What’s Right with Skepticism?

The last two weeks have been difficult for members of organized skepticism, a community that I have been increasingly involved in over the last five years. In that time, I’ve made a lot of good friends, but recently many of them have forgotten they can disagree without hating one another. This animosity threatens a lot of progress that has been made over the past decade, during which time groups of overwhelmingly like-minded people have found each other in order to promote evidence-based thinking and to celebrate curiosity and progress.

Yesterday, Newsweek published a piece by Michael Moynihan called, “James Randi, the Amazing Meeting, and the Bullshit Police.” I think it’s safe to say that most of it was probably written before the most recent flare up of “The Troubles,” because in some ways the portrait of skepticism represented in that article–with the veneer of a united movement–reminds me of someone with whom I am intimately familiar, but who is impossibly distant. It’s hard to believe that just a month ago, I was in the company of 1,500 friends from around the world, any one of whom I could easily plonk down next to and have a beer with.

For all the dysfunction we’ve seen, though, skeptics are doing a number of things right, and I think that if ever were a time that we needed to appreciate the best of skepticism, it’s now. You may not agree with every item on the following list, and there is a very good chance that you strongly disagree with someone whose work appears on it. But it’s not a list of people or personalities, but of work that has been done. Regardless of how you feel about the people who are performing the work these projects deserve your attention and support.

SkeptiCamp–Since the first SkeptiCamp was organized by Reed Esau in Denver in 2007, skeptics in cities around the world have sponsored these gatherings where the only requirement is that you participate. Over 70 SkeptiCamps have been held to date and have given hundreds of people the opportunity to participate in skepticism, refine their research and presentation skills, and become more effective advocates of sound reasoning in the public sphere. These are powerful incubators of skeptical talent. If you think that skepticism is too centralized or that there are too many skeptical superstars or not enough variety at major conferences, then you should be participating in SkeptiCamp. You’ll get variety and you’ll be encouraging diversity at future national conferences. I was pulled into the screaming vortex of organized skepticism by Reed when Eve and I sat next to him at the food court at Dragon*Con and asked him about his “SkeptiCamp” t-shirt. Since then, I’ve presented at three SkeptiCamps and hope to attend more.

Science-Based MedicineThe Science-Based Medicine blog is one of the workhorses of skepticism, where experts discuss one of the perennial skeptical topics (alternative medicine) and guide readers through medical research that makes it into the news. The editorial board and author pool is a who’s-who of skeptical heavy hitters, and they deliver the goods. Week after week, you get the sense that this is the front line of the war on medical charlatanry. I think that SBM has managed to do what it does so well not just because of its talented contributors, but because it has stayed so close to its public mission throughout its run. Skeptics would do well to find ways to promote this valuable resource so that the SBM crew spends more time shaping public opinion than stomping out fires. And if there is someone you don’t like on there, there are a dozen other people you can get behind.

Doubtful News–This site has been going like gangbusters in the two years it’s been up, primarily, I think, because of the work of its founder, Sharon Hill. Doubtful News breaks more weird news before 9AM than most news organizations do all day, and she’s usually a day or two ahead of the news cycle. She and her co-editor are usually the first skeptical voices to chime in on the weird news of the day. And they are ALWAYS AT IT. This is another resource that we should be putting in front of the media. Skeptics should have a seat at the table when the news is somberly reporting bullshit. Further, Sharon has developed a useful Media Guide to Skepticism, a boilerplate introduction to what we do when we are at our best.

SiTP, Meetups, Virtual Drinking Skeptically–Skeptics in the Pub events are fantastic “gateway” social events, and when people report that they found a community of like-minded people in skepticism, SiTP is what they are usually talking about. But let’s say you don’t like bars or that you have kids that need constant attention/entertainment. Most local groups have occasional low-key and family days out, like Skeptics in the Park/at the Pool/at the Zoo. Lastly, Virtual Drinking Skeptically, an online project begun by Brian Gregory, is a way to enjoy all the benefits of drinking with skeptics without the hassle of leaving your most comfy chair. Actually, this is an attractive option for people like me, who live outside of the town outside of the town outside of the city.

Guerilla Skepticism–This little group has been kicking down doors and has made its presence known this year. Headed by the indefatigable Susan Gerbic, this international group is putting reliable information on Wikipedia, the universal go-to source for information. If there were ever a place skeptics should be devoting their attention and contributing heavily, it’s Wikipedia. My god, think if all the energy expended over the last few years on infighting between people (who really see almost everything else the same way) had been devoted to developing the skeptical presence on Wikipedia! Susan is working with other activist leaders on bringing more skeptical projects to fruition, so pay attention to her.

The Amazing Meeting–You’re goddamned right The Amazing Meeting deserves to be on this list. Ask almost anyone who was there this year. It’s an opportunity to meet the people you have been corresponding with online and whose work you admire. The sheer number of projects, ideas, and collaborations (not the mention the friendships) that begin at the South Point make TAM pretty much the best possible outcome of getting 1,500 humans together. SkeptiCamp came about in part because of TAM 2007. The Virtual Skeptics (full disclosure: we’re awesome) was born over drinks at TAM 2012. Susan Gerbic recruits SkeptiGuerrillas (is that a thing?) and holds meetings with her team there. Podcasters are brought into contact with high-profile interviewees, and some podcast teams have their only face-to-face interaction while in Vegas. I’ve heard many people say that TAM is what recharges them and prepares them emotionally for another year of often frustrating herculean (if not sisyphean) acts in the service of critical thinking; an important reason I got serious about taking on the Burzynski Clinic was because of Pamela Gay’s talk in 2012 about getting out there and doing something awesome. The regional conferences like SkeptiCal and NECSS are excellent too. So is CSICon (and what it is regenerating into), and so are international events like QED, Skeptics on the Fringe, and the European Skeptics Conference, but TAM has the greatest reach, and if I remember correctly, about half of the attendees were first TAMmers this year. It is clearly a unique opportunity to get new people involved in activism and outreach.

Podcasting and webcasting–In some ways, this is what makes skepticism an international community. There is no shortage of well-produced, thoughtful and intelligent digital content online. It began with Derek and Swoopy’s pioneering Skepticality, which was followed by innumerable other podcasts. Skeptoid, The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, Monster Talk, The Geologic Podcast, The Token Skeptic, Skeptics with a K, The Skeptic Zone, Oh No Ross and Carrie and dozens of other podcasts (I apologize if I missed your fave).

Independent Investigations GroupThe IIG, based in LA, is nuts and bolts skepticism, actively training people to test extraordinary claims, investigate reports of the paranormal, expose charlatanry, and take the hurt to fakers. They have conducted a couple dozen investigations of paranormal and other extraordinary claims. Perhaps my favorite was their investigation (and pranking) of the California Board of Registered Nursing, in which they were able to get workshops on preposterous (and entirely made up) alternative medicine regimens approved to be given for continuing education credit in the state of California. They have also welcomed claimants to test their paranormal abilities under scientifically controlled conditions for a shot at $50,000. The franchises that have popped up in a few cities across the country are expanding the mission of the IIG, and I am delighted to hear that the IIG-Atlanta group will be testing their first claimant for the prize in the near future.

Dragon*Con SkepTrackDragon*Con’s SkepTrack, a labor of love put on by Derek Colanduno, always brings an impressive number of excellent speakers and allows the Atlanta Skeptics to show their stuff.  It’s also a major first point of contact between skeptic nerds and pop culture nerds. There’s often very little difference between the two; it’s just that the pop culture nerds don’t realize that they are skeptics yet. This year’s SkepTrack is going to bring a lot of people together who have been at each others’ throats lately, and I’ve even heard rumblings that attendees should be disruptive to people they don’t like. If you do that during such a major outreach event, you are simply shitting in everyone’s macaroni. Don’t make me get all Jamy Ian Swiss on your ass. There’s a lot of other stuff to do at Dragon*Con while your nemesis is on stage, like visiting the celebrity petting zoo. The attendance at Atlanta Skeptics in the Pub surges every year following Dragon*Con because SkepTrack is an awesome and welcoming event. Keep it awesome. While you are there, go over to the Paranormal Track and see what the other side is up to. It’s illuminating.

Also, the Atlanta Skeptics get the party started early. Go to the Atlanta Star Party the night before Dragon*Con kicks off. This year, the proceeds are going to CosmoQuest, which had its budget disappeared by the sequestration. Noms, entertainment, science, bigass telescope on the roof. You want to be there. It’s like…the prom of skepticism.

I would be remiss if I did not mention another Dragon*Con related initiative, Women Thinking, Inc.’s vaccine clinics, which have had a presence at recent events and have distributed free pertussis shots. Free vaccines at high-profile public events are nothing but win.

Australia and the UK–Yeah, Australia seems to be doing something right. I kind of envision it as sort of skeptical paradise. Success after success comes out of Australia, whether they are stopping the AVN, seeing to it that PowerBalance bands officially don’t work on their continent, or crusading against woo in medical schools. So, yeah. Be like Australia. At the same time, the skeptics in the UK have forced libel law reform and have seen homeopaths wonder openly whether or not they should happily market their bogus wares as confectionary. This makes me happy.

Camp InquiryJunior Skeptic, the Mystery Investigators, Camp Quest, and the JREF education modules–These groups are doing a lot of work directed toward perhaps the most important demographic for skepticism’s long-term success. Skeptics who are interested in the growth of critical thinking should be working very hard to find ways of harnessing kids’ curiosity and empowering them to investigate the world.

What’sTheHarm.net?/Skeptools–These sites are the product of one of the hardest working, most organized skeptics in the business, Tim Farley. Whether it it taking down the infamous Mabus, compiling all of skeptic history, or monitoring new technologies and finding ways to apply them to the larger skeptical project, Farley is constantly working. He’s introduced skeptics to Web of Trust, rbutr, SEO strategies for combatting woo online, turning FourSquare into a skeptical tool, donotlink.com, Lanyard, the FOIA Machine, and dozens of other applications that can help us do skeptical work. Further, he has created WhatsTheHarm.net, a huge and growing searchable database that chronicles the consequences of superstitious and otherwise sloppy thinking. Like Snopes.com, it should be a standard reference work of skepticism. I’m seriously considering making little wristbands that ask, “What Would Tim Farley Do?”

Last words. I ask people to review Phil Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” speech. Go back and read Ray Hyman’s wonderful “Proper Criticism,” which outlines principles of productive argument. Steal a copy of Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), if necessary. And the next time you engage with a skeptic you strongly disagree with online, for the love of god imagine that Eugenie Scott is sitting right next to you. Our opponents, our REAL opponents, are not going to call a time-out so that skeptics can sort out their quarrels. If you are letting purveyors of woo advance their arguments unchallenged, whatever else it is you are doing, it’s not skepticism.

RJB

20 Responses to What’s Right with Skepticism?

  1. shanepbrady says:

    Bob,

    This is awesome and a great reminder of all the good that is happening. We don’t need to look towards the “big” (big in quotes because these organizations are surprisingly small in actual people) to see great skepticism happening.

  2. Goran Hammarstrom says:

    You say Australia is doing something right. Yes, but not in politics. The two big parties are trying to win votes at the coming election by talking nonsense about low taxes and no budget deficit. Revenue is between 20 and 25 % of GDP. In Sweden it is about 50 %. If one does not want to pay, what one gets is a mediocre country. Economists try to tell people how wrong they are but people do not listen. Could a stronger sceptical movement attacking political misconceptions help? GH

    • Bob says:

      I like to thinks so. Political questions are often contingent and could be answered correctly in several ways because they involve social norms and morals. But I can’t see that you’d have a worse situation for making decisions that made best use out of evidence. :)

  3. sgerbic says:

    Love you too Bob. And don’t forget about the Skeptic Action project, so much potential with so little effort. We can change the world, we have to win, we are the good guys.

    Mark Edward has been saying the same thing for (how long has this in-fighting been going on now?) years. Psychics are taking advantage of our distraction. Keep it up skeptics, lets keep loosing sight of the big picture. We are becoming the laughing stock of social movements.

    Divided and directionless.

  4. S. Madison says:

    You can steal a copy of “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, or you could attend one of our local meetups where we give all first time attendees a copy of that book as a gift. :-) It should be at the top of every skeptic’s reading list.

    Thanks for the reminder of the positive things being done by skeptics every day all over the world.

  5. Thanks Bob. Between this and the great camping trip with Kitsap Skeptics this weekend my faith is restored. (har!).

  6. […] when I read Bob Blaskiewicz’s blog post, “What’s Right With Skepticism” I felt […]

  7. Also, Camp Quest? An expanding group of secular summer camps with a focus on skepticism and critical thinking?

  8. Bob says:

    Added. Thanks!

  9. […] Bob worked through some issues this week in a post at Skeptical Humanities: http://skepticalhumanities.com/2013/08/17/whats-right-with-skepticism/ […]

  10. […] What’s Right with Skepticism? (skepticalhumanities.com) […]

  11. […] What’s Right with Skepticism? (skepticalhumanities.com) […]

  12. […] What’s Right with Skepticism? (skepticalhumanities.com) […]

  13. […] What’s Right with Skepticism? (skepticalhumanities.com) […]

  14. […] What’s Right with Skepticism? (skepticalhumanities.com) […]

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