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Editor’s Note

Online Extra

Ben Radford

Volume 33.6, November / December 2009

There’s nothing new about skepticism. People who think critically and analytically have been around since ancient times. Skeptics were even mentioned in Bible stories, often pejoratively (as in Doubting Thomas), though on occasion in a positive light (as when Daniel spreads ashes at the site of a supposed miracle to catch hoaxing priests).

David Hume, Benjamin Franklin, Harry Houdini, Oskar Pfungst, and others did brilliant skeptical investigations in earlier centuries. The modern skeptical movement was formalized relatively recently, led by pioneers such as Martin Gardner, Paul Kurtz, Carl Sagan, James Randi, Ray Hyman, Ken Frazier, Joe Nickell, and others—many of whom still proudly appear in these pages.

There are, of course, dozens more skeptics out there whose names may be slightly less familiar but whose contributions are immeasurable, from Robert Carroll and his skeptics’ dictionary to all of our columnists and contributors. Sadly, skepticism has lost many great champions over the past decade, including Phil Klass, Barry Beyerstein, and Carl Sagan, just to name a few.

Unless we find a way to clone Randi, Kurtz, Nickell, Hyman, and the rest (I’ve been told in confidence that a top-secret project of just such a nature has been underway since 1986 at Area 51), future generations of skeptics will need to step up, join the cause, and carry on the mission.

In fact, a new generation of skeptics is here—the YouTube crowd, the Twitterers, and the texters—and more are on the way. These kids are intelligent, engaged in the world around them, and think critically. The challenge is to provide them not only with support but a context for their skepticism. For, as Shakespeare noted, “What’s past is prologue.” Faith healers, soothsayers, frauds, and others have always been with us and always will be. Recognizing, through examples of careful skeptical research and investigation available in this magazine and elsewhere, that much of the paranormal and pseudoscience is merely old wine in new bottles will arm future generations of skeptics.

Skepticism has found new ways of spreading and new champions to take up the cause. We see many of them in this issue. Justin Trottier discusses how to effectively communicate skepticism and science to younger generations. Barry Karr brings us up to date on CSI’s efforts to reach out to kids, and CFI librarian Timothy Binga reviews some of the best skeptical books for children and young adults. Heidi Anderson gives a mother’s perspective on raising skeptical kids.

This theme carries on in articles by the Center for Inquiry’s own D.J. Grothe on podcasts, Karen Stollznow on blogging, Blake “Dr. Atlantis” Smith on skeptical Web sites, and Tim Farley on video skepticism. Reed Esau tells us about a new program called SkeptiCamp, and Daniel Loxton provides a follow-up to his insightful “Where Do We Go From Here?” essay about the future of skepticism, asking “What Do We Do Next?”

Today’s teens have never known a time when Google and Wikipedia weren’t available to answer any question (accurately or otherwise) with a few clicks. They didn’t grow up watching Cosmos or In Search Of (or even That’s Incredible! or Unsolved Mysteries); their television is largely cable TV dominated by mystery-mongering programming.

I grew up reading about real skeptical investigations by real people like James Randi and fictional ones such as Encyclopedia Brown and Scooby Doo. To modern teens, these are ancient history. To many of them, “skeptical investigation” is symbolized by two mystery-mongering plumbers who moonlight as ghost hunters on the Sci Fi Channel. Young people remain fascinated by the paranormal and unexplained, and they would be interested in the skeptical point of view if they were exposed to it.

The Internet, like any new medium, has been both a blessing and a curse for skeptics. New examples of woo-woo can spread across the globe in a matter of seconds, but with diligence, skeptical commentary can follow closely behind.

Every generation has wrung its hands about “kids today.” During my travels to a conference a few months ago, I saw near-constant refutation of the idea that “people don’t read anymore.” On planes, on subways, and in waiting areas, most people were reading. A few chatted on cell phones, but the majority of them had a newspaper or some best-selling paperback in front of them. Circulation and readership of newspapers and magazines has experienced a steady decline over the past decade, but the reading hasn’t stopped; it’s gone online and found new venues.

I’m also skeptical of the idea that people don’t write. Andrea Lunsford, a Stanford professor researching the writing habits of today’s youth, has found that young people today write far more than previous generations did. Much of it is in the context of online social networking (such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter); while this is not the same caliber of writing as analyzing themes in Animal Farm, this self-initiated, non-scholastic discourse is encouraging. Before there was a virtual outlet for an individual’s writing, many Americans wrote very little that was not required outside of academia, a career, or a diary. Just as comic books, graphic novels, and Harry Potter books may be stepping stones to more “serious” literature, kids who instant message each other may one day be writing, or critiquing, great works.

The forms and forums are changing, but science, skepticism, and critical thinking will always be with us. The next generation of skeptics—the activists and leaders of Skepticism 2.0—will forge paths ahead.

—Benjamin Radford, guest editor

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Benjamin Radford is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of six books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media Panics and Hoaxes. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.