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Please remain calm! Tips for staying rational during emotional discussions.

[Guest Post by theskepticalhippy]

I consider myself a skeptic.  I also consider myself a bit excitable.  These traits, however adorable, can work against each other.  Getting emotionally worked up during a discussion can completely color your point-of-view and remove you from logic.  I will, almost unexpectedly at times, attach myself firmly to a POV with very little information and often for motives that go well beyond “learning”.  My emotional charges into discussions are exhausting at times and I have learned that being involved in a discussion (and by “involved” this can simply mean observing the discussion) is much more rewarding when I leave my emotions and preconceived notions at the door.

I am not entirely to blame for my biases.  Neuroscience and psychology have shown that decision making is an emotional process.  Jonah Lehrer (Journalist with a BS in Neuroscience) presents evidence in his book “How We Decide” that in order to make effective decisions, we have to listen to our emotions.  Basically, the consequences of our choices make an emotional “imprint” by giving us constant feedback.  This creates an expectation.  When the expectation is fulfilled, we get positive feedback in the form of a dopamine release.  This is what many would call our “gut reaction”.  Despite the negative connotations gut reactions can have, these emotional reactions to events can be quite wise and learned.  Lehrer presents several examples of how a well-trained individual can readily rely on their emotional reactions to novel events.  However, it is this strong emotional  connection to decision making that can also make for bad decisions and set us up to continue making bad decisions.

No matter how highly evolved our brains are, they were shaped within an environment that made it impossible for humans to spend a good deal of time on every decision that is to be decided.  Those who could quickly decide were the ones who successfully propagated.  However, this quick-thinking can lead to a variety of bad decisions and erroneous conclusions.  We tend to bias our first experience with the subject/event/whathaveyou with more weight than subsequent experiences.[1]  We pay less attention to opinions that do not support our own.[2]  Dozens of logical fallacies have been identified (Michael LaBossiere has two books on logical fallacies, one book lists 42 and the other book lists another 30).  And, not surprisingly, the environment itself can lead a person to chose “left” when they should have chosen “right”.  All of these decisions are driven by emotion.  It can leave us stubbornly attached to a point-of-view even when presented with evidence that strongly suggests (or outright proves) our opinion to be incorrect.

Being aware of all of this can definitely help but it’s of little consolation when a conversation leaves you feeling stabby.  So, what is one to do?  Well, you can pick up the book, A Rulebook for Arguments by Anthony Weston, but that won’t help you later today when a Facebook status compels you respond provocatively.  Luckily I have some tips to keep you emotionally level and rationally sharp when conversing.  [You may notice a slight internet-centric theme.]

1.    Survey Your Environment – Are you feeling hot, cold or hungry?  Are your children screaming in your face or pulling at your hem?  Did your husband just tell you his parents are staying the week?  Before engaging in a conversation that could turn into an argument (I’m using the word ‘argument’ to mean: discourse intended to persuade), first decide if the environment is conducive to proper, logical, discussion.  If not, see if you can change your environment.  If you cannot do that, it would probably be best to refrain from the discussion until the environment improves.

2.    Allocate Appropriate Time – This is tied closely to the first tip.  Do you have the time to explain to your friend that acupuncture has, in fact, been properly studied and found to be no more effective than placebo?  If not, you may not want to invest the emotional energy into the discussion, especially if these kinds of discussions are known to raise your blood pressure.

3.    Assume The Best Of Your Audience – So, let’s say that you just put the kids to bed, have a glass a wine in your hand, a warm soft blanket on your lap and have a good two hours to dedicate to lively discourse.  To prevent strawmen from escaping from your fingertips and other such logical fallacies, one must assume the best of their audience.  I recently read a article that summoned up my thoughts on this fairly well::

“In many ways, everyone who is different from us is a bewildering, inexplicable enigma. They arbitrarily hate the things we like and like the things we hate, and behave in ways we can’t predict. That makes us hate them a little. We end up concluding that these people (members of the opposite sex, opposing political party, owners of a rival video game system) are just one-dimensional stock characters placed as obstacles or foils in the movie that is our life.
…it’s all due to the fact that we not only do not understand each other, but don’t even try.”

It reads like a bummer but it goes through and lists ways in which we can better understand each other.  For instance, not just picturing yourself in their shoes, but picturing THEM in THEIR shoes:

“Instead of learning two or three facts about people in a different situation and trying to fill in the rest by picturing ourselves if those two or three facts were true about us, you get a lot further much faster by just putting yourself away for a bit and maybe asking, or reading about, what a typical day for the other person is like.”

It boils down to assuming that those with a differing point-of-view came to their POV honestly and with at least some logic and rationality.  I believe this approach encourages the “why” and “how” questions that lead to a productive discussion.

4.    Does This Really Matter? – If you find yourself going ‘round and ‘round about whether or not Bigfoot is a mammal or some type of mammalian/reptilian hybrid, ask yourself if the truth of that particular discussion really matters to your day-to-day life.  If not, take a deep breath and reconsider furthering the discussion.

5.    Treat Differing Opinions As Learning Experiences – I find this useful in spirited exchanges.  Become observant, like Jane Goodall, just watch the behavior of those gentle apes so you can simply learn from them.  Not only can this distance yourself emotionally from the discussion (“I’m only here to observe!”) but you can take that opportunity to review your own behavior (“Am I being an asshole?”).  Pragmatically, the best way to properly engage with someone in a polarized discussion is to honestly and openly accept their views and then build from them.

6.    Don’t Assume You’re Right – Many times we enter into a discussion with some level of confidence that we are correct.  If you enter into a discussion without this assumption, you are less likely to get yourself emotionally attached to whatever opinion you happen to have.  Like tip #5, removing this assumption can leave you more ready to possibly change your mind, or at the very least, keep the discussion rational and respectful.

Discussions can be difficult but if you keep your emotions in check, even the most trying discussion can be a productive one.  I hope you find my tips useful the next time you contemplate tackling a topic that needs your rational and skeptical input.

1.  Hoeffer, S., Ariely, D., & West, P. (2005). Path Dependent Preferences: The Role of Early Experience and Biased Search in Preference Development. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 101, 215-229.

2.  “Confirmation Bias.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 29 Feb. 2012. Web. 05 Jan. 2012. <;.

The way to a skeptic’s heart

Yesterday my husband said to me, “The difference between you and the people who drive you crazy is that your beliefs about the universe are malleable.”  I’m completely serious when I say that this made my heart flutter a little.  Not only does he really get me, but he expressed it in a way that would be a huge compliment to anyone who considers herself a skeptic.

(Just a little snippet I had to share.  Normally I won’t be posting on the weekends.  It’s when I get a lot of work done around the house.  Also, well, Mass Effect isn’t going to play itself.  Regular posting will resume tomorrow!)

Quick and Easy Guide to Spotting Altmed Bunk

(Another busy day today!  I look at it as an opportunity to recycle – an oldie but a goodie.)

Immersed in the world of breastfeeding and attachment parenting as I am, I am unfortunately bombarded with loads of alternative medicine hogwash. As I dutifully (and usually futilely) research and dissect the latest advice from someone’s naturopath, or the information they got from their chiropractor, I have noticed certain signs that will cause my bullshit meter to bury the needle. What follows isn’t a detailed discussion of why altmed practices are unscientific, or how to decide if a research study is reliable, or a treatise on the philosophy of science. It’s just a quick and dirty list of features that anti-scientific quackery tends to share.

1. Most of the hits on Google are sites that promote or sell the product in question. Typical site names are,,,, and so on. Many strive to look like health information sites, but if they have only good things to say, and an easy link to purchase the product, you can bet it’s just a commercial site shilling. If you get a high proportion of hits like Webmd, Mayo Clinic, National Institutes of Health, and maybe stuff like CNN or ABC stories, it has a much greater chance of being a real thing.

2. The remedy is promoted as a solution for vague and ubiquitous maladies. Usual suspects are fatigue, insomnia, body aches, headache, mood problems, low sex drive, weight gain, nausea, and constipation. Now these can be real symptoms of real problems. But when you see a product promoted as solving a long laundry list of these issues, it’s time to raise an eyebrow. These symptoms are typically experienced by most people at least some of the time, especially in a culture plagued by poor diet, low rates of exercise, too little sleep, social isolation, and chronic stress.

Most of these symptoms are self-limiting, or can be alleviated by lifestyle change. But most people don’t relish a prescription of “eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly, and get 8 hours of sleep a night.” Lifestyle changes are difficult to initiate, harder to maintain, and are frankly a total drag. But give us a pill, a cream, or someone waving their hands over us once a week, and we perk right up – seems easy!

3. Self-diagnosis is encouraged. Whether it’s checking off the laundry list of vague symptoms, or buying a test kit you can do at home, do-it-yourself is the name of the game for quacks. And if you did get tests at the doctor’s office, they encourage re-interpretation. Doctor says your thyroid levels are fine? Well check your number against this web site’s “more accurate” scale. Doctor says your hormone levels are healthy? Take a saliva test to find out more!

4. Remedy is promoted by an actress of fading fame. E.g., Jenny McCarthy and Suzanne Somers.

5. Proponents laud how natural the remedy is, and decry the toxins in the environment and/or conventional medicines. Arsenic is as natural as it gets – it’s an element! Hemlock is a plant (make sure you get organically grown). Meanwhile insulin for diabetics is synthetic. Using “natural” as a synonym for “good” doesn’t make sense. (Also look for the keyword “allopathic” to describe conventional medicine.)

6. Relies on testimonials, anecdotal evidence, appeals to authority. Approaches that work don’t need this type of weak support, because they have strong scientific evidence – the kind that attempts to sweep away all the human foibles that can prevent us from seeing what’s really happening, and determine if an intervention has a real effect.

7. Provides citations as though they refer to peer-reviewed scientific journals, but the cited material is actually a book, presentation, or web site of an individual proponent of the remedy. It doesn’t matter how many letters are after your name – just because you say it doesn’t make it reliable. Publication in a respected journal indicates your claims have been examined and probed for mistakes and found robust. Publication on a website means you successfully Googled GoDaddy.

8. Users respond to skeptical inquiry and questioning of the evidence by saying, “I KNOW this works – it worked for me.” When the people trying to sell you on something have no clue about placebo effect, confirmation bias, coincidence, self-limiting conditions, and general methods for removing human perceptual bias, you can dismiss pretty much everything they say.

9. Praises or demonizes according to fad. Acai berries are magically delicious, but VDTs, power lines, electrical transformers, cell phones, Wifi is evil.

10. Invokes the Pentaverate. Promoters wave away criticism as the result of wide-reaching conspiracies involving doctors, pharmaceutical companies, the CDC, and other entities.

11. The remedy is said to have no possible side effects or risks. Generally if something can have an effect, it can have a side effect. If it can change your body in some way, that change might turn out badly for you. Even such benign and universally prescribed practices as exercise and high fiber diets have risks and side effects.

12. Oprah.

Skeptic, Doubt Thyself!

We tend to think of skepticism as doubt about other people’s propositions.  Someone tells you their sister’s best friend’s cousin knows twins named Lemonjello and Orangejello, and you raise one eyebrow and say you’ll believe it when you see their driver’s licenses.  A friend forwards you an adorable picture of baby pigs dressed as tigers, with a touching story about their adoptive tiger mom, and instead of saying “Awww,” and hitting Forward, you immediately go to Snopes and debunk it.  If you’re nice, you don’t use Reply to All.

But at its heart, I think skepticism is really about trying to acknowledge our own perceptual foibles, and doing what we can to filter them out.  And as I’ve mentioned before, we have to be particularly careful about believing information that agrees with our preconceptions.  It’s so easy to gloss over deficiencies that you would use to savage an opposing proposition.  But if we want to be honest and fair, we need to be as brutal with our own sources as we are with others’.

Case in point: one of my Facebook friends linked to this article, New Study Estimates Neonatal Circumcision Death Rate Higher Than Suffocation and Auto Accidents.  I’m against routine infant circumcision, so of course this caught my eye.  However, as I read the article, it seemed clearer and clearer that this “study” has little to do with science and everything to do with rhetoric. (For simplicity, I’m going to refer to it as a study in this post)

For instance, “How many children die each year as a result of circumcision in the US hasn’t been recorded or even considered important by any medical establishment.”  The first half of this statement could be true to some extent, but the second half is pure, inflammatory speculation.  This quote also highlights the fact that this study isn’t using hard data, but an estimate.  The later statement “The study also identified reasons why accurate data on these deaths are not available . . .” is really telling.

The study concluded: ‘These boys died because physicians have been either complicit or duplicitous, and because parents ignorantly said ‘Yes,’ or lacked the courage to say ‘No.'” And called the deaths “an unrecognized sacrifice of innocents.”

Whoa Nelly!  That is some heavy duty judgment!  The author clearly has a lot of anger and outrage on this subject.  And while there’s nothing wrong with being passionate, this rhetoric makes it pretty clear that the Thymos study isn’t so much a study as an opinion piece.    I can’t read the study itself, because I’m not willing to pony up $15 for it, but from the excerpts provided in the Examiner piece, I’m confident that I can’t rely on this as scientific evidence.

Now, I’m against RIC for philosophical reasons, and I don’t need evidence showing shocking rates of harm to support my position.  In my view, the burden of proof is on those proposing to perform surgery on someone who can’t consent.  But of course, if there is evidence of harm, I’d be all about alerting people to that.  However, if I’d just clicked “Share” without checking out the source, I would have disseminated information that’s obviously slanted and unscientific, not to mention as provocative and hostile as it gets.  That’s not going to help my cause.  At best, people will ignore it.  At worst, they’ll do some digging and conclude that anti-circ people are just as they thought: shrill, underhanded ideologues without evidence on their side.

If we want to be taken seriously, and not brushed off as closed-minded, we need to be very careful to examine our own claims as least as well as we examine those of others!

The Really Big, Important Question: What About Santa?

You sit on a throne of lies!

My parents didn’t try to convince me Santa was real.  We had lots of fun pretending, and I never felt deprived.  I do feel it helped cement a bond of trust with my folks – I knew I could rely on them to tell me the truth.  So I never really considered instilling Santa belief in my kids.

For the past few years, Chloe has had such a ball being in on the big secret of Santa, I can’t help but think it will contribute to her being a skeptic. Her personality is definitely oriented toward wanting to be right, in the know, and a keeper of knowledge. She adores being proven right when we disagree about something. And recently I had to pull her aside several times at a friend’s party because she kept interrupting his Grandpa’s magic show, yelling, “I know that’s just a trick,” and such.

Which brings up another point – having a child who knows Santa is pretend is an opportunity for teaching about politeness and sensitivity to others.  I didn’t outright discuss what the Santa deal was until I could be reasonably sure she wouldn’t immediately tell all her friends their cherished beliefs were balderdash.  We know that Santa’s pretend, we like to play along for fun, and we don’t trample into other people’s conversations about him with, “You know he’s not REAL, right?!”

As you can see, this is great practice for coping as a religious minority.  There’s a good chance my kids will be freethinkers, or at least unorthodox in a big way, and negotiating the social landscape of Santa belief is a great way to get them used to different people believing different things, and not butting into other people’s sensitive ideologies with ostentatious skepticism.

One other thing a-Santaism provides: many people get a feeling of being special, wise, or gifted because of their religious beliefs. I can see that Chloe feels this way about knowing the real deal about Santa, and I’m glad my daughter has a foundation for feeling these (admittedly sometimes venal) emotions as inspired by knowledge about the natural world, skepticism, and inquiry.

Always . . . no . . . never forget to check your references.

Might not have time for a proper post today, but here is a story about some very cool crowd-sourced skepticism.  A group of skeptical refugees from’s forums thought Naomi Aldort,  a Mothering “expert” sounded like a jackass.  She styled herself a psychologist with a PhD, but the advice she gave seemed awful, and more geared to pulling in new phone consultation clients than anything else.  This group of forumites wondered where on Earth she would have gotten a doctorate in psychology, and asked her about it on the Mothering forum.  From there, the story started crumbling into one ad hoc excuse after another, as the skeptics did research on Aldort’s claims.  The story is long, but really interesting – I particularly love that this was a lot of work done by women just for the sake of finding the truth, not as part of their jobs or for profit.  Skepticism and debunking as a group hobby – love it!

(Oh, and I will give a cybertrophy to the first person to ID where I got my post title.)

Mythbusting: Ferber Hasn’t Recanted Controlled Crying

Background: I actually used a spin on Ferber’s method when our kid was waking up every 90 minutes all night and we were going to die if we didn’t get some sleep. I read his book and adjusted it to what I was comfortable with (max 10 minutes of crying, and soothing her after each interval however I wanted, just so long as it didn’t actually put her to sleep in my arms; also I didn’t completely night wean – just cut it down to 1-2 times a night). I don’t think deliberately letting a baby cry, even when they’re older, is an ideal option, nor the first approach you should try if possible. But I also don’t think any kind of sleep training is automatically the fruuwits of the deveel like so many crunchies do.

And some terminology: Ferber endorses “controlled crying,” letting a baby cry for increasing intervals before comforting them, to help children sleep.  This is one of many approaches to “sleep training,” or trying to get babies to sleep for longer periods without parental help.  Any sleep training method that allows the baby to cry may be called “cry it out” or “CIO,” especially by sleep training opponents.

So anyway, I bought Ferber’s book in 2008, and he had a foreword stating that he’d reconsidered his stance on co-sleeping. In his original book he was 100% against it. In the new book he says he looked at new research and changed his mind, so he altered the book to include information on co-sleeping.  While there may be some minor changes such as noting that controlled crying might not work for some children, the rest of the book is still about sleep training and how to do controlled crying.

The newest edition of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding (La Leche League’s main publication) was published in 2010.  It has a chapter on sleep, and on page 240, the authors argue against any kind of sleep training, claiming,

At least one well-known proponent of sleep training, Dr. Richard Ferber, has publicly altered his position on “crying it out” at night in light of more recent research.

No quote or citation is provided.

At a recent breastfeeding conference, several people brought up in a session that “even Ferber has changed his mind about CIO!” I asked if they meant the co-sleeping thing, and they said no, it was about not being in favor of sleep training anymore, and when I asked for a citation, I was told to Google it and it’s easy to find. That’s kind of true – lots of result headlines like “Ferber changes mind!” but when you read them, it’s only in reference to the co-sleeping issue, and it’s all referencing the new edition of his book, the entire purpose of which is to endorse and facilitate sleep training.

I don’t really mind if someone challenges one of my parenting choices, especially if they bring up new evidence that shows what I did was a bad choice (like putting my first baby in a separate room and using a sleep positioner!). But it totally irks me when people use false information to browbeat people into agreement. Folks who quote this Ferber meme only investigate far enough to support their own preconceptions, and ignore the actual evidence. It makes them look desperate and weak. It’s particularly questionable when such rumors are repeated in a prominent book which quotes a lot of research and includes citations.  Were the authors merely negligent, or is this a purposeful attempt to mislead?  Either way it’s a shame, because the book contains a lot of useful information that is actually true.

At its core, skepticism is about holding all conclusions provisionally, and being open to changing your beliefs if there is sufficient evidence refuting them.  It’s easy to believe claims that dovetail with your personal inclinations.  That’s why it’s even more important to investigate these claims before passing them along as gospel.  Anyone can seek out confirming factoids, and even cherry-pick scientific research to support preconceived notions.  The real test is looking at the strongest evidence against your pet theory, and taking it seriously.  If your stance survives that, it’s robust and reliable.  Then it’s time to pass it along to others.  If you have to use obfuscation, avoidance, and misdirection to prop up your position, it’s time to reconsider it!