Are You a Skeptic? Yes? Then Stop Pretending to Read Minds


Jeremiah Traeger

In the last blog post I made, I set aside the last paragraph to specifically admonish people for pretending to know someone’s intentions. This was a significant portion of the point I wanted to make in that piece. To summarize, when people speak out against being wronged in a social justice issue such as separation of church and state, detractors characterize them as acting out because “they’re just offended” and then moving on without addressing the points they raise about being harmed. This leads to unproductive conversations and people talking past each other.


I was proud of that paragraph because I thought that it summarized my thesis quite nicely, but apparently it didn’t sink in very well. A commenter on social media purportedly liked what I had written in my post, and then went on to rant about how people who say that they’re offended are just trying to play the victim. Anyone who read my post can tell that the person didn’t address anything I wrote in my post at all, which I consider disrespectful. But another point is that they apparently could tell exactly what people were thinking.


I’d really love to know how that person learned how to do that. I’m coming off of a week of heated arguments and in-fighting among some close friends, and I’ve also seen a good handful of accusations of what the other person actually believed. “You don’t want to resolve this issue, you just want to be outraged!” “You are trying to posture to look cool to your friends!” “You’re doing this all for money!” I will admit that I even made occasional arguments along these lines. Perhaps we as humans have been embedded with psychic powers that allow us to discern the true intentions of others by pinging our extrasensory energy through the screen across thousands of miles of electronic signals, ultimately revealing that what the other person posted wasn’t really what they were saying.


Or perhaps that’s all bullshit.


Why are so many supposed skeptics telling me what I am thinking when I talk to them?  These are the people who will be quick to bring up that the James Randi Educational Foundation held a challenge for two decades that offered a million dollars to anyone who was able to demonstrate any supernatural phenomenon, and it remained unclaimed for its whole lifetime. These are people who will cite multiple refutations to quacks and Choprites who claim that psychic or mental energy has any discernible everyday effect on anything outside the human body. And yet any time they claim someone else’s motivations, they are deliberately or unintentionally invoking that they can do that. Since my audience is composed of skeptics, I don’t have to make the case that people can’t. Therefore, we should stop pretending that we can.

"You ESP bro?"

[Image: South Park “PC bros” asking, “You ESP bro?”]

Of course, it’s easy to make the cognitive leap and assume that the other person has bad reasons for their position. It’s easy to think that someone has ulterior motivations for making an argument, since obviously you are the only one who has all the rational arguments and facts on your side. Clearly, someone else is trying to look good, or is lying to gain the upper hand in an argument.


This is a common enough trope on “The Atheist Experience” that it might as well show up on TAE Bingo. Believers will call in telling the hosts what they believe, prompting the conversation to be halted so that the hosts can tell the caller their actual beliefs. In an ideal world this would leads to the caller realizing their mistake, and continuing the call in a more respectful manner. In practice, some callers will continue making the same assumption of what the other person believes even after they are corrected. One of the examples I find more entertaining is this clip which plays out between Jeff Dee and a somewhat clueless caller. The woman calling in had assumed that because Russell and Jeff are atheists, then it follows that they worship the devil. She thought this because her pastor had told her that.


Ma’am, we will tell you what we believe. We’re happy to share that with you. Stop putting words into our mouth. You have no business telling us what we believe. I don’t care if it’s your preacher that told you that. He has no business lying about what we believe.


I linked at the quoted part, but listen to the whole clip. Do it. It’s pretty entertaining.


Ironically, despite the caller making some pretty terrible assumptions in her call, this was actually one of the better examples of how this usually plays out. She realizes that she is in error, and then starts to go through other (similarly ludicrous) questions about what Jeff and Russell believe, such as aliens and the afterlife. Despite the rather silly things she wanted to ask about, at least she recognizes her need to ask and clarify instead of assume. Jeff even admits partway through the call that she’s doing the right thing by asking lots of questions. Whether or not this caller is a troll or not, it’d be a better model for conversation than the way some discussions go.


When she does make assumptions that aren’t true, though, it has the effect of stalling the conversation. Furthermore, if someone is going to insist on their assumptions, then it makes that person appear to be unwilling to change their stance. Ironically, it makes that person appear like they don’t really want to have a discussion and would rather win brownie points by “winning” the argument. Of course, I wouldn’t ever advocate going on that assumption because it’s silly. There are plenty of other coherent reasons why someone would do that. Perhaps they are unprepared, they are incompetent in vocalizing their arguments, or maybe their logic is just plain terrible. Reading into someone else’s intentions gives the same result as any of these other assumptions, which is a possibly wrong motivation that you have no evidence for assuming over any other reason.


But what if somebody’s actions betray what they are saying? Isn’t that a good reason to assume that they are actually lying about their intentions? It’s possible that they are. However, being the imperfect humans that we are, we are amazingly capable of some pretty odd things. We are capable of holding multiple contradictory thoughts in our heads (as anyone familiar with the psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance will tell you). We are also, strangely enough, capable of holding an opinion and acting on it in an incompetent manner. This has been addressed by another TAE regular, Matt Dillahunty, who dipped into this in his fantastic speech titled Hyperbole will Destroy the World. Please watch the full video when you have thirty-five spare minutes, it’s well worth your time. The relevant portion, though, is when Matt discusses reading into the intentions of Republicans who create unnecessary laws that violate the bodily autonomy of women. While Matt is a self-proclaimed feminist, he doesn’t think this is the best strategy.


This idea of reading minds is a conversation my wife and I have had a number of times, because she and some her friends when talking about the religious right when it comes to women’s issues would say things like, “The religious right just want to control sex! The religious right just want to punish women for having sex! The religious right just want to punish women for trying to control their own bodies! The religious right want to make women slaves to their biology!” Don’t say any of those!…


…When I was part of the religious right, I didn’t want to make women slaves to their biology. I didn’t want to control sex. I didn’t want to punish women. Not even loose women. I wanted to find loose women, I just couldn’t tell anybody about it. Don’t say what their intentions are unless you can demonstrate it.


Instead, say that the religious right want to institute policies that have the effect of punishing women for their biology, making them slaves to their biology, and controlling sex, because that’s what they’re doing. And you haven’t adopted a burden of proof with regard to their intentions. You say, “Their policies do these things and they don’t care about them enough to stop!” And now you’ve hammered them just as strongly as before without the added weakness of pretending to read minds.


I thoroughly agree. I was anti-choice at one point, and I would have never wanted to control a woman. However, I thought that for the sake of the fetus, it was a necessary evil. Otherwise, it was murder, and I couldn’t allow that. If someone told me that I was only interested in controlling women or people assigned female at birth, I would have been able to rightly dismiss them. I can say that, even though in retrospect I was also for abstinence-only education and against birth control of condoms. These are currently the best-evidenced strategies for reducing unwanted pregnancies, and therefore abortions. Even looking back, I honestly didn’t think it was about controlling women. A combination of religious upbringing, anti-sex attitudes, and falsehoods about reproductive health shaped my beliefs into thinking that outlawing abortion while simultaneously reducing access to things that would prevent abortions from being necessary was the best course of actions. There are plenty of anti-choicers who have similar beliefs to what I thought back then, and are now being told what they believe. Once someone is giving them false information about their own thoughts, that conversation seems far less worth their time. This is one less anti-choicer we can plant a seed in, since they have dismissed us once somebody made a claim that they couldn’t possibly demonstrate.


This situation does bring up some good things to consider, though. Sometimes we read into the intentions of others because their actions betray their words. Shouldn’t that be license to call them out? I think it should, but it shouldn’t start with leaping to accusations of lying or having true ulterior motives. What Matt has proposed in this situation is to not immediately leap to these accusations, but demonstrate the effect of someone’s actions. If someone says one thing but acts in a way that seems to imply something else, point to the harms that the effect that their actions have. If you point out that someone’s words and their actions don’t match from your perspective, you aren’t making any unfalsifiable claims. This certainly seems “in bounds” for skeptics who want to make a justifiable point.


Making unjustifiable points, though, is disappointing to see from self-described skeptics, because I actually do see it from the worst of Christian believers who want to ascribe our intent for us. Professional hipster-yelling-at-clouds Matt Walsh wrote about how liberals were so tewwible and really wanted to create some sort of authoritarian no-discrimination-ever dystopia. This was regarding Georgia’s HB 757, which among other things would protect businesses’ “sincerely held religious beliefs”*. Of all the things in his ostensibly-grown-up-but-not-really tirade that is his standard fare on The Blaze, he starts off with the following nonsense:


It may be a matter of some interest to you that the American left is now openly declaring its intention to shutdown your church and outlaw your religious expression entirely. If you’ve been paying attention, you won’t be terribly shocked by this revelation. They plan to come after the churches. That’s what they’ve always wanted, and now they intend to do it.


How many of the atheists reading this paragraph felt that this accurately portrayed what we wanted? My guess is that it’s very few. The most extreme position that holds any sway in atheist circles is that we want to treat Churches like any other 501c(3) organization, which is still tax-exempt but must demonstrate a charitable benefit to the community.


To any atheists reading that paragraph, do you feel like reading the following 27 paragraphs of that nonsense? I mean, logically, just because one paragraph is shit, it doesn’t make the rest of it shit. Still, for me, I want to allocate my time to things that are worth my time. Therefore, if I’m going to read some conservative drivel, I’m going to at least try to read something that isn’t fundamentally founded on something that only I could possibly know, something that Matt Walsh couldn’t possibly determine, and something that is completely false.


Religious people have the excuse of their omnipotent buddy who couldn’t possibly be wrong. Anyone who goes against that dude’s church has to be wrong. Anyone who goes against the teachings of that dude is wrong. And religious people feel personally justified by closing their eyes, holding their hands together, and praying, which in all likelihood will lead them to the conclusion they already came to themselves, since the almighty and all-loving god people worship coincidentally tends to have morals that coincide with what they already believe.


Skeptics, we are better than that. We know we don’t have some mystical, unfalsifiable authority that gives us license to speak on behalf of him, and we know that they don’t either. We know that ESP and psychic abilities aren’t real. We don’t have any excuses. We know that we are only accountable to each other, and it is our responsibility to keep that in check. Elevate the conversation, and stop making assumptions about the other person’s private thoughts. Not only will you appear to be an asshole who is wrong, you might actually be the asshole who is wrong.


Start the skepticism and the accountability with yourself.


*Walsh insists this is only about private religious groups in his piece, but that’s far from true. There are religious businesses involved too. For everything wrong with allowing those businesses to discriminate, look at everything that’s wrong with allowing the Ark Encounter, a private for-profit business, to discriminate.


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3 thoughts on “Are You a Skeptic? Yes? Then Stop Pretending to Read Minds

  1. […] Ellen genuinely meant no harm or malice to either Bolt or the black community. We have little evidence of bad intent, and we can’t read her mind. […]

  2. NO RELIGION REQUIRED September 6, 2016 at 12:02 PM Reply

    […] couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post on our lack of ability to actually determine the intentions that other people have. To summarize: […]

  3. […] couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post on our lack of ability to actually determine the intentions that other people have. To summarize: […]

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