Those that follow and espouse pseudoscience, paranormal activity, alien visitation, conspiracy claims, alternative “medicine,” and plenty of other fringe beliefs can be found everywhere, and are often quite willing to get into a discussion/debate/argument/rant over such things. While there are a few of us that specifically seek to engage any such claims and are more-or-less prepared for the debates (which, let’s face it, is what they usually become,) many others aren’t so keen to go down that rabbit hole. I can’t really say that I blame them, because it’s the kind of thing that can go on forever and become very frustrating – even when you’re experienced with it. Believers, by a huge margin, aren’t the type to arrive at their conclusions through careful consideration of the pros and cons, pluses and minuses; usually, they latch onto something for much simpler reasons, often emotionally, and then try to find factors that help justify their emotions and thus make it all appear to be in the realm of rational decisions. So what’s most effective in dealing with such arguments is finding the way to display the lack of rationality, the little exceptions, or the blatant hypocrisies. But this is a type of fencing that can take some time to develop.
There’s a simpler way, however, and it works for a great many of these types of debates. Are you ready? Just say, “Okay, now what?”
Knowledge and learning have a particular trait, a goal if you will, and that’s to move forward, to know more about how our world works, to try and derive something useful from such endeavors. ‘Winning a debate’ is not a part of this process, nor is, ‘justifying an existing attitude,’ but that describes the goals of nearly all believers. It’s personal. They just don’t ever recognize this, and “Now what?” is a great way of laying it bare, because there almost never is an answer. I’ve used this a handful of times now and it’s stopped the debate dead each time.
It’s funny, because it can do a lot for highlighting the anachronisms and dichotomies that exist in the entire edifice.
“Well, scientists need to be investigating these things better!”
You just told me scientists aren’t trustworthy, part of the big conspiracy to hide the truth.
“See, that’s proof of alien visitors!”
Really? Cool! Where are they from, what energy sources are they using, do they have similar DNA, how do we contact them, do they play sports? Holy shit, I have a zillion questions…
“We need to shut Big Pharma down, go back to natural remedies!”
Hey, knock yourself out – sounds like you’ve got your work cut out for you. Or just wait a few generations, and you’ll be the only ones left, right?
“There’s too many stories that show that ghosts exists to ignore them.”
Sure, okay. So what should I be changing in my life?
Seriously, it can be a lot of fun. Virtually every time, the goal of such debates is only to promote agreement, if that – sometimes the believer feels that they’re right if their opponent simply walks away, because dismissal is actually a sign of an unassailable position, right? It’s only their opponent’s intransigence that prevents them from admitting to it. Nobody that I’ve ever found, however, is ready for acceptance and especially progression – the next step simply doesn’t exist in their minds. And by that, you know what you’re dealing with.
Another simple tactic is to redirect their attentions. “Wow, Kennedy was killed by the CIA? It’s funny – I heard it was puppets of Castro.” Or, “You say jesus is our lord and savior? Well, what are you talking to me for? There’s a whole world full of other religions to convince first.” It’s a way of highlighting the peculiar demarcations that are drawn, where “Kennedy conspiracy” or “most of the world is religious” or “there are millions of people who swear by natural remedies” is support of their position, completely disregarding the thousands of conflicting claims underneath those big umbrellas. This can be especially fun, because just about everyone recognizes the presence of fanatics and isn’t ready to engage with them, even when they appear to be closer to meeting the believer’s own point of view than we are. Presenting the believer with the task of, ‘convince them first, then get back to me,’ will chase them away instantly and permanently.
The only topic that I can think of right now (I’m sure there are more) where the Now what? approach isn’t very effective is the anti-vaxx cult, primarily because their individual actions not to vaccinate their own children can affect the well-being of countless others who have parents with working brains – herd immunity is a thing. In such cases, engagement is the only legitimate response (since dismissing the matter is nothing but cowardice, with a lot of lives at stake,) and it helps to know at least a little about the topic. Not much is needed, really – the major proponents are laughable, the science ranging from a high of ‘dismal’ down to ‘nonexistent.’ This is one of the fields where the arguments are easily turned against themselves, since making a case that vaccinations are bad requires a scientific study, but the proponents routinely dismiss science as flawed or in the thrall of Big Pharma or whatever bugaboo is the dire threat of the month (it changes a lot, as do the supposed effects of vaccinations and the methods of countering them.) So, where exactly are these people getting their figures from? Ah, an ‘independent study?’ But how do you know they’re not paid shills? Show me how you prove this…
I am, as surprising as this might be, a big fan of elaborate sarcasm and, in some cases, outright derision – there really isn’t a point to treating something stupid with any kind of respect, and I’m inclined to think that it works against the skeptical goals to believe that we should. When employing this particular tactic, however, it helps to be as neutral and disingenuous as possible – after all, it’s a perfectly valid and logical response, one that effortlessly highlights the lack of social benefit for most of these topics. It’s not uncommon to hear a believer lament, “Scientists don’t take [so-and-so] seriously,” but this is more than a little hypocritical; science generally has standards and goals exponentially higher than any believer. It is precisely because the topics are taken seriously that they get dismissed through their lack of evidential support and/or because they lead nowhere.