Alternative MedicineSkepticism

Super Awesome Code of Skeptic Confrontation

Vy’s tea party question really got me thinking about all the times that I have caused more harm than good while being skeptical and the reasons why. It seemed to me that sometimes I’ve been to blame for most of the negative feedback regarding my comments towards other people’s pseudoscientific beliefs. I blame myself because I broke the code.

A while ago my father gave me a paper that had a Buddhist proverb thingy that said:

Someone who is about to admonish another must
realize within himself five qualities before
doing so [that he may be able to say], thus:

In due season will I speak, not out of season.
In truth will I speak, not in falsehood.
Gently will I speak, not harshly.
To his profit will I speak, not to his loss.
With kindly intent will I speak, not in anger.

– Buddha
(Vinaya Pitaka
Translated by F.S. Woodward)

These five qualities where supposed to tell me when and how I should talk to someone about a personal belief or idea that I would consider irrational. Now, the quote is a bit wordy so I made a more basic version which I like to call my “Super Awesome Code of Skeptic Confrontation” (Ok, so it’s not really my code but it needed a cool name.):

1. A skeptic should realize that it is not always the right time to criticize a person’s ideas and/or beliefs.
2. A skeptic should always present the truth with compelling evidence.
3. A skeptic should always present their case for reason gently.
4. A skeptic should always be seeking to help a person, and not just go looking for trouble.
5. A skeptic should always be kind.

(Of course there are exceptions to every rule or set of rules. Like dealing with people like John Edward or Sylvia Browne. Those two can go test their psychic ability to fly and jump off a cliff.)

There have been times when I did not follow this code and my plan to help someone become aware of their irrationality has backfired. You see skeptics (young and old), if the time is not right then the person you are trying to help will not listen. Nor will they listen if you fail to present compelling evidence for your skepticism, if you are just looking for an argument, or if you are angry or just not being kind.

We should all do everything in our power to do right by others. And maybe the people we help remember that skeptics are not mean and cold.

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  1. December 16, 2008 at 1:38 pm —

    The five laws of skeptics. (To match the three laws of robotics.)

  2. vreify
    December 16, 2008 at 7:30 pm —

    You did say there are exceptions, but I feel there are too many exceptions to this rule:

    3. A skeptic should always present their case for reason gently.

    I think this really depends on the person you’re engaging. If she is argumentative and stubborn, a gentle case is not going to win him over. If there are high emotions at stake–for example, a family member with cancer–I think it’s best to be tactful but very firm. Not gentle. Yes, lots of people will appreciate gentle views, but there are other ways to persuade people.

  3. December 16, 2008 at 8:35 pm —

    There are occasions when the nominal target of a skeptic’s argument will never be persuaded by it, for all practical purposes, as they’ve built up a tower of moral indignation founded on the perceived threat of “Darwinist materialism” (or whatever buzzwords they choose). In this case, the skeptic may superficially be addressing their rhetorical opponent, but the real audience of the message are the uninformed and the fence-sitters. Those are the people whose feelings must be respected, even if the skeptic takes a harsh tone with the other person on the stage.

  4. vreify
    December 17, 2008 at 9:48 am —

    Good point, Blake Stacey.

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