The Skeptical NinjaPosted: May 25, 2010
One of the things that I find most challenging about being a skeptic, is the inevitable confrontations that arise in regular social conversation with friends, family members and colleagues. Talking with colleagues about things like complementary & alternative medicine, psychics, astrology and the like is particularly difficult for me. The colleague relationship can be a difficult one, as often we spend more time with these people than with our own family without ever getting to know them very well. This makes broaching difficult or controversial topics with them all the more tricky. With friends and family, I feel we know each other well enough to know what level to pitch the discussion at, how far I can push it and which topics might be better to avoid. Whilst Mike Meraz and his most excellent Actually Speaking podcast have been wonderfully helpful in improving my communication skills in relation to skeptical issues, this is an area I still feel that I could improve upon a lot.
As with most corporate organisations, there is quite a culture at my work of forwarding on emails. You know the ones I mean, things like “coke will dissolve a tooth overnight”, toxic chemicals in consumer products and 9/11 conspiracy theories. Often people will print out these emails and pin them up on the board in the tearoom (as if spamming everyone wasn’t enough). What’s really frustrating about the circulation of these emails amongst my colleagues is that virtually everyone I work with is from some sort of science, engineering or technical background. That they blindly accept these claims, in particular those that can be so easily tested using the scientific principles that they should be very familiar with, is so disheartening. Of all the people in the world, scientists are the best equipped to critically, rationally and logically assess information but many have either lost these skills, or do not bother to put them into practice.
I do love my morning coffee, but I don’t tend to go to morning tea in the tearoom where credulous conversations about these emails undoubtedly take place. So in the meantime while I am still developing my conversational skills, I have created an alter-ego I am dubbing ‘The Skeptical Ninja’. The Skeptical Ninja pins up Snopes entries next to the emails, or other credible sources which debunk or contest the (mis)information.
I hope that this will encourage those who print and forward the emails to be a little more critical of their content. Sometimes forwarded emails are fun, or just plain silly, but there are many that perpetuate dangerous urban myths, erroneous health information and ridiculous conspiracy theories. Until I become more confident in my conversational skills, I hope that The Skeptical Ninja can do a little bit to chip away at the wall of ignorance and credulity that exists within so many people.