Blindered to our own irrationality: notes on the human condition (and organized skepticism)

I’m what many people would call a skeptic. I try to think rationally and follow the evidence. I think it’s unlikely that God exists. Same goes for ghosts. And alien visitation of earth. And fairies. And Bigfoot. In light of this, I think we are our own best hope; and our own worst nightmare. There are saviors and there are monsters; but contrary to popular belief, all are human.

You may have heard of something called the “Skeptical Movement”. Maybe you’re a part of it. For those who don’t know, it’s a loosely bound group of people and organizations who all ostensibly fight to make the world a better place through the popularization of critical thinking and the advocacy of science as the best way to solve the big problems we face in the early decades of the 21st century.

I was a part of this phenomenon for about five years. It was a crazy time in my life; full of excitement and comradery and new experiences and unbelievable connections. As a writer for a popular blog within the subculture, I had a certain social status within the movement which was very foreign to me. I grew up an outsider; constantly struggling with the facts of my bookish and too-sincere disposition while trying so, so desperately to fit in. Being a Skepchick was the culmination of a lifetime of childhood fantasies: I had finally found a place where my nerdy ways actually made me desirable social company; where social awkwardness was paid a strange kind of lip service; where I was one of the “cool kids”.

I never got over the “too-good-to-be-true” feeling it all gave me. Two years ago, it all fell down. I had a personal falling out with several of the key social players at the blog, which was, in hindsight, stupid all the way around. I committed a clumsy social blunder, which was met with what looked to me, at the time, like junior high clique behavior. Whether or not that was an accurate interpretation of what was going on, it made me take a step back and realize that the assumptions I had made regarding what those friendships were about needed some further analysis.

This isn’t about airing dirty laundry. If I wanted to put the hurt on the people who hurt me, I would have done this two years ago, when it was fresh. I would have named names; assigned blame. I can’t say I was never tempted. But, in the end, that’s not who I am. So I held onto it, and I stepped back and did other things. I pulled back from the movement almost entirely, getting glimpses here and there when various stories bubbled up into my Facebook feed, mostly dealing with various crises within the movement.

I am writing this because I think the skeptical movement needs to hear what I have to say about what I’ve observed over the past couple of years as an outsider, and, in hindsight, what I saw going on even when I was still a part of it.

Humans are tribal creatures. There’s no escaping that fact. We are petty and short-sighted and prone to all sorts of logical fallacies. We are eternally fallible yet our egos are often too fragile to admit to anything less than perfection. We crave social validation; and social validation from a group of people who share the same interpretation of the world as we do is the ultimate fulfillment of that craving. In order to protect that very particular type of social validation, we will fiercely defend the group we belong to, and just as fiercely attack people and forces that challenge cohesion within the group.

Organized skepticism is not immune to this phenomenon. Many skeptics find themselves, as I did, feeling like they “belong” for the first time in their lives. This can be a wonderful and life-changing feeling, especially for people who have found themselves repeatedly shunned by friends and family members after admitting their true beliefs about the world. The simple act of being able to discuss disbelief openly without fear of social reprisal is a huge burden relieved. This environment can create very intense social connections, and, ironically, a sometimes dogmatic fervor about skepticism.

We cling ever tighter to our in-group mentality, and begin to distance ourselves from anyone who exhibits, say, an untoward interest in communicating with “believers” of various stripes. Just this week, Scientific Paranormal Investigator Hayley Stevens was ridiculed by fellow skeptics over her assertion that it is possible to use scientific methods to investigate paranormal claims. One of the very basic principles of scientific skepticism is the idea that we should figure out what’s true and what isn’t based on scientific investigation. Just because we’re convinced that something doesn’t exist, it doesn’t mean that the investigation should stop, especially when there are lots of people out there who still believe, and who are actively investigating various claims using less-than-rigorous methods. Stevens’ work, honestly investigating claims of the paranormal alongside believers and trying to teach them how to be more scientific, is in my opinion the cutting edge of what skeptics claim to value.

I think there is an inherent tension between the comfort and acceptance of a social group and the real work that needs to be done to meet the stated goals of the skeptical movement. How do you relate to believers on a human level when you also find comradery in ridiculing them? How do you remain self-aware, self-critical, and vigilant for internal inconsistencies in your own logic while at the same time engaging in social identity negotiation? How can you feel free to ask honest questions that challenge the very assumptions your entire social group is built on when the natural response from other group members will be to excise the dissenter? Is it worth it to point out inconsistencies and logical fallacies when your friends and fellow skeptics commit them when doing so could cost you friends and business opportunities?

I lost a lot of friendships after I fell out with Skepchick. I realize now that most of those friendships were more akin to social allegiances: they weren’t about the individuals involved. They were about our shared interest in the goal of organized skepticism, and our shared participation in a system of social ladder-climbing within the movement. It was more about networking and validation seeking than it ever was about personal growth and real relationship building. In the end, I want to know others and I want to be known. I want to challenge and be challenged. I want growth, not hollow validation of the status quo.

Skeptics pay a lot of lip service to critical thinking and the understanding and recognition of logical fallacies. But too often, they seem blinded to their own shortcomings by the very nature of humans as social creatures. They fall into the same tribal traps as the believers they claim to oppose.

The ever-roiling battle over the place of women in the movement is rife with evidence of this kind of tribal defensiveness, on both sides. Those who represent the “old guard” do not want to admit that they might have been complicit in creating an unwelcoming environment, so they minimize or outright deny women’s stories about sexual harassment within the community. Meanwhile, those fighting to create a more welcoming environment for women, exposed to a lot of threats and nonsense on the internet, close ranks and have a hard time engaging in discussion with well-meaning dissenters, because it becomes impossible to differentiate between the well-meaning dissenter and the internet troll.

Both are perfectly natural reactions. But I expect more from self-proclaimed skeptics. I expect self-critique and intellectual honesty. I expect humble and respectful discourse. I expect, at the very least, some kind of acknowledgement of human fallibility and a willingness to look in the mirror before lashing out. And yes, I expect failure. None of us is perfect, and our set of skeptical values is a difficult one to live up to. Self-criticism is difficult. It is also something that our culture discourages.

Social belonging is important. The presence of the social side of organized skepticism gives many people motivation and support to carry out projects they would not otherwise have the strength or resources to complete. I don’t deny the value in that. But it also creates an environment where people can insulate themselves from the effects of challenges to their assertions by surrounding themselves in a consensus bubble where everyone validates everyone else, as long as they stick to the party line. This is one of the primary mechanisms for the continued prevalence of religious belief.

Part of what it means to be a skeptic is to remain open, even welcoming, to new challenges. To be challenged is to be presented with information which contradicts our existing thought patterns, and to gain an opportunity to consider something we’ve taken for granted in a different light. Even if the end result is that our worldview remains intact, it has been strengthened by the process of working through the challenge.

More than a few skeptics think of religious believers as weak-minded cowards who lack the fortitude to stand on their own two feet in the face of the vast uncertainty that is existence. They see religion as a crutch. Well, I would argue that many skeptics, especially those engaged in the social aspect of the movement, treat their belonging to the group as just such a crutch.

Is it too much to ask that they recognize their own cowardice and try to move beyond it?

Facing the Animal

Author’s note: I wrote this piece a few months ago, in the wake of a tragedy that touched the edges of my life, and decided not to post it right away. Digging through my files, I stumbled across it tonight, re-read it, and decided it was time to dust it off and post it.

I think I understand the darkness and violence in humans, or at least that I am aware of it on a more conscious level than most people allow themselves to be. I remember when I was 11 or 12 years old, out deer hunting with my dad for the first time, walking behind him on a path through the birch woods and thinking, “If he wanted to, my dad could turn around, pull his rifle up from its cradle in the crook of his elbow, and shoot me dead right here and now.”

I had no reason to believe he would ever even think about doing such a thing, but once the thought occurred to me, the anxiety swelled in my brain with each step. My ape self had identified a threat, and my reasoning self was trying to convince her that while, yes, that man is carrying a weapon that can kill you, he is your father and he loves you, and he would never intentionally harm you. Ape me wasn’t quite convinced, but I kept on, placing one boot in front of the other, and again, and again onto the damp, dead-leaf carpet until we got to the tree stand.

I was an anxious child, generally, so pushing through my worries was nothing new to me. The fight between the irrational worry of the animal and the logic of the rational mind is a constant hum in my head, even today. Though, I would say I have become much more self-aware about it, and it’s now more a conversation than a fight.
I suspect my mother struggles with the same thoughts, but she has hardened herself; pushing the anxieties down with an unshakable onslaught of logic. Worries are banished and invalidated before they can even surface. She believes that she understands the world she lives in, and that God is on her side, and therefore she cannot possibly be confronted with anything that she can’t handle. But I see the terrified animal underneath it all, even if she doesn’t anymore.

Unlike my mother, I’ve let go of the religious faith of my upbringing, and have come to believe that this universe came about without purpose, and that we’ve come along by accident, left alone in the face of it all to try and make it mean something. These are things I think about often. I think about what my life means, because I don’t have a pre-packaged narrative that neatly explains it all – because I don’t think it is possible to encompass the vast, brutal, beautiful, insane scope of existence in anything that looks like a neat package…and I want my life to mean something. Desperately.

I’ve started to listen to the animal. I don’t push it down anymore. I try to feel my feelings as they happen, and to remind myself that they are valid even if they are irrational. I’m becoming more comfortable living in contradiction and uncertainty.

I still have a lot of anxiety. I seem to shift very easily into “worst case scenario” mode, often imagining just how I might be killed at any particular moment, and how I might avoid any of the myriad demises I’ve dreamed up for myself. I wasn’t even really aware I was doing it until fairly recently, and now I can trace the habit all the way back to my childhood; at six or seven, playing strange mental games with myself in which I had to avoid imaginary blades that could extend out of the arms of our living room furniture at any moment. I seriously would try to avoid sitting in a direct line off of any of the arms of the furniture. I avoided cracks and lines in the pavement, for the same reason.

Looking back on it, it sounds completely crazy. I’m sure I’m diagnosable (OCD anyone?). But that’s part of who I am and how I relate to the world, and I don’t want to pop pills to try and make it go away. And you know what? The world is fucking dangerous. People are fucking dangerous. You can’t really trust anybody, because deep down, we are all that nice, sweet, family pit bull that just snaps one day and bites a kid’s face off. ALL OF US. But we have to trust each other to survive. It’s the great contradiction of the human condition: Our heritage is as full of violence as it is cooperation.

Generally speaking, civilization keeps us tame. When we feel secure in our ability to garner resources for our individual survival and reproduction, we get along alright. But that balance is much more delicate than most people can admit to themselves. Knock out a foundational pillar of somebody’s security – one they’ve come to take for granted – and you’re liable to see decidedly “inhuman” behavior. (I use quotes because I assert that these albeit reprehensible behaviors are as essentially human as cooperation).

I’m thinking about all this today, because a guy I knew from work shot and killed his wife the other night, and then, after a standoff with police, shot himself. I knew both of them, actually. I’ve worked with them both at various jobs over the past five or six years. They were nice, normal people. They kept chickens. Somewhere along the way, things fell apart. She had left him a couple of months ago, and seemed intent on filing for divorce. The last time I talked to him, about a month ago, he was about to take a voluntary layoff to try and deal with it all. He’d started drinking a lot, and wasn’t his old, fun self.

That was the last I knew about any of it until last night at work, in the office before our shift, when my boss took on a somewhat somber tone and said, “Hey, it’s just a rumor, but did you hear about so-and-so?” At which point he did a web search and found an article confirming that it wasn’t just a rumor anymore…

I felt like I’d been socked in the gut.

I read the report, and, reading between the lines, painted a mental picture of what probably happened, but no one will ever really know. Nobody wanted to talk about it at work. I can see why. Nobody wants to think of their buddy as a monster. Nobody wants to face down the fact that, given the right set of bad circumstances, they, too, might be capable of such things.

Thing is, no matter how many different ways I think about it, I can’t think of him as a monster. All I can see is a sad, desperate man, striking out in a drunken rage at the source of his pain and the object of his need, and then realizing what he’s done and deciding to take the only tolerable way out. Even though I know it’s futile and egotistical, I can’t help wondering if I could have said something differently in one of those conversations when it was so clear he was falling apart. As the night went on, at work, I kept trying to remember what I had said, in those conversations, whether I’d asked if he was talking to anyone about it, professional or otherwise. I can’t remember if I said it out loud or just thought it.

Even though I didn’t know them very well, those confidences make me feel involved in the situation, somehow. He seemed so mystified by it all – from his point of view, she had just woken up one day and decided she was done with him and their pre-teen son. I never heard her side of the story, but I think I understand that, too. I lived with my ex-husband for ten years, and I put on a good show for him. I wanted to be happy, and I wanted my marriage to be the stuff of fairy tales, and so I tried to convince myself that everything was great. He believed it for longer than I could. It was over for me a long time before I got up the courage to leave. When I finally did, he was shocked. He had taken it for granted that I would continue to endure his moodiness and maintain his perfect little bubble world, buffered against any actual struggle or growth. My patience eventually wore out. I lost my ability to care about the minutiae of helping him keep track of his elaborately-spun web of validation-seeking exaggerations and fabrications.

I can easily picture a similar dynamic between the two of them. Even if he wasn’t the validation-obsessed, high-maintenance, always-liable-to-freak-out-about-something-tiny type of person that my ex was, people get stuck in ruts, and they take each other for granted, and they change – often beneath the surface. Women are expected to take care of those around us. It is not unusual for a woman to wake up one day and find that her entire life revolves around the care and keeping of other people. Some of us aren’t up for that challenge; especially when we don’t feel cared for ourselves. Men are expected to win bread and prestige, and to maintain a veneer of unaffected strength, no matter what life throws at them. This means the denial and dismissal of vulnerability, and feelings that often build up until they explode.

In the end, both people did wrong by the other. Obviously, murder is the more egregious action. It’s just unbelievably sad that neither party was able to look far enough past their own immediate situation to get through it intact. And that kid…I can’t stop thinking about that poor kid.

I can’t help thinking that if people were more aware of the animal inside, stuff like this wouldn’t happen. It’s like kids and guns. Kids that know about guns and understand that they are dangerous don’t generally play with them haphazardly and accidentally kill their friends.

To that end, I think we would all do well to take a good look in the mirror and stare that animal straight in the face. Give it a name. Respect it. It is part of who you are, and, try as you might, you will never be able to excise it or suppress it. But you can work with it. You can reason with it. You can harness its power for good.
But you can only do those things if you first acknowledge it.