I recently had a conversation with someone about one of my favorite subjects: ghosts. I do not believe in ghosts, but I find the stories fascinating.
On the other hand, the person that I spoke with does believe in ghosts , and she thought that she could easily show me the cases that would convert me. Each case that she described could easily be explained by a basic knowledge of either sleep physiology (basically, when we are resting, our brains do some rather interesting things that, if you are not familiar with them it is easy to mistake for ghosts), or else basic psychology (a few common traits in human perception and behavior can easily be mistaken for the paranormal if you aren’t aware of them).
And it was here that a huge difference between us became apparent. She conceded that I had a point in my explanations of her cases, and she was disappointed. I, on the other hand, was excited – not because I had won the argument, but because the subject of how we perceive things and how this can backfire is really fascinating. Basically, by pushing away the ghosts and getting at what really happened, something much more interesting, complex, and wondrous – the functioning of the human brain – was revealed. She was solely interested in the fact that her pet hypothesis was gone, and seemed immune to the amazing facts about us that the perception of ghosts revealed.
And I have to wonder if this may be one of the primary things that separates “believers” and “skeptics” – she was disappointed at having these ghosts “taken away”, while I was elated at the fact that the “ghosts” gave us an understanding of something bigger than a few spook stories. She felt that something was lost when the stories were explained, while I felt that the world gained more wonder – after all, if our minds can produce these specters and spooks with such real-feeling intensity, what else can they do? It opens up a world of possibilities!
And this makes me wonder if perhaps I should look carefully at my tactics when I discuss these sorts of things. Perhaps I can give something to people when I disagree, rather than simply threatening to take their cherished belief or idea away. If, perhaps, the next time someone comes to me with a story about how ancient Israelites/Celts/Egyptians/etc. built the pyramids of Central America, I emphasize the engineering prowess and complex culture of the native people of that region rather than simply go at the absurdity of the claim of old worlders coming over to engage in a bit of monument building, I’ll make more headway and make the same point. Perhaps the same holds if, the next time someone tries to convince me of the “falseness” of evolution, I talk about the amazing things that we know about it rather than emphasize the poor reasoning behind the anti-evolution claim.
That’s not to say that the absurdities of some of these views shouldn’t be shown, but perhaps the emphasis of the discussion should be shifted by the skeptic. Contrary to being bitter and boring people with no regard for the world, people skeptical of the paranormal tend to be filled with an awe of reality. If we can emphasize that, if we emphasize the amazing beauty of reality rather than simply attacking the absurdity of the nonsensical claims, we might have more luck in winning people over.