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A Glimpse Backward—and Forward—at Skepticism’s Big Tent

Feature

Benjamin Radford

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 40.6, November/December 2016

The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer are celebrating forty years of organized modern skepticism—though of course skepticism itself has a long and honorable tradition, as practiced by Harry Houdini, Benjamin Franklin, Reginald Scot, David Hume, and others.

As it happens I have been closely involved with CSICOP/CSI for half of its existence, and therefore much of my adult life (had I been told at ten what I’d be doing at forty, I’d have considered that an extraordinary claim indeed). In some ways, the decades seem to have passed in the blink of an eye, and in other ways, it has taken an eternity.

I wasn’t there in the early years: the heady seventies when astrology was rampant and Uri Geller was cranking out the woo trying to stay one step ahead of James “The Amazing” Randi. My entry to skepticism came in the mid-1990s when I began writing for Skeptical Inquirer after seeing a back issue (with a cover article by Randi) debunking a certain famously ambiguous and wily French author. A few years later at conferences, I got to meet both Randi and Carl Sagan, and with the encouragement of those two pillars of skepticism and others—as well as a fortunately timed editorial vacancy at Skeptical Inquirer—I joined the organization.

One of CSI’s strengths is its broad array of expert contributors from seemingly disparate disciplines. When I give talks on skepticism, I often emphasize that people from any background can contribute meaningfully to our mission. I remember speaking to one woman who was interested in my investigations but felt she had no expertise, as she was neither a scientist nor an investigator. “What do you do?” I asked, and she replied that she was an optometrist—a job she assumed had no connection to skepticism. I mentioned several claims related to eyes and vision, including optical illusions and something called the “Bates Method,” which rather improbably claimed to not only improve eyesight through eye exercises but also chronic illness and tuberculosis. She left my talk with a scribbled page full of notes on skeptical subjects within her purview.

I have yet to have a person name an occupation or hobby that doesn’t have some angle into pseudoscience or paranormal claims. An auto mechanic can write about wild claims of improved fuel efficiency of “breakthrough” gas additives or devices; a dentist can examine alarmist claims about the dangers of fluoridated water or amalgam fillings; and so on. Anyone with a willingness to learn and share is welcomed. The fundamentals of skepticism are not difficult to learn, but they are often counterintuitive and require study. Skepticism is inherently multidisciplinary, and that is one of the things I find most intriguing about it. Magicians and psychologists help explain how we can be fooled—and how we fool ourselves. Folklorists help us understand how myths and legends influence our lives and inform our world views. Scientists help design, conduct, and publish research that tells us what’s true about the world. Skepticism is a big tent, and there’s room for everyone when people focus on the work rather than sowing discord over real or imagined ideological differences unrelated to skepticism.

My main interest has always been in investigative skepticism—specifically, applying scientific methods to “unexplained” or seemingly mysterious phenomena. I’ve spent more than fifteen years researching all manner of putatively unexplained phenomena, including ghosts, chupacabras, miracles, crop circles, UFOs, and much more. It’s a subspecialty in a rarefied field; there’re only a handful of people in the world who do these science-based investigations and conduct experiments testing paranormal claimants. There are other equally important roles in skepticism, but this is the one I’ve adopted—along with my writing, editorial work, and public outreach.

Any contributions I’ve made to skepticism and science literacy are owed in no small part to my being able to draw upon the wisdom and expertise of exceptional colleagues. Through my work at CFI, I’ve met a constellation of amazing people and personal heroes, including Randi, Sagan, Elizabeth Loftus, Jan Brunvand, Phil Klass, Carol Tavris, Martin Gardner, and others too numerous to name.

Sagan’s indispensable book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark opens with the quote, “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” To me this reflects not only the goal of science and skepticism but humanism itself: Instead of merely complaining about problems we face, we should work to solve them; we should investigate to understand the world and use that information to make the world a better place. Sometimes that involves explaining to the public why alternative medicines don’t work (even when they appear to); sometimes that involves comforting a terrified family by explaining that their home’s strange nocturnal sounds are not evil spirits. Skepticism benefits the world in innumerable ways.

Today, astrology is a bit of a relic, and Uri Geller has finally (if tacitly) admitted he’s a magician. But as longtime skeptics know, our work is never done. Discredited ideas and fanciful fallacies never go away but instead reappear as old wine in new bottles, repackaged in fashionable terms for a gullible new generation. Pseudoscience, superstition, and nonsense will always be with us in some form, wasting human resources (money, time, effort) and preying on the vulnerable. As long as there is darkness, skeptics will be there to fight for the light amid a chorus of curses.

Benjamin Radford

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Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author, co-author, contributor, or editor of twenty books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Bad Clowns; his next, Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits, will be out in Fall 2017.