The best way to change the culture of the skeptic movement is to be the change.
Is there something you used to believe in, but don’t any more? The god of Abraham? A higher power? UFOs? Climate change is a hoax? GMOs suck? Trickle down economics?
When you believed in that thing, were you an idiot? Probably not. I’m guessing you were the same kind, generous, funny, empathetic person you are now. Maybe you were misinformed. Maybe you just hadn’t really ever put in any real intellectual effort to learn about the methods of logic, reason, science, economics, or history.
So, why when we talk about anti-vaccers, anti-GMO people, creationists, or the religious do we sometimes call them names like idiot, or jerk, or think of them as dumb? Sure, on these and other issues they may be illiterate or misinformed, but you used to be too. Yes, there are some people pushing these ideas and misinforming maliciously, but let’s not blame the victim.
We need empathy and understanding in the skeptic movement. We need patience, people don’t change their minds overnight (it takes up to a year , even with a great argument). Believe me, I know having a dialog with creationists, anti-vaccers, or conspiracy theorists is frustrating! However, in the long run, we will be more successful if we practice empathy and kindness in combination with good Socratic method, well presented arguments, and patience. I don’t mean to say we should allow bad reasoning, just let’s do a better job of teaching why it’s bad reasoning with a kind and more understanding tone.
I was lucky enough to attend a talk by Frank Mosher, the president of The Sacramento Area Skeptics. He talked about trying to steel-man arguments, confronting our own beliefs, teaching and emphasizing method rather than trying to win arguments. Maybe we could even thank the person for the opportunity to have a dialog. After all, the goal is not to win arguments, it’s really to gain a better understanding of the issue and the methods of critical thinking and science.
I’ll be the first to admit I need to work on this, and I am. Let’s make becoming a skeptic easier by setting an example for our friends and families of what a skeptic is really like, kind, empathetic, generous, curious, humble, honest, and maybe, even… kinda likable.
Check out this talk by Phil Plait on skepticism, it’s a must watch: