This was the first essay I delivered to my patrons this past Friday. If you want to support more work like this, you can sign up here.
There’s a constant tension in skepticism between the desire to educate and the desire to tear down. This isn’t necessarily a tension between people. Both impulses exist in most of the skeptics I know. Nor does it seem to matter whether those people are connected to organized skepticism or simply proud members of the broader reality-based community.
The tension is to be expected. We need both impulses to be effective. We need to give people good information in accessible ways, and we need to limit the harm purveyors of bad information can do. Different behaviors for different goals. Simple, right? Well, no.
We frequently run into problems when we apply one of these impulses to the wrong target. This usually happens in the form of tearing down the people we want to educate for a host of reasons. The fundamental attribution error means we’re more likely to see people’s decisions as personal flaws, leading to both frustration with them as people and losing faith in our ability to educate them. The Curse of Knowledge means that we, as people educated on a topic, have a very hard time putting ourselves in the place of someone with less information. Tearing people down is approximately infinitely easier than educating them, particularly when we’re frustrated. And unfortunately, tearing people down all too often results in us feeling better about ourselves.
I’m hardly the first person to address this. Skeptics fairly regularly point to this problem. We tell each other it is both kinder and more effective to educate consumers first (though consumers who become evangelists are a tougher problem). It helps–for a while–but the behavior tends to revert after a time.
I want to take a different approach to the topic here. [Read more…]