free debate

October 13, 2011

Don't Trust Me

When was the last time you read a professional UFO website? What about a creationism or intelligent design website? If you're reading this blog, it probably means you agree with most of what we write about. If that's not true, good for you. There is nothing wrong with reading articles you agree with; in fact, you should do so. This is how we learn about the topics we are interested in. I think there is a problem, though, when that becomes all we read.

A few years ago I was having a friendly debate with a creationist who was a good friend of mine. As we got deeper and deeper into the various topics (dating rocks, mechanisms of selection, etc.) we began to hit walls at the edge of our respective knowledge. This alone is not a problem and I have found to be quite common in verbal debates. Something else I think we both realized though was the we were not really very familiar with each others arguments. That debate ended in what was the best conclusion to a debate I have ever had, we both recommended each other books. I recommended Finding Darwin's God by Kenneth Miller and he pointed me towards The Case for a Creator by Lee Strobel. Even now, I have that book on my bookshelf and am proud to own it. So, why am I proud to own a book that I disagree with more often than not?

The skeptical movement prides itself on making decisions based on evidence. We promote evidence, rationality, and I think above all, an interest in understanding reality. The beautiful thing about reality is that it's there. It doesn't matter how many people believe something or hear of an idea, reality will still be doing its thing. When basically everyone on the planet thought the Earth was the center of the Solar System, that did not make it true. If we really want to understand this wonderfully complex and confusing universe we live in, learning about ideas you disagree with will only bring you closer to that goal. Just make sure you take all new ideas with a healthy dose of skepticism. Doubt, question, and ask what ideas are supported by the evidence.

There is another advantage to understanding the "other side" that I think is equally important. If you understand the reason someone else came to their conclusions you are going to be able to have much more productive debates. No one likes debating a straw man or characterization of their position, skeptic or not. If you understand what they are saying first, you are much more likely to change minds. Also, I think a lot of skeptics would be surprised at how much they have in common with people who may hold irrational beliefs. I have found that often the difference between skeptic and believer is a tiny difference in how they understand evidence or statistics. Again understanding this can lead to a much more enjoyable discussion for both parities even if you don't walk away in perfect agreement. So I challenge you all. Go read a book, a blog, or listen to a podcast that challenges you views. Try to come away from it more enlightened than when you went in.