The partygoer's nightmare

The Skeptic, 4.6

I'm sure you know the scene. You have been at the party for twenty excruciating minutes, juggling glass and crudites as you squat painfully on a Paisley futon - a dentist on one side and an Economics lecturer doing a night course in homoeopathy on the other. Conversation plods awkwardly around the major issues of the day: roadworks, trains and loft conversions. Outwardly, you are the perfect guest; your ums and ahs punctuate interminable monologues, your good-natured grin is in place. Inside, you're being barbecued over a slow spit. Oh God, only another half an hour, then I can decently go...

Suddenly, as the Economic Homoeopath extols once again the joys of extreme dilution, your negative opinions on the matter emerge. You divulge that you have certain minority views on pseudoscience in general, and pseudomedicine in particular. As the discussion broadens, it becomes clear that what at first appeared to be a simple difference of opinion (You: Homoeopathy is based on nonsensical ideas. She: I'm not a scientist; all I know is that it works) is in fact a symptom of fundamentally different views of the world. You are `The Skeptic' and she is `The New Ager'. People gather, as dull exchanges about ornamental fireplaces and the poll tax are abandoned. Soon she is touting body energy and pendulums, and you are providing expert testimony on everything from the Cottingley Fairies to the Face on Mars.

Everything is fine, as you explain various ways to make a spoon bend, and even try your hand at a little cold reading. The discussion drifts pleasantly through UFO abductions, bleeding statues, and Peter Popoff's famous faith-healing scam. Then, it turns to spiritualism, and you suggest that while there is absolutely zilch evidence of communication with the dead, mediums may, in some circumstances, provide a valuable earthly social service. At this point, a new face appears, and your heart sinks. It is `Super Skeptic', and he has come to join in the discussion.

Super Skeptic does not believe in anything. His entire life runs strictly on rational lines. Super Skeptic believes that spiritualism and homoeopathy, along with astrology, aromatherapy, reflexology, dowsing, UFO societies, religion and all the other things he doesn't believe in should be BANNED outright. Debate, discussion, education and the democratic presentation of alternative views have no place in Super Skeptic's world: he has no time to waste pussyfooting. We know it's all dangerous rubbish, he says, and we should ban it now. Full stop.

Most of us, you argue, can relate to the world on several different levels, unlike Super Skeptic. Anticipating hoots and catcalls, you explain that you disagree with his dogmatism that everything short of quantum mechanics is irrelevant human twaddle. Constantly telling people in words of one syllable that they are fools for putting their faith in rank nonsense fosters alienation, you say, not a spirit of enquiry and reflection. But in the light of Super Skeptic's thundering, your views seem liberal in the extreme. You are worrying now that his rhetoric is beginning to tarnish your own. Thankfully, Super Skeptic does not stay long; he leaves - his parting shot `I'll give you a ring' - and his acerbic comments are ridiculed even before he has left the room. You realise with relief that Super Skeptic was perceived for what he was. Perhaps this party isn't as bad as you thought.

The conversation resumes: laments of the huge fortunes of televangelists, and guilty laughs at stories of that brand of 1990s mediums whose techniques are those of the used-car salesman. Whatever happened to good old ectoplasm? Eventually, time creeps towards decent exit hour, and you can slip away at last. At home you remember Super Skeptic's promise to call, and leave a special message for him on the answerphone. `I'm out of my body right now, but you can leave your name and number...' Although you would prefer that he did not.


©Toby Howard 1995

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