How aggressively skeptical to be


in Rants, Science

Over at Cocktail Party Physics, there is an interesting post about ‘skeptic etiquette.’ Specifically, this concerns the question of how aggressive one should be about debunking dubious claims made in social situations, whether those claims are about homeopathy, astrology, conspiracy theories, or what-have-you.

Personally, I tend to take a pretty aggressive approach, especially when the issue is one that has a major direct effect on people’s lives and future prospects. Beliefs like vaccines causing autism cause real damage, as do those about the non-existence of anthropogenic climate change. It may not always make you socially popular to call people on these things, but I think it is important to challenge deeply flawed ideas and modes of thinking, even when doing so produces awkwardness.

Admittedly, this approach has made me unpopular at a few dinner parties. The high point may have been when I conducted a limited double-blind clinical trial to disprove the idea that magnets ordered from infomercials improve the taste of wine.

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

David Scrimshaw February 4, 2009 at 9:40 pm

Is your “aggressive” approach effective?

Milan February 4, 2009 at 9:43 pm

At convincing people that homeopathy, astrology, conspiracy theories, etc are bunk?

From time to time, yes. Usually, no.

Still, those seem like decent odds to me, given the difficulty of the task.

Josh February 4, 2009 at 10:37 pm

It’s the right thing to do, even if it does make you unpopular.

Milan February 4, 2009 at 10:43 pm

Questioning astrology contributed to a ‘perfect failed date’ I had in London, during my last year as a student at Oxford.

Emily February 5, 2009 at 1:19 am

The level of aggressiveness I use to debunk mis-information in social situations is directly proportional to the greater I care about the person in question.

If I find the person irreparably boring, or thick – then I just nod along. If I feel like I would like to continue a friendship with the person – then I dispute.

Sometimes people say things just to aggravate you if they find that you have social concerns ie., “You’re a vegetarian? That’s funny, I was just about to go hunting down some endangered animals for dinner!”

When I meet those people, I take care to leave the conversation as quickly as possible.

oleh February 5, 2009 at 1:39 am

I found this an interesting discussion, especially given the value that earlier commentators have placed on aggressive skepticism.

I am quite passive in disputing the ideas of others with whom I disagree perhaps for the following conscious reasons (in no particular order):
a. in general I favour social harmony (and on the flip side avoid discord)
b. I believe that people have the right to their own beliefs
c. I am often not particularly convinced that my beliefs are any more valid
d. I do not believe nor have I seen that aggressive challenge of someone’s belief has an effect on changing or influencing that belief.

There may be other reasons, conscious or unconscious. However the discussion has given me reason to think.

I found Emily’s entry that she is more likely to challenge someone the more she cares for that person interesting , and a more honest approach than mine.

Anon February 5, 2009 at 8:40 am

If you are too harsh in your debunkings, you risk the Dawkins/Hitchens effect, in which you are correct in your statements but so shrill in your presentation that most people ignore you for aesthetic reasons.

Magictofu February 5, 2009 at 9:59 am

I would have loved to see your “double-blind clinical trial to disprove the idea that magnets ordered from infomercials improve the taste of wine”. That would place you higher on my list of people to invite the next time.

That being said, things like homeopathic medecine and accupuncture might be more beneficial than people think because they can be a socially cheap and fairly harmless way to trigger the placebo effect within a large sector of the population and therefore trully help people. Problems only arise when these “alternative medicine” replace real treatments.

We should therefore probably ask ourselves the following question: is debunking dubious beliefs and practices a good thing when taking everything else in balance? Things like social harmony and even the psychological and physical wellbeing of a number of people.

oleh February 5, 2009 at 10:01 am

A friend of mine lived in a fire fighting school for several months in the southern United States. Homophobic remarks were quite common and acceptable. My friend was from the West End of Vancouver where homophobia was generally unacceptable. He did not agree with the homophobic remarks. He did not say anything until he had been there a few weeks. By that time respect for him within that community had grown. He then said that some of his best friends were gay. He seemed to think that comment had a strong and positive effect on breaking down some of the homophobia.

Milan February 5, 2009 at 10:04 am


It was mostly just putting random numbers on plastic cups, putting magnet wine in some and untreated wine in the other, and checking to see if there was a statistically significant preference for the magnet wine. On the basis of the data, we were unable to reject the null hypothesis that the magnet had no effect.

Amusingly, further investigation showed that the heavy black block purchased from the infomercial didn’t even contain a magnet. It was just a lump of plastic.

Magictofu February 5, 2009 at 10:54 am

I still would have loved to see that.

Milan February 5, 2009 at 11:16 am

It is a good thing to try at some point. Ideally, you want to be able to use some statistics to work out p-values and decide whether or not to reject the null hypothesis at a certain confidence level. That said, you can do a reasonably good job of that just by eye. If 90% of people (in a reasonably sized sample) can tell the difference between two treatments, there is probably a real effect. If only 52% can, it is likely that random errors of judgment are the only thing at work.

Magictofu February 5, 2009 at 12:44 pm

“Sometimes people say things just to aggravate you if they find that you have social concerns ie., “You’re a vegetarian? That’s funny, I was just about to go hunting down some endangered animals for dinner!””

As someone who has been vegetarian for a few years but converted back to an omnivorous diet a while ago I do pass such annoying comments from time to time to my vegetarian friends. I guess part of it is due to having to face my own failure at changing my diet. As one potential perpetrator, please accept my apologies.

That being said, as with everything else, some of the rationales for being vegetarian I have heard over the years probably requires some healthy dose of skepticism…

Emily February 5, 2009 at 2:53 pm


I get a lot of people demanding answers for why I’m a vegetarian, and I always give them the same answers. Answers, I’m sure, that everyone is familiar with who reads this blog.

What concerns me generally isn’t the questioning, but it’s the tone and the motivation behind the questioning.

A lot of meat-eaters that ask are asking out of irrational hostility. If you tell someone you’re a vegetarian they immediately sense that you are attempting to assume a kind of moral superiority over them, and start making wild claims about how much they enjoy the meat industry and fur.

My reasons for being a vegetarian have nothing to do with attempted moral superiority. The idea that a single person not soliciting a single industry that they consider detrimental to society entitles them to some kind of exceptional morality merit seems to be absurd.

It is more like “I love people. I want there to be fairer distribution of food, better use of land, and a safer ecological and social environment for people to live in. This is one small way that I am expressing it.”

I think it’s OK to want the better for people, without assuming that you are yourself better than them for wanting it.

Milan February 5, 2009 at 2:58 pm

My basic reasons for being vegetarian are in this previous post, complete with a Venn diagram.

In the past, I have criticized people for nonsensical or contradictory ethical choices involving food. For instance, I think it is inconsistent for some vegans to refuse to eat honey, while still eating plants pollinated using domesticated beehives.

Milan February 5, 2009 at 3:04 pm

“I love people. I want there to be fairer distribution of food, better use of land, and a safer ecological and social environment for people to live in. This is one small way that I am expressing it.”

This is a great way of putting it. Back this up with some poems about artichokes and you will really have something…

David Scrimshaw February 5, 2009 at 3:18 pm

You lost me on that last one, Milan. I’m a big honey eater and not a vegan.

But are you saying that it would be inconsistent of me to refuse to drink the milk of lactating women who gained their livelihood tending mushrooms that I happily eat because I felt that the milk should go to the children of those women?

Milan February 5, 2009 at 3:24 pm

I have heard vegans argue that they do not eat honey because it is exploitative to use bees to produce it. Of course, we ‘exploit’ bees to produce all sorts of things: including peaches, soybeans, apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers and strawberries.

People who think it is unethical for humans to use domesticated beehives to produce honey should probably also refuse to eat plants pollinated with the same sort of hives, no?

Milan February 5, 2009 at 3:26 pm

Sorry to avoid your analogy, but the ethics of engaging with lactating mushroom pickers is something I will need to ponder for a while.

In any event, it seems that the ethical arguments are quite different. In normal circumstances, people make choices about what they do. That cannot really be said about bees, or other animals used in agriculture.

Magictofu February 5, 2009 at 3:27 pm

Emily, I actually think that many meat eaters, like myself, find it morally hard to justify the amount of meat they eat and when confronted with the issue of vegetarianism, they immediately feel uncomfortable because it reminds them of their faillings.

I would not have such a moral dilemma about eating meat if I was eating less of it and especially if the meat I was eating was always comming from properly raised animals or carefully managed wild populations.

Milan February 5, 2009 at 3:30 pm

This post produced a lively argument:

Meat eating and ignorance

Tristan February 5, 2009 at 5:30 pm

I wonder if anyone here wants to weigh in to defend the rights of humans to consider animals as their property?

Milan February 5, 2009 at 6:20 pm

It is admittedly odd that human beings ‘own’ other animals.

Private citizens definitely should not be allowed to own tigers.

tristan February 5, 2009 at 6:43 pm

Things I am not allowed to own might still be determined as property. Slavery could be ended simply by making the ownership of humans by private citizens illegal. No one would consider this a complete establishment of slavery, if humans were still considered property in the eyes of the state.

It is very hard to see how you can consider something at the same time property, and something with interests. How can we consider property things to which we assign agency? (Interests are agency implying, are they not?)

Milan February 5, 2009 at 6:48 pm

It doesn’t make sense for me to be able to take ‘your’ horse or ‘your’ dog, just because ownership is a concept that applies awkwardly here.

That being said, ownership of a horse or dog carries with it obligations that you don’t normally have towards your property. We grant people conditional ownership, provided they aren’t abusive.

Magictofu February 5, 2009 at 9:40 pm

“Husbandry” is an interesting word here.

That being said, Tristan’s question is very interesting but I find myself unable to answer it.

Tristan February 5, 2009 at 11:25 pm


You’ve just described the existing societal attitudes towards it. Accurately, yes. But a description does not a justification make (actually, the equivalency of description and justification is one of the definitions of propaganda).

Milan February 6, 2009 at 8:56 am

Can you think of a more satisfactory way to deal with the issue?

You could substitute the concept of ‘ownership’ with that of ‘guardianship’ – more closely equating animals to children.

R.K. February 6, 2009 at 10:25 am

Since factory farms are grim death camps, we actually permit epic amounts of animal abuse. It is hard to imagine how you could give a chicken, pig, or cow a worse life.

Given how many animals pass through such places, it seems likely that the majority of human-animal interaction is deeply abusive. ‘Guardianship’ indeed.

. February 12, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Court Rules Autism Not Caused by Childhood Vaccines

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 12, 2009; 12:02 PM

Thousands of parents who claimed that childhood vaccines had caused their children to develop autism are wrong and not entitled to federal compensation, a special court ruled today in three decisions with far-reaching implications for a bitterly fought medical controversy.

The long-awaited decision on three test cases is a severe blow to a grass-roots movement that has argued — predominantly through books, magazines and the Internet — that children’s shots have been responsible for the surge in autism diagnoses in the United States in recent decades. The vast majority of the scientific establishment, backed by federal health agencies, has strenuously argued there is no link between vaccines and autism, and warned that scaring parents away from vaccinating their youngsters places children at risk for a host of serious childhood diseases.

The decision by three independent special masters is especially telling because the special court’s rules did not require plaintiffs to prove their cases with scientific certainty — all the parents needed to show was that a preponderance of the evidence, or “50 percent and a hair,” supported their claims. The vaccine court effectively said today that the thousands of pending claims represented by the three test cases are on extremely shaky ground.

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