Guest Post – Is the Modern Skeptical Movement Actually Necessary?13
April 13, 2014 by kittynh
My most welcome guest blogger is Jon Clafin, a wonderful friend via FB and I hope to meet him someday. We’re only a state apart, and remember these New England states are small. Jon is a terrific upbeat person, but like the Tin Man, in need of a heart. Anyone who has not signed their donor card and also spoken with family about what you want to happen to your organs when you die….do so now before reading this blog! You’ll feel better, and so will a lot of other people when you do pass on! Hopefully not before finishing reading Jon’s guest post though. Thank you Jon!
Think back for a moment and consider the social and scientific climate in 1940’s America. I think that it’s fair to say that during and since that time, many erroneous (unscientific) ideas and unscrupulous claims have been successfully tackled and (last I checked) science almost always prevails. The interesting thing is that a vast majority of these erroneous ideas were defeated without the aid of a “skeptical movement.” I find this fact both fascinating and curious.
There’s no doubt that our modern skeptical movement has many great and talented thinkers. These are people from all walks of life who are truly devoted to reason, critical thinking, logic and evidence, but I argue that the modern skeptical movement may also present a backlash… perhaps a inadvertent backlash that (accidentally) can work to keep the purveyors of nonsense and magical-thinking in business just a little longer then they would have survived pulling their pseudo-scientific scams in the 1940’s. I’ll explain.
Historically, we have somehow managed to steer our way through the insanity of magically-based medical cures, creationism in the classroom, and many other silly and worthless concepts without boat cruises, political activists, glamorous dinner events, expensive hotel seminars, meet & greet events, paid lectures, pub meetings and book tours. Often these events simply regurgitate the same well-trodden material into the open beaks of those who already know and understand that material all too well. Yet, through modern history, we somehow managed to correct and even eliminate much of the incorrect silliness emerging from fledgling disciplines like magnetism, radiation, neurology, psychology etc. And we did this without a single hotel reservation, car rental or lecture… because (at the end of the day) the science takes care of itself.
Obviously there is no mistaking the important role technology and the internet play in all aspects of modern life, and I’m not arguing any abandonment of this extremely important fight. Skeptics correctly point to the expanding media as a vacuum that must be filled with accuracy and reason instead of magical-thinking. It’s a kind of crazy intellectual arms race and I understand this. But there is a fine line between getting the accurate word out and creating yet one more “blow-’em up” show for cable. I think we can all agree that the idea is to challenge magical-thinking while promoting critical thinking and reason to claims made about out world and how it works. Therefore it only makes sense to pursue the best and most efficient methods possible. However, I’m not so sure that we are currently doing this.
I believe that the modern skeptical movement introduces many complex layers of personalities, drama, raw unchecked emotion and political affiliations with every skeptical message we promote. This gives our cultural competitors a big juicy target to aim for, and takes the public’s eye of the actual argument. The way it’s currently done, the cultural or political affiliation of the skeptics becomes fodder. The debating styles of the skeptics can also become an issue. And the constant rehashing of UFO’s, crop circles, Bigfoot and ghosts becomes a kind of reverse Achilles’ heel for skeptics as it makes us appear like a middle-aged high school athlete frozen in ancient glories. It’s tired and we should simply move on.
It’s my argument that although I understand the lure; the lipstick, glitz and glamour is ultimately the wrong way to go –and I think history supports this view. I feel we should be doing actual scientific research showing the public exactly where the truth lies, and certainly not interviewing each other at expensive seminars regarding debunking claims that we’ve all heard and took place 30 years ago. Another MythBusters clone or full-color magazine will not help. The quiet steady and evidence-based hard work of scientists and non scientists will drive the point home like it has so many times in our past.
Consider that many working scientists at the cutting edge of the science we all point to aren’t even aware of the modern skeptical movement. Think about that the next time you hear someone quoting study findings to a Christian fundamentalist… chances are that the people actually conducting that study are completely unaware of how that data is being used by the modern skeptical movement in “promoting” science.
Think of the work that could be done by skeptics in addiction research alone… turning basic critical thinking skills to the claims as well as the development of solid answers regarding this research could improve the lives of millions. Instead we are running around slapping each other on the back and giving talks and lectures to rooms of people who already agree with us. I’m simply saying that maybe it’s time to roll up our sleeves and do some actual work and stop the self-promotion. That’s how it was done so successfully in the past.
I have to admit, I enjoy going to skeptic conferences….though do I really need to hear about how crop circles aren’t made by aliens yet again? I find friendship and inspiration for my real life work in the skeptic movement. The cult of personality, the lack of outreach, and the insular nature of some skeptics has been a problem. We need more real life scientists as speakers (which I’m glad to see happening at many conferences) and also more on how to incorporate skepticism into your daily life, without annoying all your friends, family and neighbors. So while not in total agreement, I do enjoy a conference though the expense limits my ability to attend many, I really enjoyed Jon’s guest post. It made me think! But reminded me that teaching others, and also knowing HOW they think is my goal. A recent study came out that showed that people were actually choosing NOT to vaccinate their children because of the controversy stirred up by skeptics (or in this case “the people that are really right”). It’s because more people that would have had this conversation just with their pediatrician find too many arguments and often opt for what seems the easy way out…doing nothing. I’m not saying these are smart parents (though often they are middle class and well to do, and certainly familiar with the internet). But that there is so much information out there scares them. (also not saying skeptics should not keep working on this important issue!) It’s learning how to reach others, and not just reaching ourselves (we know to vaccinate) that’s important. Thanks Jon, I love a blog post that gets me thinking….
At our workshop at last year’s TAM on “Preserving Skeptic History,” Ray Hyman made some very similar comments. He thought that all this skeptic-fying had had little if any real effect.
I don’t agree with that. Perhaps a case can be made that we have not accomplished a great deal, but I am convinced what without skeptic groups, the level of woo would be far worse.
I have to say also that people often laugh or wonder WHAT I do with alien abduction expereincers, or UFO believers. Until they actually get to know these people personally, and see the real help they need, and that is given…I agree it would be hard to see why we need skeptics working with UFOs, or Bigfoot, or ghosts. As long as Discovery has shows out there on these topics, which do NOT cover the reality of what it is like for someone experiencing what they think is an abduction by aliens or a Bigfoot attack….then there is a need for skeptics. The problem often is, the TV shows on paranormal topics are not reflective of the reality of the world of the alien abductee or UFO believer or even ghost hunter. Heck, it’s more Hollywood than “reality.”
[…] Is the Modern Skeptical Movement Actually Necessary? […]
You can always find a down side to everything. If everyone was put off doing things because of a down side then nothing would ever be done. People are social, even skeptics, and gatherings of like minded individuals tends to invigorate and generate many more positives than negatives.
Actually I really dislike backslapping, poking fun at those who believe silly things, and rehashing long won gains, but some people do, especially those new to the group.
[…] recent post on the Yankee Skeptic by Jon Claflin takes this […]
As an observer and participant in the skeptical community for over 20 years now, even during its transition, I have some opinions (and facts) that dispute this post.
I also, for a long time, did what Jon did in this post – confused science and skepticism. Until recently, I did not realize how totally different the two subject areas are. There is promoting science and there is promoting scientitific skepticism. I wrote this piece: the Media Guide to Skepticism http://doubtfulnews.com/media-guide-to-skepticism/ mainly for journalists who use the term incorrectly, but it also serves to clarify the differences for people new to this way of thinking. Please note that this was a collaborate document. Collaboration is lacking in the skeptical movement right now. There are distinct camps and cliques and not enough cross promotion. But that is for another time… The point is that this piece was not just my opinion but a sort of “white paper” for skepticism.
Jon mentions that we should do scientific research. That’s for scientists. English professors, historians, photographers, artists, medical professionals, etc. can do much more “impactful” work than scientific research that the public will not access. To suggest we do research is conflating science and skepticism pretty badly. Research plays a part but we all must play to our strengths. That includes art, humanities, legal and philosophy fields.
Finally, regarding UFOs, Bigfoot, ghosts and paranormal stuff, I would heartily agree with Steve Novella in his response to this post (http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/why-we-need-a-skeptical-movement/) that these topics are neither overdone by skeptics nor silly to address. I am one of the most obvious public “Skeptics” on these topics, engaging directly with believers face to face and online. There must be a counteradvocate to these paranormal advocates. The public LOOKS for them, the media REQUIRES them. These topics get HUGE attention in medial outlets. I can show you numbers from my own website, Doubtful News, that establish these stories get eyeballs. There is hardly BETTER teachable moments than talking about paranormal topics to all ages – kids through adults. I strongly disagree that we should ignore some of the most talked about topics in need of everyday skepticism. I’d also add there are many people who have come to skepticism because of being enlightened on these topics through the reasonable and very satisfying skeptical literature.
I have very little drama surrounding me as an active skeptic. In fact, many of the drama mongerers don’t even know who I am! I just do the work. Everyday. And I enjoy it and will keep doing it. I expect to be here long after their short attention span is expended and they move on to other aspects of life. It takes many individuals to make a healthy, successful public movement. Drama queens (and princes) be damned. They are a small, insignificant part that the general public knows little to nothing about. (I’ve asked!)
Enough navel gazing. The audience is the public and that must be the aim.
thanks for your reply Sharon, your site is educational and also fun. I enjoy visiting because you cover the “news” that we see on the front page of yahoo, yet often never get a follow up to. I recently had someone assure me that there are snakes in the waters of Iclenad that are HUGE. I realized she had seen the video of the net or rope in the water, and never seen a follow up. This woman is college educated, she’s smart, but she never got past the odd video of a “snake” in the water. We need to explain things, and take the time to investigate, in a media filled world of “who can be first”. (just in case anyone is wondering this is the “snake”) http://doubtfulnews.com/2013/07/the-damned-lagarfljotsormurinn-that-wont-die/
The “constant rehashing” of subjects like UFOs, Bigfoot and Ghosts cannot be avoided when the mass media, and the believers, keep bringing up the same claims, over and over.
[…] and kind to a fault. Most recently she posted a blog entry from one of her friends, Jon Claflin: Guest Post – Is the Modern Skeptical Movement Actually Necessary? If you click on the highlighted text, you should be directed to the Yankee Skeptic and the entry […]
I always wonder: Do you skeptics have it in you to be skeptical of your skepticism? It seems extremely biased to approach everything with the goal of “disproving” those things which you already disbelieve, and “proving” those which you already do believe… In fact that seems to be the very essence of bias! How unscientific of you!
I would say, if you listen to my podcast which features part of my talk at the Keene Library, I say when I help out the local Bigfoot Club, my personal opinion on if there is a Bigfoot or not makes no difference. I have to go into the investigation with an open mind. This is something that the “believers” also have to do. They like to see a broken twig and say “Oh Bigfoot did this, this is evidence.” I am “it’s evidence, of SOMETHING. Let’s note it, take a photograph, add it to our pile.” BUT… what I find most difficult about working with hard core believers, and I believe skeptics must do so respectfully, is that they do not understand a BIG PILE OF BAD EVIDENCE, is not worth just one scrap of good evidence, such as DNA. That’s why our local Bigfoot group, that I proudly belong to, does not waste money on drones or anything that will not bring in GOOD evidence. We have trail cameras, that are placed where a biologist from Dartmouth College suggested we place them, just not anywhere in the woods. We have DNA collection kits that we make up and hand to EVERYONE, with a short lesson on how to collect DNA evidence. We spent a large part of our money to test DNA. We know it’s important to collect correctly, because if it is degraded or not a good sample it will come back “inconclusive” which on TV means “New animal” and in real life means “It isn’t a good sample, so we can’t determine what it is exactly.” (usually they can make a good guess, as in “some sort of bear”). By having a skeptic as part of the group, I help them think of NEW WAYS of doing things. Like ghosts, and Bigfoot and aliens, the methods have stayed the same for a long long long time. Either we say “it can be proven” or you shrug and go “it’s a matter of faith.” Either way is fine. But be clear, only one way will science and textbooks and such accept something that is now considered paranormal and not “folklore” and that is with real proof. Which oddly many paranormal invetigative groups aren’t interested in finding. Many can’t even explain what good “proof” would be. The local ghost hunters say “well there is proof enough now.”