Talking to Skeptics

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I talked with a skeptic last night. He’s a friend and a reasonable guy, genuinely interested in connecting to me. It was a pleasant discussion, not an argument. Today, I want to share some things I figured out about talking to reasonable skeptics.

“I Don’t Know”

He asked about energy healing, and asked what mechanism I think it operates by.

I thought for a bit. Magickal terms weren’t what he was looking for — a discussion of ethereal software and energy signatures was the wrong entry point. He knows standard science, and he was looking for an explanation that connected energy healing to standard science.

I don’t know how to do that. So I told him, “I don’t know how it operates. This is too immature of a field to have the kinds of answers you’d expect from physics, medicine, or even psychology.”

I felt a bit sheepish admitting that. But it turned out to be just right. It surprised him, got him to pay attention. He didn’t poke holes in ideas about how it might work in the way that someone would attack a false “expert” explaining “the ways of the universe.” It was a really pleasant conversation.

How Many Joules?

With skeptics, call it chi rather than energy. He said that, whenever someone talks about energy, he wants to ask how many joules it has.

Discuss Proprioception

He asked about visualizations and tai chi, and we did an exercise that creates tingly feelings. The tingles were clearly proprioception and suggestion, not magickal energy.

I explained that people use the term chi to refer to a lot of different phenomenon, including proprioception, hypnotic suggestion, and also this other phenomenon that I’m interested in. Point being, just because someone else mistook proprioception for chi doesn’t mean we’re all making that mistake.

Keep in mind, your skeptic has probably run into energy healers making all sorts of inaccurate claims. Accepting this gives you credibility.

Don’t Try to Convince

At one point, my skeptic pressed me about ethereal structures. He pointed out that it’s very unlikely that there’s another form of matter that interacts with cells but not other materials. And he’s correct, it is unlikely. My reply: “These ideas originate with the things I’ve experienced. It’s not that I think it’s super likely that another form of matter exists. It’s just my best attempt to explain how these things might work.”

Another time, I explained that this needs to start as its own field, and mature a good deal before we can connect it to other fields like physics or medicine. This is a perfectly reasonable stance, takes the pressure off you to have all the answers.

At one point, I even said, “If I hadn’t had these personal experiences, I wouldn’t be studying this either.”

If you don’t try to convince them, they won’t feel such a need to convince you, either.

Skeptics Are Often Right

Many things called energy healing really are just suggestion. Many claims made by energy workers really are false. Some of these things really are unlikely. When skeptics say that, they’re correct. So agree with them. You’ll come off as reasonable and intelligent, and they’ll be more open to the ideas you actually do care about.

Got your own experiences and tips? Leave a comment.

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5 Responses to “Talking to Skeptics”

  1. Simon says:

    The first thing i’ve learned is to distinguish between a genuine skeptic and a debunk-er. I think a ‘reasonable skeptic’ is something of misnomer and demonstrates the extent to which the word has been bastardized by groups of people currently calling themselves ‘skeptics’ who are no such thing.

    At some point the dictionary definition of skeptic got stuck in my head its:

    “a person who questions the validity, authenticity, or truth of something purporting to be factual,”

    It got stuck in my head because it described my default attitude. The only reason i’m less skeptical of something like energy healing now is because, having questioned it I found a stack of supporting research and evidence, a literal mountain of anecdotal reports and repeated personal experiences that cannot be explained purely by placebo or proprioception (though the dismissive attitude towards placebo by some always irritates me greatly…we’ve barely scratched the surface this entire field of mind-body medicine, but I digress) Notice I say LESS skeptical- there are still plenty of questions and I wouldn’t have a problem talking to a skeptic – because I am one. So, I believe are you Mike. So was your friend – he just didn’t know as much so had more questions.

    To the skeptic who questions ‘energy’ i’m not sure calling it ‘chi’ will always make things any better. Neither will the words prana or nous or pneuma. I’m beginning to think the best thing to do currently is to relate it to the evidence in Bio-magnetism and standard electro-magentism. This doesn’t cover the full scope of energy medicine or do away with the need for models of ‘ethereal structures’ and signatures etc. But I’m leaning towards it being the best entry point.

    The two books which do a good job of summarizing this bio-magnetism model are ‘Energy medicine: the scientific basis’ by James L. Oschman and ‘the body electric’ by Dr Robert O Becker. At least it would be good for both parties to have some understanding of the bio-magnetism model – what it can explain and what it can’t before we move to new and undiscovered forms of ‘matter’. If you’re not aware of this body of research Mike i’d be interested to discuss how it relates to your model at some point.

    Oh and you should also make any ‘reasonable skeptic’ aware of the fact that debunkers regularly re-edit wikipedia entries on anything related to psi and energy practices to discredit the field – emphasizing critical papers and ignoring or mis-representing positive evidence. Somewhat silly- but it also can have an effect on the uninformed ‘reasonable skeptic’ if they happen to come across it.

  2. Yvonne says:

    To the skeptic who questions ‘energy’ i’m not sure calling it ‘chi’ will always make things any better. Neither will the words prana or nous or pneuma. I’m beginning to think the best thing to do currently is to relate it to the evidence in Bio-magnetism and standard electro-magentism.

    Yeah! I really have to underscore this perspective. Using terms adopted from other explanatory frameworks runs the risk of mistranslation, and it reeks of a kind of cultural imperialism that leads to the errors that you speak of. “What do those Chinese people mean when they use the word qi anyway? Well, I don’t speak Chinese or understand but I can make some shit up…” Better to use the “universal language” of science if you “speak” science. And fostering a (new?) scientific subfield or discipline around this stuff might not be a bad idea either…

    Hi Mike


  3. George says:

    Spot on on the “chi” thing. Those terms are fine within their cultural area, and for certain training specifics. I actually don’t think the different terms across cultures, or the scientific one, are exactly equivalent, but they at least provide a framework more familiar. The linking evidence isn’t exact.

    But a step towards, e.g. moving away from there being “another sort of matter” to something more relatable to other descriptions, for the purposes of transparency. Although I do tend towards there being something going on in ‘extended presences’ that involves some sort of ‘subtle structures’ which are active, of some form or another.

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