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Respectful Skepticism?

Craig Foster (“Respectful Skepticism,” March/April 2019) makes the serious linguistic mistake of treating disrespect as the negative counterpart of respect—which it is not—and then builds on this mistake in arguing that we skeptics should respect crazy ideas and the misguided people who hold them. Of course we shouldn’t indulge in “disrespecting” other people, if by that one means behaving in a rude, arrogant, or condescending manner, but it doesn’t follow from the admonition to be polite that we should accord respect to noxious beliefs based on superstition, religion, and ignorance that do not deserve respect.

I don’t respect parents who deny their children medical care and let them die because they are devout Christian Scientists. I don’t respect suburbanites who put their communities at risk by not allowing their kids to be inoculated against measles because of stuff they read on social media. I don’t respect my Muslim friends when they celebrate the Prophet Abraham for intending to murder his son because he heard voices from God telling him to do so. I don’t respect New Age people who don’t know the difference between astronomy and astrology. And I certainly don’t respect flat-earthers or evangelicals who think that Darwinian evolution is some kind of leftist/ atheist plot.

Maybe Foster (and Kendrick Frazier, who endorses this viewpoint in his editor’s note) is right that we could communicate more effectively with people who hold such ideas if we put our critical faculties aside and meet these people on their own terms. However, I couldn’t do that and still preserve my self-respect as a rational, intelligent human being. And to me, that’s the essential respect we need to be true to.

Craig Foster told the audience at CSICon that people with pseudoscientific beliefs were open to people of other viewpoints, feel that scientific institutions had not been fair to them, and wanted to hang out with likeminded people, implying that this was somehow just innocent.

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