We had an excellent night at the Edinburgh Skepticamp 2009. The two Alexes gave presentations on statistical fallacies and paranormal investigations, respectively, whilst someone I’d never met before called Terry spoke about how best to win over the believers, and I concentrated on alternative medicine with homoeopathy being the main focus.
It was the last Q&A section that started the most vigorous debate, where we were speaking about whether it would be easier to win over a fundamentalist or a moderate believer, with all of the speakers up on stage. One man stood up and asked the question “What’s wrong with being a believer?” to which someone on stage replied that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong (depending on what you mean by ‘wrong’), as long as it doesn’t affect other things. The man agreed, but continued with the sentence “it’s wrong for religionists to force their beliefs on others, just as it’s wrong for skepticism to be forced on others”.
This struck me as rather curious because he was comparing two very different things, religion being a set of dogmatic beliefs, and science and skepticism being a method best suited to acquiring the truth. So I said so and he replied that, for example, ‘evolutionism’ was a belief that we were forcing on others. Somehow then we got into a discussion about the evidence for evolution and established that although it’s not a fact, it’s about as close to a fact as we have in science. But this man maintained that since it is not a fact it should not be forced onto others.
I struggle to see what his point was. Was he seriously suggesting that it’s just as morally wrong to teach a child about evolution, with all the evidence in favour of it, as to teach the child about creationism which has no evidence for it whatsoever? It’s obviously more wrong to ‘force’ a lie onto someone than a truth, and although we can’t possibly know for sure whether something is true, that’s not to say that all beliefs are equally valid. We can put them in order of what is more likely to be true, based on the available evidence, and we do know that some claims cannot be true based on the current evidence.
But that’s missing the larger point that skeptics don’t force their beliefs on others! Skepticism is about criticising other people’s beliefs and claims, picking them apart and saying “this is unlikely to be true because A, B, C.” We may then propose another belief that is better supported by the evidence, but skeptics would be more than happy to defend their beliefs from critical argument, if only because at the end of the process we’ll be one step closer to the truth! It’s all about the free interchange of ideas, something that skepticism and science do well, because they are always changing, and something that dogmatic belief systems like religion do very badly, since they don’t change at all.
I’m reminded of this video that PZ Myers posted on Pharyngula this week of Wendy Wright from American Women Concerned for America or something. I only watched the first part because I’m short on time right now, but that’s enough to see that she’s asking for a ridiculously high level of evidence for evolution (her version of evidence is ‘if you can’t put it in my hand, it’s not evidence’), whilst allowing her own beliefs to slip completely under the skepticism radar. Take a look, here’s the first part and I’m sure you can find the rest of them.