Crossing the great divide

There’s a kind of approach comes up from time to time among skeptics, and it’s often considered a good thing, but I’ve always been of mixed feelings about it. It’s the idea that, in order to get to know those who hold what we consider to be irrational beliefs, we (meaning anyone that wants to promote critical thinking) need to immerse ourselves in the culture. Hemant Mehta spent a lot of time attending a wide variety of religious services as part of his blog Friendly Atheist. Richard Sheaffer routinely attends UFO conventions in support of his blog (and now book) Bad UFOs. And recently, Colin McRoberts crowdfunded his attendance on the Conspira-Sea Cruise, a floating seminar on a variety of fringe beliefs.

Let’s start with the basic idea of fairness: instead of assuming we know what people believe and potentially judging them on this, we should find out, as accurately as possible, what they’re really like. I’m fine with this, and in fact openly supportive of the approach. There is a tremendous amount of “us vs them” mentality around, in every walk of life and among every class, culture, ideology, pursuit, and what-have-you – whatever demarcation you wish to utilize. Which pretty much means that it’s a human trait, and as such, anyone and everyone should take pains to recognize and avoid it from the very simple reason that, once we apply a label to something or someone, we assign traits that may not be an accurate reflection of them. More to the point, I encourage addressing the topics themselves rather than the people because, quite frankly, everyone has some form of irrational belief, especially when the definition of ‘rational’ is up for grabs. I myself, for example, sometimes think I might be capable of making a mistake someday…

But then there’s the idea that partaking of the culture, or however you want to describe it, can tell us something about the culture itself; especially that it can tell us why the target group of people are the way they are, or reveal some facet that is the key to changing them. This is, from my standpoint, a completely erroneous assumption. No amount of attendance in catholic mass will even tell you anything at all about the structure of catholicism itself, much less reveal why anyone might choose to be or remain a catholic. Going to a sporting event will not make the rules of the sport much more comprehensible – certainly no more than simply sitting at home and watching a game with the commentary turned off (probably much less so, in fact.) The function of all such get-togethers, from churches to tailgate parties to alcoholism meetings, is to create a mutually-supportive environment. At a sporting event you can feel the enthusiasm of those around you, and quite often this is convincing in its own manner because we’re a peculiar social species that is easily influenced by this – which is the exact point. Yet there’s even a difference between a gathering of like-minded people and a program aimed at convincing those outside of the circle (sorry – this is a difficult subject to write about while trying to eliminate any demarcations themselves, much less avoiding clich├ęs about them.) The Conspira-Sea Cruise or a UFO convention might present “amazing new evidence,” but it will typically appear just as unconvincing to the skeptic, or even the ‘average joe,’ as all of the previous offerings, while the enthusiastic attendees can find it even more supportive of their standpoint. Is this telling us anything?

We need to recognize, naturally, that a lot of such gatherings exist solely because the ‘outside world’ isn’t very supportive of the beliefs involved. A recovering alcoholic exists in a culture that glorifies and worships alcohol – it’s how you have fun, it’s what you do after work, it what makes the games and the weekends special, and all that fucking horseshit, repeated not through any kind of worthwhile evidence, but because ‘everyone else is doing it.’ Alcoholism meetings, therefore, are a method of presenting a environment that’s supportive of dumping an idiotic habit. All week long, the first reformed anarchistic presbyterian must avoid talking about their faith among their coworkers and casual acquaintances, because of the uncomfortable questions that inevitably arise, but on Sunday they can relax among people who truly understand. Within the topics that are targeted most often by skeptics, what this translates to is, ‘people with the same blind spot.’ The adherents did not arrive at their standpoints through careful consideration and weighing the evidence objectively, but because it fulfills some particular desire within, perhaps a lot of them. Those without the same desires, those outside, are unable to grasp these motivations and resort to the label of ‘irrational,’ while the truth is that everything that humans decide upon is intermixed with emotional supplication; too often, this can outweigh the processes we consider objective.

And this is where it gets tricky, bordering on the impossible: while any number of people believe in JFK assassination conspiracies, few of them do so for the same reasons – perhaps none of them do. And determining what those reasons are is not a casual enterprise; we stand the chance of doing a grave disservice to our own standpoints and approaches if we believe we can psychoanalyze a very large group of people in such a manner. Someone who has seen evidence of biased tax laws, and someone raised in a paramilitary commune, may both have distrust of our government, and within that simple distinction may consider each other as kindred spirits – but we cannot regard them the same nor treat them alike. Even at a convention, they might both be fascinated by the topic of voter suppression, which can be seen as reinforcing both of their viewpoints to some extent – even though they hadn’t the faintest interest in the topic beforehand. What could we possibly gain from this?

And though I have never heard of anyone actually attempting this, the idea of going to such gatherings and trying numerous approaches to see what resonates the best, what changes the most minds, is extremely unlikely to garner useful results. First, because of what was pointed out above: such groups are mutually supportive, and a lone skeptic is unlikely to foster any attention at all. Then there’s the idea that people don’t change their minds quickly or easily, especially if they’ve spent years building up their belief system in the first place. To know what worked, you’d have to follow-up with participants years afterward to see how their beliefs have changed. There’s even the probability that, if someone does change their mind quickly, they won’t even admit it – they’re unlikely to ‘admit defeat’ in the competitive realm of discussion, nor reveal themselves as an ‘unbeliever’ in the very environment that they sought because it supported a certain standpoint.

Very often, what is brought back from such endeavors is that, despite the farfetched aspects of some beliefs, such people are ‘still human’ – in other words, few are gibbering lunatics seeing lizard-people in disguise around every bend. And perhaps too many skeptics need to be reminded of this, in which case the action and the resulting message is serving some purpose – a mutually-supportive environment can be created for any standpoint, skepticism included, and the same kind of extremist, unrealistic views may be fostered by it. Yet a message about objectivity and avoiding inappropriate labeling can be expressed easily without days of listening to speakers or meeting with attendees.

Now comes the matter of approach, perhaps the biggest contention among those that promote critical thinking. There’s no way that I can escape my own bias in this regard, though I’ll still make the effort; a lot of it comes down to personality, and what anyone feels comfortable with. Most of the skeptics who adopt the tactic of immersion and ‘understanding’ operate on the idea that mutually-respectful discussion, without rancor and definitely without contempt or derision, is an ideal approach; most will have their own examples of positive results. However, as with any undertaking, there are two specific factors to consider. The first is that no method could possibly be considered optimal for every situation, and it remains to be seen if even a slight majority could be coaxed out of the approach, or any approach – we’d need some pretty damn good studies to feel confident in that, rather than anecdotal evidence, which is exactly what we often argue against. And factor two is confirmation bias, something that we can fall prey to even when we believe we know the perils. While having two people actually come up to us and tell us that we made wonderful arguments (something that rarely happens even in the best of circumstances,) this means nothing unless we know how many people heard the arguments, how many were unmoved, and how many became even firmer in their beliefs.

A very common lament, heard among skeptics as well as from those not identifying as such, is how often skeptics (especially atheists) are “mean,” or confrontational, not to mention derisive, disrespectful, arrogant, and any sixteen of a hundred more adjectives. And this is said, of course, with the assumption that it doesn’t work, or even works in reverse, making people even firmer in their irrational beliefs. Which might be true – or it might not. We actually don’t know – there are no studies that demonstrate how such approaches work, so it’s only an assumption, and pop psychology is not something we should be falling for. Moreover, once again, we cannot lump everybody together; a certain approach might be more effective against any one individual than another approach, but this is likely different for another person. Even if we make someone angry or defensive, this doesn’t mean we’re not reaching them – it might actually mean that we’re hitting home, revealing the uncomfortable aspects that they’ve been shielded from within their supportive environments. While many teachers emphasize the “Aha!” moment, the sudden insight or discovery or revelation among their students that makes learning a positive and memorable experience, we have to recognize that it is often our mistakes, especially the embarrassing ones, that we remember fiercely too. Sometimes people need to see that their supportive culture is not all-encompassing, but instead a tiny enclave, to stir their questioning minds again.

It’s not hard to find an example of an online discussion that has grown too long, and especially seems to take place among only two individuals; such exchanges are often seen as being among two inordinately stubborn individuals, and accomplishing nothing. Sometimes, undoubtedly, this is the case, but there might be a benefit to at least some of these exchanges. Remember that any public forum is open to lots of people simply reading along, or “lurking,” and while either active participant might be completely intractable, this doesn’t mean everyone is. Often, the weakness of the belief can be revealed by the fervent and often bizarre arguments in support of it; provoking someone into voicing these can be enough to make others stop and think a bit harder, or even just recognize that one of the arguers is fanatical and not exactly objective. If someone is concentrating on the tone of our exchanges rather than the substance, should we take this to mean the substance is unassailable? Are we closer to making our point than we think?

And finally, we come back to the idea of the divide, and two sides – which is likely not the best of perspectives. But even if we accept this for the sake of convenience, why would we consider going over to the other side to be of any use? The whole idea is to get more people thinking critically about such topics, indeed about everything – we need to present the value of that, rather than even implying that there’s something to be learned from the lack thereof. While this might seem like it’s nothing but semantics, the change in perspective might assist our approach a lot better. No one believes that they’re irrational – sometimes we have to present our points in such a way that the conclusion is inescapable, without the concept of ‘sides’ or competition.

For my own approach and views, I believe that critical thinking should be instituted early, like in grade school, and emphasized repeatedly from that point on; there are far too many examples of its lack, within countless topics and practices. But since this is not going to happen overnight, and we still have to deal with the generations that never received such schooling, there are a lot of different approaches and techniques at our disposal, with varying and yet unknown degrees of effectiveness, largely because we’re dealing with too many different perspectives in the first place. Anyone may have a preferential approach, and this likely reflects their own perspective rather than an objectively better method. We have plenty of room for all approaches, and until we can find a way to determine what really works, we can embrace the diversity under the big umbrella of critical thinking.

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