Should we just let people believe?

At the [tag]Rogues Gallery[/tag] today (the blog of the [tag]Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe[/tag]), there’s a familiar question brought up that most [tag]skeptics[/tag] usually have to think about. The question is whether there are some harmless beliefs thats its okay to just let people hold.

In their post Mike Lacelle discusses how his friend was hoping to have her baby on the full moon (due to the [tag]lunar effect[/tag]). Mike decided that he should inform his friend that despite her doctors information (her doctor told her about the lunar effect!), many studies have refuted the idea. He did wrestle as to whether or not he should discuss it though.

In the end a belief in the lunar effect (or astrology or whatever) doesn’t usually have much negative effect, other than perhaps some misspent money (although that could be justified as entertainment). Letting people believe things seems like the nicer thing to do, and will prevent the charge of being hostile or spoiling the fun (especially with friends and family).

However, as I discussed earlier there are negative effects in these beliefs when they endanger [tag]science[/tag] literacy among the public.

So in general I would advise people to bring scepticism to their friends and family, but this doesn’t require being an asshole.

As Joe Nickell so eloquently suggested: it’s better to be a sceptical humanist, and remember that people have feelings and are generally intelligent. If you aim to solve legitimate questions (like is a house haunted) using sceptical investigation rather than rash debunking, you’re likely to win more converts.

I think in the end it all comes down to catching bees with honey over vinegar, but even that statement should come with a grain of salt (sorry for the cliches).

One thought on “Should we just let people believe?”

  1. So in general I would advise people to bring scepticism to their friends and family, but this doesn’t require being an asshole.

    Heh, yes, true.

    Believing nonsense isn’t just dangerous when it’s about unvaccinated children or burning witches or something. Thinking skeptically requires practice — questioning what one’s told is a habit that people need to get into, or they won’t remember to do it when it really counts. (Sometimes it’s hard to notice right away that it’s one of those times.) When I hear friends and family members express some innocuous but unfounded belief, I make an effort to ask a skeptical question or two, but let it go if they’re really wedded to it. I think of it as planting the seed of doubt. I hope it’s working, at least occasionally.

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