Skepticism matters, but it’s not enough. This is what happens when we stop at skeptical:
The other day in the break room, I got into a brief banter with coworkers about people who believe they can live without eating. One person brought up a guru in India who claims to have lived without food for decades.
Which lead to laughter, and one person saying, “Yeah, but it’s still funny.”
“Not for the people who believe them and die,” I said.
Silence. No one had thought of that.
Being a skeptic is a good thing: we should be skeptical enough not to get sucked in by patently ridiculous claims. But it’s not enough to merely point and laugh. When we stop there, we forget the cost. We miss the opportunity to prevent a fellow human being from losing their money, their family, their life.
Anyone who believes in that stuff is stupid, amirite? How often have we thought that? There’s a subtext of superiority, of “It can never happen to me, and fools get what they deserve.” But we can all be fooled. Give us someone who seems confident and sincere, in a situation where we don’t know enough about the subject to easily detect bullshit, and given information that, no matter how bizarre it seems, appears to be plausible, and we can easily become the fools. Do we deserve to get hurt because we were unaware? If you’re not skeptical enough about one thing, do you deserve to lose everything? Should skeptics who know the truth just point, laugh, and abandon you, or would you want them to make an effort to help you realize the truth?
It’s not enough to recognize erroneous and/or irrational ideas that are so factually incorrect as to be absurd. Sure, some dude trying to tell people he can live like a plant is funny – but stopping at a belly laugh without addressing the real harm such a person can cause does no one any good. We can point and laugh – but we should also be pointing out the harm. We shouldn’t be leaving those ideas unchallenged. We need to lift the curtain so everyone can see. We may not be able to rescue those who have already fallen too far into the bullshit, but we can prevent onlookers from stepping in it. And we can change this attitude so many seem to have, that these bizarre frauds are harmless, that we can just let them get on with being fools.
The world isn’t improved by smart people sneering at the duped. Skepticism can go beyond that. It must. And we can have a lot of fun teaching folks how not to get fooled. Everybody but the crook wins.