#ParadigmSymposium: Why?


aliensguy

I’m back from the Paradigm Symposium, and one question I get is “Why do you waste your time with such crackpots?” Trust me, I was asking myself the same question while sitting there! So I thought I’d take a moment to explain why I subject myself to a weekend of torment.

  • Responsibility. We should know the actual views of the people you are opposing. This is why I visited the Creation “Museum”, why I’ll go to the Ark Park sometime after it opens, why I attended church services last summer, and why I attend creationist lectures when they come to Morris. I force myself to go because if I want to criticize, I have to know what I’m criticizing.

  • Curiosity. This is also an important reason — don’t you wonder what the crackpots are saying? There’s also a bit of morbid fascination at play, since it’s often like watching a train wreck. But honestly, I do want to know what their arguments are. What is their reasoning?

  • Humanizing. It’s really easy to think of The Other as subhuman, especially if you never engage with them. It’s important to be able to see people with different ideas as people like you, so I go to remind myself that the people at these things are not drooling monsters. They are ordinary, they are our neighbors, they share an interest in the universe with me.

  • Self-awareness. I go to many atheist/skeptic meetings with enthusiastic audiences; have you ever heard an atheist attendee declare, with relief, that they are so happy to be in a friendly environment, with people who think like they do and won’t disdain their ideas? I have, many times. We generally think that is a positive benefit of getting together in a community. Guess what? People at wacky paranormal conferences say exactly the same things! They are just the same as our meetings! Except for the content.

    This is why I sit quietly and respectfully through the Paradigm Symposium. I appreciate that atheist meetings serve a community purpose, I have to respect that it serves a similar purpose for other fringe elements, and that I should not be disruptive of that part of the gathering. (And yes, think about that: atheists are as fringey as conspiracy theorists and alien astronaut believers in the common culture, maybe more so.)

  • Community. We primates are enthusiastic participants in community. What are we looking for? It’s good to see others pursuing similar social goals, even if their commitment to rationality is weaker, and ask “What works for them? Why are they doing it?” We may have different goals, but the business of building bonds of cooperation is universal.

    Sad to say, one thing I’ve learned is that Alien Astronaut proponents form a community that is just as diverse and just as dysfunctional as atheism. What seems to work for them is a willingness to incorporate any nonsense into their belief system (“I believe in angels. You believe in space aliens. I think we can reconcile this by accepting that aliens are angels.”) I also see signs that being an outcast in their more traditional communities drives them together, which also fits with the atheist experience. I want us all to break away from the idea that we need persecution to bring us together, though.

  • Education. These people are seriously wrong, and are using a tragically erroneous method for figuring out how the world works. Can I find ways to get through to them?

    I don’t have a good answer for that one. It’s clear that just hammering them with the facts — pointing out that their view of evolution, for instance, is completely wrong — is not sufficient. They have a set of other needs, such as their belief that the universe has a purpose, that there are necessary functional connections between every event, and that they are uniquely special which inform their willingness to accept a sloppy stew of all kinds of nonsense, from the Bible to von Däniken to chemtrails. Tackling individual misconceptions are a small part of what we need to do; more important is to address bigger differences in their world view. Conspiracy theories are appealing because they affirm their belief that everything is interconnected with a web of causality. Genetic tinkering by aliens is attractive because they want to be told there is a purpose for the way they are, and the way the world works.

Attending this event was worthwhile for me for the above reasons. It was most definitely not worthwhile for the content, which was freakin’ distilled lunacy. But these are my fellow human beings, and I want to see where these beliefs come from, and how they survive.

And one thing I can say is that the people at these events are mostly harmless in any direct way. They hold beliefs that do indirectly cause harm to our culture, but otherwise, they’re nice, friendly people who aren’t there because they hate someone. If I really wanted to see the malicious side of a human community, I’d attend a Trump rally. I don’t have the fortitude for that.

Comments

  1. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Education!!!
    That is why I, personally, would attend such fauxsense. As inspiration to learn actual facts behind their weird suppositions. Like, the Kensington Stone is still interesting as an artifact, even without the Secret Code supposedly embedded. Like a reasonable person would respond to this talk (I assume): ‘interesting, let me check’, while heading for the library to investigate literature about the object more fully.
    but I’m just arrogant that way. always responding with, “intersting. hmmm”.

  2. says

    Frankly, it’s also kind of entertaining, in a gob smacking way. I suspect that’s the reason most people attend David Icke events.

  3. anchor says

    The most parsimonious conclusion, PZ, is that you are obviously an undercover alien studying them/us.

    Or (as scientists or not) we are all ostensibly aliens studying ourselves and this universe in order to better cope with it. I’m with slithey tove: the challenge is in the “Education!!!”

    If only we could somehow refrain from lying to ourselves, we’d have half the problem licked. Some sort of ‘deception vaccine’ that could immunize people against delusion would be invaluable and welcome.

  4. Artor says

    I could see the appeal of some people-watching. “Wow, there goes someone even weirder than me!” But I think it would fade quickly and be replaced by awkward discomfort. You have remarkable fortitude, PZ.

  5. says

    I get the “why”, it’s the “how” that’s got me completely stumped. How do you manage? I can’t force myself to read half a page from these cooks, and if I by some miracle do I’m lost after a few sentences.

  6. lotharloo says

    Humanizing. It’s really easy to think of The Other as subhuman, especially if you never engage with them. It’s important to be able to see people with different ideas as people like you, so I go to remind myself that the people at these things are not drooling monsters. They are ordinary, they are our neighbors, they share an interest in the universe with me.

    Interesting. I never pictured ufologists as obnoxious people. In fact, I personally find them the most tolerable of the woo peddlers. Others such as PUAs hand have numerous ridiculous, absurd, and anti-scientific beliefs but they are far less tolerable. I don’t think you would have lasted more than a couple of hours among them.

  7. wcorvi says

    “…why I’ll go to the Ark Park sometime after it opens….”

    PZ, you mean _IF_ it opens.

    In a broader question, have you, or has anyone else, tried to enroll at one of these things as a speaker? Give the other side of the questions? Is that worthwhile?

  8. laurentweppe says

    Speaking of the Ancient Astronaut community, it would appear that Hillary is a member.

    Well, to be fair, she’s competing for the position of President of the USA against a giant sentient wig: I’d start to have doubt about whether Earth hadn’t be manipulated by aliens too in her shoes.

  9. says

    I was invited to speak at the Paradigm Symposium a few years ago. It wasn’t exactly warmly received.

  10. Rich Woods says

    @cervantes #3:

    I suspect that’s the reason most people attend David Icke events.

    I go because it’s the one place where I can safely shed my non-lizard persona.

  11. Akira MacKenzie says

    It’s really easy to think of The Other as subhuman, especially if you never engage with them. It’s important to be able to see people with different ideas as people like you, so I go to remind myself that the people at these things are not drooling monsters. They are ordinary, they are our neighbors, they share an interest in the universe with me.

    And this is why we have to keep dealing with civilization-rotting shit: there are no consequences for being wrong. Like theists and capitalists, these people are ruinging the world. If stopping them means “dehumanizing” and “othering” slime balls who spread lies and paranioa, then BOO-FUCKING-HOO.

  12. chigau (違う) says

    PZ #13
    Oh, c’mon.
    “It wasn’t exactly warmly received.”
    ?
    I don’t think they even noticed that you were there.
    If they did, you said sensible stuff and they heard the ‘waa wa wah’ from old Peanuts cartoons.

  13. says

    I was recently invited to join a local “Free Your Mind” Meetup group. I’m curious and could contribute my experience of freeing my mind with science and skepticism, but me thinks I would quickly be outcasted as an Illuminati plant, government operative, corporate shill, or perhaps even a reptoid.

  14. vucodlak says

    @ Akira MacKenzie, 16

    That’s interesting, because I’d argue that people who believe it’s ok to dehumanize and other people are doing a lot more to ruin this world that people who believe aliens genetically engineered humans, or whatever.

    When you put it like that, I wonder what sort of consequences you think there should be for believing unapproved ideas. Shall we send them off to reeducation camps? Brand their faces with a W? Cut out their tongues and crush their hands? That’ll really show them. After all, they aren’t really people.

  15. rietpluim says

    Last year my wife and I switched to a bank that is more people and environment friendly. Unfortunately it does invest in some irrational ventures, but if the choice is between a homeopathic company and the weapon industry, one has too choose the lesser evil.