When I watched the video of Phil Plait’s talk at TAM 8 encouraging the skeptical community to keep in mind the big picture of what we are trying to do as skeptical activists, it resonated with me. He asserted that more people are swayed by kindness, logic, and reason than by aggressiveness, derision, and ridicule. Some of his fellow skeptical bloggers agreed while some disagreed with his pronouncement. Those that demurred with Dr. Plait said that ridicule is a proper way to treat most ridiculous beliefs. As a generally sarcastic person who has a hard time holding in an eye-roll, I was worried I was hurting my own cause by the way I was engaging with others. I asked myself if I come across too strong, too acerbic, well…too mean. On the other hand, I was worried about being too accommodating and not challenging people on their claims. After much thought about the issue, I say, why choose?
Let’s face it, being a skeptic isn’t easy; it’s intellectual heavy-lifting. While those that believe in astrology, psychics, mystical healing energy fields, and every kind of cryptozoological nonsense can eschew facts and reason, a skeptic is not so fortunate. For a skeptic, claims must pass certain tests and be filtered through a rigorous process called critical thinking. This requires diligence, research, and a dedication to the truth, no matter how unpleasant it may be to your own personal beliefs. So it can be tiring to see fundamentally impossible claims rear up like some indestructible zombie that you have riddled with bullets, but just keeps coming.
Nothing really gets me irritated like the certainty people have while conveying really dumb things to me, all the while thinking something is wrong with me for critically analyzing their claims. In my head, I sometimes find myself repeating (like a mantra no less) Phil Plait’s admonishment, “Don’t be a dick.”
Of course there are times when it is appropriate to be kind, pleasant, and logical when presented with a truly extraordinary belief. These instances provide an opportunity for reasonable debate and a mutually respected exchange of ideas. Then there are the other times; when it is appropriate to launch every nuke in your skeptical arsenal at the person, holding them and their ridiculous claims with utter disdain. Let’s be clear, there is a distinction to be made between a grieving relative going to see a fraud like Jon Edwards so that maybe they can get some comfort for their loss. These folks deserve kindness, understanding, even disengagement until they are able to look at the situation more critically. But Jon Edwards himself, who victimizes these families with cheap cold-reading tricks and theatrical nonsense deserves scorn heaped on top of derision with a large helping of ridicule. When dealing with people like this, it is appropriate to tear down their poorly constructed reality and salt the earth with logic. This is when you engage further when the other person seeks to disengage, to ridicule and laugh at them and then bring other people’s attention to the person’s belief so others can join you in a shark-like feeding frenzy on the tattered remains of their claim. This requires an almost merciless disregard for the other person’s point-of-view. Like in Tim Minchin’s video “Storm”:
Maybe it’s the Hamlet she just misquothed
Or the eighth glass of wine I just quaffed
But my diplomacy dike groans
And the arsehole held back by its stones
Can be held back no more:
When these moments arise, and you’ve reached a moment of Defcon 1. When you unleash your entire arsenal of logic, reason, critical analysis, intelligence, knowledge, and wit…this is what I call Scorched Earth Skepticism.
There is nothing like having a reasonable conversation and then having the other person in your debate approach you later and tell you that their world view has become a little more logical. It is what we as skeptics ultimately wish for, to inject just a little more reality into the world. It is also equally pleasing for a skeptic to have their understanding of the world change to accommodate new evidence presented in a spirited and logical debate. But, there is also something deeply satisfying in seeing a truly deserving jackass get what is coming to them. And while it is great when a skeptic brings the heat to the toes of a magically thinking huckster, there is nothing better than seeing a person not affiliated with the skeptical movement do it.
Here’s an example of an instance of unintended Scorched Earth Skepticism targeting a well-known psychic fraud.
Most people have at least heard of www.etsy.com and online crafts fair that specializes in a wide range of handmade and vintage items and supplies. I love the site; I have bought some stuff from there and was very pleased with the items. Like any commerce website, however, you will get your share of crackpots, kooks, fakes, and scammers. The woo found on this site seems to be more new-age inspired and some of it can border on the ridiculous. That is where www.regretsy.com comes in. Advertised as, “Where DIY meets WTF” this site accumulates some of the items being sold on Etsy and features them. Most items are subjected to gentle, good-natured ribbing and some presented to be adored for their daring and kitschy brilliance. Some of the more mind-boggling moronic are presented for abject ridicule.
The items on Regretsy are posted by “Helen Killer” who runs the site and picks the choice items to be featured. “Helen” is really the lovely and talented April Winchell and if you have watched a cartoon in the last 15 years you have heard her voice. My favorite character being Ms. Finster from Recess:
The design of Regretsy seems to be more consumer awareness than outright skepticism, but its criticisms are so solid that I thought April Winchell might be affiliated with the skeptical movement, especially after seeing the items tagged under the simple moniker of “Bullshit”. After a quick email exchange April assured me she was not affiliated with skepticism but could definitely identify bullshit when she saw it and she considered one poster in particular to be a “big steamy pile”.
So imagine my interest when I saw one of skepticisms greatest punching bags getting the treatment from Regretsy. Many people may not be familiar with the fact that Jackie Stallone is famous for being not only Sylvester Stallone’s mother and being featured prominently in stories about plastic surgery gone wrong, but she is the world’s foremost “rumpologist”. You may be tempted to ask, “What the hell is rumpology?” Well, let me quote her site:
So when Jackie started advertising her wares on Etsy, I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised that it would be picked up and juggled here by Regretsy. Those of you familiar with the tactics of people like Jackie Stallone will not be surprised that Helen Killer soon got a familiar email threatening legal action here; which she promptly ignored. Reading this exchange, I started feeling that old familiar happiness at the historically alternate ending of Inglorious Basterds. Not only had Stallone been subjected to deserving ridicule for charging 300 dollars to read someones butt crack, but she is now being made a laughing stock for her stupid threats as well. But it got better. Imagine my elation when I found how much Regretsy had actually burrowed into the psyche of Jackie Stallone. Finding this 1000 word, babbling tirade in defense of her fanciful art, I saw just how little scrutiny or teasing these stupid cons can sustain. Here is a paragraph from Jackie Stallone’s rant called In Defense of Rumpology that will illustrate her level of butt-hurt.
I see simple beauty in the exchange between Helen (AKA April Winchell) Killer and Jackie Stallone; Regretsy was not trying to debate Stallone or critically analyze rumpology, it pointed and laughed, and when Stallone whined like a baby, it pointed and laughed harder.
There are some things that deserve this treatment and I’m comfortable with holding them to that standard without feeling like a dick. So in that spirit, here’s some other examples of people and ideas I think deserve to be treated with Scorched Earth Skepticism:
- Erich von Daniken: For the History channel airing Ancient Aliens.
- The History Channel: See above
- Richard Hoagland: for making pareidolia profitable.
- James Van Praagh: For dodging the JREF Million Dollar Challenge while playing the victim.
- “Psychic” Sally: For pulling a “Popoff” then suing anyone that dares call her a fraud.
- Sylvia Browne: For telling the family of Shawn Hornbeck that he was dead when if fact he was kidnapped.
- David Icke: For deflecting his role as a lizard-person, by accusing others of being lizard people.
The list goes on and on. Peddlers of alternative medicine, free energy cranks, conspiracy theorists and a host of other predators that rely on people not exposing their uncritical, unproven, unscientific crackpottery while at the same time profiting from the credulousness of the public.
So let’s all agree to have polite discourse and let the facts speak for themselves. Let’s be happy that we skeptics will never be haunted by ghosts, probed by aliens, attacked by bigfoot, eaten by a lake monster, be seduced by conspiracy, or fall for a huckster who will read our palms, eyes, and even our asses. But let’s not handicap ourselves too much with kindness. Keep a full armament of skeptical weapons ready to deploy and, when the situation calls for it, use some Scorched Earth Skepticism.