Mental Illness Rhetoric in Skepticism, and the Problems Thereof

Most days, I consider myself a skeptic. I view a lot of the beliefs held by some people around me as holding dubious merit. I do not think, for example, that the United States personally brought down the Twin Towers as an excuse to start the war on terror. I don’t think that PGE is out to melt my brain with smart meters. I don’t think that numbers stations on the radio are signals from aliens, alerting the worthy among us to their imminent arrival.

I’m a big fan of critically and skeptically evaluating claims. What I am not a big fan of is deciding that people with ideas I think are outlandish and questionable, ideas that I do not think have a firm factual basis, must be insane. It’s true that some mental illnesses do come with a disconnect from reality along with paranoid thinking. I am not going to dispute that. But this does not mean that everyone who thinks differently than I do must, ergo, be crazy[1. Actually, since I am the crazy person, maybe everyone who thinks differently than I do is actually sane?].

Yet, I see this rhetoric used a lot in skepticism. People who believe things that other people think are ridiculous are labeled crazy, insane, loony toons. They are tin foil hatters. People use this rhetoric because they want to underscore the idea that people like conspiracy theorists should be ignored. You don’t have to engage with their ideas because they are craaaaazy. You don’t even need to bother refuting what they claim, because you can slap a label on them and be done with it.

I find this approach significantly lacking in scientific rigor. Many people who claim to be skeptics say they believe in science, the ability to measure and describe and repeat and talk about things in an organised, orderly way. They believe in the scientific method and being able to touch, smell, hear, feel things to verify their reality. This, of course, ignores a lot of the more theoretical sciences, where people actually cannot verify things, they can only make observations and suppositions and argue that they believe something is correct on the basis of available evidence.

It is interesting to note that two ideas will be viewed very differently, depending on the source. If it comes from CERN, it must be true. If it’s airing on Coast to Coast, it must not be. People do not, as a general rule, call proponents of things like string theory insane for believing what they do, they do not slap a diagnosis of mental illness on researchers handling complex theoretical concepts. And it’s not just because they are trying to be as scientifically rigorous as possible in their work. It’s because what they are saying seems ‘rational’ and ‘makes sense,’ they are trying to explain phenomena in a way people are familiar and comfortable with.

A person who says that radio waves hurt her is deemed insane and written off. Even if she can bring up scientific research to support her point. Yes, there’s more evidence against her than there is for her, but she’s not ‘irrational’ or ‘insane.’ There are lot of different ways to read scientific research, and there are lots of different lived experiences, and many things about the human body remain mysterious and unknown. It is entirely possible that some individuals are more sensitive to certain frequencies than others. We certainly see it in nature, as you can observe from surveys of the flora underneath power lines.

If skeptics genuinely believe they are right and think their ideas have validity, they should not have to attack people by labeling them insane. They should be able to break down the logic people are using, they should be able to review the studies these people are claiming to back up their points, they should be able to illustrate how and where they think these people are going wrong. And some people do this, but it often comes with a patronising air, of humouring the crazy person, and not a serious engagement with the ideas and beliefs a person has.

I am often struck by the apparently universal human need to be right, the great lengths people will go to in order to prove themselves right and another person wrong. This need lies at the root of a lot of the nastiest interactions I see; it lies at the root of the hate mail I get about Glee, for example, that it is not enough to disagree with me, but I must be shut up and proven wrong. My very existence becomes threatening. And many people seem very threatened by the existence of people with beliefs about society that radically differ from theirs. People are bothered, on a deep and visceral level, by people like conspiracy theorists.

They can’t just live and let live, and say ‘I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one.’ They must marginalise, other, hammer, and beat, until the person shuts up. It’s not enough to look at the claims someone is making and privately think ‘these appear to be significantly lacking in logic, and I don’t think the sources they are using to support their claims are very valid or useful.’ No, this is not enough. You must silence these people, you must suppress their ideas, you must be right, and they must be wrong.

People assume that exposure to things like conspiracy theories will be too much for people to handle, that they will not be able to critically evaluate them. So they say conspiracy theorists are crazy, because everyone knows not to listen to crazy people, and thus, the threatening spread of their ideas can be brought to a halt. Remind me, again, how taking the easiest way out is evidence of employing scientific rigor to skeptically deconstruct ideas?