Sunday, 17 April 2011
The communication of skeptical ideas.
I'm going to make my first post brief. Lacking any real qualifications (yet! There's a psychology degree on the way, if that counts...), I'm not going to try and give answers so much as to ask questions in the hope of stimulating further discussion.
Most of us are less than shy about communicating our skepticism, and rightly so. The threat posed by religious fundamentalism -particularly pertinent in the wake of 9/11- can't go unchecked by a mature and responsible society. Equally, the charlatanry of something like the 'alternative' medicine movement should be intolerable to most of us, given the manner in which it profits by deceiving the sick and the vulnerable.
But how skeptical are you? Is it 'easy' to oppose something as glaringly false to critical minds as homeopathy and crystal healing?
If you haven't already encountered him, it's my pleasure to introduce you to Christopher Hitchens. Best known among skeptics as one of 'The Four Horsemen' of the new atheism published in the last decade (his three distinguished peers being Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett), the range of targets for Hitchens' critiques are somewhat wider. In his career, he has tackled 'untouchables' of the order of Mother Teresa and Bill Clinton; the former on the fast track to sainthood in the Catholic Church, the latter one of the most popular presidents of recent American history.
What Hitchens demonstrates, in choosing such a diverse range of targets for his polemics, is that skeptical thought is more than a collection of scientific facts, it's an entirely different way of thinking. As he points out in his 2001 book, Letters to a Young Contrarian, 'the essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks'. Following logically from this concept, is the scope of our skepticism too narrow? Are areas like economics and politics -inexact sciences if worthy of the name at all- neglected by skeptics?
The second thing I want to draw your attention to, in this post, is the question of how can we communicate skeptical ideas to a wider audience. Though of course the content is the most important aspect of any argument, an effective communicator can bring these ideas to a new audience. I'm probably preaching to the choir on a blogging group for avowed skeptics. Are there more effective ways to communicate, to spread this mode of thinking to a broader audience?
I've linked to a very recent interview with the now cancer-stricken Hitchens. In my opinion, Hitchens is the embodiement of clarity and confidence in communicating skeptical ideas. But I want to hear your thoughts. Can you resist the mellifluous tones of one of our great communicators?