In memory of Leonard Nimoy, who died today at 83 and who did live long and prosper, I would like to repost an article I wrote quite some time ago for Skepchick.com
Why I am not a Skeptic
If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, where do skeptics come from? Some would have us believe that skeptics come from the planet Vulcan, where all emotion is abandoned in the pursuit of pure logic. But I believe that skeptics are hot-blooded Earthlings with bright red hemoglobin flowing through their veins, just like the other homo sapiens sharing this planet.
When I was in first and second grade, I watched Star Trek with my father. Every week, I waited for the crew of the Enterprise to discover new worlds, meet new species, and get into futuristic bar brawls. Mr. Spock was my hero. When Star Trek was cancelled in 1969, the premier of the Partridge Family the following fall did nothing to console me. It is only now, looking back, that I see how strange it was for a seven-year old girl to like Mr. Spock better than Keith Partridge. Spock’s analysis that something was “fascinating” fascinated me much more than Keith’s smooth vocals on “I Think I Love You.” Vulcan logic was so attractive to me that I immediately knew Spock was the only sane character on Star Trek. That anyone might relate more to Kirk or Bones, with their emotional outbursts and rash decision making, seemed impossible. Mr. Spock was the smartest, and therefore the best, character on the show.
I’ve never outgrown my taste in television or men. Anyone tracking my TV watching habits would conclude that I am a 19- to 35-year-old male. If a show has aliens, space ships, laboratories, or giant insects, I will watch it. And I still think the lone voyager flying off into the night sky is sexier than any gyrating pop star.
What I have outgrown is my naive belief that logic trumps personal experience and emotions in every situation.
In academic writing, students are warned against the fallacy of appealing to emotions and learn not to rely on personal experience because, as they are often told, “anecdotal evidence is not adequate to support an argument.” This sounds like good advice, doesn’t it? Yet at virtually every professional writing conference I have gone to, and in almost every book on the craft of writing that I have read, academic writing is used as an example of bad writing. Why? Because it contains flaws in logic? No. Because it doesn’t touch the heart.
Creative writing courses teach writers to “show and not tell,” and constantly point out that “the personal is the universal.” What does this mean?
Simply put, the details of my experience, or even the experience of fictional characters, speak to readers in a way that facts and statistics never will. How much more potent is Anne Frank’s slender diary than a library full of statistics about the Holocaust? How many people watching Roots in the 1970s were shocked into facing the brutality of slavery, people who would never bother to read a nonfiction history book? While solid research and good data are needed to ground narratives in reality, nothing touches the heart like a good story. Humans are, as much as we may sometimes wish it were different, “story telling animals, in search of deep meaning behind the seemingly random events of day to day life.” (Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things.)
It’s good to be able to recognize fallacies in logic when others use them to manipulate unsuspecting audiences. And the importance of a lesson or two in critical thinking can’t be over emphasized. But to ignore the power of emotion and personal experience is to make ourselves powerless to persuade the masses. Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, explains this beautifully in a recent article in Seed magazine. “If an issue is framed in technical terms (i.e., “Do industrial emissions cause global warming?”) it doesn’t scare people as much. It’s easy to obfuscate, and hard for non-specialists to access or understand.” He continues, “But if an issue gets dramatized, personalized, humanized—well, then the public can really get roused.” Preachers, politicians, and pseudo-scientists know this very well. Scientists and skeptics have been slow to catch on.
Spock, my childhood idol, was not very understanding when it came to human emotions. His disdain for illogical humans came out when he told Dr. McCoy, “It would be interesting to impress your memory engrams on a computer, doctor. The resulting torrential flood of illogic would be most entertaining.” The seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza took a more accepting approach toward human behavior. “I have made a ceaseless effort,” Spinoza wrote, “not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.”
In the skeptic forums I have participated in, too many participants act more like Spock than Spinoza. Those who want to have a normal conversation are often assailed with comments like, “that’s anecdotal,” “that’s just a hypothesis,” and “your argument is full of holes.” While the comments may be true, the “neener neener” attitude that accompanies them is counter productive and condescending. Not everyone participating in a conversation is interested in having a formal debate. Some of us just like to shoot the shit. That doesn’t make us stupid or superstitious. I’m sure I’m not the only one who simply enjoys tossing around ideas and sharing opinions with like-minded people. I keep hearing the question “where are all the women skeptics?” and I am confident that this tendency has something to do with why women don’t hang out on skeptic boards. Outsiders looking in see many of the most vocal members of skeptic forums behaving like Vulcans. No wonder they think skeptics have green blood and pointy ears.
I doubt that most skeptics are so insensitive in their everyday lives, but every day lives are invisible. Even such famous skeptics as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins are known only through their public personas. Both come off as pompous asses in much of their writing, and yet in person they are mild mannered and, well, nice. I’m sure they’re just regular folk. As articulate and logical as they are on the page, sadly, their humanity doesn’t always come across in their words. Although I’m a big fan of both Dennett’s and Dawkins’s work, they lose a large part of their potential audience because of their focus on the mind to the exclusion of the heart. (I didn’t want to write this paragraph, because Dennett and Dawkins are both more accomplished writers than I, but they have, especially in their earlier writings, shown a tendency to bask in their own intellectual superiority.)
I hope saying this doesn’t get me fired from being the SkepLit columnist, but I don’t really consider myself a skeptic. I can’t be bothered with debunking the paranormal, it doesn’t bother me if my friends believe in the Nessie or homeopathy, and I am not interested in endless debates about science and pseudoscience.
I do, however, have a naturalistic worldview, I would like to see more people learn to think critically, and I want to help fight against irrational beliefs that lead to hate, bigotry, and human suffering.
In a webcast I watched recently, nonfiction author Ian Frazier said, “When in doubt, lead with the heart. Neither the head or the heart alone will give you everything you need.” I haven’t heard anything I agree with more in a long time. Frazier was talking about the tension created in writing nonfiction, in finding a balance between facts and story. His words apply equally to finding balance in life.
Sure, I believe that empirical evidence outweighs personal experience in deciding what is true about the universe. But I also believe in following my heart. Even Mr. Spock, after all, was half human.