Skeptical Inquirer Publishes Another Reflection on the Skeptical Movement, But Is Still Dwelling in the Past
The other day, I received my copy of the July/August issue of Skeptical Inquirer, and usually there are a couple of stories worth talking about. This time, I really struggled to find anything that really merited much notice, except for the oddball editorial choices in the current edition. Three separate stories covered a CBS News report about U.S. government efforts to investigate remote viewing, tied to the release of a new book about the subject, which the skeptical publication found insufficiently critical because it did not include sufficient numbers of skeptical rebuttals. That’s terrific, but the report aired in March, and by the third story, I sort of got the idea. It also didn’t help the magazine’s own credibility that it mixed up CBS Sunday Morning and CBS This Morning Saturday. I get that the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry is outraged by the 10-minute report, but given the sheer volume of fraudulent nonsense put out by the media, often in one- or two-hour blocks at a time, devoting three reports to this one segment grossly overstates its importance. No one, for example, holds expensive fan conventions around the world with tens of thousands of attendees apiece for CBS Sunday Morning the way they do for Ancient Aliens. No offense to Jane Pauley, of course.
And, yes, I do mean around the world. Alien Con is the American version of History Con, based in the Philippines, which celebrates Ancient Aliens in Asia. There are also Latin American versions in Mexico and Brazil. It’s actually an important and growing scandal that a major American broadcaster, the History Channel, and its corporate owners—the Hearst Corporation and the Walt Disney Company (through its Disney-ABC Television Group)—have essentially industrialized lying about history and export the fraud as a lifestyle to the very Third World countries whose people they allege were too stupid to have lived their own history without alien help.
But do tell me more about how CBS didn’t invite enough skeptics to comment on its 10-minute book report.
The report I found most interesting in the magazine was German skeptic and CSI board member Amardeo Sarma’s article “Skepticism Reloaded,” which attempted to diagnose some of the problems that have led to the stagnation—and, let’s face it, failure—of the skeptical movement in America.
The article begins with a hagiographic remembrance of the late Paul Kurtz, the philosopher whose legacy is less triumphant than CSI would ask us to believe. He was the L. Ron Hubbard of skepticism in a way. He did great work building the Center for Inquiry and what was then called CSICOP, but he was also responsible for the primal sin of skepticism. He forged the iron triangle of modern skepticism, namely that it forms one side with atheism and secular humanism forming the other two. By wedding scientific inquiry to a philosophical position and a system of atheist ethics, Kurtz undercut the scientific mission of skepticism from the start because he turned it into an effort to develop a lifestyle rather than to engage in inquiry for its own sake. The CSI convention, which this year promises “Bigger Stars … Bigger Fun,” is basically Alien Con for people who prefer Cosmos to Ancient Aliens. There are Trekkers at both.
But this is why I cringed a bit when Sarma wrote that skeptics are different from other advocates of truth, science, and reason because “we are truly nonpartisan and independent and know that every political, ideological, and religious inclination can lead to self-delusion in some areas.” The problem is that secular humanism is an ideology, so it’s great that Sarma remind skeptics that “they too have their political, ideological, and religious or nonreligious biases,” but how do you correct against a structural bias in favor of the leftist framework of secular humanism, and, more importantly, the utilitarian ethics that emerge from it and are adopted, often uncritically, as the test of morality and policy?
This isn’t really an idle question. CSI itself is a branch of CFI, which merged with the Richard Dawkins Foundation, and together advocate against religion and in favor of, basically, utilitarian approaches to government policy.
Sarma states that there are several areas where the current skeptical movement is failing and needs to improve. The first is leadership. He feels that leaders are needed to unite factions and provide direction for skeptics. The unspoken corollary: The old men who run skepticism and who have been running it longer than I have been alive (and I’m nearing 40!) need to retire. They are, at heart, out of touch with the modern world and still running their conferences, magazines, and foundations as though it were always 1976. This is not to be mean, but it’s hard to mobilize a movement when you think that you can create real change through academically dull, footnote-filled articles in a paper magazine or locked behind a paywall, with no real presence on TV, online, or on social media. Advocacy requires passion, and skeptics want to pretend that they are writing objective peer-reviewed journal articles for an invisible college of professors. It is, at heart, the trickle-down theory of knowledge. If only we give all of the truth to the academic elite, it will mysteriously trickle down to television and the masses. It doesn’t work that way. You aren’t going to win if you try to combat an impassioned, persuasive conman with a list of qualifiers and a wry pun.
Where I do agree with Sarma, however, is in his belief that skeptical organizations need to start paying people to work professionally on skeptical advocacy. It has to be financially possible to do the work needed to advocate for real change and to combat pseudoscience and nonsense. Imagine, for example, how much more and better I could do if someone were paying me a real salary to do it, and I didn’t have to work a separate job. Where I differ, though, is in Sarma’s rather morbid suggestion that skeptics mine the dead for cash by asking their elderly fanbase to donate their estates to skepticism. CSI sends me cards every few months asking me to put them in my will. I understand that many nonprofits do this. My local classical radio station does it, too. But it’s not a viable long-term strategy. The old will die off eventually. Instead, skeptics need to act like actual nonprofits and foundations and make it socially rewarding for wealthy patrons to be seen to give generously to the cause. Do obvious things: Produce new media content that you can monetize. Start an endowment to invest money and generate revenue. Produce open educational resources for schools. Have some idea how school boards work to influence curriculum changes and textbook selections. Hire some people under 40. Stop living in the 1970s.
The other area where I partially agree with Sarma is in his call for better branding for skepticism. We agree that rationalism needs to have a brand that will be instantly identifiable to the public. I’m not sure that the word “skeptic” really has all that much brand equity that it should be preserved and defended against rivals like vaccine skeptics and climate skeptics who doubt the findings of science. Granted, it’s an improvement over the movement’s earlier branding, zetetic, but in every case the mandarins of rational inquiry are coming at it from an academic perspective instead of trying to appeal to the actual people who, in theory, are supposed to be their audience.
It was therefore with some relief that I noticed Sharon A. Hill had a letter to the editor in the back of the magazine covering many of these same points. As Hill noted, there really isn’t any notable success that skepticism has achieved in the past four decades, nor does the word skeptic have any sort of brand recognition. “Where is the public outreach and marketing?” she asked. “How about more than a handful of positive voices promoted in the mainstream press? Where are the politically savvy leaders? Where is the modern media production? Where are the education efforts?”
I couldn’t agree more with Hill’s other most salient point: “Now is the time to be engaging the highly frustrated public with a compelling narrative for progress.” This gets back to my argument that advocacy requires passion. Most of the older generation of skeptics treat facts as though they were arguments in and of themselves, and rarely match hucksters and con artists in their ability to convey emotion, especially on camera, but also in writing. Or, in terms elite skeptics might better understand: In Aristotelian argument, persuasion occurs through a combination of logos (logic), pathos (emotion), and ethos (credibility). It is only by making effective use of all three that the goal of public education and combatting the lucrative but dangerous pseudoscience industry can begin to plan for success.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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