3 July 2008

New Age convert to Skepticism appeals for sensitive cross-cultural communication

Filed under: Homeopathy — homeopathy4health @ 8:02 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Although I don’t classify homeopathy completely within New Age, and the homeopathic profession does contain conventionally trained scientists, Karla McLaren’s article about her conversion from New Age guru to Skepticism contains some pertinent criticism of Skeptic culture and communication style: ‘Bridging the two cultures’

“From a vantage point outside the New Age culture, my culture’s disavowal of emotions and the intellect may seem very strange and nearly inexplicable. Nevertheless, it is a very real cultural component that must be understood and considered if any useful communication is going to occur. If we want to successfully communicate with someone, we’ve got to understand not just their language, but the cultural context from which their language springs. From what I’ve seen in both the New Age and the skeptical cultures, this understanding is absent. I certainly didn’t understand the skeptical culture until I spent real time considering it as a culture – and I know from my reading that most people in the skeptical culture don’t understand the New Age culture at all. As a result, the yelling between our cultures just becomes louder while the real communication falls into the chasm that divides us. In all the din, people in my culture hear what they deem to be hyper-intellectual and emotionally charged attacks upon their cherished beliefs, while people in your culture hear what they deem to be wishful thinking, scientific illiteracy, and emotionally charged salvos in defense of mere delusions.

This is of course a tragedy, but after reading through the skeptical literature for the last three years, I feel that this tragedy may be avoidable. I understand your culture now, and I understand the concern, care, and interest you have for the people in my culture. I’m now able to read past text I once considered inflammatory and see the dedication behind it-not just your dedication to competent research and information-gathering, but your dedication to clear communication. I see your faith in human intelligence, your anger about swindlers and charlatans, your open-minded ability to question authority and accepted wisdom, and your willingness to fight to further a cause close to your heart. My favorite people in the New Age culture share these same qualities. I feel that people in your culture are capable of reaching out to my culture in sensitive ways that will have a chance of being heard – because it’s vital that you are heard.

It’s vital that a way be found to help people in my culture question, think about, and critically interpret the barrage of information and misinformation they receive on a daily basis. However, it’s also vital that the information be culturally sensitive. 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?

I have a selfish reason for asking these questions, because one of my first ideas was to make my own Web site a culturally sensitive portal to the skeptical sites – yet I cannot find a way to do so. I’ve got a Web page mock-up brewing in my files – a page that I’ve rewritten maybe fifty times or more-that tries to introduce the concept of skepticism in an open and nonthreatening way. I’d like to include links to the brilliant urban legends site (snopes.com), to Bob Carroll’s online Skeptic’s Dictionary (skepdic.com), to CSICOP and the Skeptical Inquirer (csicop.org), and to The Skeptic (skeptic.com). I also really wanted to include Quackwatch (quackwatch.org) and James Randi’s site (randi.org) – but I just can’t find the words. Sure, I can use my site to prepare people for the journey, but I know from experience that they would be in for quite a shock once they clicked on the links. I mean, it’s one thing to find out that much of my culture and belief system was based on gossamer and hearsay, but it’s another thing altogether to see people like myself being denigrated and pitied.

I found your culture and persevered through the (perhaps unintentionally?) insulting text and the demeaning attitudes because I had a serious need. I had a need to understand the avalanche of New Age ideas, gadgets, meditation techniques, and personalities I encountered as my career gathered momentum. I saw so much as I traveled and spoke to people in my culture, and so much of it worried me that I began to use the Internet to organize this avalanche and acquaint myself fully with information in my field. It was a harrowing journey, to say the very least. I waded into your culture for much-needed information, and ended up losing my own culture in the process. During the most difficult throes, I joked that I would have had to cheer up to be merely despairing – and that I would have had to calm down to be merely enraged. I’m still working through this.

What I see in the tragic clash between the New Age and skeptical cultures is that, for the most part, the skeptics have not yet been able to speak in a way that can be heard. Certainly, neither have people in my culture been able to perform that same feat. I see some scientific types working in the New Age culture, trying to prove that chi exists or prayer works (or whatever it is they’re doing this week). There’s an awful lot of scientific jargon all over the New Age now, and while it’s sad to see science being bent and mangled by my culture, I have to say that it shows we’re listening to you. It shows that we’re trying to get it right-to say things in a way you can hear. I know that my culture’s sloppy and disrespectful use of science is something that angers and confuses many people in the skeptical community, but can we look at it in a different light?

People in my culture have heard you and we’re trying to answer – but we don’t understand you. Our cultural training about the dangers of the intellect makes it nearly impossible for us to utilize science properly – or to identify your intellectual rigor as anything but an unhealthy overuse of the mind. I know that sounds silly, but think of the way you view our capacity to dive deeply into matters of spiritual or religious study. You don’t often treat our rigor as scholarship, per se (though it takes quite an intellect to understand and organize the often screamingly inconsistent sacred canon) – instead you tend to treat our work as an overabundance of credulity or perhaps even a stubborn refusal to listen to sense.”

As I’ve said before, there is a need for right brain – left brain integrated thinking.


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