Monthly Archives: July 2010

Hypatia: The Story They Didn’t Tell Me

The story of Hypatia – philosopher and skeptic – is one that is dare to my heart. It is a tragic story of the triumph of human ignorance and hatred over reason and free inquiry. It sets the tone for how an overconfident early Christianity would emerge and dominate through fear and intimidation over the next 1000 years or more.

When I first heard the story of how Hypatia was brutally murdered by an angry Christian mob, I had since shrugged off the Catholicism of my upbringing and had many questions that religion just simply could not answer (or at least not answer satisfactorily). My religious teaching had never covered the inconvenient parts of Catholicism and seemingly glossed over the history of the religion. Reading the history of how early Christians acted following the official endorsement of Christianity by the Roman State began to confirm my suspicions that what I was being taught at Catholic School wasn’t the whole story.


The movie Agora portrayed Hypatia in a way that breathed life into the oft forgotten story. The movie was always sure to inflame apologetic responses. The focus of Agora’s critics was predictably directed away from the main point of the story – that non-belief, or rival beliefs to those of religious hegemony were systematically snuffed out. Hypatia’s only crime, despite being a woman, was that she chose not to submit her mind to the curiosity killing stories that the faithful believed. Instead, she chose to focus her efforts on free thought and discovery unfettered by the chains of “authorised truths”.

The glee with which the Christian mobs delighted in, as they destroyed centuries of human thought and progress by burning the scrolls in the Great Library of Alexandria, is revealing. Religion has never had a good relationship with free inquiry and inquirers. That is the main takeaway point from the Hypatia debacle.

Few epochs of human history have been conducive to free thought. Belief and deference to unanswerable authorities has long been the social glue of choice for most civilisations. The death of Hypatia and the burning of the library was the beginning of more than a 1000 years of supression of ideas and the demonising of free inquiry.

I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.
— Richard Dawkins

It took a long time for humanity to awaken from the ignorance-induced slumber that prevailed throughout the dark ages. It wasn’t until the Renaissance and later the Enlightenment that intellectuals were safe to come out of the closet and even then it was not without harrassment.

Intellectual maturity

Our species is young and still dealing with the fact that the faculty of reason is a relatively new development in the evolutionary scheme of things. By necessity, humans have had to grow up – beyond the baggage of our superstition, xenophobia, tribalism and irrationality. We still have some way to go, and at times it seems many in this world cannot see beyond bronze age beliefs and morals. The lessons learned during the enlightenment need to be heeded now more than ever. Stuck in the 21st century with 21st century technology and problems means the road is paved with land mines that will blow up in our faces unless we use our highest faculty of mind – reason.

The lesson from Hypatia, aside from maintain an open mind and hitch your wagon to the evidence, is one of free thought.

Specifically, one ought guard against the meme that – God said this, therefore:

  • we’re justified in persecuting others who appear “against” God
  • they’re wrong and morally bankrupt because they don’t believe as I do (after all, God thinks like me)
  • my beliefs are off the table from discussion – no questioning permitted (how dare you question God!)

The last point reveals why the first points are able to thrive – the double standard of applying skepticism to the claims of others and not to one’s own beliefs provides permission for squashing alternative views. All this is undertaken without regard to the strength of the evidence for competing ideas.

Above all, Hypatia’s story provides a snapshot of what otherwise reasonable will do when their beliefs are endorsed by the state. Roman history shows us clearly that separation of church and state is absolutely essential for a tolerant, reasonable and progressive society.

The “Convince Your Colleagues They Are In Error” Challenge

There is no easy way to say “you’re wrong” or “you’re mistaken”. In my experience, it isn’t the best approach to convincing you work colleague that taking homoeopathic potions is as likely to clear up your minor ailment as is smothering it with Vegemite (actually, Vegemite has more chance of clearing it up because it has active ingredients in it).

Besides, telling people they are wrong just serves to piss them off and serves to harden their attitudes towards whatever you think they are wrong about. Furthermore, it probably will reinforce their opinion that skeptics are naysayers and fun police whose sirens go off at the mere mention of an outlandish, half-baked, nothing but wishful thinking idea.

So what to do? Your work colleague (insert acquaintance if applicable) wants to have some options other than the medical remedies prescribed by their doctor. That itch really isn’t going away and besides, work colleague #2 has just recommended a really good naturopath.

It is the case that you as the skeptic probably know more about “alternative” medicine than they do and you also know there is no alternative to effective, conventional medicine (anything that is alternative and can be demonstrated to be safe and efficacious will be accepted as proper medicine). So you are the expert in this case and imparting your knowledge would likely help the other person make better informed decisions, so… Should you pipe up or just bite your lip?

The answer I have found is: It depends.

First of all, it should be noted that there are degrees of harm that saying nothing could cause. If your colleague is just choosing to taking homoepathic pills for sleep deprivation, then probably there is no reason to go into a lengthy exposé about how homoepoathy is pre-scientific speculation, has been repeatedly proven to be no better than a placebo and its proposed mechanism violates well established laws of physics.

If, however, your colleague is replacing proper medical treatment for a more severe ailment – say, a eczema or the extreme – cancer – then it is probably a good time to provide some cautionary warning about the bogus treatment.

There are good and bad ways of approaching talking with colleagues as you can come across as a know-it-all nuisance. The idea is to promote the evidence – not try and win the argument so you can feel good about being right. Admittedly, this is tough to do sometimes and it is the difference between a mature skeptic who cares about the other person’s wellbeing, rather than the git who just wants to stroke his own ego. Let’s face it, nobody likes those guys and all too often skeptics do themselves, their arguments and reason in general, a disservice by alienating others.

This is the second post on communication approaches to teaching and promoting science and skepticism. It is a tough call, because we are by nature attached to our beliefs, emotional in nature as they are, and nobody enjoys being told they are in error. To be effective as a skeptic, you must be able to avoid personalising the issue and making them feel as if they are wrong – in all likelihood, they weren’t aware of the vast body of evidence for or against a certain claim. If they continue to go against the information you dispense (which should be what the evidence says) then that is their choice. The more dire the situation the more adamant you can be but beginning in this vain is not a way to win friends.

The Efficacy of Skepticism

The debate has been raging for a while now – is pulling the rug from underneath people the best strategy for skeptical activism? Is this the best strategy we have for changing minds and is changing minds our goal anyway?

Should skeptics seduce with alluring scents only to pounce when people least expect it? Or, is it better to come clean, put the facts out there and hope people don’t run off scared?

I happen to think critical thinking is the single best, most useful thing a person can learn. I also think that the evidence is fairly conclusive – the more a person learns about science, philosophy and critical thinking the less likely they are to be seduced into the gargoyle infested lands of pseudoscience and the supernatural.

The reason for this correlation is fairly simple. Thinking is actually a skill. We all think, but there are varying degrees of thinking: Faulty at one end of the continuum; fuzzy in the middle; articulate and clear at the other end. As a person learns more about science and knowledge, the more likely their scatter plot of thinking gravitates towards the clear, articulate and logical end.

The world needs more people who recognise that they have an innate tendency to believe the incredible, as we all do, and are disciplined enough to apply critical thinking filter to ideas, even their most cherished beliefs.

Skeptical communication strategies in a nutshell

Before we dive in and look at the various ways of communicating a skepical message, I am going to assume that the desired outcome of the communication is positive change. That could be changing minds, educating people or at least provoking doubt.

1. The “Turd in gold foil” accommodationist approach

Briefly: This has many adherents on the Internet and is appealing because it emphasises not stepping on toes and favours indirectly confronting popular or cherished beliefs.
Pros: It is likely to be received in a more favourable way. Seducing the reader is a powerful approach and done well, it can be very effective.
Cons: It is an indirect approach that can be seen as deceptive because the true intention of the message is covert. Indirect approaches sometimes are less effective than more direct measures because other messages obscure the key message.

2. The stealth “isomorphic” attack

Briefly: A more forceful approach, but it flies under the radar because we’re using metaphors and analogy to deliver the message. It is a powerful approach, particularly when the analogy doesn’t clash with the recipients current beliefs.
Pros: Has the possibility of changing minds as it does not inflame cognitive dissonance. Is great at teaching critical thinking because analogy can be used to outline the process of skeptical evaluation in story form.
Cons: Doesn’t activate cognitive dissonance, which is sometimes a desirable approach. It is an indirect approach, which can mean it isn’t an informative approach – more of a delivery system for teaching process and shifting perspectives.

3. The “straight shooting, take no prisoners” approach

Briefly: This is the kind of uncompromising approach that can be seen on PZ Myers blog Pharyngula (a highly enertaining and informative read and the most popular science blog on the web). This is honesty in action – expressing the facts, the scientific evidence and openly criticising nonsense claims.
Pros: Causes cognitive dissonance, provokes response and is positive in the sense it calls “bullshit” on bad ideas. It is honest and direct and honours the skeptical mantra that no idea is so sacred that it is off limits from light of science and critical analysis. It is often highly informative and affirmative. Creates a definite demarcation between good ideas based on evidence and sound logic and those that can be considered crap.
Cons: Can turn people off from the message. Often thought of as “preaching to the choir”. Polarising in many cases. Offensive to sensitive types.


I have to admit, I like the last approach. Being direct is honest and I have to respect that. When you really put truth as the barometer of ideas, the direct call-it-how-it-is approach is a great way to go.

It is not the most effective technique to just come out all guns blazing in an attempt to destroy bad arguments.

Approach depends entirely on the goals of the writer/speaker. Personally, being direct is my preferred style in print but in face-to-face communication, it may not be the best form of communication (unless you want a punch in the face). Again, it depends on your goals and the context in which you’re operating.

Update, January 2012: If you’re interested in some of the psychological research in skeptical communication and how to apply a best practice approach, read The Debunking Handbook – a short, concise guide to debunking (from the guys at