Sunday, 20 June 2010

SCEPTICISM: THE HUMAN ELEMENT

A blog post by Dean Burnett



In my school, we didn’t get that many people trying to encourage us to get interested in science. As a poorly funded, over-populated state-school in a largely ignored area of Wales, we were treated to regular performances by groups trying to get us into Christianity, who apparently subscribe to the same logic as army recruitment officers, worryingly enough. Many a time was the entire school made to sit for hours on the hard floor of the assembly hall while a group of jovial individuals, with expressions that always seemed just the wrong side of psychotic, performed skits, sketches and songs with the intention of convincing us that loving God and Jesus was ‘awesome’. To my knowledge they failed conclusively to leave us with anything beyond the unfortunate yet sometimes prescient association between fundamental Christians and soreness of the posterior.


I had problems with many of the things they said/did even at the tender age of 11/12. One group mimed a sketch where one man was stuck to a chair and his friend was attempting to free him. After several failed efforts, the would-be rescuer knelt down and prayed, and lo, his friend was freed from his sticky four legged prison. The moral was something like ‘in times of crisis, prayer can be of great service’ (as a solvent, apparently).


Another group tried to wow us with a flashy light-show and multi-media presentation, completely missing the irony of using the latest high-tech devices to engender support for a religion which isn’t really keen on the whole ‘progress’ thing. They tried to impress us with facts about the bible, including the pearler “if all the pages in the bible were laid out end-to-end, they would go round the world 1 and a half times!” Even as a child, I reasoned that if this were true it surely says a lot more about the printing press than it does about the bible itself? It isn’t true, by the way, unless they were referring to the deluxe version of the bible, including the books by the 23 missing apostles and printed for visually impaired Ents.


But one thing I will say for these poor deluded people is that they did at least attempt to engage with us on a personal level. Granted, these efforts usually resulted in their audience applying intense scrutiny to the ceiling or their own shoes as what was happening on the stage was so hideously patronising and cringeworthy. But it is my personal belief that this effort to engage on a personal level is something science and scepticism is missing, and attempts should be made to rectify this.


A controversial theory, perhaps, and I fully expect many to disagree with me, but I have reasons for my position. I get my cynical side from my dad, who had a very refreshing approach to scepticism. He isn’t a scientist or anything like that, he was the landlord of the pub I grew up in. One of his hobbies was tormenting the Jehovah’s witnesses who regularly came in to ‘save’ him. If they didn’t leave in tears, he considered himself a failure. And to my knowledge, he’s the only one in the local community that our alcoholic vicar actively wished death upon, apparently as a result of the night that my father dangled him off a bridge by the ankles until he admitted there was no God.


So my sceptical role-model was a bit more ‘hands on’ than most. My own experience is also worth taking into account. I’ve just completed my PhD in Neuroscience after 5 years. For a similar length of time, I’ve been a stand-up comedian, so I have a lot of experience at trying to reach people and gain their approval on a personal level. As a result, I believe the personal element could prove integral to the promotion of rationalism and scepticism.


It’s completely understandable why science tends to avoid the personal element; it’s not very rational, non-quantifiable and differs wildly between individuals. But it is infuriating to me how so many of sciences detractors are free to use the personal, emotional and (depressingly often) hysterical approach in their insane attacks, whereas the ambassadors of science and rationality, bound by the noble but self imposed code of conduct, usually listen to the hysterical diatribe and then point to the evidence and data which supports their position.


Trouble is, although it’s the only acceptable method of debate between scientists, pointing out the evidence and logic is not going to be effective on people who have already decided to disregard it. When someone passionately rants about out their insane theory regarding homeopathy or chiropractic or the healing properties of daily colonic infusions of horseradish broth (give it time), spending hours describing the precise scientific details and flaws in their arguments will be less effective than the four words ‘You are an idiot!’ (And I speak from experience). It won’t convince them of your argument, but it will diminish them and undermine their position; by addressing them in their terms, it could eventually come down to who has the most evidence for their argument. And then sceptics are landed.


Egos are both powerful and fragile things. They prevent people from accepting that, just perhaps, they DON’T have access to some wondrous healing technique that is suppressed by the man. Perhaps most pharmaceutical companies couldn’t care less about alternative medicines. Perhaps their childs disorder is the result of incredibly bad luck and nothing more sinister. Ego must be a contributing factor, as amid all the accusations of conspiracies and closed mindedness, the one accusation that is rarely levelled at those who don’t agree with pseudoscientific claims is that, perhaps, they’re too smart to do agree? Funny that.


But it’s the ego that can be the weak spot. When a heckler has a go at a comedian, it’s their ego which tells them they’re funny enough and have enough support from the audience to do so. But if the comedian responds with a cutting and humiliating comeback, it’s the damage to the ego which shuts them up. Maybe this can work with the pseudoscientists too? Witness the popularity of Tim Minchin’s ‘Storm’ video, or the smash success of Robin Inces gigs which provide celebrations of rationality and reason through the medium of humour and performance. Even my own blog posts poking fun at sciences enemies have proven alarmingly popular, despite my amateurish attempts at writing and humour. By appealing to the personal element rather than just letting data and evidence speak for itself (as it usually speaks to people in a dialect they can’t understand), or even worse, letting the media insert the personal perspective without having any clue as to whether it’s correct or not, Science and rationalism can seem far more approachable and acceptable than it does to many at present.


I’m not saying Science/Scepticism should be offensive and rude, but it’s surely fine to defend itself in the same manner in which it is defamed? And I’d actively encourage this trend in treating the critics with the same scorn that they seem so keen on dishing out. And by showing scientists and sceptics as people with lives and feelings and opinions of their own, it could dispel the negative stereotypes that abound. It’s not scientific or rational or even that logical, but people aren’t, and people are who we’re trying to educate and enlighten.


I remember once when I was at a gig, and a fellow act asked what I did for a living (correctly assuming that I was nowhere near good enough to be paid for doing comedy). I told him, and he pulled an angry face then asked if I did any animal experimentation. I told him that sometimes I do, and he angrily responded by saying;



“You’d better not do any of that round me, I’m a vegetarian”


I didn’t know where to begin with that. The implication that I carry rats around in my pocket on the off chance I’d have a spare 5 minutes in which to conduct research (e.g. waiting for a bus), the implication that I was going to eat it, or the suggestion that I would deliberately ‘do research’ around him in a vindictive manner? In the end, I settled on those four words, ‘you are an idiot!’
Then I dangled him from a bridge until he said sorry. Unlucky for him, I don’t have the upper body strength of my dad.



Dean Burnett has recently acquired a PhD in Behavioural Neuroscience. He has also been a stand-up comedian for 5 years. This bizarre combination of skills has gained him much interest and media attention, but has thus far failed to find him stable employment. As such he spends much of his time writing snarky skeptical articles for anyone who'll read them. Make sure you read his blog Science Digestive.



7 comments:

Concerned Citizen said...

Do you really have a PhD in neuroscience or anything else? From where, Cereal Box University? This was advertised via Facebook message as a "brilliant" blog post. You and whoever sent the message owe me two minutes of my life.

draust said...

Last reader obviously not a fan, then, Dean.

I enjoyed it... but then I'm also keen on Low and Childish Mockery in dealing with the more deluded anti-science / Alt.Reality types.

My favourite justification, which you may know, is A.V. Hill's famous line that:

"Laughter is the best detergent of nonsense"

Patrick said...

Concerned Citizen seems to be stalking your blog posts Dean, I'm sure I've seen their articulate reasoned responses before.

Dean Burnett, Neuroscientist said...

I'm just saddened that anyone would malign the good name of Cereal Box University. Good old CBU has a much respected tradition of providing part of a balanced breakfast.

Ashley Frieze said...

Great article, Dean.

noodlemaz said...

*snort* at the first comment there. What a numpty!
Nice post, going to link it from mine on SciencePunk's talk now.

I remember a similar school experience, though before the age of 10.
We had some sort of 'summer camp' at my primary school on our scummy council estate.
It was run by evangelists.

They also pranced around on the stage pretending to be cool (well, one of them was wearing a Sheffield Wednesday scarf and a lot of the kids laughed at him for that), strumming guitars (even electric ones!) and so on.

One song had 'the name of the lord is, a strong tower , the righteous run into it and they are saved!' - complete with silly YMCA-style actions.

I remember thinking, even when I was 8 or 9, "OK crazies, I'm just going to humour you as this is slightly better than sitting on the sofa at home".

Now it annoys me that people are allowed to attempt such indoctrination, though I'm not sure how far they got with children who often come back from holidays with a new surname, who thought my mum was my grandma and tended to have kids early themselves because little other life opportunity (or inclination) existed.

Perhaps it'd be better to have had some sort of contraception-based roleplay, but that would of course be immoral.

Frank the SciencePunk said...

You should have said this in a pub in Westminster, you could have caused a right rumpus.