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Jul 26 2013

Not So Good For a Laugh, Actually

Skepticism matters, but it’s not enough. This is what happens when we stop at skeptical:

The other day in the break room, I got into a brief banter with coworkers about people who believe they can live without eating. One person brought up a guru in India who claims to have lived without food for decades.

That’s a fraud,” I said. “The people who claim that are always caught sneaking out for food.”

Which lead to laughter, and one person saying, “Yeah, but it’s still funny.”

“Not for the people who believe them and die,” I said.

Silence. No one had thought of that.

People are not plants. We're animals. Animals haven't got chlorophyll. You need chlorophyll to live off of sunlight and water. Therefore: don't try to live like a plant unless you want to die like a starving person.

People are not plants. We’re animals. Animals haven’t got chlorophyll. You need chlorophyll to live off of sunlight and water. Therefore: don’t try to live like a plant unless you want to die like a starving person.

Being a skeptic is a good thing: we should be skeptical enough not to get sucked in by patently ridiculous claims. But it’s not enough to merely point and laugh. When we stop there, we forget the cost. We miss the opportunity to prevent a fellow human being from losing their money, their family, their life.

Anyone who believes in that stuff is stupid, amirite? How often have we thought that? There’s a subtext of superiority, of “It can never happen to me, and fools get what they deserve.” But we can all be fooled. Give us someone who seems confident and sincere, in a situation where we don’t know enough about the subject to easily detect bullshit, and given information that, no matter how bizarre it seems, appears to be plausible, and we can easily become the fools. Do we deserve to get hurt because we were unaware? If you’re not skeptical enough about one thing, do you deserve to lose everything? Should skeptics who know the truth just point, laugh, and abandon you, or would you want them to make an effort to help you realize the truth?

It’s not enough to recognize erroneous and/or irrational ideas that are so factually incorrect as to be absurd. Sure, some dude trying to tell people he can live like a plant is funny – but stopping at a belly laugh without addressing the real harm such a person can cause does no one any good. We can point and laugh – but we should also be pointing out the harm. We shouldn’t be leaving those ideas unchallenged. We need to lift the curtain so everyone can see. We may not be able to rescue those who have already fallen too far into the bullshit, but we can prevent onlookers from stepping in it. And we can change this attitude so many seem to have, that these bizarre frauds are harmless, that we can just let them get on with being fools.

The world isn’t improved by smart people sneering at the duped. Skepticism can go beyond that. It must. And we can have a lot of fun teaching folks how not to get fooled. Everybody but the crook wins.

9 comments

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  1. 1
    rq

    Agreed.

  2. 2
    petemoulton

    Skepticism has to be a starting point for further action, whatever form that takes. In a way, it’s like birding, or butterflying: identification is only the first step in learning about whatever kind of organism happens to tickle your fancy. You have to know what it is before you can legitimately begin assigning behaviors, etc, but if that’s all you do you might as well be stamp collecting.

  3. 3
    The Pick Man

    A clear, well-reasoned statement. Thanks for that. Well done.

  4. 4
    Gregory in Seattle

    I see this all too often in medicine: someone will come up with a get-rich-quick scheme peddling a patent medicine or a panacea that “Big Pharma” is brutally suppressing (with brownshirts and billy clubs, presumably), desperate people use it, and die. Usually the “cure” itself is harmless and folks die from lack of actual treatment. Sometimes, though, the “cure” can trigger dangerous allergic reactions in some people, or have toxic side effects that are not immediately apparent.

    It is not always a matter of being tricked or deceived, either. I have had friends diagnosed with HIV who become denialists because rejecting the science is easier than accepting reality. Or who turn to homeopathic “remedies” or herbal “treatments” or vitamin supplements because they have no insurance and cannot afford the cost of proven treatments (right now, the go-to “one pill, once a day” drug therapy for HIV, Atripa, retails at $2400 for a 30 day supply, up from $1800 four years ago. And you need to take this every day, for the rest of your life, if you do not want to die a very horrific death.)

    Cancer is another one. Some cancers has low survival rates, and even easy to treat cancers can be extremely expensive even with insurance. With doctors visits, painful surgeries and debilitating sessions of radiation and chemo, treatments that work end up a huge drain on finances, morale and well-being. If you do not have insurance, or are facing your third round of bowel cancer, it is very easy to turn to charlatans and quack medicine.

    We can fight pseudoscience through education. I’m not sure how to fight desperation.

    1. 4.1
      rq

      I saw desperation when Husband’s mother decided to drink jet fuel (a teaspoon a day – as prescribed by a self-proclaimed psychic) to cure her cancer. I don’t know if it made it worse, but it certainly didn’t help.

  5. 5
    Russell Glasser

    I feel like a combination of education and mockery is the key. The people who peddle and profit from this stuff should not be afforded the luxury of being taken seriously. At the same time, the warnings about the real consequences of their actions are just as important. The famous Nigerian “419″ scams are another good example, i.e., “I am a wealthy prince and I wish you to write back to me so that you can claim my $US19 billion fortune!”

    Now, no one I know PERSONALLY has ever fallen for that scam, and when I mention it I got big laughs along with complete dismissal. “If someone is dumb enough to fall for this, they deserve to lose their money!” they say. But no. Smart people believe dumb things all the time. We all have off days and make mistakes. It may not be THIS scam, but scams should not go unpunished. The stories about old ladies losing their life savings, or people murdered for tracking down the scammers, should not be taken lightly.

  6. 6
    LykeX

    I will take the liberty of transcribing a quote that I’ve always found quite moving and I think is relevant here. It’s from James Randi’s “Flim-Flam”, at the end of chapter 12:

    In 1977, during the annual meeting of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, a question was asked at the press conference. A reporter wanted to know what damage belief in the paranormal could do. Was it not just a harmless, if somewhat nutty, pursuit? Our answer was that such irrationalities lead to victims’ losing their sanity, their money, and sometimes their health and lives. In response to that comment, the Washington Star trotted out its finest editorial style to treat the CSICOP as if it were a group of old ladies who had scolded once too often. The newspaper remarked:

    Nothing is funnier than the misapplication of a rigorous discipline to tasks disproportionately trivial. It is overkill. It is classic gnat-killing by sledgehammer. It is the machine-gunning of butterflies… the line between sense and nonsense is not, we think, so stark as these earnest vigilantes of science make it out to be, nor the dangers of mass popular delusion so menacing…. What has happened to their funny-bones?

    I do not know who wrote that, but he must know that it infuriated more than one member of the CSICOP. That writer never saw the distraught faces of parents of children who were caught up in some stupid cult that promises miracles. He never faced a man whose life savings had gone down the drain because a curse had to be lifted. He never held the hand of a woman at a dark séance who expected her loved one to come back to her as promised by a swindler who fed on her belief in nonsense.
    “Nothing is funnier…”? Tell that to the academics who lost their credibility by accepting the nonsense about telepathy that came out of the Stanford Research Institute. “The machine-gunning of butterflies”? Explain that to those who spent their time and money trying to float in the air because a guru said they could. Are the “dangers of mass popular delusion” not “so menacing”? Mister, go dig up one of the 950 corpses of those who lived in Guyana and shout in its face that Reverend Jim Jones was not dangerous.
    “What has happened to their funny-bones?” That deserves an answer. Our collective sense of humor has been dulled by the grief, frustration, and anger that comes of preaching in the wilderness. The Star, apparently, would like that wilderness to continue to be empty of rational forces.
    I hope they enjoyed their big laugh.

    1. 6.1
      WithinThisMind

      I worked for a time as a fortune-teller at the renaissance fair. 90% of the people knew it was BS and were just playing a game. They weren’t looking for advice, they were looking to be entertained. 90% of the folks remaining were more or less just using me as a sounding board to get the decision they had already made ‘approved’ in some way.

      It was the others that made me quit. The man who wanted to know his comatose wife knew he still loved her. The many, many, many who wanted to know their loved one was happy in heaven and had forgiven them whatever crime they’d felt they committed because guilt and sorrow were tearing them apart inside. The people that wanted to be told that whatever disease they or a loved one were suffering from was going to go away and they’d be fine.

      I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t take their money and lie to them. I couldn’t give them false hope and false reassurances.

      I could laugh, I suppose. But there was nothing funny about any of those people. How do you laugh at a mother whose son had been killed just a few weeks ago, hit by a drunk driver on his way to a pay phone because she was late picking him up and he apparently thought she’d forgotten, and she just wanted to say she was so sorry she’d failed him by not leaving five minutes sooner?

  7. 7
    Stacy

    Thank you, Dana.

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