Taming My Skeptical Side

And how a podcast helps guide me.

As a skeptic, I’m not likely to believe any outrageous claims without solid proof. Unfortunately, I’m surrounded by people with all kinds of weird beliefs.

I have friends and relatives who believe in things such as ghosts, astrology, psychic power, homeopathy, magnetic therapy, crystal power, and other tested yet unproven concepts. Over the years, as I’ve learned more and more about how unproven these ideas are, I’ve wanted to share my insight to “enlighten” these people in my life. All I’ve faced, however, is frustration. They cannot let go of these beliefs — even enough to see how “proofs” can be faked.

Strained Relationships

One example of this is psychic power. I know people who watch John Edward on television and visit psychics and swear that they’re proof of real psychic power. Yet it’s pretty obvious to me that all these “psychics” are doing is using cold or even hot reading techniques and relying on human nature to remember the “hits” and forget the “misses.” I try to convince these people that what they’re seeing is a scam, but they don’t believe me. In the end, frustrated and disappointed, I feel a great loss. My inability to reconcile my knowledge with their conflicting belief causes me to lose my connection with them. I can’t see them the same way anymore. It puts a huge dent in our relationship.

In the end, I simply begin avoiding the person with the wacky beliefs.

I should clarify here. There are a lot of things people believe in that I don’t. For example, God. I’m an atheist, but I understand why people believe in God and how it helps them in their daily life. If we don’t discuss it, their belief does not affect my relationship with them. The same goes for any other relatively harmless belief that they have but generally keep to themselves.

It’s only when a wacky belief becomes a regular conversation point that I start to back off. Some people want to “convert,” me, to make me a believer, too. But they’re unable to provide the proof I need to believe. I’m unable to convince them to look at things from my point of view. We’re deadlocked. If this becomes an issue each time we’re together, I’d rather just avoid them.

And yes, I realize that “wacky” is a strong and possibly derogatory term. But from my point of view, many of these beliefs are just that: wacky.

Realistic Expectations, Curiosity, and Caution

Actually SpeakingEnter the Actually Speaking podcast. This is a different kind of podcast for skeptics. Instead of preaching to the choir by providing us with the facts and scientific evidence we need to understand the reality of unproven beliefs, Actually Speaking helps us deal with non-skeptics in a way that won’t ruin our relationships. Podcaster Mike Meraz offers advice, not facts. And the advice is, on the whole, very good.

Want an example? Well, the frustration I feel when dealing with the wacky beliefs of my friends and family members is a perfect example of how my skepticism can damage my relationships with these people. My reaction — to just back off — isn’t doing anyone any good. Mike suggests, in Episode 2, to develop realistic expectations for discussing conflicting beliefs. My goal should not be to convince people that I’m right and they’re wrong but to try to guide them to the point of Episode 3, curiosity and caution. After all, does it really matter what they believe? Isn’t it more important that they consider looking at their beliefs from other points of view and not get hurt by decisions made based on faulty beliefs? (For example, using homeopathy to cure a real problem rather than visiting a physician and getting real medicine.)

I realized, after listening to these two episodes back-to-back, that I had actually taken this approach and had a very positive outcome. I thought I’d blog about it to share my experience with other skeptics.

The Dowser

The situation dealt with dowsing. According to Wikipedia, dowsing is:

…a type of divination employed in attempts to locate ground water, buried metals or ores, gemstones, oil, gravesites, and many other objects and materials, as well as so-called currents of earth radiation, without the use of scientific apparatus. Dowsing is also known as divining (especially in reference to interpretation of results), doodlebugging (in the US), or (when searching specifically for water) water finding or water witching.

A Y- or L-shaped twig or rod, called a dowsing rod, divining rod (Latin: virgula divina or baculus divinatorius) or witching rod is sometimes used during dowsing, although some dowsers use other equipment or no equipment at all.

In this situation, an acquaintance — we’ll call him Joe — claimed to be able to dowse gravesites to determine the gender of people buried. He uses this “skill” out in the desert to comb through pioneer cemeteries and other unmarked gravesites and report about people buried there.

A friend of mine — we’ll call him Bill — often writes articles about desert exploration for a Web site I manage, wickenburg-az.com. He went on an outing with Joe and documented Joe’s findings. He then submitted an article about their outing for inclusion on the Web site.

While the general content of the article was interesting and I was sure the site’s readers would enjoy it, Bill included a detailed listing of the gravesites Joe had dowsed, including the number of graves (all unmarked) and the genders of the people buried there. I had a problem with this. I don’t believe that dowsing can provide factual information like this.* Including an account of the dowsing and its results could undermine the otherwise fact-based account of their outing. It could make the site look like a supporter of unscientific beliefs or, to use a term that’s falling out of fashion among skeptics these days, woo.

Worse yet, the article could provide a source of information for serious researchers attempting to find gravesites of specific individuals. Was the female grave at the site the grave of so-and-so’s long-lost aunt Mabel? How could I allow the article to state that there was a female grave there at all if there was no real proof? After all, the only way to be sure there was a grave at all would be to dig it up — which was completely out of the question for so many reasons.

I was in a quandary. I wanted the article, but I didn’t want the dowsing information in it. Bill, I felt, was a reasonable person. I was surprised that he believed in the power of dowsing. So I asked him straight out if he thought the dowsing results were reliable. I told him that I hadn’t heard of any scientific proof of dowsing claims. I told him I was skeptical and didn’t want to report unreliable information.

Bill, to his credit, considered my words. He got on the Internet and started doing some research. He found some documents that seemed to support dowsing. But then he found better documents from better sources — scientific sources — that indicated that dowsing was unproven and likely not possible. He sent me links to everything he found. He seemed embarrassed that he had been taken in by Joe’s confidence in his abilities. He rewrote the article to remove the mention of dowsing. I published it on the site.

By encouraging Bill to be curious about dowsing, I’d helped him come to his own conclusions about dowsing. He made the changes I needed in his article to feel comfortable about publishing it. Our relationship didn’t suffer at all. In fact, Bill seemed genuinely glad that I’d questioned him about it and that he’d had an opportunity to learn more.

Exploring the Human Side of Skepticism

Actually Speaking has helped me see how the way I dealt with Bill’s belief was the right way to deal with it. I didn’t tell him he was wrong. I didn’t belittle or insult him. I treated him like the intelligent human being he is. I made him curious enough to do his own research and come to his own conclusion. This tells me that the advice is Actually Speaking is good, solid advice because it can work.

Are you a skeptic or critical thinker surrounded by people with wacky beliefs? If so, give Actually Speaking a try. I think it might help you with your relationships with these people.

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* Curious about dowsing? Check out this article in the James Randi Educational Foundation Library: “The Matter of Dowsing.” You can also read about an actual test in James Randi’s book, Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions.

9 thoughts on “Taming My Skeptical Side

  1. Hello again!

    As skeptical as I am, I can only report my own experience and abilities.

    I never got to see it for myself but was told by older siblings and the older generation who knew my Grandfather say he was a great water dowser and the fact that I have dowsed 5 water wells myself says to me that it works to some extent.

    My father was unable so it must have skipped a generation.

    I am skeptical about graves and such…gender of a pile of dust??? I think that is a bit of a stretch.

    Ira

  2. Well, Maria, I think you would have to admit that scientists/science and humanity in general is not aware of everything out there – we don’t know everything and we can’t always understand everything. It’s true, by dismissing a book, an idea, or a method offered to you, you get to be right–and stay right where you are.

    Personally, I don’t really believe in dowsing… but I also haven’t really had any interest in it or looked into it before I read this article. I’d really have to go out and do my own research before I could come up with a worthwhile opinion.

    Instead of voicing your disapproval of others’ beliefs, why not state some of your own? Not to your “wacky friends” maybe, but just on this blog, or as a comment to me, because I would love to hear any thoughts you have.

    Yes, you’ve said your atheist, but “atheist” does not automatically designate you as a person with no beliefs whatsoever, a person who doesn’t have his own opinions or thoughts about spirituality at all. At least, I’d like to believe an intellectual person like you has put some thought into matters like what happens after we die, is reincarnation possible, and what our purpose is in life. You can refute any or all theories, but in the end, you’ll still have some sort of notion, some idea of these answers, no?

    I would especially love to hear your thoughts about the Law of Attraction – that our inner thoughts, beliefs, and emotions shape our outer world around us.

    • Dmytro: I don’t have many “beliefs” that are not supported by science or by personal observation. Hearsay is not sufficient to convince me of anything. D

      owsing is a perfect example. When I mentioned this story to another friend, her response was that her husband’s grandfather was good at finding water. Is that supposed to convince me that dowsing is a real technique for finding water? Or that her husband’s grandfather was lucky? And let’s face it: there’s water under the ground everywhere if you dig deep enough.

      Atheist defines my religious belief (or non-belief). It doesn’t cover my other beliefs (or non-beliefs). I have indeed put through into all the things you mention and they are pretty much in line with what most atheists believe. The “purpose in life” question cracks me up.

      I had to look up the Law of Attraction to see what it was. For the benefit of other readers (and to indicate my understanding of it now), here’s what Wikipedia says:

      The phrase Law of Attraction, used widely by New Thought writers, refers to the idea that thoughts influence chance. The Law of Attraction argues that thoughts (both conscious and unconscious) can affect things outside the head, not just through motivation, but by other means. The Law of Attraction says that which is like unto itself is drawn.

      If this is correct, then no, I don’t believe this is possible. Thoughts influence chance? So if I think positively enough that I can roll snake eyes on a pair of dice, I’d do it? That’s what “thoughts influence chance” means to me.

      I do believe somewhat in the power of positive thinking. I think that if you doubt success, you’re less likely to succeed than when you go into a situation feeling that you have a good chance of succeeding. But I don’t think some mystical force makes this happen. I just think we all put more effort into anything we do if we feel good about succeeding. We psych ourselves up. You know — like locker room pep talks before a game. If the coach went on and on about the team’s poor chances of winning, do you think they’d do as well in the game as they would after the coach pumped them up with positive thoughts?

  3. I have indeed put through into all the things you mention and they are pretty much in line with what most atheists believe. The “purpose in life” question cracks me up.

    So what do the majority of atheists believe (about death, life, higher powers, etc.)? I haven’t really done a huge study of it or anything, so the only thing right now that turns up when I hear “atheist” is just the “no belief in God”.

    Haha, I didn’t mean that question in a religious way – or that life’s purpose has to be univeral. Personal-wise, can I inquire what your purpose in life is? Surely you must have something you’re moving towards to, some sort of goal or destination in mind?

    • Dmytro: Most atheists believe that when you die, the party is over. No heaven (obviously), no afterlife, no reincarnation. Consciousness is a function of brain activity. When the brain dies, the person — including what some folks might consider “the soul” — is gone.

      Some religious people think this is a horrible way to look at life and death. They take comfort in believing they’ll ascend into heaven and be with God or Jesus or Allah or whoever. And Aunt Tillie. Or that they’ll come back as a butterfly or horse or better person. But most atheists are comforted by the idea that the life they make on earth is the only real life. Grasp life by the horns and wrestle it to the ground! Make the most of every day! This is it. Screw it up and you screwed up everything. I like the quotes, “Life is not a dress rehearsal” and “I believe in life before death.”

      People say I do a lot and have an interesting life. That’s because this is the only life I have. There’s nothing better (or worse) after this.

      That’s what I consider the purpose of life. To do what you can to make it as good as you can for yourself, your family, your friends, and the people around you.

  4. Maria: Humour me while I turn this 180 degrees around:

    Most religious believe that when you die, your soul lives on. You go to heaven (obviously), and perhaps get reincarnated into another afterlife. Consciousness is separated from the physical body. When the brain dies, the person — their body — dies, but their “soul” lives in, for it cannot be destroyed.

    Some atheist people think this is a horrible way to look at life and death. They take comfort in believing hat the life they make on earth is the only real life. But most religious people are comforted by the idea that they’ll ascend into heaven and be with God or Jesus or Allah or whoever. And Aunt Tillie. Or that they’ll come back as a butterfly or horse or better person. They’re glad that the life they make on earth isn’t the only real life and that they don’t have to make any real effort to make the best of it. What does a day matter when there’s an afterlife? This isn’t the only life. Screw it up and you get a second chance. I like the quotes, “Life is a test to see whether you go into heaven or hell” and “I will suffer on Earth for a better life in heaven.”

    I didn’t do that just for my own amusement, and I certainly don’t think that you believe religious people are the exact opposite of atheists. However, I thought I’d go a bit extreme just to show what you’re saying indirectly: that without belief in God or heaven, people are more motivated to have a more “interesting life” and make the best of it.

    I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s quite a few very religious and not so religious (but not atheist) people who make the best of life, put their effort into it, and might appreciate life just as much as atheists because they know whether there’s a heaven or not, God has given them a chance to live here and now on this Earth and that they should use it. I don’t think that atheists, free from any religion, are the only ones who can make the most of life and understand and appreciate its value.

    So I think your purpose and take on life (which I agree with wholeheartedly) can be supported by atheists, religious, and spiritual people alike.

    (Oh and realize that I haven’t exactly stated my beliefs or whether I’m a religious or atheist person. I’ll get to that. Just know that I would be ready to question your comments regardless of whether you were an atheist or a religious person – putting something in a different light always brings around fascinating conversations.)

    • Dmytro: I can agree with you on this.

      But I also know that there are a LOT of people out there who are banking on prayer and God to give them something better than this life when it’s over. (Think Rapture.)

      I feel bad for those people: they’re really missing out.

  5. Religion, the story goes is responsible for more deaths than any single other cause, with the exception of natural causes. One unscrupulous, self proclaimed “News Network” frightens it’s viewers into thinking that if they don’t vote a certain way, the world will fall apart. They preach that god will destroy our country if they don’t vote their way. Politicians invoke the name of god in order to start unjust wars. In my opinion no prayers should be permitted in the halls of congress or any other public building. Not for the obvious reason, but to prevent elected con men (and women) from duping innocent voters.

What do you think?