You won’t like skeptics when they’re angry
Posted by Ethan Clow on December 28, 2009
X-posted from Skeptic North (Saturday, December 19, 2009)
Temper that is. When it comes to argument we Skeptics like to keep it grounded in the scientific style in which childish name calling is excluded and ruthless logic prevails. But sometimes that’s not the case. Like any normal human being we can get angry and sometimes we let that emotional energy warp our otherwise logical argument.
Not only does emotion turn any civil disagreement into a potential minefield, it can also be the basis for logical fallacies like the appeal to emotion.
So how do we maintain control over our emotions? After all, sometimes we debate some pretty serious matters. It’s often very difficult to fully divorce ourselves from the topic as well, especially if you happen to be arguing for something you personally agree with. Making things more difficult is if your opposition chooses to use personal attacks on your character, intelligence or motives. Anyone who has been reading Skeptic North for a while knows that we’ve gotten some pretty harsh and rude responses from people who don’t agree with us.
For my post I want to talk about how I failed to keep my emotions in check for such an argument, but I also want to pose to our readers here questions about how they keep their emotions in check when in a heated debate. I’ll also do my best to offers some advice (both for myself and our readers) about how to dodge the messy bullet of letting your emotions get the better of you.
Shocked, I demanded an explanation. What I got was the tired old accusations that I’m pretty sure all skeptics have had lobbed at them.
To make a long story short, this person basically made the following assertions that I found particularly insulting. Why did I find them insulting? You’re probably asking, after all we skeptics should be use to having insults thrown our way by those who don’t agree with us. That’s true. But in my case this wasn’t some anonymous commenter or pseudo science hack but rather someone who I’ve known for my whole life.
To lay out this person’s objections to skepticism and my presentation of it…
Finally, we have no respect for tradition or the opinions of others.
What should I have done? What would you have done? Looking back on it I realize now that most sensible thing to do would have been to walk away. Someone that ignorant of the goals of skepticism wouldn’t be won over my arguments anyway. If you’re confronted with someone who can’t understand the difference between science and opinion, logical argument won’t change their mind and you’ll just be wasting your breath. Besides, I’ve often been of the mind that debating pseudo-science is a mistake. It gives a legitimacy that the woo side doesn’t deserve. (One of the reasons I don’t support debating Holocaust Deniers.)
What if the person you’re debating with refuses to see or acknowledge logical argument? In my case, I was trying to explain that my opponent was using circular reasoning. They responded my throwing their hands in the air and accusing me of being some university intellectual using fancy words. When someone uses logical fallacies you should call them on it. But when someone actually denies that a logical fallacy is even a bad thing…further if they try to use your own logic against you as a form of ad hominem attack, what then? As I see it, you have two options. Take a deep breath and press on. Or walk away.
Dealing with people who are so philosophically opposed to skepticism is not an easy thing. I do my best to make it clear what the difference is between me and my fellow skeptics and those who promote woo and pseudo-science. Yet despite my best efforts there are people who simply cannot, or chose not, to see things that way. Some people simply view it as “another belief system” that currently is in power, i.e. the Western Pejorative, which Kimberly wrote an excellent piece on. Others view skepticism as simply another world view as equally valid as choosing to be a Christian or choosing to believe in UFO’s or choosing to believe in a flat earth.
For those people who reject the scientific method (or really any inductive reasoning) and assert that all knowledge is completely subjective, and/or have no understanding of what makes logical arguments or how one can logically answer questions (why for example you can’t prove a negative, or why its important to have evidence that goes beyond anecdotal or circumstantial) all hope might be lost.
In the meantime, we skeptics should do what we can to avoid losing control of our emotions. What keeps us different from ideologues is our ability to not make up our minds until after we look at the evidence. If we allow ourselves to become so emotionally attached to an idea or issue we risk putting on blinders to any outside opinion.
Worse, we’ll seem like jerks.