Pseudoscience Skepticism/critical thinking

I’m not just “preaching to the converted”

Every so often, I hear the complaint from some readers, usually in the context of complaining about my posting style on issues I care a lot about, such as countering the anti-vaccine movement or pseudoscientific alt-med modalities, that I’m just “preaching to the converted” and not changing any minds. While there may be some element of that, it’s not true that I don’t change minds. In the context of the subject of yesterday’s post, however, I realize that changing people’s minds is very hard, because we humans have numerous defense mechanisms to deflect such efforts.

When I hear such charges now, I think I’ll just refer the one doing the complaining to this video:

Actually, I like to think I do a lot more than just “preach to the converted.”

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

41 replies on “I’m not just “preaching to the converted””

I found this site as an avid fan of Joseph Mercola. Your information helped change my stance on him.

I wouldn’t say you’re preaching solely to the choir.

Nice video, but the whole thing is pointless. Only people who agree that videos exist are going to watch it. You’re just preaching to the…

(at this point, Ian’s brain reaches a pseudopod out and slaps Ian in his face)

Absolutely untrue that Orac is just preaching to the choir. I was a staunch anti-vaxer until I began reading this — and similar — science-based sites. The discussions here slowly helped me see that my thinking on vaccines was illogical. Thanks to Orac and other commenters here, I think my views are now more in tune with reality!

One problem though is that people who are unaware or uninterested probably won’t come across this (but would come across mass media unfortunately).

However, that still makes it worthwhile to put the info out there for people who are interested. That’s what blogs are for after all.

When my guy was dx’d with autism, I used my Google-fu to try and understand the dx. I got sucked down the rabbit hole of the Evidence of Harm group. I can’t begin to describe the anguish and guilt I felt when I thought that through my own actions to protect my guy, I had actually harmed him. This was at the time that the Vaccine Court was holding hearings on the autism/mmr link which I followed very closely. Due to the technical and medical info in the case, I spent a lot of time looking up and trying to understand the science (or lack thereof). I am EXTREMELY grateful that I stumbled upon this blog and that Orac answered some questions I had, and that others in the comments section, pointed me to information that helped me understand evidence based science.

I might be in the choir now but before joining I sure was looking at the rotten tomatos the other side was proffering.

Thank you Orac.

I think it is hilarious that so many think we all are just people who come here to stroke Orac’s ego (wow that sounds dirty).

I am a mother (originally) from Colorado (almost as wooey as California) who was an avid reader of the Huffington Post and Junkfood Science. I was always more afraid of preventable diseases than autism, though I did think there was a connection. I believed in taking all sorts of supplements, and thought they were safer than pharmaceuticals.

I came here via a link from Slate’s Medical Examiner column (or was it Human Nature?). I was first attracted by the vaccine articles because they made sense, and much of what I was being told didn’t. Other articles I read and thought “sure, that is just what he thinks”. The more and more I clicked on the links, read the comments, looked on Orac’s friends blog, and found other great Science Blogs (and skeptic blogs) I realized more and more that what I was hearing elsewhere didn’t make sense.

Long story short; Orac is not preaching to the converted, he is converting the misled.

Nice video. I enjoyed yesterday’s post as well. Although I never wholesale bought into altmed, my family members are huge followers and engage in delusional, suspicious, and paranoid thinking constantly. This blog helped me understand how this shaped my upbringing. It makes it easier to discard bad mental habits that I picked up from that time period. The sense of community is also invaluable to me, given that I also encounter all kinds of “positive thinking” mumbo jumbo at work. (Truly, if we can bend the future to our will with positive energy, why even bother putting time or effort into a project…and they don’t!)

One family member recently told me that she prefers being delusional. She uses Chopra-esque beliefs to counter uncertainty and negativity. It’s a coping technique. Personally, I find it more freeing to see the world as a result of the workings of scientific phenomena, but most seem to need to believe things happen for a purpose (and one beneficial to them! The narcissism boggles!)

I still have no answer for those who choose to cope with the world through their denialism. Choosing to believe something because it makes you happy is encouraged in our society – facts be damned. And one seems like a jerk trying to counter it.

I can’t be considered “preaching to the converted” because I never converted from anything. I have always been on the side of science-based medicine.

Argument almost never changes the mind of the person you are arguing with because it would hurt their self image to acknowledge they were wrong. It is also possible they have more knowledge than you& if so, in theory they might convert you – normally when that happens the ignorant side merely changes to ad hom attacks & censorship.

It can change the minds of unaligned observers/readers & that should be the objective.

Hey Orac,
1) Your commentary and links converted me from “undecided”, to “vaccine’s do not cause autism”.
2) I like where you picked your pseudonym from, however do you find it ironic that ORAC is also a measure of Oxygen radical absorbance capacity? As if you are sucking the wind out of the radically unhinged windbags? Or maybe they are saying Jeg skjønner ikke bære!
3 )I found out about Ben Goldacre and also Fake Science through you, well kinda on the later. Ben Goldacre’s report on the placebo effect answered some questions I had on what were medical scientists doing in regard to this amazing effect.

Keep up the good work, it may take a lifetime to make a substantial impact on people’s beliefs.

Hey – when I started reading, I didn’t really have a stance on vaccines and didn’t really know what homeopathy was. Respectful Insolence really opened my eyes and exposes me to real, good and bad scientific literature that I wouldn’t have bothered to look for myself not that long ago.
Go Orac!

Orac, you’re definitely not just “preaching to the converted.” If it weren’t for this blog, I’d probably still be ignorant on things like homeopathy, chiropractory, and other altmed quackery.

Keep up the good work!

Great article on certainty yesterday and this video reinforces my assertion that the skeptical/critical-thinking community is not just an echo chamber. I am a layperson when it comes to science, much of it is counterintuitive. The bloggers here at SB and many of the brilliant (and their not-so-brilliant counterparts) have taught me valuable lessons in how (and how not) to think clearly and critically. I had abandoned woo before I got here, but the more I learn in our community and on blogs like this, the lower the chances of me having a relapse into magic. Now, is there someone who can help me to stop thinking magically about money?

Great video, nice post. What I learned from leading a year-long community and stakeholder consultation years ago was that people don’t necessarily want their opinions to prevail, but woe betide you if you don’t or won’t listen to them express their concerns. That’s what causes opposition to coalesce and opinion to polarize. We are, after all, only human – and if we feel disrespected as individuals we’re far less open to new information – or even to old information rephrased.

Actually I am not just the converted, I take pride of place as a “groupie”. Hey, I like my bloggers to be sensible, logical, casting light on the murky waters of high feluted terminology and biological jargon. I think that it is scandelous that the medical fraternity is not confronting the practice of selling snake oil to people who are tired, distraught, over-extended and heart-sore more aggressively. So, yes, when there is someone who can make sense of the facts in a logical manner because I am sometimes overwhelmed – I am a parent after all. Then I say keep speaking – just do it more often and do it louder.

Boy – crappy punctuation and grammar there – loads of interruptions while I am writing my comments – but I am sure you all get the message. NOW IT PREVIEWS!!!

I didn’t need to come here to be converted (happily), but I sure have been able to hone my comebacks to the woo-inclined. I still despair that we are far out-numbered, but I take great comfort in knowing that we have a community that is trying. I also come here for the insolence as I see no reason to coddle quacks. I now have much better ammunition at the tip of my tongue to offer the dingbats in the “wellness” aisle at the co-op.

Have I converted anyone? Don’t know, but I hope to have made them think a bit. That alone would be progress.

Neil Craig #10 wrote:

Argument almost never changes the mind of the person you are arguing with because it would hurt their self image to acknowledge they were wrong.

A bruised ego makes it much more likely that someone won’t admit being wrong on the spot, sure — but don’t assume that people’s “self-image” isn’t rather complex. Persuasion works best when it hits on an internal contradiction in the values of the person you’re disagreeing with. They won’t care that you disagree with them, but they may care very much to find out that they disagree with themselves. A high value placed on self-autonomy, for example, may come into conflict with a high value placed on consumer protection. Are people really freely choosing to use an alternative remedy if they’ve been deliberately fed wrong information about it?

A good, persuasive debater is rather like a kung fu fighter: learn to use your opponent’s strengths against them. Show them that they’re already on your side, when it comes to the basics that count for both of you. That way, the final situation is not going to be they lose, and you win. It would be they lose — because they won.

However, I do have to say – Science Blogs needs to stop with the auto-generated ads that accompany its posts and sell some actual advertising of its own. Am I the only person who’s noticed that while attacking homeopathy and junk science, the ads on the blogs pick up only those keywords and promote them? That’s a disconnect I find quite appalling.

Ruth Seeley @20

The way I see it is that by advertising here the snake oil peddlers are wasting their money. Better they should advertise where there are fewer suckers than where there are more.

janine: If you haven’t already done so, check out Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest book Bright-Sided. It deals with many of the issues and trends you mentioned.

@ebohlman: I have, and it was the first thing that really enabled me to stop just feeling revulsion toward the positive thinking mindset and enabled me to counter it effectively. I realized I had been manipulated to feel guilty about ever becoming sick, because it meant I wasn’t being diligent enough about thinking the right way. It’s like I intellectually knew it was all wrong, but having a mother that believes it and a sister who thinks you give yourself cancer through worrying too much…you need people like Orac and Ehrenreich to put the world straight for you.

This blog has helped me become more aware of just how much quackery is out there, even in this day and age where we have such things as the FDA. For example, IIRC, Orac didn’t originate the phrase “quack Miranda warning,” but he did help make me aware of it, and I look out for it and find it even in mainstream commercials (Activia, anyone?).

I was not converted by coming here as I had my wake-up call earlier in life. When I was younger I loved science and was interested in it but I also found all sorts of paranormal things interesting as well. I read a lot about ghosts and UFOs and thought the “research” being done by ufologist and such was real science as well. My memory is fuzzy about when the change actually happened but sometime in junior high I started to realize all these things were examples of junk science, or as later heard Feynman put it, cargo cult science. They had the trappings of science without the honesty, integrity and thought that makes real science work.

I still find ghosts and ufos to be interesting topics but more from a psychological standpoint.

But I am addicted to coming here and reading the comments, getting myself a little worked up and frustrated. All that pacing must be good exercise.

Preaching to the converted or preaching to the choir. The latter’s how I’ve thought the phrase goes. And I was not converted here on the topic of vaccines and autism but have been on other topics. Certainly appreciate the posts on all topics.

As an MD in a thoroughly woo-soaked locale, I come here for the relief of remembering there’s a whole world of people who don’t take Oprah’s word for medical advice.

It’s also a good place to consider my ability to fully answer my patients’ questions, to see where I need to review the studies, and to keep on top of the antivax crew’s latest nonsense. I just can’t face AoA on a regular basis. It gives me migraines.

Totally false. I started reading up on vaccination online while pregnant. I had my suspicions and dislike a lot of people in the medical profession because of personal experience. Culturally, I’m pretty liberal and a crunchie. My own mother considered not vaccinating me. But because of sites like this that dissected the anti-vaccine propaganda critically (and much more politely), I went into my first appointments with the midwife confident that I planned to vaccinate, though I remained much less certain about, say, vitamin D and eye balm, etc.

I wasn’t commenting at that time. A LOT of women and men go through this process.

Good points Sastra #19.

I have considerable respect for the ability of people to fool themselves – for example a vatiant on what you suggest would be that people whose self image includes open mindedness (ie everybody) would object to the way the BBC, for example, hypes global warming alarmist stories, downplayed the climategate leaks & wholly censored almost everything Stephen McIntyre had discoverd in previous years. Few if any alarmists so object.

Nonetheless you are right that, in theory, such arguments should be decisive & that in practice they can often have a significant effect.

#22 and 23

Thank you for reminding me to get Barbara Ehrenrich’s new book! She has a PhD in some definitely hard science–microbiology maybe and I’m glad to see her speaking out with those credentials on a topic that has driven me bonkers while living in some very woo-friendly communities where I was literally ostracized for being too “negative”.

#32: It was a very cathartic read for me. It helped me navigate my way through a very systematic “shunning” at work led by a quantum-woo positive thinking follower at work. Anyone who can think critically poses a threat to these people. Their gurus advocate the ostracization of those not following “the path.”

Don’t forget, Janine, that anyone who actually questions these people or challenges their beliefs is considered to be “not respectful or supportive” and “causing friction in the workplace.”

It’s like how religious people can grandstand all they want, but if someone objects to it, they are the ones who are considered muckrakers.

Pablo: That’s exactly what happened. I was accused of not being a “team player.” However, in the end my “negativity” drove them out. They quit. I am still around! And I love my job which is not a small thing in this day and age. Having gone through all the same crap with my family (and having read Ehrenreich’s book) I was…ummm…”well prepared.”

How I got so lucky, I’ll never know.

[B]y advertising here the snake oil peddlers are wasting their money. Better they should advertise where there are fewer suckers than where there are more.

I do not know if this is the case for the SciBorg or not, but I’ve always understood it is (or at least used to be) the case that the payments the advertisers made was dependent on the number of clicks. Upshot is the cost of having an ad placed on the SciBorg is close-to-nil, and it hits them in the pocketbook only if you’re foolish enough to click the ad.

How much having those ads harms SciBorg is unclear. Image-wise, perhaps not much, as most of the writers and readers realise the placement is automatically-generated, albeit SciBorg has some say in what categories et al are acceptable. On the other hand, I think SciBorg also gets some additional revenue if the ads are clicked (I may be mistaken here), so presuming the ads aren’t clicked, they are losing.

And, guessing, if you’re aware many of the ads are for garbage and worse, you might tend to “tune out” all of them, hence missing ads that for whatever reason would interest you.

There are ads here? Oh – I forgot – I use FireFox and the AdAware Plus add-on. Easy to eliminate all the ads, folks.

I’ve been a rationalist and skeptic for as long as I can remember – as far back as third grade I was sent home from school several times for questioning things the teacher – a devout Christian Scientist and total nutjob – said.

But it’s remarkable how easy it is to dismiss or ignore the woo that surrounds you, especially here in SoCal. I was aware of the antivax movement in a vague sort of way, but it wasn’t until I started reading this and various other blogs that I understood how pernicious and dangerous this way of thinking had become.

Nor was I really aware of the, er, “thinking” behind homeopathy. Indeed, like when I first read up on Scientology, it took several repetitions before I was sure the explanations weren’t some kind of elaborate joke being put out by the Harvard Lampoon or something.

So: I was never in need of conversion, but I did need to be educated as to the extent of the threat posted by the woomeisters and their facilitators. Thanks Orac for providing that education.

I will add that I also very much enjoy the blogging about current medical research. I’m not a doctor myself, but my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all were, so I grew up in an environment where discussion of medicine were the norm. I used to read several medical journals just for the heck of it, but these days the necessary time for that simply isn’t there… so I really appreciate when someone like Orac takes the time blog about it.

I dunno, why is Orac a lot more polite blogging under your real name as opposed to the pseudonym? Why not use the jeering tone about all topics in all forums, including irl? Honest question. Unless you’re on fox news, it seems like most people realize that a discussion needs to be respectful (e.g. no burning stupid references) in order to change (many) minds.

Fortunately, Orac has the goods to back up the tone, unlike a lot of outspoken people, which is why I keep reading happily.

I live in a rural multi-generation home, which means I am more often than I am willing drawn into conversations with a certain senior citizen with a rather large chip on his shoulder about eggheads, book learnin’ and “so-called science” (a pet phrase of his). His son, who thankfully does not share my home, comes by now and again to add germ theory denialism and global warming conspiratorial intrigue into the frothing, zealous mix.

It’s true that I’m previously converted — I come here (and similar places) for a bit of relief. That is, to be reassured that I am not alone in the world in feeling frustrated by these kinds of proudly ignorant standpoints supported by prejudice, familiar cognitive bias and, basically, a lack of education. Sometimes I just need reminding that there are other people out there in the world who don’t view thinking as a vice.

Orac’s irreverent take-downs make my monsters into mere cardboard bogeymen.

Chester Burton Brown

Odd… I thought I had cancelled my comment@36 about on-line ad revenues, since when I did some fact-checking on what I wrote, I discovered my knowledge/memory is seriously out-of-date. ;-(
Whilst what I said is broadly Ok (or at least plausible), there apparently are, nowadays, other models. I’ve no idea what SciBorg uses, and hence decided to not submit the comment.

Yet, I now find, it was submitted. Odd. (Perhaps I clicked the wrong button?) Oh well…

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