Skeptics and Atheists are often quick to point out how irrational people are being when they promote or share illogical ideas and beliefs, but as I wrote for the Skeptical Inquiry website, the way in which we respond to these people is what influences the chances of them starting to think more rationally. This is why it is so baffling when people moan about people being ‘stupid’ but at the same time, create a negative environment in which anyone would be reluctant to engage in discussions and debates.
I’ve been using the internet since my early teens and very early on I was using discussion forums, chat rooms, and websites to talk about paranormal subjects. I’ve had my fair share of ‘when you get older you’ll understand’ dismissals which came from skeptics who just saw me as a stupid kid. I even get such dismissals today from paranormal proponents, over a decade later, at the age of 25.
Such dismissals are normally made when the person doing the dismissing doesn’t have a strong argument for particular opinions or points they are sharing, or when they want to upset or hurt the person they are dismissing. Does such behaviour belong within communities that champion rational thinking?
Assumption based fallacies
By telling people they are too young to understand a subject or that they don’t have ‘enough life experience’ to have a valid opinion three assumptions are being made by the person doing the dismissing:
Assumption 1 – they know everything there is to know about the person they’re dismissing and what they’ve experienced in their past.
Assumption 2 – that to have a valid opinion about a subject you must have (life) experience with/of it.
Assumption 3 – those who’ve been doing something (e.g. paranormal research) longer have a more valid opinion
This is an Appeal to Authority – a logical fallacy. Telling people they’re too young to understand something, to go ask their parents or to wait until they get older is a form of Ad Hominum which is also a logical fallacy. Using logical fallacies in a debate or discussion is a good indication that you’re not maintaining an open mind.
What’s the problem?
You might wonder why people being dismissed because of their age is a problem worth writing about. Apart from the fact that ageist dismissals are illogical arguments, people being told their opinions are not as valid as the opinion of older people creates a negative environment in which young people new to the concepts of Freethinking, Skepticism and Atheism don’t think they’re as entitled to take part in discussions as others. This is unhelpful.
We should instead be creating a positive environment in which being wrong about something isn’t a scary prospect that rewards you with sarcastic remarks and dismissive put downs based on your age, but instead rewards you with insightful responses and corrections.
Freethinking communities should be encouraging people to make mistakes and ask questions so that they can learn from them. Ageist dismissals and insults have no place in communities that want to encourage younger people to learn how to think rationally about the world around them. After recently speaking at Camp Quest UK I saw for myself how young people who are encouraged to talk, debate and question topics free from the fear of being dismissed or ridiculed thrive. This is the sort of encouragement that helps others learn how to think rationally about the world around them, and it’s an environment in which questions and mistakes are welcomed and corrected in a proactive manner that helps people shed their irrational beliefs.
Of course, the alternative is to continue to dismiss people because they’re ‘stupid’ and ‘to young to understand’ while simultaneously wondering why people are so irrational, but that seems like quite a miserable existence to me.