This blog is inspired by Rebecca Watson (@rebeccawatson on twitter), I had the privilege of seeing her speak at skeptics in the pub (SitP) this week, and if I’m not mistaken she said the title of this blog (sorry if it is slightly inaccurate), which is what I plan to discuss/ramble through further. For those of you that don’t know skeptics in the pub is a meeting of often like minded people in a pub to discuss science and skepticism over a drink or two, there is often some debunking or consideration of national campaigns along with some lively debate in the Q&A section. It is fun and interesting; at Sheffield SitP we have been lucky enough to have some great speakers such as Simon Singh, Simon Perry, Chris French, Tracy King and coming up is Prof Richard Wiseman and many more. Attending the meetings always gets my neurons firing and makes me feel welcome and comfortable as a relatively new skeptic (in that I have only recently in the last couple of years got back into science and have been open about my atheism).
Rebecca Watson’s talk was called “Don’t be a Dick: Etiquette for atheists and skeptics” and it certainly struck a chord with me. I am aware that some people have the opinion of atheists or skeptics that they think they are above their stations, are always right or better in some way. In reality for the vast majority this is simply not true. Of course there will always be those that “stray into dickishness” (another Rebecca Watson phrase) but I’d hope that for most it is about open-mindedness and while not believing the same things others do, accepting their right to do so or even just being polite. In the Q&A Rebecca pointed out that this rule only applies where people are not being harmed or killed, something I totally agree with. For example even I would be angry and possible offensive towards someone who prevented their child recovering from illness by using homeopathy when they should seek medical attention and prevent further suffering. In an epic 2 hour Q&A many people questioned the need for passion to get things done nationally but compassion when dealing with friends and colleagues. This talk was about interpersonal relationships not national campaigns, but I do understand there is a need to express anger sometimes when in our schools and governments policy is implemented when there exists evidence to the contrary on it’s effectiveness. In such cases anger and even dickishness does gain publicity. It does worry me that it amplifies the generalised impression some people have of atheists or skeptics.
I know this blog is just me talking about Rebecca’s talk, but I am trying not to spoiler it mostly discussing the Q&A, which brings me to why I felt so compelled to blog, the title “Skepticism is a tool we apply to parts of our lives.” I had one of those moments where things fell into place and it just fit. I know I knew it already but that one phrase fit so well and was burned into my brain. I am sure it will be my mantra and where I struggled to verbalise my thoughts before that phrase just does it. Skepticism is not about being right or wrong, it is a tool, a way of thinking. To find out more information or change your views if you come across new information and it is about remaining open-minded. Yes it is much more complicated than that, there is culture and religion involved. As the phrase says we apply skepticism to “parts of our lives”, the parts it fits that we can feel comfortable doing so with and can cope with. Over time we may become more skeptical about more things once we develop our way of thinking, or learn to question things more but we can’t expect to find one thing we believed was wrong and then doubt everything we know, it just doesn’t happen like that.
So yes people can have religious beliefs and be skeptics, they may have not applied skepticism to that part of their lives, they may do so in the future, they may not. They may not want to, it may be important to them and their family, if it is not harming anyone then there is not a problem. I may be an atheist, that is my choice but I would be a hypocrite to try to force my beliefs on someone who did not share them. There may be times if I know someone well enough and it is appropriate to do so that I could maybe ask a question about a religious belief or tradition or plant a seed of doubt, but people need to realise for themselves what they do and don’t believe, it cannot be demanded. It is enough that people can see that often questions do need to be asked, or other sources of information found. It is different in the cases where there is clear peer reviewed empirical evidence that something does or doesn’t work, such as an alternative medicine, I can then say to someone I have read X which states there is no evidence supporting that what you are paying for actually works or that it does more harm than good. But we must be careful to not assume the same of all alternative medicine, I recognise that there are uses for some of the remedies, even if it is just in the placebo effect, relaxation or massage, they do sometimes do “something”. A great book to read to discover more about alternative medicine and what the research actually says is “Trick or Treatment?” by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst, it is also a very enjoyable and interesting book.
There is so much information freely available in the media and on the internet, it is now a minefield, unfortunately littered with lies and inaccurate information. Since I became more skeptical I have stopped watching the news on TV, there were too many questions, then I would be on the internet only to find that the story was misreported (especially where it was regarding “miracles” or breakthroughs in science, they are often exaggerated or misinterpreted into media friendly sound bites, it just isn’t that simple). Of course I read and I find things out but mostly online where I can find things out for myself at my own pace, instead of being given the wrong impression by TV. That is one way I apply my skepticism. I cannot do it to all parts of my life, although I have found myself gradually asking more questions, I am in no way, and hope I do not come across as a “know it all”. In know a lot about some things and a little about a lot of things. I do like to find out more and chat.
Full credit for all of the above thoughts goes to Rebecca Watson, she said much of it in her own way at SitP, but I agreed with so many points I wanted to write it out myself, have a ramble and share it. (That’s not plagiarism is it?) Thoughts and comments are as always very welcome. Thanks for reading.