Science Talk

Arguing with Non-Skeptics, Part 2 of 2

A panel discussion on arguing with non-skeptics at the recent Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism in New York City featured James Randi, George Hrab, D. J. Grothe and podcast host Steve Mirsky. Julia Galef moderated. Part 2 of 2. Web sites related to content of this podcast include

A panel discussion on arguing with non-skeptics at the recent Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism in New York City featured James Randi, George Hrab, D. J. Grothe and podcast host Steve Mirsky (pictured). Julia Galef moderated. Part 2 of 2. Web sites related to content of this podcast include

Podcast Transcription

Welcome to Science Talk the weekly podcast of Scientific American posted on July 28th, 2010 and to part 2 of the panel discussion "Arguing with Non-Skeptics", which took place at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism here in New York City. The panelists again were James Randi….

Randi:          That attracted all the cuckoos.

Mirsky:           …D. J. Grothe...

Grothe:          No questions should be off limits; no issues are taboo for the skeptic.

Mirsky:           …George Hrab...

Hrab:          Not falling into the trap of thinking the person you're talking to is an idiot.

Mirsky:           …and me. Julia Galef, co-host of Rationally Speaking, the podcast of the New York City Skeptics Group:

Galef:          Can we talk a little bit about beliefs that are, where people are clinging to them for especially emotional reasons? Because I think that's one of the hardest things to get past [when we're] arguing with people. And it really jumps out at you when you listen to, [sort of], the anti-science or anti-skeptic camps, how much they play on people's emotions like hope and fear. And it's such a powerful force, even if you are trying to think rationally, and especially if you're not. Have you guys developed any ways to sort of getting through that wall?

Randi:          Well, I've said several times that Sylvia Browne and John Edward have as their best customers [and] converts people who are grieving; people who've just lost someone dear to them. And they're looking around, they don't quite understand why this happened to them, and if they come under the influence of these so called psychics and such, they are perfect fodder for those cannons, they really are. They're going to collapse into belief very, very easily, and that's why they head for them. And that's the cruel part of this whole thing of speaking with the dead. It's a cruel farce, and it's something that gives me such a bad taste every time I see it or experience it or I am referred to it. It's really a nasty aspect of this whole thing, and it's one other reason for my existence and I hope for the existence of many people sitting in this audience.

Hrab:          I mean, I think you [have] to know when to dive into those really heavy emotional things. If you're dealing with someone who has lost a loved one, it might not be the best time to start talking about the afterlife or things like that. Now if they're spending thousands of dollars talking to a fraud, [then] it's almost your duty to at least, at least present the possibility [that] what they're doing is not the best use of their money. But again you're not going to be able to. It's a very, it's such a tenuous position to be put into. I had a listener of my show call in and said his neighbor lost his wife and daughter, I think; it was a horrible accident. And this guy now was going to, he was bringing people into his house, spending all kinds of money on psychics and they wanted to talk with; and [the caller] said, "What do I do?" And I said "There's only so much you can do. You know you have to realize that the weight of what has transpired is so massive that it's such a delicate situation."

Randi:          But more important than the money, George, is the emotional dependence.

Hrab:          Absolutely. Yeah, yeah.

Randi:          The money is only one thing. Many people can afford that kind of money, and it doesn't cost them anything emotionally. But if they get them emotionally and if they get them locked into this belief in the supernatural and survival after death and such, that's the danger of the thing.

Hrab:          And there's some times when people can feel a certain sense of connection; I mean, there is some relief that people do feel sometimes thinking that there is something beyond. And it would be very difficult for me to wag my finger and say, "There's nothing!"

Randi:          You got to be very careful, very delicate.

Hrab:          So it's a balance.

Galef:          There's another kind of argument that I feel is true and yet tends to go over very poorly with people. Basically all the ways that our brains play tricks on us—so this includes less eerie phenomena too, like selective memory, when you remember the hits and forget the misses. But I just find that people tend to really bridle, when you say something like that because what they hear is, "it's all is in your head" or "you're imagining it" and that seems both insulting and also [improbable] to them. Do you have trouble making this argument or is there anyway you'd, sort of, make it more convincing to people?

Randi:          Well, I would not use the expression "it's all in your head."

Galef:          Oh, no! I'm just saying that's, I think that's what they hear.

Randi:          Yeah, yeah, that's the impression they get from what you said. But you got to be very careful, you got to be very politic, very sensitive—that covers it pretty well—to what their needs are. You can't disappoint them, you can't fly in their face. You'd be amazed, though I look like the [curmudgeon] of all time—I make Andy Rooney look like an amateur when it comes to that; not for the eyebrows but certainly being [curmudgeonly]—but believe me, I have sat with so many people, with families, entire families sitting in the library at the James Randi Educational Foundation, and I have to discuss how do we talk Mum out of giving all the money to the [spiritualists], [or] to the the healers or whatever; and I don't really have a very good answer for them except: Be gentle, be kind, try to be understanding, and wait till the big impact of the loss of a loved one is essentially, well [it] may be never over, but essentially over, or at least on its downside [of] taking advantage of these people. Just be gentle and be kind and be understanding; do a lot of handshaking and shoulder grasping and what not. That's important. You can't come out as the nasty [curmudgeon]; you really can't.

Hrab:          In terms of that it's all in your head or going back to that idea of what people witness and how they swear that they could, you know, they felt that they heard it, they saw it, they were there; you know, show a couple Richard Weissman videos, you know the …

Randi:          Yes ….

Hrab:          The dribbling gorilla that walks through the crowd. I think most of you [have] seen this thing, right, where it's people, there are people, your job is to count how many times six or seven basketball players toss a ball; we should count the number of times the white shirts throw the ball back and forth. And you sit there and you count and count and count, and say "Yeah, I am going to get this, this is easy; I'm going to get this." And when the video finishes and then you go back in your mind, and now you say, now just watch it without watching it, without counting, and of course, [it's] the same exact video you watched and a gorilla walks through the scene kind of waves and walks out and you go "Ugh!" Like and if you had, like they said earlier in one of the panels, you know, if you had been taken to court: "Did you see a gorilla walk through that scene?" "No, your honor, I swear, I did not see a gorilla walk [through]", and you would be right, in your mind.

Randi:          But the trouble is George, they don't believe that [it's] the same video.

Hrab:          I know, they said that too, right. Right, right…

Randi:          And for a good reason. They just simply did not see the damn gorilla.

Hrab:          But it does open up that possibility of…

Randi:          Yes.

Hrab:          …here's what happening right in front of you; what else is happening right in front of you? Or you would swear that that thing happened or didn't happen?

Randi:          I, go head…

Grothe:          I was just going to, we were talking about two different strategies right here, because we're talking about two different sets or beliefs. So Randy was talking about the beliefs that hit you where you live and breathe. You know you believe in ghosts because you have [a] deceased loved one and you saw your grandfather with whom you're very close downstairs in the chilly part of the basement, okay. And you're talking about maybe someone, you know, maybe a less central belief, a less foundational belief, that you can show a video or talk about cognitive distortions or mental biases or something. Each strategy works for the different kinds of beliefs we're talking about. When skeptics realize that almost every single thing we're skeptical about is not just a goofy, funny thing to, you know, enjoy that people believe. But [that] we're talking about the most basic and most fundamental beliefs that people have that makes sense out of the universe for most people. Psychics, we might say "Well that's, oh come on; I don't want to fake psychic to harm people, and maybe that's why we're in it but you know some people believe in psychics because of the implications of psychic power[s]. If psychic powers are real that is incredibly comforting. J. B. Rhine, when he started out in his research, [well] he was a naturalist at first at University of Chicago, and he thought about the implications of science and evolution and he realized, "My gosh, this means that when you're dead, you're dead, and I don't like that." And so he switched his whole research trajectory into trying to prove that psychic powers exist. Why? Because if you could prove that minds can communicate with minds, then you prove mind–body dualism, and that suggests that people survive death. And that's where most believers are coming from, really central issues not just trivial goofy stuff you see on, should I say the Science Channel; well one of the cable channels that's not really, you know, History Channel is not really about history, it's about [Bigfoot] a lot [of the time].

Randi:          And [Arthur] Conan Doyle and Bishop Pyke and many other persons of great intellect actually fell for this sort of thing; they lost loved ones in the war, in both those cases as a matter of fact, and they turned around on their heels right away and began to believe in [woo-woo] material and were completely committed to it, completely!

Mirsky:           Even Alfred Russell Wallace.

Randi:          Exactly…yes…yeah.

Mirsky:           Co-discoverer of evolutionary theory…

Hrab:          That's right.

Mirsky:           Fell for that.

Randi:          Yeah.

Hrab:          Which also raises the issue that when you're put into a situation of great stress, it's, it's your job to be vigilant and to be okay with reality. Because it's very tempting often to have thoughts of, Oh! Well, you know, I am unlucky."


Hrab:          You know, that kind of stuff.

Randi:          How often do I get this comment? One woman in the audience said during one of my talks—after I finished the talk and I threw it open to questions—and she stood up and she asked me a question, and I gave her what I believed and the audience believed to be a very satisfactory and rational answer for the thing. And I thanked her and she sat down and then she immediately stood up again; she said, "Mr. Randi I think I know what your problem is"; Well, I'm always interested in knowing that too. And so I said, "Indeed, and what would that be?" She said, "You're over-obsessed with reality." I've never forgotten that. [Think] about that—over-obsessed with reality. And the audience laughed and applauded. She thought they were applauding for her comment; they were laughing at her and applauding for me, that's the way I interpreted it at least. Over-obsessed with, you can't be over-obsessed with reality in my estimation.

Galef:          Okay, so this is another sector of people that I mentioned in your [approach to], people who just off the bat deny the validity of logical reason or evidence in reaching truth. Are they [a] lost cause or is there some other approach?

Mirsky:           Postmodernist academics, is that [who] you're [talking about].

Randi:          Exactly, true; that's true.

Hrab:          You make [them] watch Storm.

Grothe:          Yeah, well said, well said.

Hrab:          You know just to get a little bit of, just a little bit of the thing there.

Galef:          Maybe, is there some way to show them they use logic and reason in other arenas, and they're not actually …

Randi:          Well people can be divided like that. They can be very rational [on] one point of view and I know scientists who follow the scientific method, and yet they will come with the craziest beliefs about some other things and not even because a PhD wrote it up in a scientific paper; but just because they sort of like the idea. And they'll look at you and they'll say, "Well that's true, and it hasn't been proven, but I really wanted it to be that way." Duh!!!! And this is a scientific mind? I find that hard to believe, but you get it all the time from scientists.

Grothe:          So on that point, if I am engaging someone who is emphatic that, you know, you're too logical, [you're] being too reasonable—my gosh, [you're being] too in your head or whatever that challenge or charge is. I think a strategy to engage that person—or a radical skeptic of all knowledge, a postmodernist say, who thinks maybe that science is just a mythic narrative like any other view—I instead like to talk about it in terms of skepticism being like intellectual self defense. In other words to engage self –interest; that it's not about me telling her that she is wrong, but instead about kind of helping or trying to persuade her that it's in her own best interest to kick the tires of the car before she buys it, to look under the hood; that it's an kind of intellectual self defense. You know when talking to young children about this, about science and reasoning and critical thinking, a way to frame it that, a word picture that they really get is that it's intellectual [karate]. It's a way to kind of keep someone else from pulling one over on you. And so this consumer protection kind of way to talk about it I think it makes sense to even the radical skeptic of all knowledge. Because if someone says, "Well truth—that's just a complement that you give to ideas that work for you, you know." [Then] you say, "Well, it's not in your best interest really to believe that if you think that the truth, the brute facticity of gravity, that when you jump off the building, you know, you'll go splat; you know that's a self interest argument that it's in her best interest to maybe look into these points."

Hrab:          The truth of the brake pedal.

Grothe:          Yeah.

Mirsky:           It's a very similar thing. I always ask people, "Well, how do you have the courage to get on an airplane?" If you think, you know, just in literary theory, if you think that the text [of the manual of the airplane] can be deconstructed , how do you have the courage to get on there? Or if you think that what really keeps it up is the group belief that the thing is going fly; [wouldn't] you like to really [poll] all the other [passengers on] the flight before you get on it and make sure that their belief is really good?

Randi:          You know Isaac Asimov was deadly afraid of flying and he admitted to me and to so many other people, "Oh, I know that the chances of an accident happening are much less than being out in a bus or on a car on the highway; or on a train but I know that the plane I get on is going to fall down." And this is Isaac Asimov now, mind you. Wow. But he believed that really, he would not fly; that's all there is.

Grothe:          Neil deGrasse Tyson give the keynote at TAM 6, I think it was. He talked about percentages of scientists, people who're PhD's, leading scientists in their field, in terms of how the belief in, religious belief and woo belief lowers, sort of, the more prestigious you get in terms of your place in science. And yet there is still 3 to 4 percent that believe in questionable belief that there might be. And he said that's "The number you should be interested in, in looking at and studying." I'm wording this very poorly, but he said that number, that 3 percent that's the number you should be [looking] at. Why? What's going on there? And that was a very fascinating kind of thing to think of. This is an obviously rational person who is very intelligent, and yet they might have some kind of belief system that is impervious to the system of rational thinking. Why is that? It sort of addresses that same idea.

Galef:          I wanted to ask about the label "skeptic"—whether you think that helps or hurts us in trying to persuade people? I can see it potentially helping us just in that being public about labeling ourselves skeptics makes people come to us to ask us about things. And so then it seems less like, we're actually attacking someone else's viewpoint or dis-responding. But then, of course, people might think, well you know, they might be more [willing to discount] what we say because, "You know, well, he is a skeptic; of course he is going to say that." What do you think?

Hrab:          You don't get to pick your nickname. I've said this before. You know, anyone who picks their own nickname, you don't want to have anything to do with. Someone says, "Call me 'Ace'." No, I'm not going to call you 'Ace'. So we're skeptics. My personal thing is: We're skeptics. Embrace it the same way that other sections of society [were called] names [and embraced] those names; whether it was "queer" or whatever it is, you sort of say, "Yeah, that's what I am. I'm a skeptic." I think that's, we don't get to pick, just go with it. That's sort of my approach.

Galef:          Great. Okay. I think [we have time for one more…]

Hrab:          Sorry, I don't mean to [be the] last [one to say something].

Galef:          Not at all.

Grothe:          Well, on that point, I was, okay, I know you have an opinion about the term "skeptic". Well then I'll say, I don't think it was a nickname given us, but I really enjoy the word "skeptic", much more than most any other term that can describe our mind view because it is comprehensive and properly understood. I mean if you have to spend 10 minutes to explain to someone what it means, then you know, that's a downside. But "skeptic" means something, and it's a noble tradition in the history of Western intellectual thought. Skepticism means something, and you don't need to run if you're not being chased, and most people don't say skepticism means "bad"; now they do say atheism means "bad," right? I don't think skepticism is in that same category.

Randi:          [And] always specify that skeptic does not mean ["cynic"].

Mirsky:           Well that concludes the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism "panel on arguing with Non-Skeptics". Thanks to Michael Feldman of the New York City Skeptics Group for supplying the audio from the event. We'll be back next week with a look at the August issue of Scientific American. Till then get your science news at, where you can check out the slide show on optical illusions and the Ask the Experts feature on how exactly does a heat wave affect the human body? For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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