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The Paradoxical Future of Skepticism

Article

Daniel Loxton

Volume 33.6, November / December 2009

Like many skeptics, I’m preoccupied by one question: “How do we take this thing to the next level?” I have an answer to propose. If skepticism is truly to come of age, to move forward—if skepticism is really to help—we must embrace a kind of paradox. In my opinion, the road ahead is both more amateur and more professional.

In the early days, skepticism was like a trail through the deep woods. Traditional skeptics’ organizations were the only guides; by publishing skeptical magazines and books, organizations effectively were skepticism. As skepticism attracted more people, an oxymoron began to emerge: skepticism became a sort of centrally controlled popular movement. This situation was tied to technology, and it was destined to change.

It takes funded organizations to promote skepticism through expensive, high-risk means such as magazines and printed books. By contrast, the past decade (and the past five years in particular) have brought digital communication tools that make publishing and networking easy and cheap for grassroots skeptics everywhere. No longer restricted to specialist organizations, the trail is now shared by the thousands of amateur enthusiasts, social networks, and independent projects that make up the popular movement of skepticism.

This changes everything. It’s true that digital outreach may bring new grassroots support to traditional skeptical organizations, but realizing that potential requires facing up to a more fundamental shift: traditional skeptical organizations are no longer the default leaders of the popular movement. Indeed, new skeptics may not even realize the traditional skeptical groups exist.

The new wave of skeptics is comprised of children of the Internet who find skepticism first through online sources (such as iTunes or Google) where they happen across independent skeptical efforts (blogs like Pharyngula or podcasts like The Skeptics Guide to the Universe). From there they branch off to other online sources (other podcasts, especially) and communities (such as the James Randi Educational Foundation [JREF] Forum or the skeptical presence within social networks like Facebook or Twitter).

For these skeptics, traditional print sources (like Skeptic or the Skeptical Inquirer) are not the automatic flagships of skepticism but rather afterthoughts—perhaps welcome as further reading but frequently off the radar altogether. Explosive grassroots growth thus comes at a cost. New skeptics may have little-to-no knowledge of the decades-long literature and hard-won lessons of skepticism. Some may not even be interested in learning about it. Nonetheless, communication technologies allow anyone to mouth off in the name of “skepticism,” even with minimal experience or expertise. This can lower the bar for quality, tarnish our public face, and offer further cover for fringe pseudo-skeptical elements (such as climate change deniers). That’s the bad news; an amateur movement is necessarily burdened with some degree of amateurism.

But the good news is so good that it’s worth almost any cost: thousands of people are actively taking up the call to skeptical activism in a distributed-yet-networked fashion that is qualitatively different from all that has come before. Many are young (astonishingly, given the traditional demographics of skepticism), and many are women. Some are natural, powerful new leaders who might never have discovered skepticism without the new digital tools. All bring their ideas—some of which are spectacularly good ideas—to the table.

The Change Is Upon Us

This change has already happened. How can traditional groups come to grips with this new distributed grassroots skepticism?

For some, an essential step must be to give up on the dream of a unified, centralized rationalist movement—and to give up the hard feelings and sense of schism that was so often the result. Personally, I don’t believe that unification was ever particularly desirable, but in any event, that ship has sailed. Or, rather, ships: the reality we are faced with is a flotilla of national, regional, and local skeptical organizations (plus all manner of humanist, atheist, and rationalist groups) moving independently and chaotically yet roughly in parallel. Some groups are larger and more influential than others, of course—there are aircraft carriers as well as rowboats—but the variety of organizations, efforts, projects, and mandates is dizzying. Traveling with those groups, variously leading or following in their wake, are many thousands of individual grassroots skeptics tethered by an ever-shifting maze of networking tools (from Skeptics in the Pub to Twitter).

How can this ragtag fleet accomplish anything? How can existing skeptics’ groups help it to do so? I think there are several answers to this.

First, skeptics must set aside the conceit that our goal is a cultural revolution or the dawning of a new Enlightenment. That concept resonates with me as powerfully as it does with anyone, but it is a dream with a bitter price: exhaustion and disappointment. After decades of labor, the horizon is just as far away as ever. When we focus on that distant, receding, and perhaps illusory goal, we fail to see the practical good we can do, the harm-reduction opportunities right in front of us. The long view subverts our understanding of the scale and hazard of paranormal beliefs,1 leading to sentiments that the paranormal is “trivial” or “played out.” By contrast, the immediate, local, human view—the view that asks “Will this help someone?”—sees obvious opportunities for every local group and grassroots skeptic to make a meaningful difference.

Second, we should recognize that the long-standing isolation-versus-unification conundrum is a false dichotomy. There are practically infinite opportunities for skeptical organizations to help each other toward our common goals, even as we diverge on areas of specialty or points of policy. Skeptics, like other groups, have their huffy schisms, but there is good news on this front, too: buoyed by grassroots enthusiasm and innovative independent projects, skeptical groups are more cooperative now than ever before. Old wounds are healing; new connections are being forged. There’s something in the air: a hopefulness and sense of purpose that wasn’t there even five years ago. (And I have to say that it feels wonderful.)

This brings us to the third point. It’s not just that there are more grassroots skeptics. Here I must borrow a slogan from crowd-sourcing guru Clay Shirky: “More is different.”2 Yes, more supporters widen the net for the discovery of new activist leaders and breakthrough ideas, but the real untapped power of the new grassroots skepticism is its vast global distribution and its potential for collective action.

In the past, skeptical groups have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of paranormal industries and pseudoscientific claims. The few skeptics were all required to know something about everything, with the result that general remarks were often the best we could manage in response to specific claims. Now, suddenly, the community of skeptics is large enough for many independent skeptics to specialize to a wholly new degree and to engage thousands of regional or particular claims. This is a profound change. When skeptics in every town and nation are networked globally, our resolution increases by an order of magnitude. This trend is already visible in watchdog projects so specific that they can monitor single paranormal claimants (Robert Lancaster’s Stopsylvia.com is a wonderful example) and blogs that focus on the skeptical challenges of a single industry (like skepticism in nursing) or avocation (consider Skepticdad.wordpress.com or Rationalmoms.com). This distributed, specialized, individual action should be assisted and celebrated.3

Different again is the power of thousands of grassroots skeptics to act collectively. This is the power of the “long tail of skepticism” concept promoted by SkeptiCamp4 pioneer Reed Esau.5 Not every skeptic can be an expert, even regarding a small, local mystery. Few grassroots skeptics are qualified to be investigators or spokespeople and fewer still wish to be. But most skeptics are sufficiently interested to take some small action if barriers to participation are low enough. Taken collectively, thousands of tiny actions can have enormous effect. The classic example is Wikipedia. By making it push-button easy for millions of users to take occasional tiny actions, Wikipedia has become one of humanity’s greatest resources. This is unquestionably one of the key tasks for skepticism in the coming years: discovering ways to harness that long tail.

To these ends—practical goals, cooperation, and grassroots activism—I recently had the honor of presiding over the production of What Do I Do Next? Leading Skeptics Discuss 105 Practical Ways to Promote Science and Advance Skepticism.6 This free, sixty-eight-page ebook is formatted as a broad-ranging panel discussion in which thirteen experienced skeptics explore many possible avenues for grassroots skeptical activism. I submit that it is a useful model in two respects: it embodies generous collaboration and assistance across institutional boundaries, and it takes the new grassroots skepticism seriously.

The What Do I Do Next? panelists represent a fair cross-section of skeptical thought (including leaders from several national skeptics’ groups and five leading podcasts). It was inspiring to see so many groups and independents come together eagerly to openly share notes and promote grassroots activism. I take that as a wonderfully symbolic event—and as a road map.

More Professional

If independent amateur activism increasingly defines the road ahead, does this make traditional skeptical groups obsolete? Is their role merely to prop up amateur efforts? Are skeptical magazines, as some suggest, irrelevant?

No. I think the exact opposite is true. In my opinion, this is a watershed moment for traditional skeptical organizations, the moment when we start to really come into our own. As amateurs take up more of the burden of skeptical activism, organizations are increasingly free to focus on those things that only groups can accomplish. This is the paradox: the rise of the amateur skeptical movement makes professional skepticism a more important and more reachable goal than ever before.

Many tasks require dedicated organizations.7 In this article, I’ll concentrate on just one, a task that is among the most crucial: professional journalism. This is one undertaking in which traditional large skeptical organizations can and should remain the leaders of the skeptical movement—and in which they must dramatically improve if they are to remain relevant.

For decades, skeptical magazines have been rare sources for skeptical news items, opinion pieces, critical articles, and book reviews. Most of these pieces are unsolicited, unpaid, one-time submissions. They are rarely subject to detailed and expert fact-checking. Even with careful magazine editors, this process guarantees uneven quality, which is what we see: much good, some great, and some terrible.

More importantly, the reliance on unsolicited submissions severely limits editorial discretion and reaction time. When a paranormal story breaks or becomes visible on the horizon (as in the case of upcoming paranormal Hollywood movies) skeptical editors almost never have the ability to do the obvious: put a researcher or reporter on the story. This means the skeptical response is usually a dollar short and a day late, missing the news cycle and letting paranormalists frame the story.

I don’t intend any reproach when I say that. I’m one of the staffers working hard to make skeptical magazines as good as they are, and I think our efforts have paid off very well. Modern skepticism is built on this model, but today the field of possibility has expanded.

Where the skeptical print literature was once a unique candle in the dark, independent skeptical blogs and podcasts can now deliver similar unpaid opinion content at a similar level of quality, often with better production values and much, much faster. But skeptical organizations can (sometimes) do something blogs can’t: pay experts to pursue original investigative research.

Whether we think of Joe Nickell inside a haunted house, James Randi dialing into Peter Popoff’s secret radio signals, Michael Shermer speaking in depth with Holocaust deniers, or even a contribution as modest as Junior Skeptic’s archival sleuthing, there is a special satisfaction in seeing someone dig into a mystery in a serious, sustained way. The active investigation model that made Scooby-Doo a beloved hit is also the proudest (and rarest) tradition of organized skepticism.

At the core of the skeptical literature is a promise: “If you read this, you will find out what’s really true about weird claim X.” Skeptical magazines can aspire to keep this promise, to accurately deliver the best available science and scholarship, only when they’re able to identify mysteries, set experts to work solving them, and set other experts to work fact-checking the answers. That editorial power requires writing and research staff, which requires money—which is why only a small minority of the content of skeptical magazines is written by professionals.

Can skeptical magazines move toward greater professionalism? Can they find ways to support high-caliber, full-time writers and researchers, fund sustained investigations, and market their findings with professional design, photography, and illustration?

Money is indeed an obstacle. (As Skeptic co-publisher Pat Linse often points out, “It’s a miracle any of this happens at all.”) This brings us back to our paradox and to the great opportunity and danger it represents. The rise of digital, grassroots skepticism makes some of the work of skeptical organizations obsolete, but it also represents a huge increase in potential support for our core investigative work.

It’s no accident that the explosive grassroots growth centers on classic skepticism: podcasts debunking paranormal claims, Web sites fighting quack medicine, conferences examining pseudoscience, and so on. New skeptics are not bored by these core topics. For new skeptics (and for me) the fun of skepticism is in things that go bump in the night, and the ethical heart of skepticism is protecting the sick and the poor from callous exploitation by scam artists. The question new skeptics ask is not whether this work is worth doing but “Are skeptical organizations effective at doing it?”

If they believe organizations deserve attention and assistance, grassroots skeptics can offer two kinds of help: they can pursue independent skeptical activism in parallel to the work of skeptical organizations, or they can directly help those organizations by contributing money, buying magazine subscriptions, sharing Web links, and so on.8 Skeptical organizations have a mandate to be as effective as possible, so it’s responsible and practical for them to solicit this latter kind of direct help.

Can grassroots moral support be translated into the actual funds needed for better journalism? I submit that the answer is “yes”—if organizations send the right signal in a sustainable way. Skeptical organizations must demonstrate that they’re clearly focused on the work that matters to grassroots skeptics: solving mysteries, catching bad guys, and helping people. They must show that they share the grassroots desire to creatively and passionately work together to move the ball down the field.

In my opinion, the first step is clear. If magazines want the resources to improve, they must first communicate a decision to improve. It’s a catch-22, but the only way to send this signal is to act on it. Simple intention is more important than even money: skeptical magazines have not yet made it their explicit goal to evolve toward the reliability, investigative power, and production values of professional journalism. When this becomes the systematic goal—when skeptical organizations seize the forward momentum—the grassroots will respond.

Here at the crossroads, thousands of independent new skeptics stand ready to define the road ahead. If traditional skeptical organizations are to remain a central part of that definition, they must ask two questions: “How can we use our hard-won expertise to help grassroots skepticism reach its potential?” and “How must we change to deserve the help of the grassroots in return?”

Notes

  1. In an essay called “Where Do We Go From Here?” I offered the example of astrology. From a “culture war” perspective this is an utterly trivial issue, but, as the essay argued, “fully 25 percent of Americans say they ‘believe in’ astrology. For those keeping count, that’s 75 million astrology believers in the U.S. alone. Can it really be that this number isn’t vast enough to be worth our time?” Loxton, Daniel. “Where Do We go From Here?” 2007. www.skeptic.com/downloads/WhereDoWeGoFromHere.pdf.
  2. Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody. New York: Penguin Books. 2008.
  3. Established groups can assist independents in many ways, sharing promotion, resources, or expertise. The Skeptics Society, for example, invited the established independent podcast Skepticality to come under our banner as collaborative allies. The show hosts kept their autonomy while gaining our resources, and Skeptic gained a podcasting capability; both brands reenforced each other, and the overall goals of communicating skepticism were advanced in a non-zero-sum fashion.
  4. SkeptiCamps (http: //skepticamp.org/wiki/Main_Page) are small- to medium-scale, self-organizing grassroots skeptical conferences in which the audience members are also the presenters. The SkeptiCamp concept has taken off, with events taking place in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Austria.
  5. Esau, Reed. “Raising Our Game: the Rational to Embrace SkeptiCamp.” 2008. (PDF).
  6. Loxton, Daniel, ed. What Do I Do Next? Leading Skeptics Discuss 105 Practical Ways to Promote Science and Advance Skepticism. 2009. (PDF).
  7. Examples include lobbying, providing a central contact point for media, maintaining libraries, and launching sustained research efforts.
  8. For in-depth thoughts on 105 ways grassroots skeptics can either independently further skepticism or offer direct support for skeptical groups, see (PDF).

Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is a writer, illustrator, and skeptic. He is the editor of Junior Skeptic magazine, a kids' science section bound into the Skeptics Society's Skeptic magazine.