Kara Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

On being skeptical, politely

Note: This post was written before I realized I was trans and/or before I came out online. As such, I might refer to myself as a man or use my deadname. Please read my name policy to understand how you should refer to me.

At lunch today I was talking with a colleague. She’s cool; I really respect her attitude towards pedagogy and also like her as a person. But our conversation on the environmental dangers of cows led us to talking about lab-grown meat, which then led to a discussion of whether food grown in a lab is any better or worse for someone than food grown in a farm. And my colleague mentioned that she thought the meat from a lab would not have the same “energy” as meat from a farm.

I blinked. “Energy?” I asked, already fearing the response.

“Yes, energy! You know, how everyone has an Energy, and everyone can feel everyone else’s Energy?”

Uh-oh.

So this led us into a discussion in which I played the role of Skeptic and she played the role of Believer, where I insisted I can’t believe in “energy” and she related examples: the way you “know” someone is angry across the room; the way you “recognize” people you’ve never met before; clairvoyance; and reiki practitioners.

It’s always a little awkward when you stumble onto these points of contention with people who are more acquaintances than close friends. I am not a confrontational person by nature. I don’t like to argue, and especially not in person. Arguing online is a bit different, because I can—and do—disengage at any time. I don’t argue to “win” online, because that’s stupid and usually counter-productive—for me, online arguments with worthwhile people are discussions where I can see someone else’s point of view. But arguing online is also different, because I’m not looking at the other person, and although I might worry about offending them, unless I really know them well, I’m not too worried.

When I have discussions like this one with people who are more credulous than skeptical, I always second-guess myself later on—not my skeptical stance, mind you, but the way I conducted myself. In this particular case, I was rejecting the claim that Energy (with a capital E) in any of its forms (qi, reiki, chakras, what have you) exists as a physical phenomenon. If it did, we should be able to measure it, and no one has yet provided evidence for that. Maybe it does exist, and we can’t detect it with our current instruments—but until we find a way to reliably measure it, and reproduce results, I can’t believe in that but reject belief in, say, phlogiston. Maybe phlogiston exists too!

But there is a difference between explaining this point of view and becoming reductive and condescending. I believe in skepticism; I do not believe in scientism. I believe in measurable phenomena; I do not believe that phenomena that we cannot measure are necessarily worthless. Just because emotions are ultimately caused by chemical reactions in the brain doesn’t make those emotions invalid (I think it’s really cool our brains, products of millions of years of natural selection and mutation that they are, can pull of such a trick). If the experience of being “energy healed” makes you feel better, that’s great. That is a placebo effect, according to the studies we’ve conducted on it—but that’s great for you. It’s when you start drawing conclusions based on these anecdotes that we have issues.

My point is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I think this makes sense. If I tell you that I’m a wizard and can turn people into newts, and that a lot of my friends will swear that they were turned into newts, that’s not going to cut it. (Don’t worry—they got better.)

That being said, I’m not always sure of how to discuss these ideas with people who have a less skeptical mind-set in a way that is not confrontational. There are appropriate times for confrontation, of course (anti-vaxxers!). I’m just talking about casual conversation in your social group. I don’t think the answer is to avoid it, like one is supposed to do with politics and religion at a dinner table. There must be more mature solutions.

And there’s also the problem that science is not as clear-cut and methodical as we want to pretend. Scientists have inherent and learned biases, and sometimes that leads to bad science. The exclusion of women and other minority groups from science means that sometimes the assumptions or designs of our experiments lead to questionable conclusions, even when it seems like the data are impeachable. And the current state of the peer-review publishing industry means that not all the results make it out into the world—sometimes the most interesting negative results don’t make the cut.

Now, I don’t anticipate that improving representation in science and attempting to reduce bias is going to change the consensus on energy healing. But it’s hard for me—especially as someone who has a scientific mind but is not a formally-trained scientist—to combat pseudo-scientific perceptions and beliefs when I have mixed feelings myself about defending science as a collection of practices.

I’m not sure if that makes sense, but I thought I would put it out there. Let me know if you have any thoughts.