Several years ago Phil Plait gave a talk at TAM that has become known as the “Don’t be a Dick” speech. There he was mainly talking about online skepticism and how to tailor our message so that it is effective rather than off-putting. In that talk the goal was better evangelising (for lack of a better term) skepticism so that the hearers of the message would be more receptive.
With many of us celebrating holidays and gathering with loved ones in the coming weeks I want to make the same plea but narrow the focus to friends and family. How often do we run into a colleague, friend or family member whom we thought believed as we do but it turns out there’s this one thing they hold on to we can’t abide? This might be a conspiracy theory, UFOs, homeopathy, astrology or even religion. At this point what do we do? Our friend is an intelligent rational person so obviously if we just ruthlessly point out why they are wrong they will agree, thank us for setting them straight and we will live happy in the knowledge that we have done our bit for rationality, right? Right?
Anyone who has been in the skeptic game for long will know, that is simply not how people work. At the very least taking this tack means an upset friend, possibly even the loss of a relationship. At the outset you have to decide what is your goal, what is of value to you? What are you trying to do? Is it more important to you to keep this friendship or that your friend thinks like you?
The people around us hold beliefs for any number of reasons; sometimes it is ignorance, sometimes it is comfort, sometimes it is habit. I have been in the position of heedlessly smashing these beliefs and believe me it is not something of which I’m proud and I try to be more careful how I go about things, not always successfully.
There are a wide variety of people who are drawn to skepticism but we all tend to share the same high regard for truth, reason and evidence. But we have to be wary that we don’t use this as an excuse to trample those we care about. Truth is noble, but it is not paramount. There is the tendency to use the truth as a cudgel as well as a shield “What you’re offended? I was just telling the truth.”
This does not mean we should always hold our tongue. If the belief is causing harm, we should speak up, if the belief could lead to poor decisions we should speak up. But not all battles are worth fighting, not all arguments are worth having and not all beliefs need vanquishing.
We may believe that we have right on our side, but so do our loved ones. It is our relationships that help define who we are as people, are we good people or bad people – ask our friends. Before you next gleefully knock over your friend’s beliefs think, is this friend more important to me than being right? If the answer is no, I feel sorry for your friends.