It was a good interview, and Ian Rowland is an articulate and interesting speaker. Predictably I have quibbles with some of the points he made later on about skeptics. But to begin, I must say that in general I agree with him that there has been an overall lack of understanding about how to market skepticism and related topics (humanism, atheism) to the general public. On that he’s dead right. Very few do it well. (And I’m not one of them).
However on a couple of his other points: he claimed that many beliefs critiqued by skeptics cannot be overcome by rational means, because they were not accepted by rational means. So, e.g., he says it is useless to attempt to convince people rationally that ESP or homeopathy don’t work, because people accept the validity of ESP or homeopathy for non-rational reasons. Now, to be fair, he is probably right in the majority of the cases. Most people who believe such things are not amenable to rational argumentation, either because they have a psychological need to believe in such things, one that is not itself rationally based, or because their false beliefs are so widespread (e.g., lack of belief in modern science, etc.) that any evidence one were to provide would be equally misunderstood or rejected.
But he went beyond that fair claim to make the false claim that nobody is ever convinced of the worthlessness of things like ESP and homeopathy by rational means. But I myself was convinced of such things back in school, by picking up back issues of Skeptical Inquirer magazine and reading through them. I have heard of other people with similar stories, some on this very Forum. The fact is, in any controversy there will be a range of believers, from true believers on both sides (those completely not amenable to conversion) to those in the unstable middle. I submit that careful, rational outlay of evidence in magazines such as SI can and do work to convince people of the worthlessness of such things as ESP and homeopathy. Further, they work to keep a segment of the silent intelligentsia (editors, journalists, decision makers, etc.) aware of the pitfalls in critical thinking, and they also work to alert them to new forms of irrationality. It’s not a perfect system, but to claim that it never works goes beyond the evidence available to Rowland. I think the success of shows like Mythbusters demonstrate that people are interested in rational investigation, and at least some are amenable to being convinced of some things, some of the time. To say otherwise is to give up on the rational program altogether. It’s a form of cynicism.
Second, he says that most skeptics and skeptical magazines “preach to the choir”. He made it sound as though that were a very significant failing. Now, it is a failing, as I’ve said above re. marketing. However, any sociopolitical movement requires individuals and organs that, for want of a better phrase, “preach to the choir”. Would we have political parties without party leaders and party organs? Would we have social movements without some loud and articulate voices arguing the hard line? No and no. So to make it sound as though “preaching to the choir” was always and necessarily a failing is, I submit, sociopolitically naïve. Frankly, any successful social or political movement must preach to the choir, preach often and loudly. Were that the only thing being done, it would be a real problem; and I think it’s a fair criticism to say it’s being done too much. But it’s also a different criticism from the one he gave on the podcast, which is why I highlight it.
It’s really the same critique made in the atheist community about people like Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris. And the proper response to that criticism is to say that it’s partly right and partly wrong, depending on which role you see them as fulfilling. They are very effective “preachers to the choir”, which is a necessary part of any movement that hopes to change minds and influence people. They are not so effective at talking with people on the other side of the fence.