How you can help a friend or loved one with a potentially harmful pseudoscientific belief
BY Brian Dunning via Skeptoid: Critical Analysis Podcast. Read podcast transcript below or listen here.
It’s the #1 most common question I get: My wife, my friend, my mom, my boss, is investing their health or their money in some magical or fraudulent product/scheme/belief. What can I do about it?
This is a tough situation to be in. Whether it’s a loved one who’s ill and is being taken advantage of by a charlatan selling a magical cure with no hope of treating the illness, or a friend who’s out of work and is going into deeper debt to buy into a hopeless multilevel marketing plan, it’s really hard to watch. The hardest is when they have a real problem and are expending their limited resources trying to solve it with a medieval, magic-based system that you know can’t possibly help. But all too often, they think it’s helping. Cognitive biases, anecdotal thinking, placebo effects and cognitive dissonance combine to build a powerful illusion that our brains are hardwired to believe in. At some point, it falls to a caring friend to try and rescue them with a candle of reason.
You’re up against a foe who’s far more formidable than you might think. This isn’t like settling a bet with a friend where you can look up the answer on Wikipedia, see who’s right, then buy each other a beer. You’re going after someone’s religion. You’re setting out to talk someone out of believing something that they know to be true, for a fact, from their personal experience. That right there makes your task nearly impossible, but it’s worse. Their belief has spiritual underpinnings that make it deeply moral and virtuous. Imagine if someone came to you and flashed a magazine article that said it’s best to turn your children out into the street and never talk to them again. It’s not only unconvincing, it’s laughable. Your effort to talk someone out of their belief in their sacred cow is likely to be just as laughable.
So what should you do, give up? You may be surprised to hear it from me, but I advise you to do just that, in many cases. Know which battles to fight. Weigh the risks. Consider the context of your friend’s belief: Is he in imminent danger of harming himself or others? Probably not; and if not, this may not be the time to take what might be your only shot. So I want to make this a rule: Before you decide what to do, consider the risks and the context. How terrible are the consequences of your friend’s belief? Think that through comprehensively. Make sure you have a good understanding of the risks to your friend if you do nothing, and the risks to your relationship if you attack their beliefs and (in all probability) fail to convince them. It may well be that this first strategy I’m going to present is the safest.
Strategy #1: Do Nothing
Doing nothing now doesn’t mean giving up. When you choose not to confront your friend’s current weird belief, there’s still an effective strategy for helping him out that you can follow. By accepting and tolerating your friend’s weird belief, you’re actually setting yourself up to be in a position of great influence the next time something weird comes down the line. Your friend likely knows that you’re a skeptical person, and eventually he’ll recognize that you’ve been putting up with his weird belief and saying nothing. In fact he may someday ask you, “Hey, you know I believe in this weird thing, how come Mr. Cynical Skeptic has never tried to talk me out of it?”
Ask “Is it important to you?”
“You’re important to me.”
Think what a powerful message that sends. It may sound corny, but it’s a statement that your friend will always remember. You’ve just communicated that your friendship is more important than your “evil debunking hobby”. You’ve made it clear, unequivocably, that you don’t want such differences to come between you.
And now look at the position you’re in. You’re trusted. You’re an ally at the most important and fundamental level. This is exactly where you need to be if you want to be influential on someone. You can now begin to introduce critical thinking using topics that are more about exploration than confrontation, and this is a journey you should take together. Next time you’re in the car together, play a few Skeptoid episodes. Play episodes like The Baigong Pipes, Is He Real or Is He Fictional, The Missing Cosmonauts, and When People Talk Backwards. Topics such as these do not attack or challenge anyone, they instill an appreciation and a passion for the value of critical thinking. Once introduced, I find that most people want more.
Gather every bit of skeptical material you can find that you know will interest your friend, and that does not attack or challenge his belief. So long as you remain a trustworthy friend and not an irrational adversary, you’re in a position to introduce him to the fundamentals of critical thinking, and to the value and tangible rewards of reality. Don’t underestimate the value of seeds that are well planted in a good environment. If your friend comes around on his own, his growth is far more complete than any that’s forced upon him.
Always remember the story of the little boy who couldn’t get his pet turtle to come out of his shell. He tried to pull on its head, he shook it, he squirted water, he did everything he could think of. But the turtle wouldn’t come out. Then his grandfather took the turtle and placed it on the warm hearth, and within a minute the turtle was out of his shell. The little boy never forgot that lesson.
Strategy #2: The Intervention
Sometimes the situation is urgent and you don’t have time to do things the easy way. There might be a medical crisis, an emotional crisis, or a financial crisis, and an immediate intervention is needed. Sometimes a friend’s situation is dire enough that helping him is worth the loss of the personal relationship. In these cases, and probably only in these cases, would I suggest a confrontational approach. And to do this effectively, draw on the established principals of the counseling intervention.
First you want to gather a group of friends or family, and you need to meet with them separately. Try to get a group, but even if there are only two of you, it’s worlds better than just you by yourself. Your next task is to present your evidence to the group that the magical system your friend is relying on is pseudoscientific and cannot help him. Do not expect them to accept what you say at face value, and do expect that some of them might buy into the magical system as well. Be prepared. Show your work. Print out pages from the web. Use the Science Based Medicine blog, use Skeptoid, use Quackwatch, use Swift. Search the best sources and have all your ducks in a row. The most important thing you need to do at this stage is to be certain that everyone in the group is united in their understanding of the useless, pseudoscientific nature of the magical sacred cow.
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On a related note . . .
Susan Blackmore – Fighting the Fakers (and Failing) – TAM 2013:
Susan Blackmore is a psychologist and writer researching consciousness, memes, and anomalous experiences, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth. She is the is author of a number of books, including The Meme Machine and Zen and the Art of Consciousness.