The Skeptic’s Dinner Party Arsenal
It’s the epitome of false balance. The prime voice of unverified, unjust, unquestioning, unempirical, un-sane belief. It is the bane of skeptical inquiry and critical thought. The fear of many a debater. It’s where irrational and rational collide to form a mass of chaos, cognitive dissonance and wishy words resembling belly-button fluff. The conversation is formless and structured, heated and ice-cold, confident and anxious, redundant and important, educated and baseless. In a phrase, it is conflicting and contradictory. Everyone cowers behind stone ramparts in their own hideout of prejudice and preconceived notions.
The dinner party.
Has there ever been a dinner party where somebody didn’t argue? Has there ever been a dinner party when an idea was not put across that just irked you to your skeptically-minded core? I might be latching onto a bit of confirmation bias here, but I believe dinner parties correlate heavily with heated, juicy, succulent and frustrating debate.
I should have realised this, but now being an “out of the closet” skeptic, you’ll usually get two reactions from friends and relatives.
“Does that mean you don’t believe in (insert topic here)?”
“What’s a skeptic?”
Recently, I got the latter. “What do you do?” “What do you talk about?” And already I was stumped. What the hell do I talk about? Sure, there’s a lot of stuff: Alt med? Conspiracy theories? Unicorns? What is the one defining topic in the skeptical movement?
So being my first article, I would love to give you my best foot forward and present:
Wizzie’s Arsenal: How to Arm Yourself as a Skeptic for Survival (At Dinner Parties)
DISCLAIMER: These are not weapons of skeptical induction, or conversation disruption, this is simply how to enter on your entree of green salad, butter your rolls, and finish the clean peach cheesecake at the end of the night and live to tell the tale. These weapons should be used only in self defence and should not be used in conjunction with blatant denial/cynicism/stupidity. Your ultimate aim is to take minimal casualties.
1. The elevator pitch
This would have saved me in the situation I found myself stuck in, when I had no idea how to answer. The sad thing is that I’ve had conversations with skeptics about formulating an elevator pitch but I never ended up committing any to memory. 30 seconds is all you’re going to get before a hyper-critical relative steps in, but it’s all you should need for a nice compact, informative and non-misleading pitch. But I’m sure I could write a whole post on this one. Another day perhaps. Now at this stage, hope somebody else brings up another topic, like their upcoming retirement or how Bigfoot has finally been photographed. If you strike lucky and they do move on, feel free to cower and/or cry internally. But be prepared to have to go on with the discussion, because at least one person will have an issue with the dirty, close-minded, dogmatic skeptics, right?
2. Be prepared with an explanation
I got half way through the dinner party and then suddenly realised that they had no idea what I actually did. The public perception of what a “skeptic” is has nothing to do with what’s sitting in your head at all. They really won’t have any idea. When you say “I question”, they’ll think “you deny”. You have to convey the message that denial does not equate to skepticism. If anything, make sure they leave with that at the end of the night. One particular relative brought up a point that there are some topics that had been established and you had to stop questioning them. Another time he asked whether anything that skeptics thought was positive. I, being mentally thick, only grasped onto the fact that he had far reaching misconceptions until after the conversation was almost finished. All through the evening, when I said “questioning”, he thought “denial”. That is not what we do here. We are applying critical thinking, not critical cynicism. It is a perfectly viable outcome to question a topic and then have evidence for the positive. I mean, you didn’t think that organic, marinated, hand-picked, green field-grown, almost stepped on, poop-fertilized mushroom had so much flavour, did you?
3. Don’t overuse the wineglass brandish
It is tempting to fill your explanations with extravagant, passionate gestures. No, I was not drinking, but even the non-alcoholic stuff tricks you into thinking you have the air of cognitive superiority and bravado. Don’t make yourself look like a prick.
4. If at all possible, find something you agree on
Your relations might want to pursue on the subject, as mine certainly did. I accidentally skipped onto a couple of topics I thought we agreed on. Turns out that family never really agrees. Once you get to this step, changing the subject to a topic that you do agree on becomes close to impossible, because it almost seems like family likes to argue. They will always come back to the subject where different sides collide. A good start would be to test the waters, see what their reactions are to a couple of subjects and if the coast is all clear, agree with them that you don’t believe in UFOs either, or new age energy is a myth. But there are so many sacred cows to trip on. Just be careful when reaching over towards the lemon herbed chicken, because you might have stumbled upon someone’s rare, spiced, lean beef that you didn’t see.
5. Keep calm and bring the facts
If somebody insists on a topic to talk about that clearly polarizes you against them, keep informed about what you’re talking about. Listen to them, do not fall victim to your own preconceived notions. If they make a good point, do not dismiss it unless you have good reason. But then always lay down the facts nice and calmly on the table. If the enemy flinches, do not shoot, just stand perfectly still until they lose interest or memory of what you were on about. However if they do fork a portion of their bright beetroot salad, then by all means fire. Never trust a beetroot backstabber.
6. Praise understanding
Understanding rarely happens at dinner parties, so be grateful. The tiny spokes of critical thinking you see, that everyone does have somewhere, you need to foster. Some of my relatives had very important and relevant things to say on the topic of vested interest. Even though their application of the critical thinking was faulty in the circumstances, the initial premise of pointing out vested interest was fantastic, and a victory for me. But don’t praise too much, you might divert attention to yourself and an all-too positive voice at a dinner party might make someone suspicious. It might make somebody see past your camouflage. Plus, nobody likes a suck-up.
7. Think of a backup plan
You might offend somebody, you might trip on somebody’s sacred cow, you might reinvigorate his or her need to be whiney. In any of these cases, you need a way to divert their attention. You could bring up something unrelated, perhaps. Bring up the recent publication of your short story in an anthology. Bring up achieving the latest jogging goal. Bring up your job resignation. Otherwise, smother them in love and understanding. And please, ladies and gentlemen, do not leave the night on a negative note if you can help it. Leave them smothered in “Yes dear, I respect your opinion” if you have to. Swallow your pride, swallow your facts, swallow your food (chew it first).
But we’re leaving all of the fun out here, aren’t we? Where’s the debate gone? When do you get to tackle these aura-reading, homeopathy-using, ear candle-burning friends of yours? Another post, ladies and gentlemen, for another day.
[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by dinnerseries]