Skeptics as a Culture
An interesting article on the cultural differences that keep Skeptics as a community from reaching New Agers, written by someone who went through a considerable struggle to understand what skeptics were talking about.
For instance, the first time I visited the skeptical health care Web site called Quackwatch, it felt as if I were walking into enemy territory. “Quack” is a very loaded word-it’s a fighting word! Though site owner Dr. Stephen Barrett has every right to call his excellent Web site anything he likes, I wonder why it couldn't have been called, for instance, HealthWatch, HealingInfo, DocFacts, or something equally nonthreatening. Why do I have to type the word “quack” when I want a skeptical review of the choices I make in medical care? And why do I have to spend so much time translating on the skeptical sites I visit-or just skipping over words like scam, sham, quack, fraud, dupe, and fool? Why do I (the sort of person who actually needs skeptical information) have to see myself described in offensive terms and bow my head in shame before I can truly access the information available in your culture?
On the face of it this might seem like a simple issue of language, but I think there's a deeper issue of values. New-agers value kindness more than they value honesty, and skeptics the reverse. This is not to say that skeptics don't value kindness and new-agers don't value honesty, just that they'll lean in different directions when the two values seem to clash. A skeptic will err on the side of bluntness, seeing it as the best way to be kind. A new-ager will err on the side of kindness, seeing it as the best way to help eventually be honest with themselves.
I think there are often very good, even rational, reasons why people sometimes value kindness over honesty. If you had distant parents as a child, or bad experiences with doctors, or just generally don't feel you fit in, it's easy to see why you'd have a stronger psychological need for kindness than honesty. This makes you vulnerable to charlatans, but it also helps you find people who genuinely care, and all the spectrum in between.
I think it's possible for skeptics to reach people in this situation by showing kindness as well as honesty. It's why I think the Skeptics in the Pub meetings are an excellent way forward: they're unfocused, usually off-topic, and don't appear to achieve much. But they're also tolerant, joyful and accepting, and sometimes that's what people need.