Opening Words from Sun. October 15 by Mike Jones

I think I’m not alone here in my belief in “scientific skepticism”. This means not only that I think the scientific method is the best way to determine the truth, but that I care deeply what the truth is, even if it is unexpected or disappointing. As Carl Sagen put it:

“At the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes- an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, and the most ruthlessly skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new.”

In other words, doubt is good.

Some of my interests include religion, conspiracy theories, and alternative medicine. This offers me a lot of opportunity to disagree with people. Fortunately, I heard James’s platform address last year about just that: how to disagree with people. The core of his message was that in order to form our own opinions, we need to familiarize ourselves with those of others.

I often hear people say they just can’t talk to so-and-so about such-and-such. What I think they mean is that they don’t want the relationship to suffer for their differing opinions, so they prefer to avoid disagreement. Given the polarization in our society today, I’m dismayed to hear that we can’t even discuss our differences.

I think we instinctively want to win debates, but I have a suggestion: acknowledge to yourself up front that you’re not going to change someone’s mind. Just give it up. Our statement of purpose here at the Ethical Society includes treating all with dignity and respect. So listen to what they say, and ask sincere questions. Not arguments disguised as questions, but questions that you don’t know the answer to, ones that would shed some light on their position.

I listened regularly to a radio show called The Bible Answer Man, that is until he got kicked off his St. Louis station for having converted to the wrong Christian denomination. One day he had on a repeat guest to discuss how ridiculous evolution is. I disagreed. I thought of all kinds of arguments, comebacks, and trick questions. But when my call got through the next day and I was on air, I asked him instead if he thought the world was thousands of years old or billions, because they had conspicuously not mentioned this in their discussion. To my utter surprise, in a roundabout sort of way, he said he believed it was billions, which a few later callers disagreed with, as does his guest.

There are a few reasons this is better than arguing:

First, you will learn something about them. I’ve learned that some Christians don’t believe Jesus was divine, others don’t think it’s important, and many haven’t even pondered whether his mom was a virgin. My assumptions are frequently disproven.

Second, it’s more persuasive than you might realize anyway. They’ll see that you disagree, even if they don’t already know. And if they think of you as a good person who respects them, they’re more likely to at least ponder your position, later. When callers ask the Bible Answer Man how they should address sinners, he says that it’s not our job to change people’s minds; that’s the province of the Holy Spirit. Our job is to lead by example. I think there’s something to that, even if it’s not the bit about the Holy Spirit.

Third, as James said that John Stuart Mill said, you can only gain confidence in your own opinion by familiarizing yourself with the other side. It’s not sufficient to hear their arguments from their opponents.

And finally, if you’re a good skeptic, you might be persuaded.

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.