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Posts tagged ‘communication’

Pope Francis: a skilled abuser of rhetoric

More on Pope Francis:

Of the three Popes that I’ve lived through so far, Pope Francis is, I’d argue, by far the worst of the bunch (yes, I think that he’s even worse than Benedict, and that’s saying something).

Here’s the thing: if someone is a malicious ideologue, I much prefer that they be open about their maliciousness and their unwavering commitment to a rigid and regressive ideology. Francis doesn’t do that, though. He couches his callousness in pseudo-tolerant and pseudo-progressive rhetoric and hides his dangerous attitudes and beliefs behind a facade of avuncular populist everyman friendliness. And people (not just Catholics) are eating it up, buying into it, proclaiming that Francis is A Different Kind of Pope, one who will change the Church, modernize the Church, make the Church into a progressive entity (needless to say (I hope), none of these proclamations hold up under even the mildest of scrutiny).

If you buy into Pope Francis’s pseudo-tolerant & pseudo-progressive rhetoric, you’re gullible (it happens. It’s a very human trait and a trap we all fall into from time to time, no matter how smart and/or skeptical we are), wilfully ignorant (a form of maliciousness that I have no sympathy for (see the ‘willful’ part)), or committed to the same rigid and backwards ideology that Francis is.

Francis is manipulative. He’s a skilled abuser of rhetoric who knows how to say the “right” things at the “right” time. He’s good PR for the Church. Unlike his immediate predecessors, he’s neither an intellectual nor extremely intelligent. But he’s sly like a fox. He’s a gift to the Church, a perfect Pope for the Catholic Church of 2013.

Two examples of what I’m talking about:


The pseudo-progressive rhetoric: Francis claims to be a friend to the poor. People believe this (partly because much of the mainstream media disseminates this claim without question). They fawn over him, declare him to be A Different Kind of Pope who is ushering in A New Kind of Church.

The reality: Francis’s previously-stated opinions on and actions taken against contraceptive use and access to abortion cancel out his proclaimed desire to remedy poverty and economic inequality (providing easy access to contraception is one of the easiest and most effective ways to reduce poverty). He has a history of actively opposing the free distribution of contraceptives and he opposes a woman’s right to an abortion, even in cases of rape.


The pseudo-tolerant rhetoric: Francis claims that he doesn’t judge gay individuals who “accept the Lord and have good will“. The news media is currently eating this up. People are swooning over it.

The reality: Francis’s previously-stated opinions on, vehement opposition to, and actions taken against extending equal legal rights to gays and lesbians cancel out his newfound pseudo-tolerant rhetoric.

And, well, if I have to choose between two powerful individuals who hold the same dangerous opinions and adhere to the same rigid and bigoted ideology, I’ll take an openly intolerant ideologue over a phony and manipulative abuser of rhetoric any day.


My episode of the Skeptic Canary Show

I had a fantastic time on the Skeptic Canary Show today. The hosts, Tom Williamson (blog/Twitter), David James (blog/Twitter), and Paul Hopwood (blog/Twitter), are lovely and intelligent gents who do a great deal of much-needed and important work for the skeptic community, both in the U.K. and online. We had an interesting, fun, and thought-provoking discussion about a variety of topics, including:

  1. Skepticism and skeptical activism
  2. The scope of the skeptic movement (and the difference between skepticism as a movement and skepticism as a methodology)
  3. Applying skepticism to the testable claims made by religions
  4. The crucially important role that rhetoric and effective communication play in skepticism/skeptical activism/the skeptic movement (i.e. determining and making use of the most effective method of informing/persuading/communicating in any given situation and adapting one’s message and argument to whomever our audience happens to be, always making use of the principle of charity, the importance of acknowledging the fact that many people hold on to their irrational/potentially dangerous beliefs for emotional reasons and thus almost certainly cannot and will not be persuaded by facts alone, the brilliance and wisdom of Ray Hyman’s “Proper Criticism“, etc.)
  5. The fact that many of the things that I teach in my rhetoric/composition courses (critical thinking, why it’s absolutely necessary to support all claims and assertions with evidence from quality sources, how to determine whether or not a source is reliable/credible/etc., applying skepticism to everything we read (including our own writing), etc.) can also be valuable tools for skeptics/skeptical activists.
  6. Teaching how to think instead of teaching what to think
  7. Teaching critical thinking
  8. Atheism, how/why/when I became an atheist, and how being an atheist in the U.K. is almost always a very different experience than being an atheist in America
  9. Catholic childhood religious indoctrination and Catholic guilt (and my experience with both)
  10. Skeptic conferences/events (primarily TAMQED, and SkeptiCamp)
  11. TAM 2013 (only a month away now! :) See my recent post about it here)
  12. And, with the help of my favorite Bob in the world, Bob Blaskiewicz (who very kindly took the time to call in during the show), we discussed the Skepticism Across the Curriculum workshop that Bob and Eve and I will be doing at TAM 2013.
  13. (& I’m sure that we talked about lots of other interesting things that I’ve forgotten to include here (I haven’t yet had the chance to listen to the entire podcast of the episode))

And speaking of the podcast: if you’d like to listen to/download the show, it’s available both on the show’s website and via iTunes.

Thanks again to Tom, David, and Paul for having me on! Be sure to listen to the Skeptic Canary Show live each Wednesday (or download the episodes/podcasts) and visit/”like” the show’s Facebook page if you’re so inclined.

‘Idealism as Intrinsic Motivation’- (my latest post for the JREF’s Swift Blog)

Tonight, as I started to ponder what to write about in my next post for the JREF‘s Swift Blog, I realized that I’d forgotten to share my previous Swift post here. It’s called “Idealism as Intrinsic Motivation“.

A brief excerpt:

However, although idealism is a powerful intrinsic motivator for educators and skeptical activists alike, it is not enough. If we wish to be successful in our attempts to inform, educate, persuade, and promote critical thinking and evidence-based decision making (inside or outside of the classroom) we first need to accept that our passionate idealism is only a start. Idealism is a valuable, admirable, and useful personality trait, one that indicates a principled refusal to succumb to the apathy and cynicism that pervades much of contemporary society. That being said, though, we must also acknowledge that while our idealism motivates us to inform, enlighten, and promote evidence-based decision making (in the classroom or otherwise), in order to turn motivation into action, we must be willing to be both idealists and pragmatists. Idealism alone doesn’t accomplish anything. Although this may not be something we often consider when analyzing our own contributions to skeptical activism, the professional educators and/or skeptical activists who we admire and respect the most are almost certainly the ones who acknowledge (through their words and/or their actions) that pragmatism, discipline, and hard work are just as important as idealism.

The rest of the post is available here.

Thanks for reading!

Video of the TAM 2012 ‘Skepticism and the Humanities’ Panel

TAM 2012 “Skepticism and the Humanities” panel. (Photo by Bruce Press. Click photo to see original.)

Yay!  The JREF has posted its video of the TAM 2012Skepticism and the Humanities” panel.  You may recognize that girl in the middle (^‿^):



Below, I’ll paste a comment that I originally intended for YouTube. I wrote it out in a text editor, and when I went back to the video’s comments section to post it, I realized that YouTube comments are limited to 500 characters. So, instead of finding a way to cut out 2,500 characters, I’ll post it here instead. Just pretend that you’re reading it in the comments section on YouTube, okay? ;) It will make more sense that way. Thanks!:


Thanks so much for posting this! I really enjoyed being on the panel (I’m the girl in the middle) & am so grateful for the opportunity.

I do think that there should have been two separate panels, though. In the months leading up to this, I’d been (based on conversations with a few of the others) envisioning and preparing for a discussion of how the skills that we (active skeptics who are also teachers/scholars of various humanities disciplines (rhetoric/composition, in my case)) study and/or teach (i.e. the importance of thinking critically, of research, of supporting our assertions with legitimate (i.e. not anecdotal or personal) evidence from quality sources, of expressing ourselves in the clearest possible manner, of analyzing and critiquing all assertions, including our own, of practicing the principle of charity, etc.) can and should become a part of every skeptical activist’s “skeptic’s toolkit” (for lack of a better phrase). That kind of discussion would have been much more relevant to TAM, as it would have stayed focused on scientific skepticism/skeptical inquiry, skepticism as a methodology, and skills-based skepticism. The humanities fall within the scope of scientific skepticism and are relevant to the methodology of skepticism *only* when the humanities can provide pragmatic tools, thought processes, and skills that all skeptics can put to use. That’s the only justification for including the humanities in a conference like TAM, and I think that a humanities-only panel would have been able to have the kind of productive, pragmatic, and interesting discussion that I outlined above.

Honestly, when I found out that it was going to be an arts *and* humanities panel (this was a few months after initial planning and discussion began), I was a bit frustrated/disappointed, as I knew that the type of panel I’d been envisioning and preparing for wasn’t going to be happening, and I had no clue as to how we were going to include two very different fields/subjects in one discussion, let alone keep that discussion relevant to skeptical activism and within the scope of scientific skepticism/skeptical inquiry. The arts are relevant to skepticism in their own way, and a separate panel on that topic would have been interesting, I’m sure. But meshing the arts and the humanities together like this just didn’t work all that well. I still think that the panel was good, and that some valuable points were made and that some important discussion occurred, but I kept wanting to return the focus to the pragmatic skills and topics that I mentioned above, and that didn’t happen nearly enough, unfortunately. Nevertheless, I am *so* grateful to have had the opportunity to take part in a panel, I loved being a part of TAM (it was seriously amazing and wonderful and so lovely ♥), and would love to be involved again next year. And, again, thanks so much to the JREF for filming and posting these talks and panels. They’re a great resource for both educators and for the skeptical community as a whole.


More soon! Thanks for reading.

New post on the JREF’s Swift Blog

Hi! My first contribution to the JREF‘s Swift Blog, “The Hypothetical Audience“, is now up. This post is part of a series of articles by teachers who use various pedagogical techniques to promote skepticism and critical thinking in the classroom (many thanks to my friend and TAM co-panelist Bob Blaskiewicz for inviting me to contribute to this series!)

A brief excerpt:

Additionally, the ability to imagine a realistic hypothetical audience is a pragmatic skill and tool in and of itself, one that can be adapted to many contexts. It also provides a way to promote critical thinking and skepticism in the classroom. When instructing students to “imagine an audience”, most textbooks that I’ve used offer rather generic and imprecise directions along the lines of “imagine an intelligent and well-informed audience” or “imagine an audience that is similar to your classmates”. Such directions are inadequate primarily because they omit any discussion of the imaginary audience’s potential reaction to the paper’s assertions and claims. This omission is significant. Before we teach students how to craft effective arguments of their own (critical writing), we explain why it is important to be skeptical towards the arguments of others, asking questions such as “is the author trustworthy? Why? How do you know?”, “Does the author provide sufficient support for each of their assertions, or do they instead rely on assumptions or make unsupported generalizations?”, and “Does their evidence come from high-quality and unbiased sources?” (critical reading). We teach our students how to engage in critical reading, how and why it is important to scrutinize every argument carefully and thoroughly, and how to respond to an author’s arguments with charitable-yet-strong skepticism. When directing students to “imagine an audience”, however, we often forget that this imaginary audience must also practice that same skepticism, and that, without this skepticism, such an audience is a useless invention.

Read the rest here.

Thanks! More soon.

More on the intersection of rhetoric and skeptical activism (the first in a series)

TAM is less than three weeks away. Yay! I’m going to be on the Skepticism and the Humanities panel, and I’m very excited about that. To prepare for the panel, I’ve been reading, thinking, and writing about the intersection of rhetoric and skeptical activism, the topic that I spoke about at SkeptiCamp Denver in May. I love this topic and find it to be very interesting and exciting, both because it is a valuable tool and technique for skeptical activists, and because it allows me to use my knowledge of and experience in my academic field to contribute to a movement that I’m passionate about.

Over the next few weeks, I plan to write a series of brief blog posts on this topic. Because this is an introductory post, I won’t go into great detail here. However, in future posts, I will elaborate much more on various aspects of this topic, including context, goals/objectives, audience, clear and precise communication, logos/pathos/ethos, and the principle of charity.

Onward to the post!:


“Teach how to think, not what to think”. This phrase has become somewhat cliched, but that doesn’t detract from its truth or importance. My experience with teaching and thinking about various pedagogical practices and my research on the topic has led me to believe that teaching how to think, not what to think, is not only a highly effective pedagogical technique, but also one that is, at least to a certain extent, an ethical imperative.

However, despite the fact that my thoughts on the intersection of pragmatic rhetoric and skeptical activism are informed by my teaching philosophy and classroom experience, a classroom setting is just one of many contexts in which pragmatic rhetoric both can and should be utilized. Accordingly, when discussing this topic, I use the word “teach” to refer not only to classroom teaching, but also to any situation or context in which we, as idealistic and active skeptics, have the opportunity to use applied skepticism to inform an audience. Ultimately, these techniques can be put to effective use in any context (a conference, a classroom, a group discussion, a blog, etc.) and with any audience.

But, of course, informing is not the same as persuading. So how does rhetoric, a type of persuasion, fit into this particular discussion?

That’s a tricky question. I’d argue that, although informing and teaching is often accomplished without the use of any rhetorical techniques, rhetoric both underlies and shapes the informing that we engage in as active skeptics.

In the context of skepticism, informing and persuading are often intertwined. As active skeptics, we’re not just informing: we’re also encouraging our audience (of whatever sort) to think critically, to evaluate and examine the legitimacy, quality, and accuracy of the evidence and information with which they are presented, and to make decisions that are based upon accurate and trustworthy evidence. Informing is definitely a vital part of active skepticism, but it’s not enough. In addition to informing, we must also explain why the information is useful and accurate, how its accuracy and legitimacy were determined, and why it deserves to be taken into consideration when making decisions. It’s our job to “teach how to think, not what to think”, and rhetoric is one of the most useful tools that we can draw upon as we attempt to not just inform, but to also explain these “how”s and “why”s.

Unfortunately, “rhetoric” is sometimes perceived as a “dirty word”, so to speak. It’s viewed as sophistry and/or as a technique that prioritizes style over substance. In a similar vein, rhetoric is often thought of as something best left to debate clubs or to contentious individuals who enjoy argument for argument’s sake and who will do whatever it takes to “defeat” their “opponent”.

And rhetoric indeed can be all of those things. But that’s not all that it is. There’s another side to rhetoric, one that is pragmatic, practical, useful, one that anyone can use to further their ideals and to effect change in the world, one that is very relevant to skepticism. If you consider yourself to be a skeptical activist, then you almost certainly are, in one way or another, an idealist. You care. You’re passionate. You want to promote critical thinking and evidence-based decision making. You want to change things for the better. However, idealism and passion alone aren’t enough. If we want our activism to make a real difference in the real world, we must also have pragmatic and relevant skills, tools, and techniques at our disposal. And rhetoric, when utilized effectively, is one of the most useful tools available to the skeptical activist.

Accordingly, I want to expand the definition of rhetoric, to “take it back”, to propose the idea that we, as idealistic skeptics, should think of rhetoric as an important part of our “skeptic toolkit”. Rhetoric is a tool that every skeptical activist can and should possess. It’s is a form of “applied skepticism”. It’s a powerful, useful, and relevant tool for those of us who are more interested in communicating effectively and in “teaching how to think, not what to think” than in “defeating” an “opponent”. Rhetoric belongs not only to the debaters and the fighters, but also to those of us who are interested in promoting critical thinking, evidence-based decision making, and skeptical inquiry.


To be continued.

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