Thursday, June 23, 2011

Contest Winner #4: "Ethics Compels Skeptical Outreach," by Tim Farley

You are standing at a busy street corner in a bustling city. Traffic zooms by as you wait for the light. You notice that a person nearby, distracted by a cell phone conversation, is about to step out right in front of moving traffic. Do you reach out and pull them back?

Of course you do.

This is basic human decency. It doesn't matter what religion or philosophy to which you subscribe. Unless you are a time-traveling Captain Kirk, you should feel ethically compelled to pull the person back and save them from harm.

It is my contention that this same ethical compulsion applies to skeptics.

There are so many interesting aspects to skepticism. The sheer insanity of many fringe belief systems are endlessly entertaining for some. Slicing through logical fallacies used by proponents of these beliefs poses a puzzle-like challenge for others. The fascinating ways that science can be used to rule out and also explain the origin of these beliefs are interesting as well.

Fundamentally, it is not wrong to believe strange things. Indeed, in America the First Amendment demands that our government not stand in the way of anyone's right to do so. You can believe and say whatever you like, no matter how crazy that thing is. This is a basic human freedom.

Further, as we learn more and more about human psychology, we find that believing strange things is not only normal, but our brains are practically wired to make this happen. A seemingly ever-expanding list of cognitive biases show the myriad ways people can draw the wrong conclusions from evidence presented to them. Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance explains quite clearly how people can continue to believe these conclusions even after they've been directly contradicted. Recent books by Bruce Hood and Michael Shermer make the case that the nature of our brains is such that it is almost inevitable that we believe in supernatural things.

So why be a skeptic then? Isn't it a recipe for frustration and anger? People are going to believe in crazy things, it is their nature. And their right to do so is protected. We can be entertained in various ways by these beliefs. But what can we do about them?

It all comes down to one word: harm.

Irrational beliefs often cause demonstrable harm to both the people who hold them and to others who are influenced by them. My web site chronicles hundreds of such stories, and I am sent new ones every week. Stories of people who are offered useless treatments for serious illnesses, and later die from them. Stories of people who have lost their life savings to charlatans pushing irrational claims. They go on and on.

I created the site as a rhetorical tool for skeptics to use when discussing these irrational beliefs with those who believe them. But I created it for another reason too.

It is easy sometimes in an organized movement such as skepticism to lose sight of why you are involved. Sure, writing snarky blog posts and gathering at a huge annual convention is fun, but what are we actually achieving from our involvement?

I believe that, as skeptics, we should be striving to reduce harm.

Psychology tells us that we probably can't convince the believers to stop pushing their stuff on others. But we can reach the others before they get pitched, can't we?

In all probability, somewhere near you, someone is being told that homeopathy can cure their disease. Someone else is being told by a psychic reader that they are under a curse. Someone else is being handed a pamphlet from a religious cult. Each of these people, whether they realize it or not, is about to step in front of a (metaphorical) bus.

Don't we owe it to them to reach out? I think ethics demands it.


  1. Thank you for posting. I hate to sound like a tool,but I can't agree with you enough. I have Scleroderma and Sarcoidosis. In the early stages of my disease I was in such denial I turned to homoopathic remedies that made my symptoms worse. I felt so helpless over what was happening to my body I tried anything that gave me hope for a cure. Almost 20 years later, I'm stable, have a good prognosis and a great medical team- all because of research and skeptecism.
    Karen Vasquez

  2. I would also suggest that skepticism can do one harm; I have certainly lost employment and social mobility because I have not chosen to believe in all sorts of new-age nonsense, have refused to invent good news for clients or have criticised community action led by mystics. It all depends who has power and how it is weilded; there is thus a politics of skepticism as there is a politics of religious and irrational belief. That is why religious and new-age institutions react so strongly when criticized; their power is hugely undermined.


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