Thursday 2 June 2011

How to Point and Laugh at Irrational Nonsense

Having been duped into agreeing to give a talk at Cheltenham Skeptics in the Pub back in April, I was forced to cobble together a talk. But what to talk about?

At last year's Amazing Meeting, Phil Plait gave a great talk entitled "Don't Be A Dick".  He argued that within the skeptical movement, reasoned and polite arguments are increasingly being replaced by "vitriol and venom". 

I also asked Frank Swain to come along to Winchester Skeptics in the Pub last year to give a, not  dissimilar talk, entitled "A Critique of Skepticism". Frank effectively argued that simply calling a believer a big fat twat, is unlikely to cause them to slap their palm to their face in the instant realisation of how deluded they had been prior to being insulted. I paraphrase of course.

Both Phil and Frank are clearly right, we are not going to achieve the skeptical epiphany of any individual by simply calling them names, however gratifying and superior it may makes us feel. Assuming we have a united goal of a more rational and reasonable world, we are not going to achieve this with mere smug arrogance and ad hominem attacks.

Looking back at the past posts on this blog, I can't help but notice a slight hint of smug arrogance and the occasional ad hominem attack. So, other than preaching to the choir, or entertaining the troops, is this blog therefore completely ineffectual in the larger war against irrational nonsense that I so passionately wage?

Well largely perhaps yes, but I hope, it's not completeley ineffectual. I would like to argue that considered ridicule and satire can be a very powerful ally to the skeptical activist. I will attempt to explain how, and give some examples at my upcoming Skeptics in the Pub talks. The next one is in Reading on 16th June 2011. You'd be most welcome.


EnglishAtheist said...

You should go, the talk was ace in Cheltenham.

Sally-Anne Wherry said...

Duped is a little harsh! It isn't my fault you were excessively modest and didn't believe I was inviting you to talk :)

But yes, go to the talk! It was excellent in Chelt.

Crispian Jago said...


It is a little harsh, but I'm delighted you asked, otherwise I never would have pulled my finger out of my arse and written something.

I've hopefully improved it a bit too since trialing it at Cheltenham.

Techskeptic said...

Sadly I dont think reasoned and calm debate will achieve skeptical epiphany in an individual.

In fact it was harsh ridicule that brought me over as I realized I had no idea what I was talking about with regard to vaccines.

I'd say that being a dick is a good part of skepticism, as long as everyone isnt doing it.

Further, yes anecdotal, I know a number of people that were brought to skepticism, i.e. constant self checking that your facts are straight, simply becuase they were ridiculed and wish to never be in that position again.

Anonymous said...

the new sh*theads

Angie said...

I agree with Tech. It is, however, a delicate balance between being inviting or repulsive to the frame of thought. Becoming a skeptic is a lot like ripping off a band-aid. At least it was for me (I'm 23). It's a harder process for some than others.

Once that band-aid is gone, after the initial sting of "I've been doing this all wrong," then questioning and personally researching the validity of claims becomes second nature, like breathing. So I guess the question is: Which is more appropriate and effective? Tearing the band-aid off, or gently pulling it, piece by piece?

I lean towards the latter.

Except in the case of Anonymous above me: I took the bait and visited your site. And you are a textbook example of an oxygen thief. Low and behold, Judgement Day has passed uneventfully for the thousandth time. The only "atheist genocide" that will ever occur will be when the earth is swallowed by the sun and we STILL haven't managed to find a way to live somewhere besides this tiny little rock we all share.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I've tended to favor politeness, myself, but some of that is the personal reality that as an obnoxious American (to begin with) female I'm always conscious - on TV, for example, - that there are limits to what people will take before the audience turns against you.

I think you have to be very careful to ridicule the *ideas*, and not the person.

I remember years ago - must have been late 1990s - writing about the beginnings of this split in the skeptics for my Skeptic column. People weren't getting rude then, yet, quite, but there was a developing strain of skeptics who felt that *other* skeptics weren't *skeptical enough*. And of course the other group called those born-again skeptics...I think I called them dry and wet, respectively.

I think the more militant version has grown with the increasing encroachment of non-reasonable ideas on skeptics' own lives - alt-med, faith schools, etc.


Unknown said... lol