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Skepticism: Going out of Business?

The Good Word

Karen Stollznow

March 2, 2010

To Be or Not to Be—Is That the Question?

The main function of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE)1 is to keep evolution in schools and keep creationism out.

NCSE Executive Director Eugenie Scott once said to me: “Our goal is to do our work so well that we’ll eventually be out of our jobs.”

“You want to go out of business?” I asked.

“Yes. That’s the purpose,” she confirmed.

Some organizations aren’t meant to last. Or rather, it is hoped that the need for them won’t last.

Ideally, educational and relief organizations would not need to exist. To that end, some organizations have project plans, milestones, and deliverables. They have specific, achievable objectives, for example, the aim to teach evolution in schools and exclude pseudoscience from the school syllabus. Skeptical organizations endeavor to promote critical thinking in schools and society at large. But this last lofty goal raises a few questions, such as “should skeptical groups aim to go out of business?”

It has occasionally been said that skeptical movements should, like some other educational organizations, aspire to ultimately become redundant. I’ve heard a range of suggested estimates: that we should plan to disband in ten years, or twenty years, or fifty years. There are as many vague, unsupported predictions for the end of skeptical groups as there are predictions for the End of Times.

But there won’t be a paranormal and pseudoscientific apocalypse. There won’t be some sort of Hundredth Monkey Effect whereby we’ll all wash our skeptical sweet potatoes and critical thinking will disseminate instantaneously. There is no instant gratification. Skepticism is spread by stealth.

How will we know when our job is done? When homeopathic products are no longer sold on pharmacy shelves? When astrology columns are no longer published in newspapers? When the crystal ball becomes a desk weight? When the “Going out of Business” sign appears on the Church door?

The skeptic’s role isn’t like educating people about evolution or eradicating smallpox. There is no single task or single solution. There is no one theory or theme. Skepticism has a broad mission, and there are a wide range of topics that we need to tackle—constantly. We need to be vigilant. Often we’re putting out fires and quashing the myths as they rear their heads. There are ever-emerging fads, ever-shifting concerns, and seemingly “unsinkable rubber ducks.” Beliefs and practices evolve, and so skeptics must also evolve with our methods, our marketing, and our message.

These are changing and continuing challenges. But these complexities don’t mean that skeptics are misguided, that our objectives are hopeless, or that our efforts are ineffective.

Skepticism is an anti-propaganda machine that teaches people how to think, not what to think. However, since skeptics are in the business of changing minds, our effects are not always obvious. We need to be patient; our achievements aren’t always immediate but are mostly observable over time.

Our results aren’t as testable as the approaches we use to arrive at our conclusions. Often we only see these results on a case by case basis. For example, the Lancet’s retraction of the Wakefield study that erroneously linked autism to vaccinations2, the dissolution of anti-vaccination organizations3, and the victory of evolution over creationism in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial4.

Ironically, like the anecdotal evidence we criticize, the positive feedback we receive is often testimonial and personal. For instance, my mother ceased making her own colloidal silver after I supplied her with evidence that showed that this is an ineffective and dangerous practice. I was also able to help convince my friend with skin cancer to stop seeing alternative practitioners and start undergoing chemotherapy.

Often we will never see the results of what we do. Often we will never know the good we do.

But we do hear about the “bad” we supposedly do. The motives of skeptics are frequently misunderstood. Skeptics are stereotyped as cynics, naysayers, self-righteous snobs.

In the hunt to explain skepticism, some accuse skeptics of being antagonists. We are portrayed as adversarial, pitting James Randi against Uri Geller in a cynical sport. It was once said to me, “You skeptics thrive on people like Sylvia Browne and John Edward.” I replied that skeptical organizations exist because of these people; these people don’t exist for us.

Skepticism isn’t a game. I have yet to meet a skeptic who thrives on news stories like the one about a young girl who died of whooping cough because parents in her community neglected to vaccinate her on the advice of anti-vaccination groups. I have yet to encounter a skeptic who relishes family arguments about religion around the holiday dinner table. I have yet to find a skeptic who enjoys watching a psychic medium tell a crying widow that he has a message from her deceased husband. And I have yet to find a skeptic who delights in the unsolved mystery above the solved one.

We are dedicated volunteers and grassroots activists with humanitarian motives. Pseudoscientist Frank Sumption5 once disparagingly asked me, “Who pays you bozos for the work you do?” We are skeptics for love, not money. We are skeptics because a lack of critical thinking can affect our lives negatively. We are driven by ethics and by practical, real-world concerns. We want our children to be safe from preventable diseases such as polio; we want our education systems free from misinformation; we want our society free from superstition; we want to find truths and preserve them.

And we’re skeptics because we can’t live any other way; As Isaac Asimov says, we are skeptics “because we must”:

Why continue? Because we must. Because we have the call. Because it is nobler to fight for rationality without winning than to give up in the face of continued defeats. Because whatever true progress humanity makes is through the rationality of the occasional individual and because any one individual we may win for the cause may do more for humanity than a hundred thousand who hug their superstitions to their breast.6

Alternatively, skeptical groups are accused of being self-propagating. Some believers perceive us as skeptical vampires who feed on pseudoscience and the paranormal. It was once said to me, “You need the supernatural to justify your existence!” But skepticism fills a gap, it doesn’t create one.

There is a multi-faceted and ongoing need for skepticism.

Skeptical organizations and publications have a practical purpose in addressing this need. These outlets create a sense of community, raise awareness of critical thinking, examine beliefs and practices, and engage in activism, especially beyond our own groups. We aim to educate, motivate, and inspire the public to think—critically, of course.

Reading skeptical magazines has a practical purpose too. This isn’t like flicking though a gossip column while you wait in the foyer of your dentist’s surgery (where you are no doubt having those dangerous amalgam fillings taken out of your mouth). We are readers with responsibilities who walk away with an everyday duty to society and a personal duty to friends and family.

You warn your father that the grapefruit juice he drinks is contraindicated against his heart medication. You advise your colleague against participating in that multi-level marketing scheme. You gently explain to your friend that the belief he is dabbling in is more cult than religion. You comfort your frightened child with the truth that there’s no ghost in the cupboard.

We are all on the front lines of skepticism.

Is a lack of critical thinking something we can eliminate entirely? Have we effectively purged ourselves of credulity?

A self-professed “hard-core skeptic” I know praises the benefits of water divining his rural property during drought. He doesn’t invariably find water, but there are times he does, so it obviously works! Whether we buy lotto tickets, give acupuncture a go, or pop vitamins, skeptics are not immune to uncritical beliefs.

Even skeptics are really skeptics-in-training. There will always be something for us to teach, but also something for us to learn. We need to preach beyond the choir but also continue to preach to the choir. No one knows all the songs.

Skepticism is a work-in-progress for all of us. Just as there will always be a need for reason, science, logic, critical thinking, and plain old common sense, there will always be a need for skepticism.

Will skepticism go out of business?

I doubt it.

References:

  1. National Center for Science Education. Accessed 02/22/10.
  2. Bad Astronomy. AVN may be closing doors; Meryl Dorey stepping down. Accessed 02/22/10.
  3. Lancet Retracts Study Tying Vaccine to Autism. The Wall Street Journal. Accessed 02/02/10.
  4. National Center for Science Education. Intelligent Design on Trial: Kitzmiller v. Dover. Accessed 02/22/10.
  5. Frank’s Box: The Broken Radio. Naked Skeptic CSI Web column. Accessed 02/22/10.
  6. The Humanist Community of Central Ohio (PDF). Accessed 02/22/10.

Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow's photo

Karen Stollznow is an author and skeptical investigator with a doctorate in linguistics and a background in history and anthropology. She is an associate researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and a director of the San Francisco Bay Area Skeptics. A prolific skeptical writer for many sites and publications, she is the “Good Word” Web columnist for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the “Bad Language” columnist for Skeptic magazine, a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer, and managing editor of CSI’s Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Dr. Stollznow is a host of the Monster Talk podcast and writer for the Skepbitch and Skepchick blogs, as well as for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift. She can be reached via email at kstollznow[at]centerforinquiry.net.