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Why We Do This: Revisiting the Higher Values of Skeptical Inquiry

Commentary

Kendrick Frazier

Volume 37.6, November/December 2013

I want to give some brief historical perspective about the skeptical movement, take a look at some new trends, and revisit a theme I’ve emphasized before, reminding ourselves why we do this: the higher values of skeptical inquiry.

Known somewhat affectionately throughout our first three decades as CSICOP, the Committee was founded on May 1, 1976, at a major conference on “The New Irrationalisms” called by philosophy professor Paul Kurtz at the State University of New York at Buffalo. It was the first organized effort by scientists, scholars, and investigators from all relevant fields of intellectual inquiry, worldwide, to unite in exploring and combatting credulous belief in pseudoscientific and paranormal claims.

This, some of you may recall, was an era of rampant belief in astrology (“the Age of Aquarius”), Velikovsky and his planetary pinballs, von Däniken and ancient astronauts, birthdate-based biorhythms, the supposed Bermuda Triangle, pyramid power, and copious other unexamined nonsense. Uri Geller was everywhere bending cutlery and fooling even some physicists into thinking he had supernormal powers.

I covered that conference as editor of Science News magazine and the next year was invited to become editor of CSICOP’s journal, the Skeptical Inquirer. It has been my honor to have been its editor ever since.

On our thirtieth anniversary in 2006, Paul Kurtz himself did a major retrospective review of the committee and the Skeptical Inquirer (SI, September/October 2006). At the time of our founding, Kurtz recalled, “There was tremendous public fascination” with the paranormal and it was “heavily promoted and sensationalized by an often irresponsible media.” (I leave it to you to decide whether those conditions now differ.) “Our interest,” Kurtz stressed, “was not simply in the paranormal curiosity shop but to increase an understanding of how science works.”

We thus appealed to scientists and scholars to engage with the public not only in investigating popular claims that involved misunderstandings of science but in explicating the higher values of science and critical inquiry.

That broad spectrum of interest and emphasis still typifies us and most of the skeptical movement today. We skeptics do it all, investigating the smallest strange mysteries that fascinate the public while also explaining the powerful tools of science and reason and applying them to thinking about the broadest issues of concern and confusion in today’s complex societies.

Just as science is internationalist and scientific principles know no boundaries, the misrepresentations of science that concern us observe no national borders. It was fitting therefore that Paul Kurtz (who died a year ago, on October 20, 2012, at the age of eighty-six) always advanced an internationalist perspective. Kurtz was an international ambassador for skepticism and humanism and free and open critical inquiry. He tirelessly traveled the world and encouraged skeptics everywhere to organize their own groups. They did. In his retrospective he expressed “great satisfaction that the Skeptical Inquirer is read throughout the world and that CSICOP has helped generate new skeptics groups, magazines, newsletters almost everywhere—from Australia and China to Argentina, Peru, Mexico, and Nigeria; from Indian, Eastern Europe, and Russia to Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom, so that the Center for Inquiry/Transnational (including CSICOP) has become truly planetary in scope.” More nations can now be added to that list. We can of course debate to what degree this encouragement led to the flowering of new groups and to what degree they flowered on their own.

In his later years, Kurtz convinced himself—but few others—that interest in the paranormal had diminished. “No one is interested in the paranormal anymore,” he would proclaim. We would either demur or just smile. What had happened, I think, was twofold: First, his interest in the paranormal and pseudoscience had diminished, and he was now devoting most of his energy to bringing his profound vision of a positive, affirmative secular humanism informed by the findings of science to broader arenas of public—or as he put it, planetary—relevance. In a way, I sympathized with him; many of our academic colleagues blanched at even a semantic connection to anything paranormal—I didn’t like it much myself. In fact in September 2006 we on the CSICOP Executive Council took “paranormal” out of the name and mission statement of our Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, shortening the name to just Committee for Skeptical Inquiry—and unfortunately almost losing the acronym, and brand, CSICOP.

But second, the rise of the Internet and the proliferation of new cable and satellite television channels by the hundreds brought an insatiable demand for new programming with mass appeal. Paranormal themes eagerly helped fill the need. Paranormal programming wasn’t visible in quite the same classic way via books and newspapers and network TV that worried us before; it appeared now on smaller stages, but the stages had multiplied geometrically. Nowadays you can’t channel hop without encountering ridiculous pseudoscientific shows touting haunted houses and ghost-hunting, searching for monsters, mystery-mongering about supposed aliens and UFOs, or showing so-called psychics pretending to find missing persons or communicate with the dead. It’d be amusing if it wasn’t so sad. Interest in the paranormal hasn’t diminished at all. It just fragmented and proliferated. It is everywhere.

So psychics, UFOs, monsters, and their ilk continue to pop up like the unsinkable rubber ducks they are. But there have been some new themes since we began. Back then, “alternative and complementary medicine” didn’t even exist, at least not as a respectable-sounding term. We called it quackery or snake oil. Or bad medicine. Now it has become all polite and gentrified, and our medical schools and research institutes, funded publicly, give nods of obeisance to it, providing undeserved respectability.

Let’s at least adopt our colleague Dr. Harriet Hall’s term “So-Called Alternative and Complementary Medicine” with its acronym “SCAM” or just follow the clear advice of Dr. Paul Offit, in his fine new book Do You Believe in Magic? : “The truth is, there is no such thing as conventional or alternative or complementary or integrative or holistic medicine. There’s only medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t.”

But this “medicine that doesn’t work” has become an enormous industry that requires continuing critical examination. Thankfully many physicians have become active in the skeptical community, even leaders (many of them associated with CSI), and their barrages of critiques are now putting some needed skeptical balance and perspective on the matter.

Another new theme: conspiracy theories. Conspiracy thinking has always been around but not in the endemic way in which it now pollutes almost every aspect of public discourse. Conspiracies about what? Just about everything.

Distrust in government and all public institutions is at high levels, not without some reason, but conspiratorial thinking is not just due to that. It is a way of not thinking. It is a pernicious way of shaping a preconceived personal worldview so that it is immune from criticism. Absence of evidence for the theory is perceived as evidence of the conspiracy (to withhold the evidence). That is not critical thinking. That is the opposite of critical thinking. (And yes, we all know there are real conspiracies in the world; critical thinking is required to separate them from imagined ones.)

The new challenge to scientific skepticism I found most surprising was opposition to climate science. Climate scientists’ findings that the Earth is warming and that that this warming is likely to continue for the foreseeable future due to the steady increase of greenhouse gases seems to most of us straightforward science. But, as you know, the conclusions have engendered passionate opposition, even denial in some quarters. Because of this gap between scientific evidence and public perception, we’ve been involved with this topic in the Skeptical Inquirer since 2007. This topic differs from the others because a few of our fellow skeptics are among the critics of climate science. No science is perfect, especially a young science like climatology, but its findings are far more robust than its critics want to admit. We have tried to be respectful of those skeptic colleagues who honestly question the findings of climate science; they think, I am sure, that they are being good skeptics. (In this case I’d prefer to call them contrarians.) But I believe they are seeing the science through their own ideological filters. . . and that can be dangerous. Especially so when in so many nonscientific forums they seem to trust the science is being denigrated and distorted and opposition to it is being encouraged by some of the same powerful political propaganda machines that have supported the tobacco lobby in the past and continue to fund creationists today.

Another new strand is apocalyptic thinking. Whether global contagions, environmental collapse, collisions with nonexistent rogue planets, alien invasions, or zombies, something ends our world and civilization. Perhaps this is a subset of conspiracy thinking. In any event it is endemic in our popular culture at the moment, and I worry, just a bit anyway, about the effect on young people growing up with the idea, formerly confined mostly to religious zealots, that the world has no future.

So those are some new current strands to go along with the old, perennial ones that constantly crop up using new terms and new disguises, as when “Intelligent Design” tried (ultimately unsuccessfully) to replace old-fashioned creationism or “anomalous cognition” was proffered for claims of psychic powers.

But again, our interest has never been just debunking the paranormal or exposing the delusions of its promoters and followers. Instead it is to encourage an appreciation for the scientific outlook, with its innate initial open-minded skepticism toward new claims to knowledge, its creative tools for teasing out the truths about nature, and its reliance on high-quality evidence and informed peer criticism in assessing the results.

Some of these larger topics and issues, as I wrote when announcing our new Committee for Skeptical Inquiry name (SI, January/February 2007), include:

…how our beliefs in such things arise, how our minds work to deceive us, how we think, how our critical thinking capabilities can be improved, what are the answers to certain uninvestigated mysteries, what damage is caused by uncritical acceptance of untested claims, how critical attitudes and scientific thinking can be better taught, how good science can be encouraged and bad science exposed, and on and on.

As for SI and CSI, Kurtz always encouraged these efforts to broaden our scope and apply the tools of scientific inquiry to newly emerging issues where there is public confusion and where the tools of evidence-based skepticism and critical thinking can be of service. As he said, “We originally criticized pseudoscientific, paranormal claims because we thought that they trivialized and distorted the meaning of genuine science.” (That was my concern as well.) But, he continued, “Many of the attacks on the integrity and independence of science today come from powerful political-theological-moral doctrines.”

Likewise, as I have written in a Skeptical Inquirer essay, “In Defense of the Higher Values” (July/August 2006), the new areas we are concerned about “arise from deep-seated ideologies. They arise from a dangerous capturing of mainstream, liberal, open-minded religious viewpoints by those with far more extreme, narrow, rigid, authoritarian religious viewpoints. They arise from a devoted determination to impose those viewpoints on everyone else.” (Both Kurtz’s SI essay I’ve been referring to and mine are reprinted in our latest SI anthology, Science Under Siege, Prometheus Books 2009.)

These attacks are on the open-minded tolerance of others different from oneself; on education and the love of learning and the quest for new knowledge; on a free and open society’s distrust of dogma and authority; on freedom of expression and a clear separation of church and state; on the basic rights of women to make their own choices; and on a deep appreciation of education as a progressive force for enlightenment and improvement.

So what we science-minded skeptics are defending here goes way beyond any of the specific bizarre ideas, trumped-up mysteries, or misperceptions or misrepresentations of the real world we may critique. What we are defending, I have written before and I reiterate here, are hard-won concepts essential to a free and open society—if that society is to have well-informed citizens capable of making wise decisions in a complex technological world. Among them:

• Reason and rationality.

• Respect for the scientific outlook.

• The skeptical attitude, a key component of scientific thinking, with its obligations to put all new assertions to tests of empirical evidence.

• The traditions of learning—real learning, deep and broad, and unfettered.

• The deepest traditions of democracy—valuing individual freedom, human dignity and rights, and treasuring the free and open interplay of ideas.

So when we get tired, or discouraged, take heart that our travail has purpose and meaning. And we can draw inspiration from others facing challenges far beyond ours. Consider the courageous example of Malala Yousafzai. Malala is the sixteen-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head last year by the Taliban for advocating the education of girls.

At the United Nations in July, Malala said she is not against anyone, she is for “the education of girls and boys, especially the children of the Taliban.”

“The extremists are afraid of books and pens,” she said. “The power of education frightens them. . . .The power of the voice of women frightens them. . . . Let us wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty, and terrorism and let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons.”

I am not suggesting that skeptics plunge into these kinds of life-and-death situations. (Some do, like Malala, and have paid a big price, witness the August 20 murder of Indian rationalist and skeptic Dr. Naredra Dabholkar.) My point is that skepticism, and its advocacy of learning and critical thought, exists along a continuum that includes crucially meaningful matters.

If this sixteen-year-old can endure and enlighten and inspire on the world stage, we can forge ahead with our modest efforts to bring a modicum of reason and rationality to a modern world still fighting ancient strands of ignorance and intolerance.

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Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.