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The Skeptical Canon

Circumnavigations

Austin Dacey

July 26, 2011

It had been several years since I last attended a conference of skeptics, and I have to say, we look better than I remember—not to mention a good deal younger, more female, and even slightly less white. I recently returned from The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas, which boasted more talent and gender balance in its speakers roster than any such event I’ve ever seen. The halls of the South Point casino hotel were clogged with bloggers and tattooed science nerds. Penn Jillette invited everyone to party with his rock band. The conference program design sported a hipster aesthetic complete with ironical references to Ed Wood, the director of sublimely awful horror and sci-fi B-movies.

But more than these happy changes, what struck me were the things that have remained the same: the topics of conversation. Going to the meeting with no professional obligations and after a period of some remove, I could regard the proceedings with the eye of an anthropologist. Under that gaze, the remarkable thing was just how non-obvious, even peculiar is the selection of subjects that characterize contemporary organized skepticism. I will illustrate with an unscientific sampling of presentation titles from the TAM program: Defending Evolution in the Classroom and Beyond, Skepticism on TV, Problems in Paranormal Investigation, A Skeptical Look at Aliens, Placebo Medicine, and The Magic of Science.

The titles vary across skeptics meetings, but at the core are the now-familiar topics: psychics, monsters, ghosts, UFOs, creationism, alternative and complementary medicine, popularization of science, and, somewhat less reliably, false memory syndrome, communication with the dead, faith healing, doomsdays prophesies, conspiracy theories, climate science, fringe science, and science and faith. This combination, while not exhaustive, represents a kind of canon, a statistical mode of the set of conversations and at the same time a normative model of what is worthy of talking about. If the particular combination that makes up the canon seems quite unamazing and natural to those in the community, that is precisely the point. To the outsider, however, it can appear quite odd and contingent. What is it, besides the paper of the conference programs they are printed on, that binds together ginkgo biloba and El Chupacabra, cold reading and cosmic fine tuning? Why this canon?

The Founder Effect

I believe the explanation is primarily historical and social in nature. If I were qualified to speculate, I would appeal to a Founder Effect, to mass culture, and to politics. The founding heroes of modern organized skepticism, men such as Carl Sagan, James Randi, Martin Gardner, Paul Kurtz, Ray Hyman, Ken Frazier, and Isaac Asimov, brought with them a unique constellation of disciplinary backgrounds, talents, personal interests, and professional and social networks. This idiosyncratic mix—to which we can add the influence of the inimitable Houdini—was already fixed in the small initial population of skeptics before it began to expand.

Furthermore, the founders were responding to a particular moment in the popular culture and mass media—primarily in the U.S.—feeding public fascination with certain fashionable flavors of flim-flam. Reflecting on the 30-year anniversary of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, Paul Kurtz enumerated the objects of early efforts: Astrology, parapsychology, near-death experiences, fire walking, UFOs and alien abduction, past-life regression, and false-memory syndrome—to which I would add faith healing. These public fascinations typically had elements of pseudoscience and of the paranormal. They were claims that not only had thereto escaped rigorous empirical investigation, but that were purported to be permanently beyond its power and scope. They resided on the disputed borderlands of science.

The constituency that sprang up around the work of the founding generation constituted a cross-section of educated, middle-class North Americans and Europeans. In order not to alienate this constituency, the burgeoning organizations would gravitate around the ideological mean of their politics, avoiding extensive forays into political, moral, and religious issues that were deemed divisive.

The problem of the skeptical canon kept me up for too many late nights at the Center for Inquiry offices, where it was the subject of ongoing debate with Kurtz and my then-colleague D.J. Grothe, the ebullient former magician (and former evangelical Christian) who is now obviously flourishing as president of the JREF. The canon had two sources of instability built into from the beginning. Because it gave pride of place to those paranormal claims that had gathered a pseudoscientific fog around them, it could easily come to embrace other areas of pseudoscience or untested claims beyond the paranormal borderlands of science, such as herbal remedies and urban legends.

Furthermore, most first-generation skeptics took on two quite different projects. They would perform the public service of investigating paranormal and pseudoscientific claims, while at the same time taking on the monumental social project of promulgating the philosophical outlook that provides the rationale for this service: scientific naturalism and critical rationalism. But defending a scientific and rational analysis of something is not the same thing as defending science and reason, and an organization designed to undertake the former may not be best-equipped to undertake the latter. The U.S. Geological Survey provides the public with reliable scientific information about earthquakes, but it leaves the teaching of seismology—to say nothing of “the methods of science”—to others.

By the early 2000s, during my tenure at CFI, Kurtz was stressing a broad mission of “public understanding of science” that sought to “explicate the methods of scientific inquiry and the nature of the scientific outlook,” present “a balanced view of science in the mass media,” and “teach critical thinking.” The trick was to capture all this without falling into vacuousness (“The Pro-Thought Movement”) or paradox (“Working to Reduce Things That Don’t Exist Since 1976”). Once, a woman new to the area stopped in at the offices to get some travel directions, saying that she had seen the sign out front reading “Center for Inquiry,” and figured it must be the place to ask.

The Second-Generation Effect

During a TAM9 panel on “diversity in skepticism,” D.J. was again faced with the canon question. The panelists addressed themselves first to the institution-building challenge of attracting women, people of color, and members of GLBTQ communities. Do they feel welcome? Are skeptics talking about things that matter to them? And, as Debbie Goddard added, what are skeptics doing about what they are talking about? Such questions presented a prior institution-defining challenge: Must skeptics stick to the paranormal borderlands?

TAM panelPhoto courtesy of Hemant Mehta

It is critically important that the second generation grapple with the canon problem. When the first generation did much of their work, they did not do so as professional staff of skeptic organizations. At the time, there were no such things. They were tenured professors, writers, entertainers—people who had established and distinguished themselves in fields other than organized skepticism. They brought to their skeptical activism this external experience and social capital. The coming generation of organized skepticism is being led, or will soon be led, by people whose primary professional background is organized skepticism itself. The danger is that in looking only to a time-slice of the founders’ work, they will create a kind of cargo cult that carries on rituals of imitation instead of a living tradition whose continuity with the founders is based on deep principles.

On the other hand is the risk of “mission drift,” as Daniel Loxton calls it. As he reported on his blog, Greta Christina proposed to the TAM9 diversity panel that “there are testable, empirical, pseudoscientific claims embedded within the arenas of social values, political discourse, and yes, religion as well. . . . Skeptics can tackle those strictly empirical questions without a centimeter of mission drift, and without losing any of our traditional scientific focus.” This is a promising thought. But what principle of canon formation guides it, and what prevents the movement from taking on just any faulty empirical thinking? How does Skeptic.com not turn into Politifact.com or WebWD.com?

My point is not to pick on the minds at the JREF (James Randi Educational Foundation), who have shown themselves more than willing to enlarge the traditional orbit—for instance, the marvelous historian and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht has become a regular. The point is that TAM is attracting the most vibrant of the second generation of organized skepticism in North America. That generation is now passing through its puberty. Some are beginning to strain against the customs of their parents’ household. In part 2 of this article, I will propose some criteria that could be put to the development of the next skeptical canon.

Austin Dacey

Austin Dacey's photo

Austin Dacey, Ph.D., is former director of Science and the Public, a program of the Center for Inquiry and State University of New York at Buffalo, and author of several articles and books, including The Secular Conscience. He holds a doctorate in applied ethics and social philosophy and has taught most recently at Polytechnic Institute of New York University.