By Ed Cara
There’s a common refrain I hear and see from others when it comes to the claims of the irrationally-inclined (aren’t we all?): Why bother? Or the more pointed question: Why not leave well enough alone and let people believe what they want?
The latest example comes from a piece written last week in UK paper, The Telegraph, by Brendan O’Neill. Looking at the recent events of the Sally Morgan incident last year, Brendan likens the pressure to expose Sally as a fake psychic who used eavesdropped info from her audience members to feign genuine powers to that of the olden time witch hunts, whilst lambasting any such attempts to do so as a waste of time. Credit Brendan for accomplishing the feat of hyperbole and pretentiousness in one fell swoop.
O’Neill’s grand point appears to be to remind us that fake psychics are not and will never be the greatest moral harm to society, successfully beating back the fierce diatribes of the approximately zero people claiming that they were.
Leaving aside the fact this:
is not remotely like this:
And trying to compare the two is about as disingenuous as you can get, O’Neill disapproves of spending time on small fish like Sally Morgan when the world has so many more ills in the world to take care of, while seemingly forgetting the unique human ability to do more than one thing at a time.
You can make an argument against the idea that people should on principle try to protest claims (Sally Morgan being a psychic) that are made without credible evidence; not a great one, mind you, but when those claims are being used to sell a product (Sally Morgan the UK Psychic who can talk to your dead loved ones for some cash!), does O’Neill want people to throw their hands in the air and go home without a peep?
Letting someone say things to a large audience that aren’t likely true without criticism? Possibly acceptable. (Hell, that happens every Sunday morning, doesn’t it? Bazing!)
Letting that same someone make a profit off those likely untrue things without a word in edgewise? That should be unacceptable.
And that’s essentially what Brendan is objecting to: criticism. Not “trying to hound out of existence any eccentric way of thinking or believing that decent folk don’t like, ” as he puts it, but the simple act of calling a public figure out on suspect claims that they’re directly profiting from.
No belief should be forcibly stomped out and threatened into silence (so long as there’s no harm to others as a result), whether it’s the idea that Sally can talk to the dead or the idea that men are innately more intelligent than women. That does not protect those beliefs from criticism, ridicule or debate, even if there are better things to do. Little-known secret? There are always better things to do. A suspected fraud bilking thousands of people out of money with her cold-reading skills and a little eavesdropping might not top the world’s worst moral ills, but someone should care or at least challenge that person on their BS. It doesn’t even have to be you, Brendan.
It isn’t only the antics of Sally Morgan we’re talking about mattering here. In the grander picture, understanding how a psychic can manipulate our biases makes us aware of them in the first place. Understanding why we see faces in the clouds or hear voices in the static for no discernible reason can guard us against the fallibilities of eyewitness testimony. Learning of the propensity for people to organize the world in bit-sized categories and groups can temper the temptation to dehumanize those superficially different from us. Truth matters, if only because it teaches us about the lies we inadvertently tell ourselves.
We need to learn and teach others how not to be a sucker. Debunking a Sally Morgan can be one of those lessons.
While I could pick on O’Neill more, mainly because it’s fun, O’Neill makes one fair point. Skepticism/Rationalism…Sciencism; whatever you call it, cannot solely be about proving things wrong. Not just because telling people they’re wrong on a regular basis endears you to no one, but because you then leave those people with no alternatives to being wrong.
Now showing off the beauty and freedom that comes with understanding a tiny bit more of how the world works, while throwing in some jokes and explosions (ala Mythbusters)? There’s the ticket.
We shouldn’t allow ourselves to get bogged down in cynicism and righteous arrogance, no matter how easy it can be to slip into those very human responses to seeing people fall prey to their very human biases. We’re driven to want to be right, so it’s our responsibility to turn that drive into an appreciated humility for being mistaken sometimes. That doesn’t mean don’t criticize, or mock, or ridicule, it just means give us something afterwards too. The reputation of the curmudgeon skeptic isn’t entirely at the hands of mud-slinging woo-woo believers, we’ve played a part in it too. Realizing that and getting in some good PR will go a long way. The recent push to hold science camps for kids is a great example.
Most people actually trust science, even when they don’t understand it all that well. It’s only when it comes into conflict with their sacred cows that they turn a bitter eye to it. Working with human nature, not against it is the way to reach those we’d like to reach. I don’t think this comes as news to most skeptics, but I do think we need to be reminded of that fact every time out.
And before anyone says different, that doesn’t mean pulling punches when it comes to the BS of the world. It doesn’t mean not offending people who believe women make less money only because they don’t ask for raises, it doesn’t mean backing down when you point out that a US school in RI was being unconstitutional when it allowed a Christian prayer in their very public government building and it doesn’t mean letting Sally Morgan skate by with allegations of fraud and deception because psychics “have been around for centuries and they do not cause great harm,” as O’Neill puts it.
Give a shit about the truth for truth’s sake. That’s “Why bother?”, Brendan.
But try not to get a big head about it.