The more I look around, the more I see pseudoscience and anti-science attitudes flooding our popular culture. Whether it’s a new fad diet (just drink this mega-fruit juice and the pounds will melt away!), a TV show that uncritically swallows supernatural claims (ghosts make the room get cold, so that’s how we know they’re around!), or a news report that encourages people to make up their own minds on an issue that isn’t a matter of opinion (some say that the mercury in the MMR vaccine causes autism, while doctors say the MMR vaccine doesn’t contain mercury at all – you decide!), there’s always some new bit of woo-woo cropping up that can set your teeth on edge.
As a skeptic, it’s easy to become discouraged and cynical when you see that most people don’t seem to care. Critical thinking is time-consuming, and most people tend to only give it a brief pass before following their intuition or their wishful thinking to accept whatever sounds best to them. Sloppy thinking is easy and comfortable, and doesn’t make people reassess their worldview all that often.
So what can we do to combat this? Clearly, taking people aside and going step-by-step with them through every claim they’ve heard to point out the problems isn’t a very time-effective method. Something I’ve been trying lately is just planting the seeds of skepticism – dropping little hints into the conversation that might make people reconsider their preconceptions. The idea is that when these seeds germinate, it’ll be because the person decided to think things through themselves, rather than having a lecture forced on them. I’d wager that they would be more receptive to their own logic than to mine.
When I last received a haircut, my haircutter (stylist? hairdresser? what’s the right word for that, when it’s not a barber?) was talking to her coworker about a ‘psychic’ who was coming to give a performance in town. I wasn’t familiar with the person she named, so I couldn’t say anything specific about what she should expect, but I did manage to come up with some generic ideas. For example, I asked if, in anything the haircutter had heard about her, the psychic had ever told somebody something they didn’t want to hear, and she said no. I said, “That’s a little weird, isn’t it? Why doesn’t she ever hear any bad news?” My haircutter thought about it some more, then mentioned that the psychic had, in fact, told some people that job, money, or health trouble was in their future. I responded by asking “Well, who doesn’t have that? Especially with the economy the way it is, and all these flu bugs floating around. That sounds like a pretty safe bet to me.” She agreed. And maybe it wasn’t enough to convince her completely that the psychic wasn’t legitimate, but at the very least it got her thinking about why the only bad news people get from the psychic is about generic things that happen to almost everyone.
She also got into a discussion about astrology. She made some offhand comment about there being too many Capricorns in the room (after asking a few people when they were born). Being a Christmas eve kid, I mentioned that I was a Capricorn, too. She perked up, and listed off a few personality traits that she seemed sure I’d have. One of them was that I like to keep to a strict schedule. She was a little dismayed by my response that I only really have a schedule when I’m at work, but she brushed it aside by saying it’s not accurate for everyone. I mentioned that I’d be surprised if those attributes only applied to people born during my zodiac sign, and that I’d be even more surprised if one in every twelve people I met really did have pretty much the same personality I did. I said that it was almost like saying that anyone from New York would behave the same way, or anyone with brown eyes would behave the same way. She seemed to agree with that. So, another seed planted.
These are just two examples. What’s most important about these is that I absolutely didn’t have to adjust my life at all to inject a little reason into an otherwise woo-filled conversation! Almost every day, I run into a situation where I have an opportunity to correct someone’s misconceptions, or at least point them in a more productive (and accurate) direction on some subject of skeptical interest. It’s a sort of “death by a thousand cuts” approach at leading people away from nonsense and toward reason, and it comes with the side benefit that it helps people begin to critically analyze their own views rather than just being told they’re wrong.
I’m sure that most skeptics encounter stuff like this in their everyday lives. It’s important not to let these opportunities pass us by. Growing ever more cynical isn’t a method for fighting superstition and pseudoscience; it’s just a tacit sign of permission. We need to be more assertive, and take a proactive approach in the promotion of logic, critical thinking, and good science. It might be slow; it might not garner the sort of quick, obvious results that we really want; but it will insert a wedge of reason into the growing wall of nonsense.
This is, of course, a necessarily small-scale approach. There’s much more we can do to further the cause of critical thinking and skeptical inquiry, but I believe this is an important bit of groundwork to lay before we can make the larger societal changes – improvements to our school system, higher standards of scientific evidence for medicine, and so on. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and a revolutionary change in the way people think can begin with the smallest seeds of skepticism.