Ridiculing Woo

Is anything worth ridiculing by rational people? Consider the set of all phenomena that we have knowledge of. Through rapid communications with other cultures via the internet forums, email, etc., this society of ideas is continually expanding, so there is an ever richening pot to sample. While we remain culturally distinct, some new supposed phenomenon that appears in our pot from the other side of the world must surely leave us, at best, questioning its veracity. Planck’s idea of quanta comes to mind. We can categorize all the ideas within our set as “impossible”, “sufficiently proven”, or “possible”.

Naturally, each of these ideas have their supporters and those who find their pet theory labeled “impossible” may strive to place it in the “possible” category or, even better, into the “sufficiently proven” category. This will be an obvious source of friction and ridicule is one of the tools used to keep the idea labeled as “impossible”. Unfortunately, this tool is often the first one chosen and wielded with a heavy hand. But is it useful? How about when faced with the Flat Earth theory or the TimeCube missives?

Organized skeptics stylize themselves as the housecleaners of the “sufficiently proven” and the “possible”, sweeping entire concepts back to the “impossible” realm. There is no organized “believer” group that sweeps the other way. I don’t know of any that work to simultaneously remove Psi, ESP, telekinesis, hauntings, bigfoot, UFOs, Atlantis, homeopathy, faith healing, communications with the dead, gravitational energy beam technology provided by aliens, hollow earth theory, flat earth, or (fill in your pet theory here) from the “impossible” ranking. Certainly, there are people who say that “all things are possible”. I have to believe that even the most ardent believer must think that some ideas are profoundly ridiculous, just like there are skeptics who are not skeptical of everything - for them, there are some phenomena that “just can’t be explained”.

Ridicule may not be the most “gentlemanly” tool, but it can be effective. It won’t silence promoters of crackpot ideas, but it will help others to see that the ideas are crackpot. Even the believer must believe that some of the notions espoused are simply, if not absolutely, crazy. Whether you say so or not is another matter. Skeptics just happen to be predisposed to saying so.

1 comment:

Skidoo said...

I can't help but be reminded of Jay Novella's comment to woo-slinger Alex Tsakiris when they interviewed him on the SGU (I might be paraphrasing): "Alex, come on. You're talking about a fucking psychic dog." Hilarious.

But I think humor really falls under the larger rubric of rhetoric. That is, rhetoric is an important tool for skeptics; nearly as important as science. And sometimes that rhetoric is humorous. Sometimes it's derisive, sometimes it's dismissive, etc.

But I also think it's important to realize that rhetoric (of whatever form) is usually of little value unless supported by reason. Jay's comment, referenced above, was funny as hell, but it also drew the ridiculousness of Tsakiris' assertions into the stark focus of reason. It was an effective sort of shorthand.