Ross Blocher: Absorb the Dumb, Plant the Seed

Maybe it’s just a hobbyhorse of mine, but I’ve seen enough haughty skepticism that revels in “being right” rather than making things better for everyone. So when I’m exposed to new ways to approach skeptical activism isn’t purely about hostility, conflict, and fist-shaking, I’m intrigued. Even more so if it’s an overtly compassionate approach.

One model for me is the Joe Nickell approach, which I can broadly summarize as one in which each extraordinary claim is taken on its merits. Joe doesn’t look to “debunk” a ghost sighting, for example, and prove the poor fools wrong, but rather he investigates. He takes each new claim as a puzzle to solve, not as an opportunity to ridicule someone who believed something that wasn’t so.

The approach of Ross Blocher and Carrie Poppy in their Oh No! Ross and Carrie podcast is related to Joe’s, but rather than investigate individual instances, they enter into the worlds of these believers, open to the experiences they offer, and bring their observations back to us.

Photo by Mark Boslough

“We are excited by people’s beliefs,” said Blocher in his presentation today, showing us a number of examples of his and Poppy’s adventures in the worlds of Scientology, Raelianism, mystical cancer cures, coal walkers, and on and on. In each immersion, they use their real names, they have real conversations, and seek not to debunk claims, but to evaluate an experience. They don’t even really use the word “skepticism” in their show, even though that’s exactly what they’re practicing.

Blocher told us that we need more people taking this kind of approach, and I agree. The Blocher-Poppy theory is aimed at avoiding anger and hostility in favor of “planting a seed.” Rather than getting into a conflict and merely trading bad feelings, you “absorb the dumb,” take in the presumably-bad ideas and remain open while you learn more. The effect is often very positive. “A lot of people are jerks about this,” Blocher says believers will tell him, “but you’re someone I can talk to.”

There’s the seed. Now there’s a little more space to learn and maybe even change a mind. I dig that.