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My Personal Odyssey in Skepticism

Feature

Harriet Hall

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 40.6, November/December 2016

I discovered the Skeptical Inquirer shortly after its name change from The Zetetic. It changed my life. I had already rejected religion after reading atheist writings, but I was still open to belief in UFOs, ESP, and all sorts of other weird things, simply because I had never come across anyone who questioned those beliefs. It was a revelation to learn that there were other explanations for those phenomena. And it was a revelation to learn about the human psychology of how our thinking can lead us astray. Regular reading of Skeptical Inquirer educated me: it was equivalent to taking a college course in critical thinking.

Most people hate to admit it when they are wrong; I don’t. One of the things I most love about skepticism is the opportunity to find out I was wrong about something. It means I have learned something and have a better grasp on reality than I did before. I feel smarter, and I find that very satisfying.

I wanted to know more. I read skeptical authors voraciously. I attended CSICOP conferences as a sort of groupie, wanting to see and hear in person the luminaries whose books I had read, the intellectual giants who had become my idols. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would be on the same stage with them some day. It never occurred to me that I might have anything to contribute. Then, in 2002, I attended CSICOP’s Skeptic’s Toolbox workshop, and Wallace Sampson and Ray Hyman encouraged me to try my hand at writing. I had never written anything before. When my first article was published in Skeptical Inquirer in 2003, I was ecstatic. I kept writing, and it developed into a whole new career. By my count I have now had thirty articles and reviews published in SI.

I continue to be overwhelmed and astonished at the unexpected course my life has taken. I have spoken at skeptical conferences in five countries. I am an editor of the Science-Based Medicine blog. I have written for Quackwatch, Skeptic magazine (where I have a regular column as The SkepDoc), online publications, medical journals, and even briefly for O, The Oprah Magazine! I have coauthored a textbook on consumer health and appeared in several anthologies. And none of this ever would have happened if I hadn’t subscribed to Skeptical Inquirer way back when.

My main area of focus has been medicine, alternative medicine, and quackery, because that’s where I have something to contribute from my background as a physician and because I think medicine is the most important issue for skepticism today. Belief in Bigfoot and UFOs doesn’t directly hurt anyone, but false beliefs about health regularly kill people. Anti-vaccine activism threatens everyone’s public health. Desperate, vulnerable cancer patients are victimized by charlatans who persuade them to give up treatments proven to cure or prolong survival, get them to empty their bank accounts and mortgage their homes to pay for treatments that don’t work, and get the dying to squander their last days in Mexico getting coffee enemas instead of at home spending quality time with their loved ones.

Beliefs in bogus treatments are as strongly held as religious beliefs. One of the lessons I have learned is that evidence and reasoning have no impact on true believers. I don’t write for them. I write for the inquirers and the fence-sitters. Just as I had never questioned ESP until I read authors who questioned it, patients are not likely to question alternative medicine and quackery if all they have access to is what the proponents have written. My aim is to put correct information out there where seekers can find it to counteract some of the misinformation they are bombarded with. The culmination of my efforts is a free ten-part video lecture series on YouTube (http://web.randi.org/educational-modules.html) produced by the James Randi Educational Foundation. In it, I distilled everything I’ve learned about science-based medicine and alternative medicine into the essential information that I want everyone to know.

The proudest moment of my life was when I became a CSI fellow. It validated my work and meant I had been accepted into the company of the people I had so long admired. My appointment to the Executive Council was icing on the cake. It’s still hard for me to believe that I have become one of those people.

As a woman in the male-dominated fields of medicine, aviation, and the military, I frequently encountered sexist attitudes and unfair treatment. I wrote about my struggles in my book Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon. I never had any such struggles in the skeptical community. I was warmly welcomed and appreciated, and no one even thought to mention my gender. I was always treated as an equal, as a skeptic, not as a “woman skeptic.” I felt that I had found my true home and family. I’ve been very distressed by recent reports of sexism in the skeptical community because it is so at odds with my personal experience.

As long as humans are humans, promoting critical thinking will be a never-ending Sisyphean task. But I prefer to see the glass as half-full: I am encouraged by what the skeptical movement has accomplished over these past forty years. Skeptical information is widely available; skeptical organizations have sprung up all over the world; conferences have multiplied and are well attended; the media know who to call for the skeptical response to a story; religious belief is declining. On the occasion of this fortieth anniversary, I want to congratulate CSICOP/CFI and Skeptical Inquirer for all they have done to make the world a better place. And I can’t thank them enough for making my own life more rational, more meaningful, and more productive. I am bursting with pride to have made some small contribution to their efforts.

Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall's photo

Harriet Hall, MD, a retired Air Force physician and flight surgeon, writes and educates about pseudoscientific and so-called alternative medicine. She is a contributing editor and frequent contributor to the Skeptical Inquirer and contributes to the blog Science-Based Medicine. She is author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and coauthor of the 2012 textbook Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.