Wednesday, 13 October 2010

“Skepticism is a tool we apply to parts of our lives.”

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.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Truth and Lies

The train of thought for this blog started the other night as I tried to get to sleep after a double shift at work. I don’t work on the psychiatric wards very much anymore, I am largely clinic based, but I need the money and I know the ward so I did an extra few hours to help out. I worked on the wards for 3 years before my current job, and most of the time it never bothered me, you have to get a bit of a thick skin and try to switch off when you walk out of the door. This particular day I struggled. I’m not entirely sure why, but it may be due to seeing a couple of patients who were really poorly. I know all of them are ill to some extent but I hadn’t seen an episode of psychosis that bad for a while, or a person so wrecked by alcohol so badly. A sad sight to see. When I got home I tweeted that it was a humbling shift, it was, it made me ponder a little (when I should have been trying to switch off and get some sleep). As always the lovely people of twitter distracted me, some asking if I was ok. I answered in my usual vague way, not giving much away. It was at this point I realised how much I lie.

I lie in all aspects of my life. I lie on twitter because I often don’t want to be too personal or offend someone, or because I can’t really talk about work in detail. I lie at work, sometimes because it is the appropriate thing to do and sometimes for an easy life. I lie in my personal life to save embarrassment. I know I am not the only one, we all lie, but to what extent? And should we lie so much?

I don’t want to give the wrong impression, I think I am trustworthy, it isn’t that every single thing I say is a lie. There are the obvious examples, when people ask if they look fat or nice in a particular outfit, most people would stretch the truth a little if needed or word their answer very carefully. My lies or avoidance of the truth at work with patients are very much like that, I have to decide if being totally honest would be detrimental to their mental health or our relationship. For example if a patient were to ask me to confirm a delusional belief, I have to decide if that person is ready to consider that what they have thought true for a long time is actually a symptom of their illness; or if they are still lacking insight to the extent that me telling them this would mean they would no longer engage with me, or believe me a part of a conspiracy/delusional construct. It may be the difference between exacerbating a situation potentially leading to aggression or allowing a patient to talk freely and build a therapeutic relationship. Sometimes it is just about offering reassurance to the patient until they are ready to hear a more honest answer, or avoiding answering the question all together (e.g. Why don’t you tell me what you think?).

On twitter I lie a little bit, I have read an interesting blog from a fellow tweeter @wllmtnnt who is also guilty of this crime. I’d hope that people don’t believe everything they read on social networking sites. The majority of the time, I try to avoid actual blatant lies, by either not saying anything or a carefully constructed critical reply. I toyed with the idea of setting up another twitter account with nothing but brutally honest answers to other people’s tweets as a sort of social experiment, but I can’t imagine the account being well liked. It is not socially acceptable to be truthful all the time.

In both these parts of my life, for me it is about boundaries. At work there are set rules, not to give too much personal information away, don’t tolerate abuse (although this one is stretched if a patient is particularly unwell and unable to comprehend the consequences of such actions), and to tell a patient when their actions are inappropriate. I do actually use that phrase, whether it is asking me if I have a boyfriend, some sexual comment or being offensive to a fellow patient.

On twitter it is a bit harder to define the boundaries. I have a general idea how much I want to give away about my life online, but then I know occasionally when drunk or chatting to someone I feel I know better I overstep this mark. As I am sure other people do, it is sometimes with dread I check my feed after a drunken night out followed by late night tweeting, and then hit delete a few times. But also there is often a lack of tone on twitter, things can be misinterpreted, sometimes taken at face value when they are jokes or sarcasm. Plus it is easy to forget that everyone is not being honest, we have all an online persona to some extent. I have often been surprised by the difference between how I perceive people to be online and how they are when I meet them in reality, an obvious example is that it is easy to be bold and chatty on twitter but this may not be the case in reality when the reality and shyness kicks in.

Often my lies on twitter are very insignificant, I would perhaps say I didn’t like something to join in while harbouring a secret passion for it, we all have our embarrassing interests. Other times I would say something nice or reassuring to someone, knowing it is what they need to hear by their leading tweet, but when in fact I would rather be more honest and challenge the behaviour. It is not the time or place to do such things, honesty in such situations like that is reserved for “real life” friends who I know well enough to know they are ready to hear it, and with whom I can read non verbal communication. I don’t lie all the time, I hasten to add, I am generally nice to everyone. If a tweet bothers me that much, I usually don’t reply at all rather than cause offence or feel I am not being honest.

At the end of the day if someone oversteps the mark online you have three options, ignore it, confront it in a way which is the least offensive, or unfollow (or block). Due to the nature of twitter it is easy to perceive such things wrong, by seeing only part of the story, taking things at face value or misjudging tone. So there needs to be caution if you do decide to be a bit more brutally honest, or question if boundaries have been crossed. At the end of the day I would really only do this if I had to in order to feel comfortable to continue following someone. There is nothing wrong with questioning someone’s opinions in a public forum, so long as it is not in a way which intentionally offends. I can usually ignore most of those moments/tweets that make me wonder about their true beliefs. But I do think it is important to realise that even nice tweeters and lovely people in real life (like me) do lie or stretch the truth; it is expected in society, what we read may not be what they really believe. Sometimes by asking the right questions you may get an honest answer rather than what you perceived from previous tweets. However, remember if you were dis-inhibited to the point where you always spoke the truth and your opinion you may be deemed as suffering from mental heath problems.

So as I have said before, I show a part of myself on twitter, and a bit more on these blogs. But without visual clues of non verbal communication I struggle to feel I really know people online, people are different in reality (this is why I like meeting and getting to know tweeters). I can be brave and exaggerate things or be silly on twitter, it is not necessarily how I would behave in reality, it is stretching the truth about who I am in order to have fun and an online presence.

I’m not really sure what the point to this blog was. I guess it was to just realise that twitter is what it is, sometimes honest, sometimes lies, and sometimes only part of the story. And to say that everything I write may not be entirely accurate all of the time. We all do that, don’t we?