Empathy and Skepticism

We skeptics have a general reputation of being arrogant, dismissive of those who disagree with us, and a ‘better than thou” attitude. While most of these notions are not true for most skeptics, this seems to be the general perception among the general public and, especially, the media.

Carl Sagan, in his wonderful book The Demon-Haunted World, spoke of this problem:

“..the chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is in its polarization: Us vs. Them–the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth, that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, you’re beyond redemption. This is unconstructive. It does not get the message across. It condemns the skeptics to permanent minority status; whereas, a compassionate approach that from the beginning acknowledges the human roots of pseudoscience and superstition might be much more widely accepted.”

Being new to the skeptical community, I’ve seen this quite a bit and it upsets me. I hear a lot of unconstructive dismissals of those who believe in pseudoscientific ideas without any mention given as to why people believe these things. Just telling someone they are wrong and then expecting them to change just because you said so is no different than when a homeopath or Christian or astrologer tells us that we are closed minded for not believing in their woo.

Carl Sagan goes on to say that we must understand and empathize with those who cling to beliefs that are unscientific and irrational. Only by empathizing with them can we begin to have a meaningful and productive dialogue with them.

We need to first off respect those who believe pseudoscience and superstition, this doesn’t mean respecting their beliefs, which are wrong, but respecting the reasons they hold these beliefs and using this respect as a starting point for meaningful discussion.

As long as we characterize these people as morons, nut jobs, cranks, woo woos or whatever, we are in effect dehumanizing them. This serves only to alienate them and inure us to labeling everyone who disagrees with us in a derogatory way.

We are in a momentous struggle against superstition and ignorance. As in any struggle that involves closely held beliefs and attitudes, we must win the hearts and minds of those who don’t understand, and have never even considered, that they are in the wrong.

Empathy leads to respect and respect is what we all crave and deserve. When we feel respected, we are much more open to what others have to say. Lets try to remember that in our writings and our speech. Lets focus on why people believe, not what they believe.

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