Friendly Skepticism

If you’ve never heard of the podcast Skeptoid, you’re really missing out. Imagine Penn & Teller: Bullshit! minus profanity (and with some regret, nudity), about 10 minutes long, and produced weekly without breaks. Brian Dunning does a masterful job bringing everyday skepticism to your ears.

His most recent podcast is titled How to Be a Skeptic and Still Have Friends, a bit of a divergence from the usual debunkery, but very well worth listening to. My closest friends are almost all skeptics, though some might not use the word or aren’t familiar with the movement. However regarding day-to-day interaction with other people I found this podcast to be very insightful.

Focus on where you agree, never on where you disagree. Start by finding common ground. No matter who you’re talking to, they have some level of skepticism about something. Ask them, “Isn’t there some myth you’ve heard that you don’t necessarily believe?”

They’ll answer “Well sure, Bigfoot, space aliens,” whatever.

Tell them “I’m skeptical of Bigfoot for the exact same reasons you are. Tell me why you don’t believe in Bigfoot?” And now you’ve got your friend telling you the very reasons you’re skeptical of the new claim. The evidence is of poor quality, it’s too improbable, whatever it is. Help your friend along. Point out more reasons to be skeptical of Bigfoot. Be familiar with our checklist of 15 warning signs to help you spot pseudoscience from Skeptoid episode 37.

And then, once you have a good list, apply that same reasoning to the new claim. “We agree that part of the reason Bigfoot is suspect is that we have low quality evidence coming from people with dubious credentials. We can also find those same problems with the claim that you can run your car on water. Also, we agree that one reason Bigfoot is improbable is that if it was real, we’d have known about it by now — people have been living in Bigfoot habitat for hundreds of years. We can say that same thing about running your car on water — science has known all about oxyhydrogen and electrolysis for hundreds of years and exploited it many different ways. It wouldn’t have to wait for some guy on the Internet to claim to know something that science doesn’t.”

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