The Sciences

Skeptical passion

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitSep 3, 2009 2:00 PM


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Recently, I spoke at Gnomedex, a tech conference, about online skepticism. A little bit of my talk (along with others) was covered on PBS's Media Shift blog. My friend and skeptic D. J. Grothe from the Center for Inquiry posted an article on his blog about my appearance at Gnomedex -- apparently, my talk was covered on the CNN live stream! Wow. I wonder how many people saw that? And in fact that's a legit question. During a break at Gnomedex I went into the lobby to grab some coffee. I was chatting to a couple of attendees, and they complimented me on the presentation I gave. One of them said something that made me laugh a tad ruefully: he said that he wasn't all that interested in skepticism, but found that he liked the talk and became interested because of my enthusiasm. I'm not saying this to brag (because I would never ever ever do that; I'm terribly modest about my overwhelming awesomeness) but because I think it's a critical point. Sure, in my talk, I defined what skepticism is and what it isn't. And I also hammered home the idea that skepticism is not a room filled with a bunch of angry, aging, white, balding and bearded men dismissing claims and deciding what's right and wrong -- skepticism is a dynamic process that everyone can and must do, it's a way of looking at the world that keeps things from fooling us. Skeptics and scientists have a major PR problem. People think we're all humorless, cold and without passion. But that's completely wrong! We run the spectrum: we're happy, sad, angry, interesting, boring, awkward, calm, confident, silly, serious, smart, smarter -- just like any group. We're people. I think that gets lost somewhere between us and the people we're talking to. I'm really not any smarter or harder working or anything like that compared to your average active skeptic. But one thing I do is that I let my passion show. I love this stuff: I love science, I love understanding things, I love the process of figuring things out. But the more general point I want to make here is that I spoke from my own passion. Anyone who's read this blog for more than ten seconds knows how I feel about antivaxxers, for example. So when I was on stage, I made sure that came through. I talked about groups like JREF and CfI that do top-down skepticism; professional organizations that put on big conferences, create magazines, host bulletin boards, and so on. But I really stressed bottom-up grassroots work, things like Skepchick (well, they're on the cusp of grassroots versus big lumbering professional group), Robert Lancaster, Skepticamp, and so on. And looking over the list of groups (both big and small) I showed, it hit me why they're successful: they're passionate. This passion may come out as humor, or concern, or anger, but the point is these sites are fun to read and these groups are connecting to people because they let that passion show. I read (past tense) far too many sites and blogs that phoned it in, and those don't last long in my feed reader. If you want my attention, you need to show me that you're worth it. And you do that by showing me that you think it's worth it. So a little free advice to people out there trying to make a point: Let it fly. But remember, passion is a necessary but not sufficient component of any argument. After all, Apollo deniers are passionate, as are antivaxxers. So you need a lot more than that to actually make your point -- you'll need the evidence to back it up, and you'll need a rhetorical style that isn't like nails on a blackboard. But passion is a good place to start. It's where inspiration comes from, and people will respond to it.

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