I have just read a very interesting post by Sharon A. Hill. I always enjoy reading what Sharon Hill has to say, even if I don’t always agree with her. She writes well and argues intelligently, and this article was no exception. You can find it here: http://sharonahill.com/how-can-people-be-so-stupid-a-skewed-perspective/
She was discussing the attitude of the sceptical community to the phenomenon of people who believe the earth is flat. (This has been in the news recently because of a conference of Flat Earthers.)The prevailing attitude among those who regard themselves as sceptical and rational has been a mixture of cruelty, smugness and mockery.
As she says: “One comment expressed elimination of such people from society. Yeah, really. As with the Darwin Awards discussion, there are too many people who practice some very intolerant humanism. If I was exploring the concept of skepticism and saw that this kind of sentiment was acceptable, I’d be turned off right away.”
I actually agree with her about the Darwin Awards, where people who have contributed to their own demise in stupid ways are somehow regarded as improving the human gene pool. In my opinion, it’s tasteless, juvenile and does no service to Darwinism by linking it to this kind of callousness.
However, anyone reading my blog will quickly realise that I am quite capable of cruelty, smugness and mockery. I am quite prepared to twist the knife when I think someone is promoting stupid ideas like Cassidy’s theories on the origins of American slang or the Irish Slavery Meme and I make no apology for this.
The problem I have with Sharon A. Hill’s view is that it is over-kind. Yes, there are many reasons why people believe stupid things. As Sharon Hill says: “It’s not a lack of intelligence or because they skipped out on science class, it’s far more nuanced and complex than that.” However, this can lead to a kind of rampant relativism, where evidence doesn’t matter and people have to be allowed their beliefs, regardless of how daft they are. I know that isn’t what Sharon Hill wants, but I still think it can lead to that. And isn’t there something a little patronising about NOT criticising people who are saying really idiotic things? Shouldn’t they have to take responsibility for the nonsense they are spreading? Is there anything wrong with asking someone to provide evidence for their beliefs or shut up if they can’t? Or pointing out the networks of cronyism (like all those friends of Cassidy who lied their arses off to support him) or the foul political agendas that sometimes underlie these weird belief-systems (like the White Supremacist supporters of the Irish Slavery Meme)? And if some sceptics are very smug and arrogant, they are nowhere near as smug and arrogant as some of the True Believers, who disdain any kind of rational approach but treat people who use logic and evidence as blinkered establishment stooges.
I realise that Sharon A. Hill is a kind and decent person. Perhaps I’m not. Perhaps there is something aggressive and destructive about me that drives me to adopt this tone with people I consider to be supporters of obvious rubbish. And there is one point that she makes which I think is true, that this kind of mockery and unkindness generally doesn’t help to change the minds of people who believe silly ideas. If anything, it can make them more entrenched, because admitting that they believed something stupid is admitting their own folly.
However, I think this misses the point. People who have committed to believing silly things may become more entrenched in their silliness as a result of such criticism but what about the thousands of people who haven’t made their minds up yet? While the core of supporters around Cassidy seem to be as unwilling to admit the truth as ever, the casual nonsense published about Cassidy’s ideas in newspapers every St Patrick’s Day has disappeared, he is less quoted in books and articles and his book seems to be out of print now. In other words, it may not work on True Believers, but it certainly helps to stop them recruiting more innocents to their viewpoint. And if it works to that extent, I’m all for it.