Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, I was young and somewhat naive. Libraries had always been very good to me, sometimes when no one else was, and I trusted them. See, they had these sections labeled “nonfiction,” where I found confirmation that the world was a weird and wonderful place. Parapsychology, ghost stories–all of them had to be true because the library told me they weren’t made up stories. They weren’t fiction.
A high school psychology class reinforced that belief, talking about J. B. Rhine’s experiments. Experiments! Science confirmed what the library had told me. And as I went through college and learned more about science and experimental design, parapsychology garnered more legitimacy.
Then a friend gave me Flim Flam. James Randi told me how people had lied to me under the guise of nonfiction, under the guise of science. He was, in fact, kind of a dick about it. That’s not a very nice book by any definition of the word. It uses name-calling. It sneers.
But oh, it was exactly what I needed. I needed it both for the information it gave me and for the anger and vitriol. Without Randi’s vitriol, I wouldn’t have been able to make the clean break in thinking that I did. If he hadn’t been so clearly and visibly and sometimes nastily angry about the perversion of systems that were meant to uncover and convey the best knowledge we can have, I’d have been faced with the choice between a more classical skepticism, doubting everything that came my way, and clinging to the idea that what I believed had to be true.
Randi’s anger defined a space where I could safely land. It said, “This is a place worth defending, where we can get at truth if we work at it–as long as we are honest and can keep the frauds out.” It was something to move toward, something more than the self-annihilation that Phil Plait described skepticism as being in his talk at The Amaz!ng Meeting last weekend. Randi’s anger showed me the value of that space more eloquently than any utilitarian description ever could have.
That’s the closest thing I have to a conversion story I have. It’s also why I was a touch disappointed in Phil’s speech, although I appreciated most of it. He asked how many of us used to believe in woo, and he asked how many of us had been converted by people being angry and mean to us. He didn’t ask how many of us had been converted by someone being angry and mean on our behalf or on behalf of the ideals of skepticism.
I’d have raised my hand. High.
There are things worth being angry about. There are things that, if they don’t make us angry, I’m not sure we’re human. There are things worth showing that anger over.
Nor am I arguing with Phil when I say that. One of the pieces of his text that hasn’t been quoted that I’ve seen, except by me on Twitter, is, “Anger is a very potent weapon, and we need that weapon, but we need to be excruciatingly careful how we use it.” Remember this.
People who are talking about how being mean or angry doesn’t teach people to think critically or evaluate evidence are missing half the point. Skepticism is only partly process. It’s also a set of values. Good luck getting someone to put in the time and effort required for critical analysis if they don’t understand why objective truth is worthwhile. Expect to be told to lighten up and go get some sunshine if the person you’re talking to doesn’t understand–viscerally–the harm done by relying on unworthy sources of “knowledge.”
Communicating the values is every bit as important as communicating the methods, and we communicate values by modeling them. That means showing our anger sometimes when our values are perverted by others and presented to us as caricatures of themselves. It doesn’t mean going berserk and mowing down everything in our paths indiscriminately, but it doesn’t mean suppressing our emotions either, even the less than sanitary ones.
Note that once again, this doesn’t contradict what Phil said. Nor does it contradict what PZ Myers has had to say on the topic, despite a chunk of the Twitterverse (many of whom were not at TAM, ahem) crying, “Fight! Fight!” as soon as Phil’s speech was done. Nor does it contradict the studies that show that–in general and on average–particular types of communication are more effective in shifting opinions than others.
The problem is that I’m not in general or on average. I’m me, with my own set of quirks and reactions. And when I came across Flim Flam, I was already someone who shared the values of skepticism. I just thought the people who were investigating all this fascinating phenomena were too. It took Randi getting very angry to show me otherwise.
It took him being a dick. And I thank him for that.