The One. The Search for Australia's most Gifted Psychic. This was one of the top rating shows of 2008 here in Australia and as a result I have become somewhat recognised. The production of the show covered about 6 weeks both in the studio and on various locations. It was hard work and at times stressful as any TV show is. However, one of the reasons the producers asked me to participate is that I come across on TV as being a polite and reasonable man. They did not want some jerk shouting down the 'psychics' on the show. So during the production I tried to be friendly, open minded, funny and smiling. On more than one occasion the giggles got the better of me on set. I got on very well with my co-judge Stacey, made origami for the kids of some of the contestants and had a great time at the party with the entire cast when the last episode went to air. Although I do not think anyone involved with the show had magical powers, I still can act like a civilised man to people I work with.

I have since discovered that all this is as nothing to the believer. "How could you be so mean?" one woman said to me in the street. "Why did you kick my favourite psychic off the show when he was the real one? You were heartless!" Oh dear. I tried to explain to her that I was in fact nice and friendly on the show but simply did not agree our contestants had magical powers. "You destroy people with your negativity." Oh dear again. This is more or less typical of the reactions I get from time to time. Sometimes I am able to talk to the person and assure them I am not a monster hell bent on burning 'psychics' at the stake and sometimes I cannot get through to them at all. I take all this in my stride and I know from long experience that being a skeptic, a heretic to some, is at times extremely unpopular. The worst moment for me was when a school student of about 14 (the same age I was in 1980 watching Don Lane and James Randi) called me a 'meanie'. To her I was the man on TV saying horrible things.

Now, if I had played the part of a heartless bastard then these comments and opinions would be justified. But as anyone can see (The One can be viewed on youtube) I was never mean, never rude but simply put my case and played along with my role on the show. Despite this, to the believer I came across as being rude, arrogant, conceited, foolish, ignorant and evil.

There is a time for us skeptics to shoot from the hip and not to mess about with being polite. A national TV show made for entertainment is not one of those times. But try as we might, to many viewers we can only ever come across as negative or downright evil. It's not a failing on our part, we just have to learn to deal with it. Maybe next time I'll just wear some horns….

Richard Saunders is Vice President of Australian Skeptics and producer of "The Skeptic Zone Podcast" www.skepticzone.tv He delights in teaching critical thinking to children and was a guest speaker at TAM 6 and Dragon*Con 2008.

 

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Don't be so nice!
written by Willy K, November 27, 2008
Richard, I watched few of "The One" segments on YouTube. I saw you on screen for only a few seconds during the bits I watched. One segment had your comments simply cut off. Watching the rest of each segment painful for me. It's like watching an grisly execution, they execute rationality! smilies/cry.gif

If they invite you back for another set of these shows, just drop all pretense of civility. Roll your eyes, groan in disgust, laugh mockingly... be the Simon Cowell of skeptics! smilies/cheesy.gif

If some people are going to hate you for simply stating you're skeptical, no matter how kind and non-confrontational you might be, just give them a well deserved trashing!

Willy K smilies/cool.gif
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rock and a hard place
written by AndyD, November 27, 2008
I don't envy Richard's position in regards to this show. If he'd refused to do it, a large part of the skeptic community would condemn him for not taking up the challenge. In doing it, he was condemned by many for not being tough enough. Had he been tougher, he would have alienated the very people he hoped to appeal to.

The unfortunate thing about the show is that it was a nine against one arrangement. With seven contestants, one believer judge and an apparently credulous host, Richard was a lone voice for reason and his airtime was limited, to say the least.

In the end, it was a five-week infomercial for the Australian psychic industry, as can be seen from the websites of the individual contestants. Even the losers use the TV experience to promote themselves. It's not so easy to assess whether the skeptic community enjoyed much of a boost as a result of the show. But it got me blogging (and an implied threat of legal action against me) so I have to assume it moved other, previously silent, people to react to the weekly dumbfest too.
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written by Bruno, November 27, 2008
I've not yet figured a way of being openly skeptical without coming across as arrogant, conceited etc. Here's the rub: it simply sounds infinitely less arrogant and more reasonable to say "oh but there's so much we don't understand yet", even though invariably this is only said to suggest that the existence of the phenomenon in question is thereby proven (merely not understood).

So it's not just a matter of being nice. We actually have to find a way of being 'beyond nice' and find similar stock phrases that exude utter humility whilst still making clear that a stage performance is not evidence.

Going off on a tangent, I also believe that TV companies are wrong to think that audiences want paranormal stuff presented as real. If a TV series were made in which magicians first produce a 'paranormal' feat and then explain the trick I'm quite certain it would draw a large audience. The explanation might then also entail showing footage of a psychic at work and pointing out where their execution of the routine is shoddy by stage magic standards.
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written by Marcus, November 27, 2008
This is the same phenomenon that leads people to label Richard Dawkins as "shrill" or "aggressive" when any objective view of the vast majority of what he writes and - especially - says shows that he is invariably extremely polite. People simply equate being told that their cherished beliefs are wrong, no matter how rationally and politely they're being told, with aggression and rudeness.
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Ad Hominem
written by Ricsuth, November 28, 2008
Having taken part in a radio show in Ireland this morning, up against a woman calling herself Psychic Anna, then we, or in this case I am "cold", "not open minded" and "godless" (a good shot on Irish radio I have to admit!).

Well, not for me to say, but she got the last one right at least. Maybe her psychic powers?

Of course, when reason butts up to entertainment and belief it has a tough time, but all credit to Richard for trying his best. Just need to try to get more shows that are coming from the skeptical/open mentalist angle and to make sure in contracts that time/balance is as good as possible.

Don't let anyone be put off getting into media opportunities. Many are. Just needs some good preparartion and confidence to match that of the woo merchants. Polite is one thing. Firm is another.

Every little bit helps to sow doubt.
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A big meanie
written by sunryse, November 28, 2008
Richard, as I told you when I first met you (at Dragon Con), you were actually more polite than I think I could have been in that situation. That was the thing that struck me as a fence sitter (although I don't believe the people on that show, I do recognize the possibility of an occassional unexplained phenemenom), you were so likable and never seemed argumentative. Maybe this is just viewing it as an aggressive American, as I'm not sure what you would consider impolite in Australia. However you pulled this off way better than I or anyone I know could without conceding a belief in what these people were doing.

I think maybe that is what you are up against. You are not mean in the sense of how you behave, but "mean" in simply denying what another believes. You are a threat to their idea of safety in numbers.

Michelle
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written by latsot, November 28, 2008
People simply equate being told that their cherished beliefs are wrong, no matter how rationally and politely they're being told, with aggression and rudeness.


This is true, but there's more to it than that. For example, most members of my family are very religious. I'm sorry to say that some do missionary work. The others are less shouty, but rarely pass up an opportunity to tell someone they'll pray for them. They are nevertheless adamant that I should keep my atheist views to myself and not infect others with them. They get quite hostile about this. My mother has occasionally screamed and hung up on me due to some fairly benign comment or other.

My family members are offended not just because I'm saying their beliefs are wrong, but also because they are conditioned to believe that atheism is automatically bad. They react with disgust toward my views - regardless of what they are - because they assume in advance that they'll be wrong. They know I'm wrong.

The situation with skepticism is similar: some people automatically reject and are offended by skeptical behaviour, not just because skeptics question their specific beliefs, but because they themselves are against the idea of questioning stuff. I imagine their hostility is partly due to their acknowledgement at some level that skepticism really is the only rational way to go: skepticism itself is a threat, not just challenges on particular issues.
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Projection?
written by Skeptico, November 28, 2008
Sounds to me that the believers complaining to you were the ones being "heartless", "meanies", and trying to "destroy [you] with negativity".
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written by Fontwell, November 28, 2008
While I applaud the efforts of anyone prepared to stand alone like this I'm not sure that these shows are a very good place for making skeptical points. I actually wonder if our best chance is with the comics. People like Marcus Brigstocke and George Carlin (and I'm sure many others) can connect with people, point out how silly True Believers are and be entertaining.

http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=UY-ZrwFwLQg (Marcus Brigstocke - as recommended by Richard Dawkins!!)
http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=MeSSwKffj9o (George Carlin - contains naughty words)

These links are 'religion humor' but we can also have a laugh at psychics, homeopaths and all the others.

[I hope it is OK to put links here, if not then sorry - I'm sure somebody will delete them]

In my opinion people watching TV don't want education, they want entertainment and so we have to entertain them first and foremost.

Something that was pointed out to me and I have found to be true is this. Our problem is that, because we all try to think rationally and in an evidence based manner, we carry this way of thinking over into our arguments with other people. Many people don't think like this in the first place and so it probably isn't the best way to try to get them on side.

I once spent ages trying to convince a mate of mine that the Moon Landing Hoax was rubbish i.e. we really did land on the moon. After having to refute every single Hoax fallacy with a lengthy explanation I eventually resorted to asking "Have you ever heard the Russians say we didn't get there?" (as suggested by a Hoax rebuttal web site). Despite this not really being any kind of argument it actually worked.

So for my ten cents worth, I think that comedy might offer a good way for spreading the word to the masses. If only I was funny and could do public speaking.
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Softly, softly approach best
written by wombatwal, November 28, 2008
Richard I saw your appearance on "The One" series and thought you did a good job. It did end up a publicity campaign for the psychics, but, your appearance was well worth it. I think the well reasoned, respectful, softly, softly approach is best. We are not going to change the "true believers" but the people who have an interest but not sure about psychics. By coming across in a aggressive manner will only inflame the believers and psychics and the label of a negative, meany, party pooper will stick much more readily. Let the believers and psychics become aggressive because they will.
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written by C.Watts, November 28, 2008
Sorry Richard but I found your performance very dissapointing.
Sure you came across as a nice guy (which I'm sure you are), but
I thought you were there to voice a critical interpretation of the claims
made by the so-called 'psychics' on the show.

And you didn't even challenge the 'psychics' to take the Aussie Skeptics $100,000
challenge, with the money being donated to a charity of their choice.
(I would have paid to see them squirm out of that!)
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written by Richard, November 28, 2008
C.Watts
Points noted. I said much that was edited out. 'Nuff said?
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written by BillyJoe, November 28, 2008
I missed most of the shows but caught up eventually on Youtube.

I would just like to add my voice in appreciation of Richard's role on the show. Obviously, most of his commentary would have been edited out as Richard has just affirmed. But putting aside the content, his demeanor was impeccable. I am certain that, with that attitude, he would have maximised his chance of influencing the fence-sitters (the actual believers are already largely a lost cause - though not all since I was once a believer).

Fontwell: I think that comedy might offer a good way for spreading the word to the masses.

Well, others can do that. We are dealing here with a particular TV show. The question is, would it have been better to take part in that show or to let it go to air without a sceptic in attendance. I think you must know the answer to that. Given that, do we want someone like Richard or someone like...[I will leave that to your imagination]
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Entertainment Value
written by spuwdsda, November 28, 2008

Being the token skeptic on these shows must be one of toughest gigs in show business.

The greatest trick would be to get along so well with the production team *and* be so entertaining in your comments that you're views survive the editing process; extremely improbably. Achieving this might be evidence of psychic powers...
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written by PBo, November 29, 2008
I can understand why we should be understanding and civil to people who are self-deluded, but it's certainly hard to be civil when looking in the eyes of someone who would do this deliberately to defraud people.

I tend to agree with Penn Jillette that the best way for skeptics to present themselves is just to be themselves. To tell the truth as you see it. Strategizing how to come accross best and make people like you is something for the other side to do. If creationists want to send a guy in baggy pants out to schools to rap for the kids that's fine, but I think we are far to sincere for that kind of thing.
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written by PBo, November 29, 2008
While I applaud the efforts of anyone prepared to stand alone like this I'm not sure that these shows are a very good place for making skeptical points. I actually wonder if our best chance is with the comics. People like Marcus Brigstocke and George Carlin (and I'm sure many others) can connect with people, point out how silly True Believers are and be entertaining.


Too true. I still think South Park had the definitive explanation for cold reading. And while where throwing out links, here's a bit of Talking With the Dead humour from Brian Regan...

http://au.youtube.com/watch?v=...re=related
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written by BillyJoe, November 29, 2008
PBo,

the best way for skeptics to present themselves is just to be themselves.

Strategizing how to come accross best and make people like you

I think there is some truth in both these statements.
As Richard Dawkins said: "If you don't like it, you can just F*** off.
On the other hand why put people off unnecessarily.
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written by Fontwell, November 30, 2008
Not meaning to de rail the OP but since there's been a bit of humor pimping, I just found this
http://russellsteapot.com/comics/

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written by redwench, December 01, 2008
If a TV series were made in which magicians first produce a 'paranormal' feat and then explain the trick


That's been done on US television. There was a short series with a masked "magician" performing and demonstrating tricks. I believe Penn and Teller have done something similar as well.
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written by Die Anyway, December 05, 2008
My first thought on reading the article was exactly what Willy K. posted: be the Simon Cowell of skeptics.
I recently heard that he makes something like $27 million a year (or some such ridiculously big number) being the "bad guy" on American Idol. I don't know about Australia but Americans love a curmudgeon (think Don Rickles as another example). It just has to be played right.
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written by BillyJoe, December 05, 2008
Income can be obscene and bear no relationship whatsoever to a person's worth to society. In contrast are those self effacing people who devote their lives to others and who live in misery and die in poverty.

Fortunately most of us are in between, earning our income, amusing ourselves in the process, and lending a little help to those around us and to society at large.

smilies/smiley.gif

BJ
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