You Won’t Like Skeptics When They’re Angry…

Temper that is. When it comes to argument we Skeptics like to keep it grounded in the scientific style in which childish name calling is excluded and ruthless logic prevails. But sometimes that’s not the case. Like any normal human being we can get angry and sometimes we let that emotional energy warp our otherwise logical argument.

Not only does emotion turn any civil disagreement into a potential minefield, it can also be the basis for logical fallacies like the appeal to emotion.

So how do we maintain control over our emotions? After all, sometimes we debate some pretty serious matters. It’s often very difficult to fully divorce ourselves from the topic as well, especially if you happen to be arguing for something you personally agree with. Making things more difficult is if your opposition chooses to use personal attacks on your character, intelligence or motives. Anyone who has been reading Skeptic North for a while knows that we’ve gotten some pretty harsh and rude responses from people who don’t agree with us.

For my post I want to talk about how I failed to keep my emotions in check for such an argument, but I also want to pose to our readers here questions about how they keep their emotions in check when in a heated debate. I’ll also do my best to offers some advice (both for myself and our readers) about how to dodge the messy bullet of letting your emotions get the better of you.

Earlier in the week I had one such moment. It all began after I, along with some close associates, finished listening to an episode of my podcast. To my immense surprise one of the people present told me that I, along with my co-hosts (and skeptics in general) were just as bad as proponents of woo (my terminology)

Shocked, I demanded an explanation. What I got was the tired old accusations that I’m pretty sure all skeptics have had lobbed at them.

Since we’re all atheists, we obviously don’t believe in anything, we have no moral foundations and lack respect for anyone or anything, I was told.

First, we (Skeptics) are not all atheists. In fact, I’m even sure if I’ve mentioned my religious views on the show in the past. Second, atheists are not nihilists. I’m not going to bother re-counting my counterpoints that I made since I know most readers here are familiar with them and that information is readily available from other sources.

To make a long story short, this person basically made the following assertions that I found particularly insulting. Why did I find them insulting? You’re probably asking, after all we skeptics should be use to having insults thrown our way by those who don’t agree with us. That’s true. But in my case this wasn’t some anonymous commenter or pseudo science hack but rather someone who I’ve known for my whole life.

To lay out this person’s objections to skepticism and my presentation of it…

We are promoting a life style that is immoral. (atheism, nihilism)
At best, our arguments are opinion and as such have no more validity as other “personal beliefs.”

We are arrogant and elitist; anyone who disagrees with us is an idiot, and we mask our own ignorance with our “college words” (direct quote.)

Finally, we have no respect for tradition or the opinions of others.

Now to say the least, I was floored. I would expect this from Jenny McCarthy or Kirk Cameron or UFOologists (and rightfully shrug it off) but coming from who it did, I lost it.
The argument essentially devolved into a shouting match and a lot of accusations were thrown back and forth. I’m not particularly proud to say that but it’s the truth. I simply got pushed over the edge.

What should I have done? What would you have done? Looking back on it I realize now that most sensible thing to do would have been to walk away. Someone that ignorant of the goals of skepticism wouldn’t be won over my arguments anyway. If you’re confronted with someone who can’t understand the difference between science and opinion, logical argument won’t change their mind and you’ll just be wasting your breath. Besides, I’ve often been of the mind that debating pseudo-science is a mistake. It gives a legitimacy that the woo side doesn’t deserve. (One of the reasons I don’t support debating Holocaust Deniers.)

If I were to sit there and debate the merits of skepticism with someone who is essentially advocating that no definitive knowledge is possible, I would be legitimizing that notion.
With regards to the criticism of how I and my friends on Radio Freethinker present skepticism, I sincerely hope we do it the proper service by doing dill diligence on the facts and presenting the information in a clear and precise way. We also try to be as fair and even handed as possible. Of course we also try to present skepticism in a fun and entertaining show that even a non expert could enjoy. Based on the feedback we’ve received, people seem to enjoy it. I welcome criticism of course but like anyone else we expect it to be presented in a polite and constructive manner, sans swearing and insults.

Of course it’s a whole other ballgame once your opponent has insulted you. What do you do when you’re insulted? One of the problems with being angry is that logical thinking generally is the first victim. You might be tempted to fire a nasty insult back. “Oh yah well you’re so stupid you believe…” Don’t do that. What I realize looking back is that I shouldn’t have said anything. Give yourself a few seconds to calm down. For me, I try to picture someone like Carl Sagan or James Randi or any logical person in a debate, would they respond with a vicious insult? I can’t picture that; instead they might take a deep breath and try to demonstrate that they won’t stoop to the level of their opponent.

What if the person you’re debating with refuses to see or acknowledge logical argument? In my case, I was trying to explain that my opponent was using circular reasoning. They responded my throwing their hands in the air and accusing me of being some university intellectual using fancy words. When someone uses logical fallacies you should call them on it. But when someone actually denies that a logical fallacy is even a bad thing…further if they try to use your own logic against you as a form of ad hominem attack, what then? As I see it, you have two options. Take a deep breath and press on. Or walk away.

Dealing with people who are so philosophically opposed to skepticism is not an easy thing. I do my best to make it clear what the difference is between me and my fellow skeptics and those who promote woo and pseudo-science. Yet despite my best efforts there are people who simply cannot, or chose not, to see things that way. Some people simply view it as “another belief system” that currently is in power, i.e. the Western Pejorative, which Kimberly wrote an excellent piece on. Others view skepticism as simply another world view as equally valid as choosing to be a Christian or choosing to believe in UFO’s or choosing to believe in a flat earth.

For those people who reject the scientific method (or really any inductive reasoning) and assert that all knowledge is completely subjective, and/or have no understanding of what makes logical arguments or how one can logically answer questions (why for example you can’t prove a negative, or why its important to have evidence that goes beyond anecdotal or circumstantial) all hope might be lost.

In the meantime, we skeptics should do what we can to avoid losing control of our emotions. What keeps us different from ideologues is our ability to not make up our minds until after we look at the evidence. If we allow ourselves to become so emotionally attached to an idea or issue we risk putting on blinders to any outside opinion.

Worse, we’ll seem like jerks.

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  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.