How to be a nice skeptic

Those of you who know me well know I am skeptical by nature. I know that the scientific method is the best way to understand any phenomenon, and I am very passionate about it. Ask me what my star sign is and my usual response is a scathing five minute lecture on the fallacies of astrology. As you can imagine this often puts me in a situation of conflict with those around me.

At work I am part of a culture team responsible for the training of staff. Previous training sessions have been on such subjects as time management, effective writing and public speaking. Sitting around deciding who should lead the next session, we decided that a co-worker, known to be involved in alternative medicine, would be a good choice. I’m not sure why but no alarm bells rang at this point. I was thinking of having her run a course on relaxation and stress, possibly a guided visualization. I remember doing them in drama at high school where half the class usually fell asleep. We could use something like that to tone down the stress around our office. After a chat we booked in a timeslot for her training session.

Talking with her again at lunch today I started to get very anxious. She practises what is known as “bodytalk“, and her explanation of it was frightening. As I understand it, her clients come to her with various problems which she corrects by helping the body heal itself. The idea is that problems occur because the communication within the body breaks down. Once this communication is re-established the body can begin repairs.

Sounds reasonable doesn’t it? The alarm bells were tingling, but it wasn’t until she started using terms such as “energy medicine” and “aura” that they began to chime with full strength. I’m no expert in either scientific or alternate medicine, so I won’t go into the full details; suffice it to say I wasn’t sold on the idea. I chewed my salami sandwich, terrified with the question of how to confront her.

How do you tell someone that you question the things they believe in passionately? How do you tell them that your skepticism is equally passionate?

The problem was especially pronounced as I genuinely like my co-worker. Often she is a colourful breath of fresh air around our drab office. I can usually get away with a scathing attack on astrology because not many believe in it passionately, but that was not an option in this case. She wasn’t merely a believer, she was a practitioner.

So I asked her politely if there were any scientific studies to prove or disprove the practice. She assured me there were, and that they showed real positive benefits from the therapy. I don’t doubt that positive benefits are achieved – simple movement, relaxation and the placebo effect could account for that. What I doubt is the explanation for the end result, the idea that by tapping your head and heart you can re-establish the energy flow and lines of communication in your body, thereby allowing it to heal itself. I told her as much, she explained it some more and then lunch was over.

So what do I do now? I am horrified at the idea that she will be presenting this concept as fact to the rest of the staff. And I am the one who asked her to do so! Do I go to the training session? I must, if only to learn more about it and ask the right questions.

Do I confront her ideas during the session? Do I discuss it with the rest of the staff and offer an opposing viewpoint? Or do I sit back and let them make up their own minds?

I think the right approach is not to tell the rest of the staff anything. While I could thrust my opinion at them, instead I will ask them questions about what they believe and what they base it on. In considering my questions hopefully they will learn to be more inquisitive and skeptical themselves.

After all it is the question which is at the heart of science and skepticism, and I believe it is also the correct approach to being a friendly skeptic. In the past I might have been a brow-beating skepticism evangelist, but in the future I will endeavour to be polite and respectful. Even if you ask me my what my star sign is.

Update: Here’s a follow up article written after the training session.

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2 thoughts on “How to be a nice skeptic

  1. Wow man, what a neat dovetail with my post on religion! I think you should turn up to the bodytalk session, even if just to marvel at how acting calm to feel calm has been named as a saleable science that people want to believe in. What have you got to lose? I won’t laugh at you!

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