My position on communicating skepticism

Yesterday, I listened to the talks by Sadie Crabtree and Carol Tavris on the art of persuasion, and how we can further our cause by applying the science of psychology. Today, I sat on a panel with Sadie and Carol, and also Phil Plait and Eugenie Scott and Jamy Ian Swiss, discussing communicating skepticism. I didn’t go in with any notes — it was a panel! — but I thought I’d try to articulate in text the points I tried to make. So some of this is stuff I said on the panel, and some it is stuff I just wish I’d said.

Sure, there is irrational, unbreakable core to the opposition, but there are also great masses of people with mere leanings one way or another, who must be approached as honest actors, and where the best tactics for winning them over are open, polite communication and appeal to their values, rather than a full body tackle. I agree 100% with Sadie and Carol, and if you missed their talks, look ’em up when the JREF makes the recordings available, and pay attention. It’s good stuff.

But I am also troubled by it all.

What they were talking about is politics. I’m no good at politics, I freely admit, but I can at least look and observe and see what’s going on. And here’s what bothers me: the other side doesn’t follow Sadie and Carol’s advice, and they’re doing great. The Republicans in congress aren’t negotiating honestly; they’re sticking to an absolutist ideology. The god-botherers aren’t negotiating with us; they want to club us over the head with dogma. And while we can point to those tactics and see that they clearly don’t work on us, the kind of people who’d come to TAM, they clearly do work to win over a great many people.

And then I look at the president of the US, and I see a smart man who represents many of the strategies discussed here, somebody who is a fantastically skilled negotiator and compromiser who can achieve many partial victories…but I also see a Democrat who has been steadily worming himself closer and closer to conservative ideals. Maybe he’ll win the next election and explode into a liberal socialist superhero, but that’s a more audacious hope than I have.

Let’s not ignore that unswayable core on the other side. That is a great strength for them: there is no doubting that when Sadie and Carol come calling and make their sincere, rational and often effective appeals, the target of their persuasion can look to the right and see the giant figures of Michele Bachmann, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Perry standing like rocks in the tide, unmoving and impenetrable, and be comforted.

And then I’ve talked to a great many people who have left religion behind, which includes quite a few people here, and you know, many of them weren’t coaxed into joining us. I have met so many people who became atheists after reading Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, and in case you haven’t read it, it’s not a diplomatic book. It was like a thunderbolt from the sky. What won people over wasn’t subtlety and gentle appeals, it was clarity and strength. While strength alone is tyranny, kindness and charity without confidence and resolve behind them become nothing but weakness and surrender.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying we must endorse only our rock-ribbed heroes of godless skepticism, or that they can do no wrong. I’m saying we have to do it all, embracing a wide range of tactics, including the proximate tools of psychology and holding high a coherent and strong set of principles. Unfortunately, in recent years, many of the people in this movement have wrongly decided that the most firmly principled people in our ranks are all dicks who need to be chastened — a weakness the other side does not have. I sometimes feel like we spend more time gnawing at our foundations than we do effectively peeling away opponents to our side.

So here we are, once again talking about how to communicate, and I fear that we’ll lose is the sense of what to communicate. Don’t forget: the truth is our pole star, science is the vessel we use to progress, and a passion to explore and learn is the engine of our purpose. If we lose sight of that in our concern to be gentle with those who impede us, we’ll lose our way.

(Yeah, I did actually say that last bit. Some people seemed to like it.)