Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

Why do skeptics have an image problem?

So I was just on a panel with author John Scalzi at Swancon. Great fun, good panel, good questions from the audience.

The panel was about skepticism and sci-fi, and one of the questions was, “Why do skeptics have such a bad reputation?” Why are they known as contentious, awful people?

John’s answer was essentially: Because they are unpleasant people. Paraphrasing: If debunking really Does It for you, then you’re probably a Stomper of Dreams.

As an unpleasant person, I have to kind of agree, but my answer went like this: There’s really no nice way to say, “Um, actually, that psychic isn’t really speaking to your dead relatives.” Saying it at all makes you the Dreamkiller, and that’s that. Either that, or you say nothing, in which case no one knows you’re a skeptic at all. Result: all skeptics are mean and unpleasant.

But I think there’s a third answer here: Popular entertainment has spent decades portraying skeptics as soulless or incomplete. Just check TV Tropes. Skeptics are Straw Vulcans — hyper-rational beings who are nonetheless incomplete and dead inside. Then they ‘come to their senses’ and become a Skeptic No Longer. Only when their character arc sees them learning to embrace at least a little unprovable bullshit do they become good and fully human. I think it’s a minor factor, but not an insignificant one.

2 Comments

  1. A friend of mine, some years ago, showed me a viral email with an image of pigs wrapped in tiger skins, suckling on a tigress. The story went that the mother pig had died, as had the baby tigers, and the people at the zoo saw the obvious and beautiful solution to a problem.

    It was a heart-warming story.

    I told her that, like so many viral emails, this one was a fanciful lie. In fact, the picture was of a commercial stunt and was done solely for the titillation of the zoo visitors and, as such, it was more like animal abuse than good husbandry.

    But, rather than be horrified at the depressing profit-driven reality, this anti-capitalist, animal-loving friend demanded to know why I always want to crush dreams. Apparently, it was better that the abuse continue than be exposed, because ignorance, I guess, is truly bliss.

    Yes, we're horrid.

  2. Let's be clear, though — there are some really horrible people who are skeptics out there.

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