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.