4 Examples of Mind-Reading that Hurt Skepticism

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

A 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: you can’t do it. While it’s ok to call out actions that betray what someone says, we will never be able to read into what someone is actually thinking. And to do so muddies conversations and causes the disagreeing parties to take each other less seriously.

I had a few examples, but they were very broad and focused on lofty  issues. To drive the point home about how “mind-reading” stifles the conversation, I wanted to come up with some examples that come up in everyday arguments. So, last week, I kept my eyes peeled for a few examples of people trying to read into the intentions of others to illustrate the point of why they don’t bring the discussion anywhere productive, but they are often unjustified claims. And if we care about being good skeptics, we should avoid both of those.


[Image: “marvelous feats in Mind Reading”. A lithograph of a blindfolded woman trying to guess numbers drawn on a chalkboard.] Photo by the US Printing Co at Wikimedia Commons.

So, within the span of just a week, I was able to come across a few examples of this type of harm. Hopefully this drives the point home.

Science communicators are all about posturing, apparently

My first example I came across when I was listening to The Skeptics Guide to the Universe Episode 581, where they discussed an article in The Guardian by Richard P Grant. The rogues on SGU tore this one sufficiently apart and you are capable of listening to their commentary, so I won’t waste time on all the problems with this post. One section of the post, however, was problematic.

Most science communication isn’t about persuading people; it’s self-affirmation for those already on the inside. Look at us, it says, aren’t we clever? We are exclusive, we are a gang, we are family.

That’s not communication. It’s not changing minds and it’s certainly not winning hearts and minds.

I’m leading off with this example because it’s so incredibly unjustified. First and foremost is the claim that the skeptics and science communicators are apparently stroking off to their big brains. I don’t know how he gets to this conclusion.

At best, the thesis of his essay is that science communicators are doing a poor job. That’s certainly within the realm of possibility, and we must always be critical of the ways that we communicate to the public. He may have some (flawed) reasons why he thinks we are doing a poor job of getting across our message. But if that’s the case, he simply has to make the point that SciComm is doing a poor job. He has no justification jumping from “people do poorly” to “people don’t want to do well”.

If Grant had simply kept with the rest of his message, then he could have simply made a somewhat reasonable point. Instead, he made a personal attack at the skeptical community. This paints the entire movement as filled with hoity-toity know-it-alls for no reason. This is a poor faith statement, and extends no charitable contribution in the discussion towards the people he criticizes. If he wants to make SciComm better, he could do better without any unfalsifiable claims, stop the strawmanning, and engage in actual discussion.

Kapernick doesn’t actually care about inequality

I have a couple of examples for this one. Both of these address NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick sitting down for the national anthem before a football game to speak out against inequality. This upset a large portion of America, because they dismiss protests unless they’re active marches.

Oh wait, they dismiss those too? Weird.

The first person I want to bring up is pathological sayer-of-wrong-things Matt Walsh (things he calls absolute truths on his blog). He has weighed in on this statement, insisting that Colin Kaepernick is just doing it to stir up controversy a couple of weeks before he is presumably going to lose his job. According to Walsh, this is another job at posturing. It’s funny how often posturing seems to come up when we try to read others’ minds, isn’t it?

Walsh tried to give evidence that Kaepernick didn’t care, among which is that Kaepernick gets a football player’s salary and has lots of shoes. Seriously? Walsh is perfectly able to use this as evidence if he wants, but he should eat some crow when he finds out that Kaepernick is perfectly willing to use his wealth and privilege towards his cause. This is one problem with making unjustified claims that you have scant evidence to support. You look like an asshole when your narrative is disrupted.

Of course, let’s make the totally unjustified assertion that Walsh is making and assume that Kaepernick indeed realized he probably would be out of the job soon, and began his protest as a result of that. This does not automatically mean he’s going to go and play victim as soon as it happens. That remains to be seen. Until then, I’m perfectly capable of constructing my own narrative, with just as much justification. For example, Kaepernick realized that he would be out of the job soon, realized that he is losing the largest platform he would likely have, and knows that there is an inequality problem in the United States. As such, time was of the essence for him to speak out. I have no grounds to make this assertion, because I’m human and cannot read minds, but neither can Walsh. Now we’re on even grounds. Since our narratives can’t be demonstrated either way, let’s stick to the facts from now on, shall we?

Side note: while it’s incredibly unlikely Matt will ever see this, we have an atheist podcast with a pretty sizeable audience that I’d love to welcome him on. Reach out, Matt.

While I expect that right-wingers and Christians will tend to make arguments on gut instincts instead of demonstrable facts, I’m no stranger to atheists and skeptics making similarly terrible claims. I’m disappointed that skeptics will say stupid stuff not supported by the evidence, but we’re all human so I can’t say I’m surprised. One such skeptic weighed in on this Kaepernick controversy-that-shouldn’t-be-a-controversy. While I have blocked out his name, he is a somewhat well-known atheist activist who is a veteran.


We already know what’s going on in this country. Then he’ll never stand because there are always issues.

This skeptic effectively knows what Colin Kaepernick is going to do in the future. How, I don’t know. Apparently on top of being a mind-reader, he can see into the future.

What I find funny is that both of these criticisms of Kaepernick appear incompatible. This guy claims that everyone in America already knows that there are racial-based issues in America, while Walsh claims that there aren’t really any race-based problems. As such, Kaepernick is wrong to protest for two entirely different, conflicting reasons. I’d love to see these two people duke it out to say exactly why Kaepernick is wrong. Until then, perhaps the best thing to do is to rally against police murdering people.

Atheists want to donate to impoverished children… cause… they’re… evil?

Another big news story came out this week involving atheists from Muskogee, Oklahoma. This story was notable for teaching me how to spell and pronounce Muskogee, but it was also a bizarre clusterfuck of human interactions. Briefly and avoiding details, the events occurred as follows:

-Matt Wilbourn of the Muskogee Atheist Community tried to donate $100 to the Murrow Indian Children’s Home.

-Said Children’s home said, “no way, Jose” because they were atheists.

-Wilbourn set up a gofundme, raising $28,280 for the home.

-The home continued to refuse the money.

-Wilbourn offered to give it through another local church so it wouldn’t be “from atheists”.

-The Children’s home said, “Nu-uh!”

Such is the case when you set up an arbitrary moral system based around the words in an ancient tome from some guys who said the guy they are collecting money for totally exists. While the Children’s home was incredibly silent about the reasons why they refused the money from the atheists (but still begged for money after refusing multiple times), plenty of Christians tried to frame it as a power grab, tending to emphasize that Wilbourn wanted to advertise that the donation was made by atheists (these donations were for a pow-wow, which would list the donors who contributed).

This was pretty bad, but the biggest harm came from a spiteful Christian named Tracy Hoos who tried to fundraise against the atheists. While Wilbourn has since demonstrated that he doesn’t need the notoriety (as he was willing to donate via other Churches, exempting himself from recognition), the counter-gofundme doubled down on knowing what Wilbourn’s true intentions were.

A powwow is a sacred event that in my opinion was selected by this organization not out of their goodwill but to only stir the pot. I am inspired by Murrow’s faithfulness. So we are starting another go fund me page to support their powwow. If you feel led to support then please do, if not do not. Second if the other group is so inclined to donate, just cut them a check. No strings attached, no need for recognition. But that is not your intention.

Wow, Tracy Hoos. I’m so glad that you’re an expert on what they really feel.

Of course, atheists started donating to his campaign, which of course meant that Hoos had to shut that one down since it had been touched by filthy heathen dollars. So much for the kids!

The other examples I’ve provided have tended to be pretty dialogue and opinion heavy, based in political and social discourse. While there is certainly harm in preventing this open discourse and misrepresenting the other side, this example more concretely shows the harm into trying to “read into” someone else. Because a few Christians thought that atheists were only donating money to earn a few social brownie points for their side, some impoverished kids missed out on almost $30,000! That is a big fucking deal. Especially since, as noted before, The Murrow Indian Children’s Home is behind on funds this year.

What would have happened if the Christians had simply accepted the money? I can’t be certain, but the most likely thing would have been that the home would have had a hundred more dollars, the home would have printed “atheist” in their pow-wow bulletin, and nobody would have looked like an asshole. If they had refused initially, but realized later that the atheists had nothing but goodwill in their hearts, then they would have been $28k richer, at the expense of still kind of looking like jerks. But now some kids are going to probably starve. Great job.

Reading into intentions has real world consequences

I’m not saying you should take everyone at their word. I’m not saying you shouldn’t keep your guard up for possible hidden reasons that people may have. That would be anti-skepticism. I’m just saying that reading too far into what other people think, something that anyone without a spare fMRI on hand can’t come close to demonstrating, has actual harms come of it. Not only can it stifle discourse, but it has actual casualties in the culture wars.

What happens when we have made up our minds that the other side cannot possibly have an ounce of goodness in their heart? What happens when we assume a narrative for someone else, and we have decided for ourselves that everyone else is just a jerk? We should take a cue from Hanlon’s razor, which states, “don’t assume bad intentions over neglect and misunderstanding.”

For a few of these examples, I could very easily come to the conclusion that a lot of these come from ignorance, and we shouldn’t fault anyone for that unless it’s willful. For example, the religious children’s home has a Christian narrative that likely informs them that anyone who does not follow Jesus Christ cannot truly do any good, and thus they have an active interest in stopping anything that shows otherwise. To be clear, this is wrong. This is ludicrous and demonstrably wrong. But it fits within the fundamentalist Christian narrative. We must hold them accountable, but at the same time, we must avoid their pitfalls. What if we just assume that all Christians are evil charlatans trying to score points for Jesus? This makes us look like we are jumping to conclusions just as much as all the examples in this article. It makes us look like mindless zealots for our own cause. And by the time the next children’s home pops up, there will be no hope of reaching across the aisle for a good cause. And the victims will not be us, but the innocents.

If you care about discussion and putting your best foot forward, then don’t make any unjustified claims. You can’t know what someone’s thinking better than they do, so stop pretending that you’re capable of filling in the gaps. So stop doing so, and prove that you’re better than any of these examples. If more people did this, then maybe we could truly bridge the gaps, be constructive, and truly have open dialogue as a result, and perhaps avoid collateral damage along the way.


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