Even Skeptics Can Suffer from Self Delusion

You all might remember Bill Mutranowski from his wonderful website AtheistCartoons.com (a couple of my favorite cartoons are below):

Bill has just released his first book: You Bloggin’ to Me? How the Self Illusion Trolls Us and Why Skeptics Should Care. It’s not about cartoons; in fact, he discusses how even the skeptic community suffers from outmoded thinking about our self:

This book contends that the efforts of skeptics to change society at large are impeded by our attachment to outmoded notions about the self and volition—we take things way too personally and give too little consideration to individual circumstances. But there’s hope. Becoming more objective about our self-engendered impulses can make us more empathetic, compassionate, and wise, enhancing our effectiveness as a movement.

An excerpt from the book is below, and — the best part — Bill has made it free of charge in a whole variety of formats!

We’re all interested in nudging a gullible nation away from pseudoscience and religion toward skepticism and secular values. That takes a movement and its most excellent tool, the Internet. Ultimately, however, the task is moving people. And when it comes to people, how you say something can be as important as what you say. As preposterous as it may sound, there also may be occasions when the most constructive thing is to say nothing at all. But when the self is stoked we want to do something about it, and tend to indulge that impulse. Counterintuitive though it may seem, at those times it can help if you make whatever it is you’re feeling the sole object of your attention. This isn’t exactly your Mom’s advice about counting to ten or taking a deep breath, but she was on the right track; think more along the lines of, “Don’t just do something, sit there.”

It’s not a long read and it’s free — you have no excuse not to take a look at it :)

Check it out!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • 3lemenope

    For Yes Minister fans, the Politician’s Syllogism:

    1. We need to do something!
    2. This is something.
    3. Let’s do this!

    It’s very, very hard to do nothing, especially when nothing is precisely what you should do.

  • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

    Quoted: “As preposterous as it may sound, there also may be occasions when the most constructive thing is to say nothing at all.”

    If the goal is to educate people and reduce ignorance, a policy of “saying nothing” quite literally cannot ever accomplish that. The only way to give people information they’ve never had before, is to give it to them. Refusing to speak means never giving it to them; that in turn will forever deprive them of it.

    Silence in the face of ignorance, perpetuates ignorance.

    • 3lemenope

      As a general rule, you’re right, but it seems he’s talking about something a bit more situational. If you’re in a situation where you are not well-prepared to defend a position, and you attempt to do so anyway, you may demonstrate to the audience that your position is incapable of defeating rival positions. If you’re in a situation where people are, due to extremity of emotion or sentiment, compromised in their ability to understand or accept reasoned argumentation, it may likewise be counterproductive.

      Point is, there are times when, even if you’re right, opening your mouth may move people away from, rather than towards, the truth. Identifying those types of situations and acting with restraint is a crucial element of effective persuasion. And I agree with him, it is an element that is often overlooked. This is so perhaps because it is inherently squishier and dependent upon intuition than the relative comforting unyielding nature of logic and firmness of facts.

      • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

        I get that there are factors like “diplomacy” and “using ones judgement” to assess situations, in deciding what to say and whether to say anything at all. It looks as though the guy is trying to generalize out of that a much-larger principle. What I’m saying is that this generalization is FAR too broad, and if applied universally (as seems to be his wish) will effectively end skepticism as we know it.

        • meekinheritance

          That’s why he said there “may be occasions”, rather than “apply universally”. It looks like you are trying to generalize his words into something he didn’t say.

          • meekinheritance

            I do realize you’re trying to make a valid statement, and one that I think most would agree with. It’s just coming out slanted and critical of something the author isn’t actually saying.

            • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

              See my other comment. If he’s saying skeptics are too vocal, then what, exactly, would he like them to do, when faced with entrenched ignorance?

          • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

            If this is the case, then I have to wonder what his point is. Is it that he thinks skeptics are too vocal? If so, what would rather they do, when faced with entrenched ignorance? What’s the point?

            • meekinheritance

              Those are good questions. I would expect his book might answer them, or perhaps you could try to contact him directly. But open speculation can also be fun.

    • meekinheritance

      That’s why he said, there “may be occasions”, not “on every occasion”. Thank you for pointing out one of the many occasions where saying nothing at all is not the most constructive thing.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    I agree. Very often we have to choose between persuading someone to see something differently, or just expressing ourselves, getting it off our chest, venting. Very often what we blurt out in our anger or excitement is counterproductive to persuasion. We can inadvertently galvanize others so that they’re less willing to listen to our viewpoint. If we don’t practice skilled persuasion, then we’ll be reduced to endlessly complaining about a situation that we are helping to perpetuate.

  • coyotenose

    He pretty well lost me with the occasional cartoon whose message was “If you don’t agree with my positions, you aren’t really a skeptic.” That of course says nothing about the quality of this book.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    meh. i’m feeling a bit like this is a GOML* type argument.

    want an unfortunate truth? discourse is changing, as are the habits of those who communicate with one another using technology. rapidly, even violently.

    there is an entire generation coming up that will have been texting and using LOLcatz style speech their whole lives. people who are used to the concept of “unfriending” being a “major” event at times. people who stop reading anything they aren’t being forced to read by a teacher after the third paragraph. people who have been denied things like an education in history, critical thinking, and the old world habits of long form writing styles.

    we need to accept this. it’s good, and bad, at the same time.

    but it’s true a lot of online discussions are won or lost on the merit of a punchy, witty, sardonic and off the cuff, instant response/comment/post. think of when you’ve seen people reply “you win the internets today” or “you win this thread;” that rarely happens to longer posts.

    the parallel is the age of the pamphlet, which also happens to be a revolutionary age. short, rhetorical, polemic and incendiary- that’s what riled up the populations in america and france, and got them to enact serious social change. similarly, people like me are increasingly seen as dinosaurs (and i’m fine with that, i am) who don’t understand why less is always more, LOL is better than wit, and emotion more powerful than reason.

    it’s a harsh world, but it’s the one we live in. deal.

    * “get off my lawn” ref to oldsters who shout at kids for being kids

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      Hi chicago dyke, you have interesting observations.

      we need to accept this. it’s good, and bad, at the same time.

      The bad is apparent. Can you help me see the good?

      but it’s true a lot of online discussions are won or lost on the merit
      of a punchy, witty, sardonic and off the cuff, instant
      response/comment/post.

      I guess this depends on what definition of “winning” one is using. The participants and audience have all certainly lost time while writing and reading these discussions. This reminds me of the unfortunate trend in debates in the U.S. They are often no longer “won” or “lost” on who presented the most sound and cogent argument, but who threw the most laughable smart ass quip, the most clever sarcastic insult. They’re like two-sided celebrity roasts. Har dee har har.

      One of your observations gives me hope:

      the parallel is the age of the pamphlet, which also happens to be a
      revolutionary age. short, rhetorical, polemic and incendiary…

      Pamphlets sparked wide and deep social and political changes, but they did not entirely replace more developed, more substantial forms of persuasion or literature. Essays, thorough articles, and books laying out extensive propositions and arguments survived and still appeal to thoughtful people today, both old and young. |

      The generation that types with their thumbs will have, just like all generations, those who remain satisfied with quick and shallow ideas, and those who begin to hunger for more substance. I wonder if the percentages of those sub groups are basically the same as in previous generations. It’s hard to actually measure such a thing.

      I’m an oldster, at least compared to most of the Friendly Atheist denizens, but I let the neighbor kids play on my lawn. That’s what it’s for.

      • 3lemenope

        I let the neighbor kids play on my lawn. That’s what it’s for.

        Damn Dirty Aristotelian!

  • Tom_Nightingale

    This looks fantastic! I will probably end up borrowing some of his arguments for my own posts on this forum, as he seems to have drawn the same conclusions I have in regards to persuasion vs. satisfying our own desire to rebut

  • tricia

    I do wish skeptics would be a little more objective and consider a broader span of human history and ways of being in the world than they do. To an outsider, often, the aim of a self-professed skeptic is no different from that of a dedicated monotheist. Their self-certainty is unshakeable; the amount of time they spend considering their own views skeptically is negligible. When in a corner, intellectually speaking, they both tend to reach for a ‘bible quote’ – skeptics quote Dawkins or Hitchins, not science texts. And its hypocritical. Say to a member of the American Skeptics ‘Buddha said reality is an illusion’ and you’ll get a sneer and prosyletising rant. But say, ‘Modern physics says reality is an illusion’ and the same person will shake your hand and think you’re a fellow member. True skepticism – technically speaking – means a person forms no opinion until they have ALL relevant information under their belt – and (more importantly) have really understood it. Wouldn’t you agree?


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