The Purview of Skepticism

I may have mentioned that, at Skepticon IV, JT Eberhard gave a fantastic talk on why the skeptical community must concern itself with mental illness. For the most part, the response from the community has been enthusiastically supportive - but there were a few sharp notes of dissent, like this post by Gina Colaianni.

Most of Colaianni's criticisms are so off-base, I can't help wondering if she saw the same talk as the rest of us. (She thinks that JT, of all people, is calling for us to stop criticizing religion? I mean, really?) I'm not going to bother with those misunderstandings, but she makes one criticism I am going to address, just because I've heard it often from other sources:

I don't think it's okay just to pick a topic simply because you believe it should be focused on. What about other issues? What about focusing on uncovering social issues in undeveloped countries? What about focusing on other medical illnesses? I don't think it's okay to take on the issue of mental illness simply because someone fairly well-known in the skeptic community believes that the issue should be taken on.

This is an argument that I've heard, albeit in different form, about Skepticon itself: that a conference whose nominal focus is skepticism shouldn't be so atheistic, that we should confine ourselves to, say, Bigfoot or UFOs. I think this misses the point, since Bigfoot believers aren't pushing for cryptozoology to be taught in public schools, and UFO believers aren't agitating for federal grants for tinfoil-hat construction. If skepticism is to have any point at all, it should target the false beliefs that do the most harm, and religion would have to be near the top of that list.

I'm bemused by Colaianni's concern about whether it's "okay" or not to focus on certain topics. Okay according to whom? We're not soldiers in an army; we don't need permission from higher-ups. There's no Grand High Council of Skepticism dictating what we should talk about or care about. Skepticism is an amorphous, leaderless movement, and different people care about different things. Some of us write about alternative medicine, or Holocaust denial, or 9/11 conspiracy theories, or New Age quantum gibberish; and yes, some of us write about religion. We've even been known to dabble in politics - I've taken on Michael Shermer for his extreme libertarian views, for example. I'd say the same thing to Gina Colaianni as I'd say to any other skeptic: if you see a issue that you think the skeptical community isn't addressing in enough depth, then have at it! Don't sit around waiting for someone else to take it on.

All that aside, I do think there's a good reason why the skeptical community is uniquely well positioned to discuss mental illness. That's because we (I would hope) know something about science, and specifically about biology and neuroscience: we know that the brain is a biological machine, like any other organ in the body, and can break down or malfunction.

Simple as it sounds, this is a view that sets us apart from the majority of the population. In the view of religious people who believe in a soul, the mind can't be affected or altered by purely physical causes. Consciousness is a mysterious, ineffable, but intrinsically unitary phenomenon, and everything a person is and does arises from their own free choice. This leads inevitably to the view that anyone who's mentally ill must in some sense be choosing to act that way, that it's something they can just "snap out of" if they really want to. (That's, of course, when they're not treating mental illness as evidence of demon possession and declaring that the mentally ill need to be chained to their beds, beaten and prayed over to drive the devils out of them.)

And as JT explained in his talk, he chose to focus on mental illness for the same reason other skeptics focus on religion: because these false beliefs cause serious harm to people. If people with mental illnesses mistakenly believe they can just will themselves better, they may spiral deeper into depression and self-blame when this fails. Their friends and family, as well, may be confused and hurt if they believe the ill person is deliberately choosing to act in irrational or self-destructive ways.

Granted, a person has to have a basic desire to get better for therapy or medication to have a chance at succeeding. But expecting a person to overcome mental illness through force of will alone is like expecting a diabetic to make their pancreas produce more insulin through force of will alone. Mental illness isn't a defect of willpower, it's a defect of brain chemistry - and this is a message that skeptics can absolutely play a part in disseminating to society in general.

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