a mile in the shoes of a barefoot believer

Communication between scientists and believers runs into a fundamental problem. Scientists see knowledge as impersonal. Believers don't.
covering up
Photo by Alexandra Gorn

Last week I read Don’t Be Such a Scientist by Randy Olson, who tries to explore the gap between how those of us with scientific training and a public which largely isn’t interested in science or wants to get a good story instead of factual accounts, see the world. The book wasn’t as profound as Chris Mooney claims in the blurbs, but it did provide very insightful glimpses into different styles of thinking and communicating.

And one of those insights pointed me to a potential reason why many people cling to pseudoscientific beliefs even after being shown as mistaken time and time again. Unlike scientists and engineers who are used to taking long, sharp, serrated knives to their work and debating every in and out, the woo faithful take the whole thing excruciatingly close to heart and after putting out their beliefs and feelings into the world, they feel exposed and vulnerable.

And that’s when we hit them and criticize those highly personal beliefs they just laid out for us. When we start giving out data and explaining how things really work, they don’t actually hear anything past the disagreement because they’re feeling offended and under attack. And now, cue the trademark scorn and accusations of all skeptics being mean, cynical bastards with no respect for others. Being criticized with the zeal specific to very small parts of the population is just so alien and crude to them, they’re not sure what to do about it and resort to a defense mechanism.

They might have just told you that angelic aliens just walked into their bedrooms to have a chat about the future of the human race and how we’re all connected to the fabric of space and time by a stream of consciousness waves emanating from our upper chakras. Or in other words, a whole lot of what we’d reflexively call New Age gibberish because, well, that’s what it is. But they just emptied their heart to you and the last thing they want is a cold, analytical dissection of what is and isn’t possible.

Men like me would compare it to one of those conversation with our girlfriends in which we’re only supposed to listen, nod and acknowledge that we feel sorry that she had such a miserable day while keeping our ideas of what she could do about her boss or backstabbing friend to ourselves because she just wants to vent, not solve problems. It’s kind of the same thing with the woo faithful. They want to hear supportive feedback and if they don’t get it, a fight will ensue. To use Olson’s explanation, their mantras come from the heart, not from the brain. Of course the problem with which we’re presented is that we’re not going to debunk pseudoscience or technobabble with an emotional speech. We can open with one, but ultimately, the logic has to take over and a serious shift towards facts, data and critical thinking needs to happen in the discussion, otherwise it’s only an unfiltered stream of feelings gushing back and forth. This is where Olson doesn’t provide a good way to tackle the problem, devoting much of his time criticizing academics’ bad habits instead.

So how do we engage the believers? One way is to be as gentle as possible but that quickly runs into a major problem. Being nice often leads to being ignored. You’re dismissed as not being a real challenge, too soft for the skeptics and as just someone who doesn’t get it by the woo faithful. The other way to address woo is to be direct and confront it head on, being polite and stern at first while clamping down with every repeat offense. It’s not going to endear you to the believers but you’re going to actually challenge their minds and when they start with another argument, they’ll have to think of what you’ll say and what points you’ll assail. And that’s an ember of scientific thought glowing in the darkness.

Taking criticism into account, shaping a line of debate to defend the idea from a logical dissection, expecting to be questioned. Pose enough of a challenge and you’ll impart a smidgen of critical thinking. You’re not going to work a miracle and suddenly break down years of faith which required a massive personal investment. But by playing the role of a villain, you’ll be able to accomplish more than by playing Mr. or Miss Congeniality. A handshake at the end of the conversation doesn’t equal progress, but a scowl as someone thinks how to defend his or her opinions with something is a baby step towards it.

Ultimately, woo is always going to be with us and there will be those who can’t let go of it because that’s how they make a living or they simply can’t deal with criticism and shut down at the slightest objection to what they choose to say. We can’t solve it by being milquetoasts, but we can do something about it by tacking woo being pitched to the public and challenging its adherents to defend their claims until they either find their ideas just as lacking as we do or simply can’t defend them anymore and abandon them for something new. Those who say that we need to find some sort of golden middle and that everything will be just fine if we do a good job of communicating the scientific points of view are missing two important qualifiers.

There may not be a golden middle because in much of science, statements are either right or wrong. If you say that 2+2=4 and someone says that it equals five, you can’t start the discussion be agreeing it’s probably somewhere around 4.5 since it goes against the basic rules of math. And the audience has to be willing to take criticism, which is where we can do our part in realizing how incredibly, deeply personal woo beliefs and the act of sharing them with those in the outside world can be and refrain from going for the jugular until a blatant repeat offense or transparently obvious profiteering like we see from New Age gurus and homeopaths.

# science // popular science / pseudoscience / skepticism / skeptics


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