In Troubled Times, This Is What We Do
I have often written in the Skeptical Inquirer about how what we do is a communal activity. There is a dynamic interaction between our authors/investigators who prepare our articles, reports, critiques, and reviews and our intelligent and curious readers, supporters, and conference attendees who provide moral (and financial!) support, information, ideas, and informed feedback. This is one of the decidedly cool things about the skeptical community. Everyone can contribute in some way.
And what is it we all do? Well, to quote the short version of the mission statement of SI and our Committee for Skeptical Inquiry that appears in every SI: We promote “scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims.” That’s all! Yes, that mission is rather broad. And that is exactly what we try to do. We bring all the tools of evidence-based critical inquiry to popular questions and urgent issues that fascinate, mystify, confuse, and befuddle people. We seek scientifically validated information about issues and assertions and then provide a clear evaluation of those claims.
We call this activity “scientific skepticism.” I often think of it as a field of intellectual and scientific inquiry that I call “Science & Skepticism.” It is highly interdisciplinary. It draws upon all scientific fields. It also draws upon everything we know about human behavior, individually and in groups. It draws upon everything we know about how we think and how our brains work. It draws upon the great traditions of philosophy, beginning with the ancient Greek philosophers who founded rationalism (a purely scientific inquiry into the nature of man and the universe), humanism, and the concept of the individual. And it also embraces history and the humanities.
Our quest seeks to understand not only the external world of nature out there but our own selves, what makes us human—wonderful and creative, flawed and exasperating. If we were an academic unit—say the [insert university of your choice] Institute of Science & Skepticism—we would have faculty from virtually every academic department including the schools of medicine, engineering, and law. But we aren’t just an academic enterprise. We incorporate nonacademic traditions such as magicians’ specialized knowledge of deception, investigative journalists’ tools for getting at the truth, science communicators’ skills in explaining complex scientific ideas, and skeptical investigators’ blending of all these skills. We do all this in the quest to find out what is true and not true about the real world—including ourselves. And then we present those insights to the public in an appealing, understandable way.
What could be more important? Especially at this troubled time in our political and cultural history
- when fact and fiction are being blended at the highest levels of government;
- where beliefs and opinions are accorded greater sway than facts and evidence;
- where important science-oriented federal agencies are now headed by people who are not only scientifically uninformed but are defunding and in some cases even dismantling key parts of their agencies’ scientific missions;
- where our political system is corrupted by “conspiracy theories and outright fabrication”;
(Lest you think these remarks are partisan—our effort is decidedly nonpartisan—I point out that that last item is a quote from former Republican President George W. Bush’s remarkable speech in New York on October 19 about internal threats to American democracy.)
- where longtime, legitimate, responsible, independent, mainstream news organizations are labeled “fake” and where scurrilous online “news” operations that really are fake disseminate intentional disinformation that too often gets accepted as true;
- where Russian meddling in our elections and in our social media causes further confusion and damage to our democracies;
- where pseudoscientific medical concepts and techniques have made deep inroads into our medical schools and universities and to enable that to happen proponents undermine the very idea of science;
- where genetically modified foods and organisms that can alleviate terrible diseases and help feed malnourished people in poor parts of the world are opposed by well-funded groups and well-off celebrities who think “organic” and “natural” foods are somehow better and not the product of a giant marketing industry;
- where religiously motivated leaders in our states, communities, and school boards continually try to sneak pseudoscientific, creationist ideas into public school curricula and try to prevent teaching evolution or even the age of the Earth;
- where a new flock of predatory journals that don’t bother with the conventions of scientific integrity openly publish nonsensical and pseudoscientific papers in the guise of science; and
- where, overall, a kind of Orwellian, 1984, Bizarro parallel world in which up is down and in is out afflicts our senses and deeply troubles our psyches.
We need independent, evidence-based, science-based critical investigation and inquiry now perhaps more than at any other time in our history. And that’s what we do. That’s what all of us in the skeptical community do.
We all must support critical inquiry and evidence-based thinking. We must honor those who do it, often at considerable sacrifice to themselves. We must gain a better understanding of how to encourage science-based thinking in others. We must help create a better informed and more enlightened nation and world.
Not just for us, but for the younger generations who succeed us. Let’s leave this world better than it is now.
It is the challenge of our lifetime. Let’s get to it.