More Options

Skepticism Reloaded

Feature

Amardeo Sarma

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 42.4, July / August 2018


Forty-two years have passed since the birth of CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (now the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, CSI), and its magazine, Skeptical Inquirer. Soon after its birth, there was a wave of skepticism across the globe. A great visionary was at the center of the explosion: Paul Kurtz, a philosophy professor who saw skepticism as a global worldwide endeavor. The Australian Skeptics took off in 1980 with Mark Plummer as president. A decade later, in the mid-1980s, CSICOP encouraged skeptics all over the world to form their own groups.

Mark Plummer, then executive director of CSICOP, and Wendy Grossman, founder of the magazine The Skeptic in the United Kingdom, toured Europe in this mission, resulting in many new groups.

Paul Kurtz also defined skepticism as he saw fit for the movement in his book The New Skepticism (1992). This variant is what we would now call “scientific skepticism.” It is distinct from the ancient Greek variety of skepticism that denied that we could acquire knowledge and wanted us not to take a stand—to suspend judgment.

Skeptics today do take a stand. They insist on skeptical inquiry, which is at the core of scientific research, as a fundamental and indispensable tool. At the same time, they also acknowledge that the body of science represents reliable knowledge of a real world. More importantly, they stand up and advocate for what we know about science and pseudoscience, even when others (including friends and colleagues) frown on us. Skeptics today are committed to scientific realism.

Initially, the movement focused mainly on fringe science claims ignored by the scientific establishment. A decade ago, Kendrick Frazier, editor of Skeptical Inquirer, extended the scope. In the book Science under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience (2009), he put the defense of science itself on the map. Publications and events organized by skeptics had been increasingly taking up anthropogenic global warming, GMOs, and the anti-vaccination movement. Conspiracy theories are a recent addition. (See also Frazier’s Commentary “In Troubled Times, This is What We Do,” Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 2018.)

With the twenty-first–century trend of “alternative facts” well underway, the time is ripe for revitalizing a vision for the future.

We need to begin by framing our cause and our identity as skeptics worldwide. Let us start from the very core.

Why Do We Do What We Do?

Why do we bother? What drives us? Do we enjoy showing that others are wrong? Or do we want to show that we are somehow better than others who we believe to be ignorant?

The answer is central to the skeptical movement. It defines the ambition of contemporary skepticism.

Our overall goal and vision must be at the very core of our motivation, at what drives us. Let us take an example from someone who set out to change the world, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He had a dream. What is ours?

We strive for a world in which pseudoscientific claims do not deceive or harm anyone.

Our motivation also defines what we are concerned with: unfounded, unscientific, pseudoscientific, antiscientific, or plainly false claims. With our tools of skeptical inquiry and with the background of reliable, scientific knowledge, we do not want such false claims to fool or deceive us or others and thus harm us or withhold benefits from us. By doing so, we also want to better understand the world around us and the mechanisms by which our wishful thinking leads us astray.

So how do we reach our goals or strive to fulfil our dream? How do we limit deception and harm caused by pseudoscientific claims? Most skeptical organizations focus on science and critical thinking as the best available instruments of reliable knowledge by far. Most would describe their mission and how they achieve their overall goals in some version of the following:

We provide reliable information on claims that contradict science and the tools of skeptical inquiry to evaluate and investigate them.

Our vision and mission together define the driving values of skeptical organizations. They are the reason so many skeptics are passionate about what they do and spend so much of their time and money for skepticism instead of for themselves and their own benefit. We need these values to motivate us and others to action.

What Makes Us Different?

Skeptics are neither the first nor the only people educating the public about science or on what might be disadvantageous for them. We have consumer protection agencies, testing agencies and companies, science communicators, the scientific establishment itself, and information portals, such as ones on climate change.

It does not make sense to duplicate others’ efforts. There is, however, something particular and unique to what we have been doing and will very likely continue doing in the future. I see three elements that define our scope and approach:

  1. We take on issues on which others for various reasons are silent. Initially, these were limited to fringe science issues, but this has changed significantly of late.
  2. We focus on delusion, self-delusion, and wishful thinking that may lead us astray. It is no coincidence that magicians were part of the movement from the very start.
  3. We are truly nonpartisan and independent and know that every political, ideological, and religious inclination can lead to self-delusion in some areas. Even skeptics may fall for claims that they wish to be true if they do not remind themselves that they too have their political, ideological, and religious or nonreligious biases that could cloud their objectivity.

The reason we have taken up such issues is that others are reluctant to deal with them for fear of antagonizing people they need to work with or on whom their career paths may depend.

Our work is much harder than it would be in an ideal world because many of those who should know better are failing. Universities have allowed pseudoscience in their curricula. Too many leading scientists and renowned experts are silent when they should be speaking up. We often need to do the dirty work of others, as in keeping quackery out of medicine. Several NGOs have gone off course and have ignored science and evidence.

Alternative facts and fake news are not new. And even the use of these terms is losing its meaning when those who spread bullshit apply those terms to those who are more factual than they are.

As skeptics, we have a growing job to do, and this means much more work for us all.

Scientific Skepticism Is Central to Our Well-Being

Contemporary skepticism is about everybody, not just us as skeptics. It is about everyone’s well-being, now and in the future. Its approach combines science and critical thinking—twins of a sort.

As skeptics, we place our confidence in science as by far the best means to acquire knowledge that we can rely on, even on matters of life and death. We are also aware that we as humans have a broad capability to fool ourselves. This psychological limitation can severely damage us individually or the planet as a whole, and it can also prevent us from taking useful action.

The potential consequences also point to how we would want to prioritize our efforts. As a disclaimer, any prioritization should not discourage anyone from pursuing their favorite project or topic. Our success depends on enthusiasm, and we do not know whether a “pet” topic of today could become a significant problem years or decades in the future. People are best at doing what they love doing.

Many skeptical organizations are already prioritizing their work based on how much harm some areas cause or how much benefit they prevent. Examples are:

In line with a view on possible consequences and possible harm or denied improvement, global warming and GMOs have been rightly taken up.

Both prioritized and “pet” topics have led to a wealth of information worldwide that skeptics make available today. We can all draw from these resources and have done so in the past. The German skeptics reacted very quickly when claims related to facilitated communication came up. Their magazine, Skeptiker, reprinted an article by Gina Green and benefited from the experience gained in Australia and the United States.

Working across the Globe

There are now skeptic and rationalist organizations all over the world. But we also need networking between skeptics globally to help us all be more effective and efficient. Science has been doing this all along. This kind of networking must be at the heart of our future work.

However, it remains essential that we do not make the mistake many other NGOs have made. Every country and region has its specific problems and approach. The network of skeptical organizations must learn from each other and at the same time avoid imposing on each other.

These considerations also frame the ability and limitations of organizations, such as ECSO, the European Council of Skeptical Organisations. ECSO was formed to bring together skeptical organizations in Europe. Organizations such as ECSO must focus on facilitating the exchange of information, promoting the creation of new groups, and organizing events to bring people from all over a region or the world together. They can reflect shared values, motivations, and scopes, but they should not tell individual organizations what to do.

At every level, it will always be a challenge to achieve the right mix between useful consolidation and individuality to avoid fragmentation. Should we consolidate the movement based on language, country, or region? How large or small should these regions be? Those concerned need to decide how to solve this on a case-by-case basis, and I do not see a one-size-fits-all formula to solve this problem.

Skeptics Are Human

We have been fortunate to have all sorts of people driving the skeptical movement and ensuring that it moves on. Some are doers who form the backbone. They make sure that the organizations keep running, magazines keep being published, and events keep happening. We also need leaders who organize skepticism and keep individual organizations across the world together. Then there are personalities such as James Randi who inspire us all. A healthy combination of this diversity helps us all.

If we want others to see us as pushing a universal cause, we must also ensure diversity in a different sense of the word. Skeptical groups must have women and individuals from minority communities in visible positions. Increasing diversity requires particular and constant attention.

What we do not need are those who put themselves above the movement. When we do involve stars, we need to make sure that they will benefit our cause and not just use our common cause to boost their reputations.

However, it is unavoidable that, in the long run, we will have problems with well-known and lesser-known skeptics. Problematic people are not unique to skeptical organizations, but they are something that the movement, and particularly its leaders, will have to manage.

Being a skeptic does not mean that we are all good people. A few may not be. Similarly, some of those we argue against may have good intentions. Within skeptical organizations, we will have to be just and take action, defending those who interested parties accuse unjustly, as well as acting firmly on unacceptable behavior. We have to prepare for even unlikely occurrences and ensure that mechanisms are in place to prevent misbehavior such as sexual harassment. It is the job of the leaders of the skeptical movement to deal with such problems and issues. These issues will not go away but will remain a constant challenge.

Professionalization

One prominent limitation is that skeptics are all far too dependent on voluntary activity. We need more skeptics who can do this as a paid job. The problem is very often the lack of funds. Marko Kovic from the Swiss skeptics makes a valid point when he writes: “One of the highest priorities of skeptical organizations should be to generate revenue streams that are as large and as sustainable as possible” (https://www.skeptiker.ch/some-problems-of-the-skeptic-movement/).

There have been three ways to generate revenue. The first is via membership of organizations, which has been the prime source of income for the German skeptics organization GWUP. The second is via donations and bequests, which is the way other organizations work, CSI and the Australian Skeptics being two examples. The third is what almost all organizations do anyway: providing services and products, such as a magazine or events.

It is the first two that can significantly improve the financial basis of cause-based organizations. We have not yet been able to present our cause and why we do what we do well enough. Much more than what we do, we have to clearly communicate why we put in all our time and effort. We are unwilling to accept the dangers caused by alternative facts and pseudoscientific claims.

Skeptical organizations should not show themselves as primarily places for careers. They must build on our cause as the primary motivator, followed by the fun of doing things, with career considerations coming last.

Branding

So who are we? Should we call ourselves “skeptics” despite the negative connotation? Does it match our vision and purpose?

I think we should be pragmatic here. The term skeptic does often convey a negative association, and some use it in a way we don’t like. We oppose climate “skeptics” and refuse to accept the term in this connection.

At the same time, we as a movement have been known as skeptics. With any search on the internet for skeptic (or “Skeptiker” in German), we show up rather than the climate or GMO “skeptics.”

Not only will it be a waste of resources looking for a new word or brand, but this will also detract from our actual purpose and work. We have been able to establish the term scientific skepticism. What we need to do whenever we show up is to say, it is we who are the skeptics. The others are not. Let us identify our cause, our mission, and our community as skeptics when we do what we do.

Reform or Refocus?

We have come a long way since the 1970s. Some skeptical organizations started in the nineteenth century. The Vereniging tegen de Kwakzalverij, the association against quackery in the Netherlands, was founded in 1881. Comité Para in Belgium took off in 1949. There is a lot we have achieved, and we all have an excellent reason to be proud of it. We are here to stay.

But we also have much further to go. We should never be satisfied with what we have achieved; instead we must build for the future. As a movement and with organizations that are independent of specific or vested interests, we are more credible than most.

So here is my take on our future priorities:

  1. Get a consistent message out on the skeptical movement. Focus on what drives us and why we are needed. The “why” is at the very core to motivate and grow skeptical groups.
  2. Define a skeptic as one who adheres to scientific skepticism.
  3. Prioritize on topics having the most significant potential for harm, be it directly or by omission. At the same time, let those with a strong motivation continue working on their favorite subjects. You never know when they may turn out to be critical.
  4. Make use of the immense global resources of skeptics. Involve women and people from minority communities. Network across countries and regions.
  5. Support those who work under the hardest social and economic conditions, such as in Africa. Don’t be condescending, and provide advice only when asked.
  6. Make it clear that we are the people who are not committed to any interest groups and who will stand up for science and critical thinking even if it means alienating some of our “friends.” Our independence from interest and pressure groups is what makes us different. It is, as some would say, our unique selling point.

Let us make it clear that we have a cause of utmost significance with the challenges of the twenty-first century in view and that this requires support, both work and financial resources. Should it not be on everyone’s agenda to not be deceived or harmed? Let us get on with it!