Tuesday, 3 August 2010

On Westminister Skeptic, and the problem with skeptics

Today I went to see Frank Swain talk at Westminister Skeptic. There were a few other faces I know from the blogosphere too, which was cool.

It was nice to meet a friendly bunch of people, it was nice to meet someone who shared my view on Richard Dawkins (Hi, Irene!) - which I'll save for another post - and it was an excellent talk on "The Problem With Skeptics".

In essence, Frank argued that the skeptic community were often perceived to be aggressive and arrogant and he finished by asking "How can we challenge these people?" (These people being those who believe that homoeopathy works, and such).

In the question and answer session I proposed that the best way of talking to believers was through Socratic Questioning. This is to challenge beliefs through asking questions, rather than stating facts. There are several reasons why this works well which I didn't really have time to go into in detail, so this is my soapbox.

The first benefit of this is that it is far less confrontational than the bare display of facts. Nobody likes to be told their wrong, and this way no one tells them outright they are wrong.

It is also more engaging. Everybody loves to talk about themselves and by asking questions you invite people to talk about themselves.

Some people will never be won around. Some people fundamentally believe, for example, that Jesus Christ died on the cross and was raised from the dead. They will never be convinced otherwise. Instead of confronting them, the questioning will instead find this given straight away ("I have total faith in this belief" or something). At this point, change the subject to wiffleball, or something. You'll never convince them.

Where people can be won over, this method is far more effective than bare presentation of facts. For a start, bare presentation is, in some ways, just another argument from authority. By leading someone through the lines of reasoning by which we skeptics form our beliefs we not only lead them to what we consider to be the truth, but we also demonstrate the way of thinking that we employ which is - in my opinion - far more important.

Furthermore, it isn't patronising when done correctly. It shows confidence in the other person that are bright enough to understand our ideas. (A common criticism of skeptics is that we are arrogant by seeing to assume that non-believers won't understand it. A criticism that is not wholly unjustified.) Furthermore, by making them find the idea themselves they are more likely to understand and accept it.

A final point is that it is good for you as well. You may receive answers you were not expecting, which throws a different light on the subject you were discussing. It may challenge your views! If you are a true skeptic, you will welcome this. Furthermore, in order to convince anyone with this method you will have to be familiar with the subject matter. How many of you could convince me that the Earth orbits the Sun with nothing but a telescope and as much time as you wished?

But what is the best way to do this? It isn't particularly easy. Be careful not to simply veil criticism by phrasing as a question. Don't you think that would be most unwise? People will see straight through it.

The best way to go about this is to show an interest in someone's beliefs before asking any leading questions. This will help you establish a rapport and understand some of the nuances. Asking where a particular belief comes from, for example. You can quite often spot those who can't be won around here.

An example might go:

PERSON: I believe that Jesus died on the cross and was raised from the dead.
YOU: That's interesting. Why do you believe that?
PERSON: Because the Bible tells me so, and is the divine word of God himself.

You'd be best here not to argue the point. However, if the same person argued that evolution was a myth, you could more easily lead them to the conclusion that evolution is an inevitable result from imperfect reproduction and natural selection, by asking the right questions.

This can be done with blog posts too, even though there isn't actually a dialogue happening. All it takes is a little more work. If you want to argue a case, present the opposing viewpoint. Present it fairly and without sarcasm - if you are actually right there is no need to distort or strawman the opposition (and if you are wrong then you'll learn something). Phrase headings as questions. Not "Homoeopathy is wrong" but "Is homoeopathy correct?" to be less confrontational. When making the opposition case link to their own sources, if possible. Doing this will allow those who disagree with you to agree up to a point. Even if they don't like your conclusions they are far more likely to actually read what you've written.

I hope this is helpful.


  1. Great blogpost. Unfortunately as someone that lives far outside London I couldn't make it to the talk last night.

    I am looking to start up a skeptics session in Aberdeen. I think it is healthy to question things and therefore the 'skeptics' name/idea is in principle a good way to get likeminded people together. I think the only way that skeptics can stay 'healthy' is by asking questions and taking each case they look at individually. I.E. if some research is published on something homeopathy related critiquing that piece of research on its merits and downfalls as you would with any other peice of research, without automatically dismissing it all as rubbish and giving abuse to the writers.

  2. I agree, hapsci.

    Some systematic reviews have a third party remove the conclusions and results from a paper while its method is being assessed for inclusion. It is quite an interesting way to read a paper if you do this on purpose.

  3. An interesting post.
    The problem is that part of life in the 21st century is taking a lot of science for granted - as who has the time, never mind ability to understand every discovery to date? So how does one decide which ones to question? Celebrities and the mainstream media don't help either, as it seems 'cool' these days to be baffled by all things maths and science.
    Then there's the fact that unfortunately humans, like many other elements of nature, will generally opt for the path of least resistance. Thus if it's easier to conform rather than confront, the majority will roll with it... especially if it is convenient for them to do so.
    And there lies the crux of the problem, especially as those making claims may be convincing marketing professionals etc. Thus bashing facts won't get you anywhere; after all who likes being told they're wrong.
    But lets not forget delusion can be a good thing, it's what keeps most of us happy, sane individuals. If all of us were skeptics that shot down theories, ensuring everything was black and white, we'd be living in a very dull world.

  4. There's a podcast of the full event here: http://poddelusion.co.uk/blog/2010/08/03/westminster-skeptics-frank-swain-the-science-punk

  5. Do you have any empirical evidence that "Socratic questioning" is more effective than a more "aggresive" approach?

  6. No, purely anecdotal, and purely from my perspective.

    What is posted here should be treated as a hypothesis worth testing. You may find it works for you, you may not.

    Just be really careful, if you try it, not to be passive aggressive. That's pretty much worse than out-an-out telling someone they're wrong.