Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Mysterious Creature of Skeptic Woo-Wooism

Although Bigfoot has been exposed as a hoax, traces of Nessie have yet to be found, and the remains of Chupacabras always seem to turn out to be ordinary dogs, there are still some very peculiar supernatural beings out there. One of them is championed, not by woo-woos, but by skeptics. It is known as "the fence sitter" and it lurks in the shadows of intellectual impotence.

Contrary to other mystical beings, more is known about the fence sitter's behavior than its appearance. There are no rough sketches of it, no imaginative renderings. Instead, many skeptics seem to know the emotional state and thinking of this creature. It only comes out, for instance, if skeptics adopt a "nice" approach towards woo-woos. Confrontational approaches scare the fence sitter away. It is very sensitive in that respect. Incidentally, it also seems as if it is skeptics who favor the "nice" approach who have the best knowledge of the fence sitter.

There are several definitions of the fence sitter circulating. The first one describes a being who has not yet formed an opinion of either superstition or a science based world view - it is indifferent to the options available. The second has formed opinions but not chosen one or the other. A third has formed an opinion and chosen but is so open to delicate and nice arguments that the creature might swing the nice skeptic's way as long as no arrogant skeptic scares it away. There might even be more types of fence sitters; since many skeptics are keen on focusing their entire strategy on these very sensitive beings, they must be a numerous crowd indeed. They certainly outnumber the few that might be upset about the onslaught of New Age and superstition and would be attracted to someone opposing it in a confrontational and straightforward manner.

However, as in the case of other mystical creatures, a bit of skepticism is to be adviced. Why would the first type of fence sitter, if it exists, be interested at all in what and how skeptics are doing? And why would such interest be stired up by some factual arguments in the context of friendly conversation? What would catch the fence sitter's attention in such a converstation? The skeptic answer is: "Nice people are more likable." I wonder it that is valid? If I came across two people opposing racists or neo-Nazis, would I be more attracted to the one treating the racists or neo-Nazis in a respectful and friendly manner, or would I be more attracted to the one making a firm and confrontational stance against them? Oh, it isn't fair to compare woo-wooism and racism? Okay, I guess there is a difference between trying to send people back intellectually fifty years and 500 years, but not necessarily to the advantage of superstition.

So, what about the second type. It sits on the fence and swings back and forth, leaning towards one side for a moment and then the other. It knows the alternatives but can't make its mind up. Really? Are the alternatives a popsicle with strawberry flavor or one with pineapple flavor? Mustard or not on your hot dog? Boot cut jeans or loose fit? No, the alternatives are two fundamentally different ways of viewing existence. Two uncompatible philosophies, if you wish. A creature that so easily swings between those two different worlds, and is so sensitive that only influence under disguise prevents it from running away, is such a creature really worth the effort? Honestly, suppose you get the creature to chose side - it becomes the third type. Why wouldn't it just as easily swing back? If the fence sitter shares psychological traits with humans, social psychology states that attitudes easily changed are changed back with equal ease. Are such fence sitters, if they exist, really worth focusing on?

Let's go to the numbers. Skeptics don't know their actual count, but have a good enough idea to consider these cretures worthwile focusing on. So, on one side we have the woo-woo:s, then comes the fence sitter, and then - blank. There is nothing more. There are no people who shares the skeptic cause but are not yet active or organized. Or if there are, they are so scarce compared to the mystical fence sitter that paying them attention is a waste of time. In addition, such sympathizers would probably favor a more confrontational style, at least not be as sensitive to it as fence sitters. So they are of no interest to the fence sitter-believeing skeptics.

Why not? Because fence sitters are not really the goal, they are the means. Fence sitters are created and defined to legitimize a comfortable tone, an approach many skeptics find comfortable and are used to from campus debates and the lecture hall. But when they find that the public debate is very far from the academic discussion, and that the moderate "nice guy" approach is very far from rational in that context, they need something to make it appear so. And the fence sitter is born. Irrational? Of course. Devastating for the promotion of skepticism? Of course. But the important thing for many skeptics is not the advancement of skepticism, it is to feel good, and to be liked bÿ as many as possible. After all, who in their right mind would enjoy coming forth as a brute!?

So, in the case of the fence sitter, there are no skeptics asking for "extraordinary proof" of this extraordinary creature. There are no skeptics asking for verification of its existence, in fact, most take it for granted. Why? Because the creature makes them feel good. They need the fence sitter to be true. Thus, skeptics may in some cases provide a valuable insight into the core motivational factors of woo-woo.


  1. Do you think that Michael Shermer has stepped into the same cognitive trap as other skeptics regarding fence sitters?

  2. Of course. I think the notion of the "fence sitter" is highly speculative, even if Shermer shares it.