Your help needed: What do you want and need from a “skeptic community”?

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Skepticism: An approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence obtained by systematic observations and reason and applies tools of science most often to extraordinary claims (those that refute the current consensus view).

We are a small very loose association of like-minded people who are not always so like-minded. Priorities vary. Greatly. Some have left disillusioned because the community was not what they hoped or wanted. Some find the focus is misplaced or personalities get in the way. Is there a better way?

Out there are vast numbers of people who do not identify as “skeptical” but who apply the above approach focusing on evidence and reason. There are A LOT of people who value this approach and wish to see it used in health care (human and animal), the media of all kinds, and in policy and government.  What do they need? How do we reach them and start the conversation?

Consider this an open forum. I’d like to hear from everyone.

Tell me what you think is important in skeptical outreach, education and activism. What should be avoided? What audiences need to be reached? What are good approaches to try? What are bad habits to avoid? What turns you off of organized skepticism? What would you support? Please, let me know.

If you wish to comment privately and remain confidential, please send an email to me personally (if you know my email address) or to SAHill080@gmail.com. This is tough but really important. If you value reason, critical thinking and science-based approaches, please give this at least a few minutes of thought and communicate your opinion.

Thank you.

Sharon

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75 thoughts on “Your help needed: What do you want and need from a “skeptic community”?

  1. Wow Sharon, where would I even start? I can share a month of postings and maybe not still be done. Let me see if I can wrap it up in a paragraph or two. I’ll try really hard.

    My area is activism. I feel everyone online can do a little bit to help, some more than others. They just need to be identified as wanting to help, trained, encouraged and mentored. What people need to realize is that we are a small group of people who have a ton of work to do. The sooner they get over arguing with believers and embarrassing themselves with nonsense posts about how many dingleberries they earned on Farmer John’s farm the better. When they have put in a hours work toward the education of the masses then I’m all for them playing like they are still in high school. But we are adults and need to start taking it seriously. These people vote, they breed and educate their little ones to believe as they do.

    Just got the newest SI today and read Harriet Hall’s article about parents who do not take their children to the doctor, but they will go themselves if they have severe enough pain. But baby, nope. And have you heard that Whooping Cough is an epidemic in CA? Its hard to believe it but this nonsense continues and a lot of our community is too busy playing video games to care. There is time to play, I like to goof around too. But please give us some of your time first.

    If someone reading this says “how can I get involved?” they can always write to me. I have many projects and lots and lots of busy work for those who just want something easy to do. I also have much more involved projects. I have ideas for projects that are amazing, just waiting for someone to make it their own. susangerbic@yahoo.com

  2. My goal as a skeptical activist is to get civilians (those not self-identifying as skeptics) to think JUST A LITTLE MORE critically. I believe that if we can do that as a movement or individually, society wins.

    Generally the best way to accomplish this is either asking genuine questions (the Socratic method) or giving clear information with a dispassionate (not smart-ass) delivery.

    Finally, as movement more people need to simply DO SOMETHING. Not just talk amongst ourselves, not sit and read, but actively interact with the public to promote critical thinking and rational thought to the civilians.

  3. I second what Susan has said. If you aren’t in the community to get in and make a difference, then I don’t see much point really ‘participating’. Patting each other on the back is just a waste of time. Find a project you think will make a difference and get behind it. Start your own and use the resources available within the community to broadcast it. If others agree with you, they will support you.

    Please do contact Susan if you want to do something but don’t have the time or resources to make your own project. She has so much great work going on and can always use more help. I can always use more help too – especially if you like taking information to “the other side”.

  4. I think what I would like to see is more results driven skepticism. I’m on several forums and listen to several podcasts. We are often complaining amongst ourselves about credulity in the media, poor government regulation which allows health modalities like homeopathy and herbal medicine continue to be sold with questionable claims attached, charlatans are allowed to take advantage of the gullible unchecked for the most part.

    Yet for all the talk and the complaints so few of us actually do anything about it. When I make a post to say that I watched this TV segment that was totally credulous, and that I’ve written a complaint I’m lucky if a single other person joins me to write their own complaint. When the government is asking for recommendations and feedback on health regulations, where are the skeptics, who have good knowledge of the available evidence, to make themselves heard? How many people are going out like Myles Power to report of the failing of psychics, or checking up on Meryl Dorey?

    We also need to stop behaving like school children throwing insults around about each other in the playground (read twitter). If I wasn’t already part of the community there is no way I would want to be associated with that. It gives outsiders ammunition to dismiss what we do. We’re already disliked by people who don’t like their beliefs and ideologies challenged, the last thing we need to be doing is giving them easy ad homs and straw men to use against us.

    I think we need some less pretentious events, not everyone wants to attend lectures and big conferences. A lot of skeptics don’t like big crowds, but do want some companionship. We can offer more social events, skeptics in the pub without talks, just good food and conversation. We need non skeptical events for skeptics, video game groups, movie clubs, reading clubs. I think we need to emphasise that there are friends to be found here.

    Finally on a more positive note, we need to start standing up and owning what we do. We need to be proud of what we are trying to achieve and use every opportunity possible to demonstrate to the wider public why it is important, and why it improves people’s lives. We need to offer ourselves more to influential media outlets, because they won’t come to us. We need to stop being afraid of letting our friends know about what we do. We need to be gentle and persistent, we need to show people that we are a community, that we support each other, and that we want to support the general public.

    This movement was born out of compassion for the common people, to help guard against the charlatans and snake oil salesmen. We need leaders, we need people to set examples and show us the way, however our movement needs to move away from the cult of personality that has developed and start focusing on the every-skeptic, the average Joe who just wants to make a positive difference to the world.

  5. Anything I write will likely be seen as self-serving, but since you asked: It would be nice if there was more support from others in the skeptical community. There are a handful of very supportive and helpful members, a few more who will help out if you ask, some who will buy books and magazines, and many who won’t lift a finger to help or promote other skeptics’ work. In my articles and columns I have often cited, quoted, and referenced prominent skeptical doctors, astronomers, podcasters, and others whenever I’m working on a topic they also wrote about, because I think it’s important to cross-promote other skeptical writers to a broader audience whenever possible. Unfortunately it’s often a one-way street, and despite the fact that I’ve written at least one (and often several) articles and columns (and even book chapters) on just about any conceivable skeptical topic, I find that my work (and that of others I know) is very rarely mentioned. It’s not a matter of ego–my work circulates fine on its own–but instead a matter, to me, of good scholarship and respect for others’ work. This work is thankless enough as it is without being ignored by our skeptical colleagues as well.

  6. Something that comes to mind too is the fact that the movement could do with being a lot more internationally focussed. It’s disheartening as a non USA participant when people outside the US are mentioned on US podcasts and blogs as something they do becomes unusually prominent such as the recent Myles Power investigation of Psychic Sally. Many times these people are treated as if they just popped up, certainly it is usual that they weren’t known before this point. It is unfortunate because normally they have been doing great work for years. I keep track of skeptical events from all over the world where a myriad of people have made great achievements, these people could do with more recognition from those outside of their own country.

  7. Daniel Loxton

    “Skeptic community” can mean more than one thing. Clearly there is a skeptical subculture and social scene which comprises “a community” (or, probably better, numerous “skeptic” communities across a variety of languages, national borders, definitions of scope, informal social networks, areas of interest, and so on). But there’s also another thing—the ongoing project or research discipline of scientific skepticism—which is not necessarily the same as the loose subculture of people for whom the “skeptic” label has resonance. I tried to organize my thoughts about this distinction in a two-part post back in 2010, here and here.

    It’s the latter thing I’m interested in, personally—skepticism as work; skepticism as research into the otherwise neglected topics of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims; skepticism as a serious endeavor building on the efforts of previous generations of researchers and activists.

    When you ask what we want from a skeptical community, for myself I have to answer, “Everything that defines a serious scholarly field.” Focussed scope. Programs of ongoing research. Places to publish that research and discuss its implications. Organizations capable of organizing some of that work, and advocating for its value. Means to teach new practitioners, and preserve the work that has come before us. Peers who share my passion, and who can hold my work to a high standard. Conversations about practices and ethics. Collegiality.

    I sometimes think of astronomy and paleontology as models for the kind of community I’m talking about. In each of these there is a body of research, a scope of practice, and professional institutions. There are also a great many serious amateur practitioners for every rare full-time pro, and those serious “amateurs” routinely advance knowledge in those fields. And, in turn, for every serious amateur there are a thousand kids who love dinosaurs, moms with telescopes, dads who turn over stones on the riverbanks, and (most of all) casually interested people who simply enjoy popular updates about fossil discoveries or new developments in space science. Those communities are broad and tumultuous and complicated. But they’re not aimless. They’re grounded in shared purpose, shared subject matter, shared history. They’re defined at their core by work.

  8. I’ll reverse things. First, here’s what I don’t want: Count me squarely in the “less drama, less outrage blogging, less manufactroversy” camp. If that makes me a “Bigfoot Skeptic” to them, fine. But the drama bloggers screaming “check your privilege” do nothing to advance skepticism, or science advocacy.

    Next, while it’s easy to pick on unemployed/unemployable bloggers as things I DON’T like seeing in skepticism, here’s what I hope to see MORE of: Scientific Skepticism, with a consumer/public angle. Go after “The Food Babe,” or Jenny McCarthy. Hell, even Dr. Oz or Deepak Chopra’s nonsense. Promote “Cosmos,” and otherwise encourage people to see how and where Skepticism is positive. Really, as Tim Farley (I think it was him) who described it, focusing on Skepticism as “the intersection of science education and consumer advocacy.” More logic, more reason, less value judgments, all for the purpose of showing how it can help the public. I see it a lot in the running community: people spreading KT tape all over themselves, looking for “non-GMO fuels” for a long run, etc. General kookiness.

    Finally, I think we need to have a few more “Sister Souljah Moments.” I’m pretty sure Mr. Deity did it, and I know some other prominent skeptics have (gently) done so as well. But we tend to turn a blind eye to some skeptics who make wild accusations, claims, or who generally take outrageous positions all for the attention and/or web traffic. That type of behavior shouldn’t be excused or overlooked. It should be called out, and then actively shunned. Because the folks who engage in it are gaining a disproportionate amount of recognition, having done little to no good for skepticism itself. It’s almost a little “famous for being famous” Kardashian/Hilton type stuff. It’s nauseating. I don’t think they’ve come close to reaching mainstream acceptance, but they shouldn’t even be given a foothold.

    I think I’m done. I saw someone promote this link on FB, and felt compelled to fire something off. Hopefully reading this won’t cause anyone PTSD.

  9. First, I think we need a soft-serve ice cream machine.

    Second, I’ll be frank: I really don’t like the idea of a skeptical community. I acknowledge that there are some things that are better accomplished by groups rather than individuals. We don’t need a “community” to have groups focusing on a common goal. I think over the last 5 to 10 years it has become abundantly clear just how detrimental a “community” can be when the inevitable cliques, politics and power struggles form. I much prefer a strong leader pulling people together to focus on a goal.

    I disagree with Raford about this whole “support” thing. It annoys me to no end. If what you are doing can’t stand on its own, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing it. I will buy your book or magazine if it’s worth it to me. I will link to you if it’s relevant. I see the same “support us” argument among my musician friends, and it’s just as silly. If your CD is worth it to me, I’ll buy it. If your performance is that good, I’ll pay to see it. I’m not going to do either to just “support” you.

    The whole “support me” thing is demeaning. I don’t “support” my local businesses. I do business with them because they deserve it. Once somebody switches from “here’s why my stuff is the best” to “please support me” the end is near.

    As far as groups go, one thing I would like to see is educational materials being put together. As a parent I would love to be able to go to my kids’ school and say, “Here’s this lesson plan and materials put together on applying critical thinking to . Here are the excellent credentials of those involved in approving the materials. I have watched a couple videos of it being used in the classroom, and I’m very confident I could present it to the students myself as a guest.”

      • anon

        JREF may have plenty of issues we don’t need to go into here but one is they don’t give author credits on their educational resources.

    • Are you referring to things like Fairies Hoax “module” that they say is suitable for grades 3 to 5 where the reading level scores for the writing are 12th grade to college level?

      It’s not much more than an article with a couple of “here, ask these questions” thrown in. What am I supposed to do with that? Print out 30 copies of 16 pages each to hand to the kids? That’s $25 at my local Staples.

      It’s over 4,000 words long (if you include the fluff about the JREF). The 50th percentile reading speed for 5th graders is about 130 WPM. It’s under 100 for third graders. Are the kids really supposed to sit there quietly for 30 to 45 minutes reading the article?

      To be blunt, what they put out is useless.

  10. S. Madison

    OK, I’ll post a comment which will likely have people thinking I’m a superficial, judgmental idiot.

    I want skeptics to conduct themselves with decent manners.
    I want skeptics to exhibit compassion and empathy for others.
    I want skeptics to stop being cheapskates.

    My husband and I have been to every TAM since we started going in 2005. We will not be going to TAM this year. We’re tired of being associated with others who behave like boors and have a reputation with South Point employees as being unpleasant cheapskates. We’re tired of trying to upgrade the image of skeptics by being considerate to the other guests in the hotel who aren’t wearing TAM badges. We’re tired of having to give a $20.00 tip for the $5.00 of drinks we’ve ordered because other skeptics have spent hours in the bar, playing games and having drinks, and have only left a 25 cent tip for the staff who have to clean up the mess.

    Skeptics should have figured out long ago that if you want people to be receptive to the skeptic message, you need to behave in a way that makes people wish to be like you. Behaving without any social grace is not the way to gain friends and influence people in a positive way.

    I want “Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me” and “Miss Manners Rescues Civilization” to be at the top of every skeptic’s reading list. I don’t want to see skeptics treating “outsiders” like inferiors who are not worthy of consideration. I’ve done the data collection by attending TAM for the last four years and only wearing my badge when I am on the floor with the conference rooms. I have experienced the way many skeptics treat people who they don’t think are part of the skeptic community. I smile and say, “Hello” but, because I’m a skeptic nobody who isn’t wearing a TAM badge, I get treated with dismissiveness in response. And, I have spoken with quite a few members of the South Point staff who are not pleased that TAM is taking place at the hotel because, after years of this event, they have learned to dislike skeptics. I find it sad that I would rather people think I’m there to attend the USA BMX Las Vegas Nationals.

    • First off, attending TAM doesn’t mean one is a skeptic. It means one is a TAM attendee. And let’s be honest about it: TAM is a social event, and you’re kvetching about how people behave outside of the event itself.

      I’ve never been to TAM, but I’ve been to plenty of other conferences. I go to them for the conference itself, not the socializing after hours. It would be silly of me to expect that because I share a common interest with other attendees that I would find them socially compatible. It would be equally silly of me to demand that they change their social habits to better reflect my sensibilities.

      To be honest, you don’t sound like much of a skeptic. A “skeptic” would attend TAM for the educational and motivational aspects, which some of us consider preaching to the choir anyway. A skeptic who is unhappy with boorish behavior that happens in the bars after the conference would, I think, simply find other things to do after hours.

      Skipping the conference because of after-hours behavior indicates that you were really there to socialize.

      • Please don’t start with any “you’re not a REAL skeptic” nonsense. There are more reasons people attend conventions than you can GUESS, let alone than you personally hold.

      • idoubtit

        Jim, your comments are noted. I know the Madison’s personally so your allegations here are unfounded and unskeptical.

      • She was complaining about how bad behavior from skeptics make us look bad to the public (which is true, we are often seen as know it alls, holding a holier than thou attitude, being dismissive of non-skeptics, etc.) Bad manners are bad manners regardless of whether or not you’re a skeptic.
        I see nothing wrong with complaining about after hours conference behavior because hey, guess what? They’re there to hang out with other skeptics. And if other skeptics have a reputation for being jerks by South Point staff, that affects ALL TAM attendees. Even the ones who are on their best behavior are probably getting the stink eye behind their backs by the staff as soon as they see that TAM badge.

        TAM is more than just lectures. It holds a bit of a special status, because it happens in Vegas, in a casino. Many people, like myself, go to TAM as part of their summer vacation, so I’m there to socialize and have fun as well as attend the lectures. And I see nothing wrong with that.

        I’m sorry to hear that S.Madison and her husband won’t be attending TAM this year.

    • Please drop by the NY City Skeptics table at next month’s TAM. I have been looking for those few brave (crazy) folks like me who have been to all (or even most) of the TAMs. I was there with Randi and Hal and Jeff and the 200 or so who attended that first TAM in Fort Lauderdale, and then made every TAM since. It will be nice to say hello to you and your husband. My son, Michael, was one of the founders of the NY City Skeptics (along with Jamy Ian Swiss), and Michael and I will be manning a table at TAM.

  11. Crowd sourcing. Every “point refuted a thousand times” had to be refuted for the first time, and the firehouse of crap (junk papers, sloppy reporting, woo-woo claims) is never shut down. Rbutr is handy but what I need most is in depth collaborative analysis of sciences-sounding rubbish, ideally with access to source materials.

  12. 1petermcc

    Hi Sharon,

    I get a couple of things from the community.

    Firstly, great links that I can put up on FB to remind my friends to be cautious. (Some are especially vulnerable).

    Secondly, the feeling I am not alone in disliking scammers and I really enjoy seeing items that show scammers doing time.

    Thirdly, the links to other sites that show activities taken against groups like the anti vaxers. It’s very encouraging to see folk take that extra step to curb such manipulation. To do nothing is to condone the behaviour.

    In closing, the community as a whole is important for the cross pollination of ideas and the discussion of successful programs. I’m not a “joiner” by nature but being able to refer to resources provided by the community is very helpful when folk start pushing things like homeopathy.

    Love ya work and enjoy sitting back listening to Virtual Skeptics too. So much so that I am going to the Aussie event in Sydney at the end of November.

    Cheers

  13. I am starting to think that “skeptical community” is an oxymoron.

    While “skepticism” should its ideal platonic form rely on assessing evidence as a means to identifying shards of truth, this is a practice that is not conducive to community, as we’re willing to compromise this and lower our standards for on many fronts for the sake of group cohesion. As the community grows this problem becomes more acute.

    When one looks at the literature on psychology and group psychology in particular, it is clear that bullshit is the glue that holds communities together. From Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance to the Asch Conformity Experiments, we know that the dynamics of group psychology leads us to sweep things under the carpet and wall them off from criticism if they are valuable to group stability. Ideas still evolve, but only in the sense that they are elaborated on, and grow extra layers of commentary. If we are trying to court an influential group member in the interest of our own position within the group, we will ape their position or shift it in a new direction or angle. If they are not fundamentally challenged, and over time such ideas become the “cognitive dark matter” of shared cultural context.

    Because humans build entire cathedrals out of such of bullshit, certain keystones are walled off in taboo areas, because to challenge their assumption is to have the whole structure collapse. We know this from challenging theists and woo-mongers, but skeptics are happy to do so themselves, and as we grow as a community new taboos emerge. It is our hubris as skeptics that we see ourselves as immune to cognitive SNAFUs that are blight all humans.

    This is compounded by the fact that any chump can claim to be part of the skeptical community and use it as cover to further their own agendas. Like the Atheist movement, the skeptical movement is often defined in the trenches by “cut and paste” activism in internet battlegrounds of forums and facebook walls. Often memes circulated without much thought, just because they tactically useful tools – X argument beats Y argument, without much consistency. Like bots. Certainly they are not used introspectively as much as they should.

    For example, we use “no true scotsman” logical fallacy quite a lot when people try to wriggle out of calling Boko Haram “real” muslims or whatnot. But we use it all the time ourselves when we say climate deniers and conspiracy theorists are not “real” skeptics. I am not claiming they they ARE “real” skeptics, just the problems in inconsistency in our thinking.

    We need to be more consistent, NOT ideologically consistent, for ideology should be the outcome and not the starting point, but consistent as to how we apply the mental toolkit of skepticism. However the intoxicating appeal of community leaves our guard down, and ultimately something must provide the bullshit glue.

    It is with sadness that I see the spread of wooly ideas and sloppy research of left-wing academia spread through the skeptical community. This makes sense on one level, as left wing academia shares secular values, but it compromises our objectivity. It has over the last five or so years increasingly framed debate within skeptical activism. Thier memes metastasis in my twitter and facebook feeds and spread electronically, warping their perception of the world and lead to powerful confirmation bias. These “informational cascades” then become true by their sheer ubiquity. It seems they want to define “atheism” and “skepticism” solely within their own narrow political ideology, much as they have done very successful in the realm of women’s rights, which today is largely defined by marxist jargon and ambitions.

    When we entertain the intersectional feminist idea of say “lived experience” as something sacrosanct we do not hold it to the same standards. If we were to assess this in cold empirical terms, we know through the study of the brain that our sense of personal identity is a work of fiction, a dadaist tapestry woven together with a story that changes over time to suit the current situation, the outcome of decades of selection and confirmation bias. We know that eyewitness testimony is a very poor source of information about the real world. Or indeed the “lived experience” of a UFO abduction or religious experience. But when community enters the picture, it changes the calculus of what we are willing to accept as truth.

    To be skeptical of an “lived experience” is not to say that something did not happen, but it is to say that it very likely did not happen as they remember, and is not a useful source of information on the topography of the world in and of itself. But to challenge “lived experience” is at odds with our desire for empathy and the dynamics of group formation.

    TL/DR: Skeptical of skeptical ideas of community

  14. I second 1petermcc’s post.

    For me the community definitely provides a sense of not being alone. In a world with so much woo it is important to not feel like the odd one out for not accepting pseudoscience or myths as being real. I refuse to be ostracized for not drinking the koolaid like everyone else.

    Having fantastic links such as those on Doubtful News to help spread critical thinking about the stories out there, Susan’s opportunities to rate sites with Rbutr and WOT are a great way to contribute for those like myself who do not have much time.

    Is there a better way? I am still fairly recent to the scene of skepticism but for me it is like finally finding out that there are a few people in your community that are not nutz.

    While I am still fairly recent to the scene I am humbled by the amount of work out there. I was going to write today to suggest a guide to skepticism to help people new to the community to take that next step. If you Google this one of the top results is by the exceptional Daniel Loxton http://www.skeptic.com/downloads/WhereDoWeGoFromHere.pdf, then there is also as mentioned by Susan G training out there once you know where to ask for it. These are just two examples of ways to get started I am sure there are many more.

    I feel the community is doing a wonderful job, it is kind of a self service buffet of wonder once you know it is out there. Since this is all supposed to be about critical thinking it seems only right that there be some amount of inquiry required of the participant. Anything different would seem dishonest to me.

    In conclusion the one thing I would personally like to see more of is Information on the tools the community has created for people without much time to give, specifically ones that allow people like myself to help make a meaningful contribution to the advancement of reason and critical thinking. Some like you Sharon have gotten on the crowd sourcing wave I believe this too is a way to allow for those unsure of their talents to support others in the ongoing fight against the woo out there.

    Keep up the good fight!

  15. Angela

    I know that JREF has materials for schools–I think there are more things still to be done to encourage younger people to think critically. The Common Core standard for education that has passed in most states has goals which sound great on paper, however there are issues of textbooks being out of date, making it difficult for educators to implement that standard. I am talking with teachers in my area about making noise on getting these things current with the times and the new standard.

    I also believe it is important to pay close attention to what our kids are being taught in school in regards to critical thinking and encourage it with them every single day. I love the idea of skeptical workshops for kids and other activities to encourage developing minds to start thinking about the world around them rather than catching bits and pieces of it on social media–which as we all know is one of the worst offenders of outrage and bias.

  16. 'Lucky' Lester

    I’d like to see less generalisation and assumptions by skeptics. For example if someone expresses interest in anomalous skulls (like the ones from Paracas) it seems that many assume that the person believes they are of alien origin, and is one of the ‘ancient alien’ officionadoes. In fact they may just be really interested in whatever the truth may be and open to many possibilities. Without any serious investigation, it seems another assumption is made; that these are typical examples of cranial deformation. ‘Nothing to investigate here, we know all about this’. I know the common argument is that its like a game of ‘whack a mole’ but maybe if you whack enough, one day you might make a great discovery.
    It seems that many skeptics also assume that if someone has an interest in alternative or complementary therapies that they see them as a replacement or superior to modern medicine. This came up time and again here in a discussion that I was involved in with traditional Chinese medicine. This is combined with generalisations like: ‘traditional chinese medicine is worthless and dangerous’ which I can only assume is based on a limited understanding of the scope and extent of the system. People seem to have a generalised view of TCM that it is no more than tiger penis, bear bile and flaming towels on crotches. Given that cornerstones of TCM includes herbalism, nutrition, exercise, meditation and massage, just to name a few preventative and remedial therapies, it suggests cultural bias, arrogance and ignorance.

    I guess thats another thing I don’t find endearing; the skeptics implied sense of superiority and their ridicule of different approaches.

    I would also like to see the skeptical eye cast evenly in all areas, including ‘the current consensus view’. Modern medicine is one example. Future doctors will be horrified at some of the twentieth (and twenty first) century treatments and approaches. Archaeology is another such area. Although based on evidence and sound methodology, archaeological theories are essentially speculative. The disdain that is heaped on people who propose alternate theories discourages genuine and open enquiry.

    I’d like to see way less ad hominem attacks too. I don’t care if someone is not qualified to produce a theory; refute the theory and the evidence, rather than disparage someones academic credentials or the fact they may have vested interests (don’t we all?).

    Its a fine line. Its vitally important to refute the woo woo, but not to discourage new investigations, understandings or paradigms. I see a continuum; at one end is the young earth creationists, at the other the ‘nothing to investigate here, we know all about this’. I have travelled the planet, lived long enough and had enough experiences to know that its pretty hard to be absolutely certain about anything. And yes, absolutely, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, but at the risk of offending you again; ‘There are more things in heaven’…etc etc
    Although I value healthy skepticism highly, I also value an open and enquiring mind.

    One of my mentors used to quote the American philosopher and psychologist William James, who said: ‘First a new theory is attacked as absurd: then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant; finally it seems so important that its adversaries claim they discovered it’.

    Science has a bad rep these days, as many people see scientists as arrogant and condescending. The skeptic ‘communities’ I have been in contact with lately have done nothing to correct this misapprehension.

    I really appreciate and value your work and enjoy the site. I think that the need is great, especially from what I can tell in the states mores than it is here (in Oz). I hope you will tolerate me occasionally playing ‘devils advocate’.

  17. Old Rockin' Dave

    I would like to see a focus on leading/teaching people to think critically. People are not aware that they don’t have to be scientists in order to evaluate many claims. Common sense, everyday knowledge, and a little research beyond the first five Google entries is often all that’s needed. The great thing about critical thinking is that once begun, it quickly becomes a habit.
    Beyond all that, it’s clear that science education in the US has been an underwhelming success, and the promotion of a little more scientific knowledge combined with critical thinking can fix much of what ails the US today.

  18. There are some excellent comments here. I’m sorry that S. Madison has had such an negative experience. That hasn’t been mine, but surely there are always people who can ruin the image of any group.

    So what do I want?

    I run across failed critical thinking skills everywhere I go. I think the focus should be on education and generating skeptical works. Daniel Loxton mentioned a lot of good ideas, about skepticism as a scholarly field and the infrastructure that goes around it. Susan Gerbic and her teams is putting skeptical work right where people go for information. Those two ideas work great hand in hand.

    I think there should be less focus and desire to support conclusions, especially around values, versus the process. For eg, it’s hard to say 100% acupuncture doesn’t work, but we can talk about how almost every study says it doesn’t. We never say aliens 100% don’t exist, but talk about how the evidence never adds up. These are the “easy” type topics.

    It feels like the community isn’t ready to handle more difficult things, but I think it needs to get there. An example is the death penalty. I don’t feel the community should be taking a direct stand for and against, but should be able to evaluate the facts about the practice without becoming divisive. We should be able to provide the tools for people to make up their mind about legalizing drugs, minimum wage, how much regulation, going back to Iraq etc. I want to be clear I’m against the community taking positions, but instead, supporting the idea of providing the tools for people. Totally unrelated books like Abominable Science and Tracking the Chupacabra, however, are great, accessible examples of scholarly, skeptic research that people can see how research is done.

    So, to sum up, more scholarship, more education, more about the process rather than the conclusion.

  19. Skeptics should be more congenial and polite, and people who identify as skeptics ought to work at being more polite to each other, to the cultural competition, and to people in general. When someone has a brief lapse of being impolite or a bit irrational that it is not the end of the world, and bit of forbearance can be called for at times. People in general ought to realize that their own methods and goals are not necessarily shared by others and that is ok. Folks ought to keep in mind that people and organizations are complex. Issues and problems are rarely black and white. Sometimes things can be a definite darker or lighter gray, but issues often have a backstory that people know little or nothing. Gossip can be absorbing, but it can also be a big time suck.

    Given how everybody has their own little (or big) life drama people ought to concern themselves with work product first, and the people behind the work second. Skeptics ought to give credit where credit is due even if one dislikes the individual behind the work or their work on other topics.

    Nobody has a trademark on being a “skeptic.” However, sometimes people who have goals and interests beyond the “skepticism” that originated in the 1970s ought to be upfront that what they are doing is beyond or different from skepticism. When folks ‘leave’ skepticism or some manner of organized skepticism that is can be a valid choice. They might have other interests, or might realize that are not doing classic 1970s style skepticism so continued association with skepticism is actually doing skepticism a disservice.

    In the end, it seems to me the problems within skepticism are the problems of being human. The same person at one time can be polite and another time a jerk. Some people thrive in group settings and others cannot tolerate such activity, and on and on. Skeptics are no better or no worse than other people. I have violated everything I have noted above at one time or the other. Go figure.

    P.S.

    I would like to reiterate what was noted before in some other posts that just there being a skeptical community is a god sent to people who wish to be rational, but feel alone when surrounded by people and a culture that does not value rationalism nearly as much. Outreach is important. Educating the public is important. However, just being a “thing” is also important.

    • On what rational basis do skepticism and the subjective notion of politeness relate? It’s not really “skeptical” to tell others how to behave. Like anyone else, I am at times deliberately rude and polite. It depends on my short and long-term goals. And the reality is that the notion of what’s rude and polite is fluid, and reasonable people will disagree about any given situation.

      Skepticism or critical thinking or whatever you want to call it is a thought process for analyzing the world. I wish people would quit trying to make it a social movement and pushing their value systems on others.

  20. L Jay Cooke

    Many skeptics use a scornful tone in denigrating “true believer” opinions, which doesn’t help at all. In the skeptical community (if there is such a thing) we can only gently press our truth and repeat and repeat and repeat it until it seems less strange to the Believers. Beware putting them down. Secondly, and most importantly, I would like to see an education innovation for the rather young. Start teaching LOGIC at an early point in schools everywhere, perhaps in conjunction with math education. Logic is taught –if at all– as part of a philosophy elective in college, so most people do not even realize it’s a definite discipline in itself. Probability statistics should be a major part of such a curriculum; there is massive misunderstanding (much of it my own!) of how to weigh the world’s events in order to select alternative social and political approaches.
    Thank you for asking…

    • Do you have any evidence to support your claim? As I see it the success of people in popular media says you are wrong. The success of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Nancy Grace, Bill Maher and many others is evidence that people are most definitely influenced by the approaches you decry. That’s not to say “gently pressing” doesn’t ever work, but there’s a reason religions throughout history have used concepts of damnation and condemnation to convert people.

      The reality here, should you look at it skeptically, is that the “gently pressing” mantra comes from an emotional base, not a rational one. Unless, of course, you actually have some evidence proving that “denigrating” doesn’t work but “gently pressing” does.

  21. I would like to see more resources and educational outreaches in rural areas, which is where a lot of pseudoscientific beliefs seem to thrive. That’s why I do what I do here in Oklahoma. I would also like to see more discussions with people that hold those beliefs, to better understand why exactly they believe the way they do. A lot of the time, if you take the time to sit down and talk to people and try to understand why they do what they do, you are better able to show them why you do what you do and compare the 2 methods. Anecdotally, this has led to several people re-evaluating their use of dowsers and what we call hedge doctors (Naturopaths). I would also like to see the skeptic community take back the word “Skeptic” from the vaccine and climate change denialists. (And I know this is largely driven by the media). When people hear that someone is skeptical they seem to think it means that they don’t trust the experts or the science. It is hard to put into words the reactions I get from people when they hear that I am skeptical about things, but I trust the science concerning vaccines and climate change. Disbelief, dismissal, and outrage are the closest words I can find to their reactions to my positions on these topics.

  22. Chemical

    Very interesting points.

    I would like to echo the importance of being polite and respectful towards others, especially because the default skeptical position of not believing is, by human nature, somewhat abrasive. Skeptics might be the only group of people who are willing to challenge just about anybody on their most fundamental beliefs, so it’s really important to not be a jerk while we’re doing this.

    I don’t view skepticism as an end goal; instead I view it as a tool to help decide what is information and what is misinformation. So far skepticism has helped me throw out a lot of bad ideas that I used to hold and I feel that it’s made a big difference in what I know. Skepticism can have a large, positive impact on education so I believe we should focus there. Engaging non-skeptics to encourage critical thinking is also important, as it leads decisions being made based on the best evidence available.

  23. I have a lot of thoughts. This is mostly about the notion of “skeptical community,” and not “how to be a skeptic/do skepticism.”

    • Don’t write or speak for the recognition of the public, or even of your peers. (There’s a reason why the skeptically-minded are the minority.) You will wind up angry and disappointed. If you want applause, join a band. If you want to affect change, just keep at it, because the work will never ever be done.

    • Treat your allies better than you treat your opposition. This doesn’t mean anyone who claims to be on your side gets a blank check. It does mean you should keep their intentions and goals in mind when someone is imperfect.

    • When evaluating someone’s work, evaluate the work and not the personality.

    • Forget the concept of “celebrity.” There are no skeptical celebrities, there are just people who publish more work than others (and people who are on TV more often than others).

    • If you find yourself “jealous” of someone else’s accomplishments, recognize that you could more than likely achieve the same results with the same amount of effort.

    • If you would like to be a “public face” of skepticism, consider using separate social media accounts for that and for your personal life. People looking for the bullet will know where to find it.

    • If you are a known entity — blogger, writer, commentator, speaker — don’t treat your “followers” like “fans.” If we are a community, we’re all in this together. They’re not acolytes, they’re (potential) coworkers.

    • Recognize that if your specific focus/cause is not my specific focus/cause, it does not mean that one is more important than the other. Some people just work better in certain arenas, and some causes speak more loudly to certain people.

    • Same goes for styles of communication.

    • You’re always going to like some people more than others. That’s okay. I can not like you without wanting to drum you out of every shared space. Like any workplace, there are going to be some people you’ll want to spend free time with, and some people with whom you should focus on being collegial and professional.

    • Recognize burnout, in yourself and your colleagues. It’s a known issue in every area of every type of activism. You don’t have to “rage quit” something to take a break.

    • Don’t define yourself by this one thing, and don’t define others by this one thing. If Big-S-Skepticism is all you feel like you have in your life, you are going to be a fragile thing who will shatter into pieces at every point of imperfection. Keep perspective.

    • Recognize that negativity is always louder than positivity. While one negative comment feels like a thousand, it isn’t: but for every positive comment, there really are a thousand silent “me, too”s. If you’re a content creator, make sure you listen carefully for those, and if you’re a content consumer, make more positive noise.

    • This “community” IS both creators and consumers. Creators should remember the value of the consumers, because they are the ones spreading your work. Consumers should remember that creators are just people working in your area of interest, not proclaimers of infallible truth.

  24. First off, I need to say that I love the fact that the skeptic community exists. I’ve been happy that it’s been my main social group for over 4 years now. Long may it continue!

    What do I want/need from the skeptic community? Just that, a sense of community. I’m not worried about the idea of “preaching to the choir”, it’s nice to be part of a choir!

    I think we have too many expectations of skeptics. Skeptics are people, and people are fallible. Calling yourself a skeptic doesn’t stop you from being an arsehole who gets far too drunk at a conference and ends up being sick on people. It doesn’t stop from from being a judgemental coward who tells everyone how to do science despite failing a science PhD after studying for it for 7 years. It doesn’t stop you from being a lanky, nasally git who bores everyone by talking about his football team all the time. It doesn’t stop you from being an immature prima donna who flounces at the tiniest bit of criticism.

    Personally, I would *like* to see skeptics adopt many humanist positions and conduct themselves like scientists, but I know I’m in no position to request that.

    I can only ask that skeptics are skeptical. I will finish by saying this: if you have an ideology that trumps your skepticism, you’re not a skeptic. That’s what I really want from skepticism: less ideologues!

  25. I’ve seen some good points made so my feedback will sound like an echo, but I’ll do it anyway.

    More outreach to rural areas is a definite. This is where false ideas can grow unchecked. And people in rural areas who are “natural” skeptics also tend to feel alone and isolated.

    Education advocacy. A better educated populace makes for a stronger nation (at least in my view), and certainly makes for better critical thinkers right out the gate. At least watch your local school board elections; better yet, pester your elected officials.

    Some people sniff at the “Bigfoot skeptics” but at least they are out there introducing people to the critical thinking they can apply, and (hopefully) gets the wheels turning in people’s minds that there are alternatives to gullibility.

    But I also think that skepticism that affects people’s lives is paramount, especially health care and also claims made in elections. We can’t always get through people’s ideologies but we can at least point out that some things just don’t freaking work, and explain why.

    I also would like to see skepticism be a bigger umbrella and more tolerant. I personally know quite a few theists who are excellent critical thinkers on scientific and medical topics, and who cheer and support my own skepticism. Just because someone is religious doesn’t mean they’re incapable of critical thinking and being a skeptic, although their skepticism may have its limits. At the same time, I’ve known atheists who are extreme ideologues and demagogues, who embrace dogmas and tautologies, or who hop on whatever bandwagon comes down the road unquestioningly. I’ve known atheists who are self-professed skeptics, but whose critical thinking has a narrow focus and when it comes to other issues are almost willfully gullible.

    I’d like to see more compassion, more manners, more dignity, and more humanity. I want skepticism to be a joyous process, not done to prove ourselves right, but out of compassion and caring for others’ welfare. And I’d like for us to encourage the notion that critical thinking makes the world more exciting and beautiful.

    • vagrarian

      Something a friend mentioned, which I think needs to be added: outreach to the disability community. Seems there’s quite a bit of woo out there as well.

  26. Many really great comments precede mine, lots of awesome input.

    I would echo the comments that we need less cynicism, less holier-than-thou attitudes and less negativity. We need more empathy to people – both inside and outside the movement. No one is poorly educated, stupid or mentally ill because they believe in unsupportable ideas. Name calling is never productive.

    Read more of the work of Carol Tavris, Elizabeth Loftus and Dan Kahan (et.al.) and you’ll find that irrational beliefs have lots more to do with psychology, culture and socialization. We need to learn how to reach out to people with this in mind, instead of just bashing them over the head with facts and science and denigrating them.

    But one major thing I’ve come to realize recently is that (on some level) there is no such thing as “the skeptical community”.

    Instead, there are numerous sub-communities flying in close formation with each other. There are overlaps of course. But many in these sub-communities seem unable or unwilling to reach out to the larger meta-community of skeptics, or sometimes even acknowledge that this fragmentation exists.

    Some data points from a recent conference I was at. One of the speakers live-tweeted from the conference that they thought skeptics in general “rarely hear from” people who believe in homeopathy. I practically spit out my drink, because I see skeptics actively debating homeopathy believers on Twitter nearly every single day. Another speaker at this same conference was completely unaware of who one of the co-founders of the event was, despite this person being involved in a major Humanist project that had received much publicity. Both of these two people are bloggers on a major site.

    Each of these people are stuck in skeptic bubbles of their own construction, and are apparently unaware of large swaths of what’s going on in the movement. Now granted nobody can read every blog and listen to every podcast. And I don’t expect every single rank-and-file skeptic to read every book, magazine and blog from front to back.

    But I really feel like some of those who blog and write about the movement itself need to make a better effort to break out of our own filter bubbles. I try to do this myself, and let me assure you it is difficult. You must constantly work at it. I think Sharon does a pretty good job of it – for example she even reaches out to paranormal believers in her writing, which I think many skeptics are loathe to do.

    A couple of side effects of this bubble phenomenon I would point out:

    When bloggers make sweeping statements that this or that huge problem exists in skepticism (or atheism, etc), keep in mind that (whether they realize it or not) they are often talking about a very particular sub-slice of the movement, not the whole thing.

    This also feeds into what Ben Radford mentioned about crediting other people’s work, and is closely related to what Daniel Loxton wrote about scholarship. It goes beyond simply being social and supporting the community – though I agree with Ben on that, we could do better. Not only does this help support the community, but it helps other people break out of their own filter bubbles.

    But as Daniel points out, it goes to your ethical obligations as a researcher. I believe that if you aren’t occasionally mentioning and/or citing the work of other skeptics, the reader should be calling into question whether you’re doing your due diligence to research what you are writing about.

    I’ve wanted for a while to do some data analysis on this topic, I suspect that if we did a comprehensive map of who follows who on Twitter (or perhaps Facebook) among skeptics/atheists/freethinkers/humanists/etc that we’d actually be able to visualize these sub-communities. There are tools to do this (such as Gephi and NodeXL) but the data required would be considerable. I’ve only got so much free time for projects like this, and frankly very few people bother to read my blog.

  27. Lots of great comments . . . Others have mentioned something along the lines of what I am about to say, but I can put my spin on it.

    I hear ‘skeptic community’ and ‘skeptic movement’ and I am immediately turned off. Turn the clock back to the 80′s, and I was thrilled to hear and read there were similarly minded people, but these days, not so much.

    I think in part it’s because the ‘community’ has evolved into cult following of various ‘luminaries of skepticism’. The problem with that, at least per my experience, is two-fold.

    One, the luminaries come to believe the hype about themselves. Two, their followers are rabid when it comes to quelching any criticisms with regards to said luminaries. What they say is accepted as gospel (if you would pardon the reference), and that, at least to my mind, goes counter to the very idea of skepticism. Granted, the majority of what they say is well thought out, and usually very insightful, but they are as fallible as the next person. These cult-like followings do nothing to promote critical thinking, and I go so far as to say it promotes blindly following the anointed leaders.

    It should be obvious to everyone that we see the same thing in all sorts of organizations (religious, political, social, and so on).

    For me the skeptical community should be self-questioning, constantly challenging itself to live up to the first part of the name. In that effort, data, evidence, logic, and dispassionate analysis should reign supreme.

    That’s not to say its leaders should not be recognized for their contributions, but the very idea of leaders goes counter to my vision of the individuals contributing to their immediate sphere of influence. By that I don’t mean repeating other people’s words, but to share their understanding of all sorts of issues even as they constantly challenge and double-check the validity of their own thinking.

    I just don’t see that as I look from outside the community, especially when I look in issues that have political and social implication. I see the same dismissal and denigration of competing ideas as I see in the political arena (from both sides). It seems strange to me . . . no one can be always right and others always wrong.

    And yes . . . the infighting. Not good. It seems skeptical communities (again, looking from the outside) are as prone to labeling things as black and white, and dismissing the gray, as the most ideological individuals out there.

    So, what do I want? I don’t . . . I gave up hope that organizations (communities), especially as they grow, can keep from corrupting their own ideals. I’ll do my thing, and not worry about ‘movements’ and ‘communities’. Although, yes, I do rely on some sources of information, and some discussion of the issues to help prod my own thinking process.

    So, maybe that is what I want . . . an amalgamation of what has been suggested in the above comments, but without stated goals beyond teaching people to think for themselves and giving them the tools to do so. If the tools and the teaching are good enough, most people will reach acceptable conclusions without being told what they should be. If they don’t, they should be challenged on evidence and logic. I think that approach promotes discussions and sharing of ideas, and has the best chance of improving things.

    Anything else and we end up with the equivalent of the current chasm between the “left” and the “right”, ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’. Lots of hate, no conversations, and heading to disaster.

  28. Much good stuff has been said already. I feel like I’m just going to be parroting what’s already been said.

    I am totally on board with what Radford said about a lack of support within the skeptic community. Some people seem to care more about who you are in order to give your work any support rather than the quality of the work.

    DC IN DETROIT beings up a whole bunch of good bulletpoints.

    We need less cynicism, drama blogging and name calling amongst ourselves (and to other non-skeptics too) and more co-operation between people in and outside of the community, more support and promotion for each others work because without that, the word isn’t going to get out there. But for whatever reason, a lot of people seem to reject that notion as if it was the goddamn plague.

    I want a damn big tent in skepticism. I don’t think we should shut people out, even if they have some weird ideas that might not jive with the general consensus of the community at large. (granted some people we would probably benefit from if we did kick them out to the curb) Let’s not be so quick to judge people based on what label they prefer to use about themselves. Don’t freak out over how someone calls themselves “agnostic” instead of “atheist”. Don’t go all ragey just because someone dares to call themselves a “libertarian”. Don’t throw out the term “misogynist” so casually at any man who disagrees with you about some aspect of your feminist philosophy. If it’s a woman, don’t call her a gender traitor or a chill girl. At least try to get a grasp of the bigger picture and the person you’re talking about before throwing out disparaging labels at them.

    In my opinion we should focus on educating and reaching out to the public on the dangers of all the different kinds of humbug that’s out there, from homeopathy to demon possession to 9/11 conspiracy nuts to anti-GMOs and anti-vaxxers. And to do that we’re going to need lots of people working together.

    I’ll end with a similar notion relating to what S. Madison said earlier. At my first TAM, I was approached by a woman (non-attendee) who asked me what TAM was. I told her it was a skeptic’s conference and she was immediately turned off and kinda scoffed at me and told me about how she perceived skeptics. At the time I was flabbergasted, because I was relatively new to the scene. I told her “we’re skeptics, not cynics!” To which she just kinda rolled her eyes at me and said “yeah right…” then she left. It took me a while but as I got more into the community over the next year or so, I started noticing just what she meant. I think it might be time to also seriously think about how we make ourselves look to the public.

    And as the old saying goes; you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

    • AM

      “Don’t throw out the term “misogynist” so casually at any man who disagrees with you about some aspect of your feminist philosophy. If it’s a woman, don’t call her a gender traitor or a chill girl.”

      And similarly, if you’re a man, listen to women about things they have direct life experience of, and you do not, instead of lecturing them.

  29. Stuart Robbins

    I’d like to see some sort of support for skeptics who are being harassed, threatened with lawsuits, etc. This has happened to me several times, and fortunately nothing has really come of it, but a general resource to help connect skeptics with lawyers, or general resources of how to handle threats would be useful for those of us who stick our necks out a little further than the average “armchair” skeptic.

    • A skeptic legal defense fund would definitely be a good thing, Stuart. I know one Atlanta-area skeptic toyed around with the idea of creating one but I don’t think it went anywhere.

    • Stuart Robbins

      Even just legal resources in general. When you’re here in a week, I think Reed’s planning an evening get-together. Remind me to tell you about the latest harassment by a certain UFO nut.

  30. It’s been said of atheists that organising them is like herding cats. I’m hesitant to conflate atheism with skepticism – as many others have done – but it can’t be denied that there are certain personality traits the two groups share. Independent thought, reason, a penchant for evidence and the scientific method, etcetera.

    Of course, there are other personality traits that they share, ones that aren’t so laudable. Elitism, condescension, cronyism, groupthink, and an adversarial attitude.

    The Skeptical community, as measured by the behaviour of its most visible members, is big on in-group back-slapping, and very small on conversation with out-group elements. I recognise that this view of the community isn’t representative of the whole of the group, but it does set a tone.

    I, personally – speaking as one who sits in opposition to both sides of the usual debate – would like to see much more open communication, as opposed to tongue wagging monologue and self-aggrandizing. I would like to see more people making a pointed effort to understand and to retreat to the original purpose of the community: Education.

    There has been a long tradition among skeptical thinkers to belittle the beliefs and ideas of those who don’t sit at the table, but that tradition is contrasted by minds like that of Bertrand Russell, who, with his great intellect, sliced through the proverbial bullshit without simultaneously cutting down his opponent.

    Publicity stunts and manufactured drama, in the style of reality television is unbecoming of such an intellectual endeavour, but we so often see that both of those things are fundamental to the operation of Skeptic organisations. It’s more than just personalities and egos getting in the way. It’s childish pseudo-political maneuvering, immature management, and a promotion of unrelated ideologies. It’s like a modern adaptation of the old boys club, in so far as they do occasionally allow women into the clubhouse. Not that they treat them very well once they’re inside.

    An aspect of the cultures that emerge from the Skeptic movement, on either side of it, that seems to be ignored by those within Skeptic organisations, is the psychology of belief. It’s commendable for people to understand and see through pseudoscience, to expose hoaxes, and to educate one’s self on the natural sciences and the way the world truly works. So why don’t those in skeptic circles make the same effort to understand why believers believe what they do, beyond simply wagging a finger in their face, proclaiming that they’re stupid for not getting the facts straight and then looking to their comrades for a good laugh at someone else’s expense?

    It seems to be because a large number of people who identify themselves as capital-S Skeptics, aren’t there to learn or educate, they’re in it to make themselves feel smarter. Which is hardly something anyone else should congratulate.

    There may be a time and a place for such antics, like perhaps in response to harmful marketing claims in alternative health circles, but shouldn’t the whole enterprise be based on a sincere desire to educate those who are being duped, rather than belittle the ones who currently have their attention? I’ll point out that insulting a person or organisation that holds someone’s respect, will not in turn win respect for the one slinging the insults.

    Skepticism, as a field of community activism, is fraught with pitfalls, and needs to be navigated carefully and deliberately. If the Skeptic’s attention is constantly focused on a mirror, they can hardly see the landmine they’re about to step on.

  31. Count me as one who has left disillusioned, for many of the reasons already pointed out in the comments above by Torkel, Disperser, DC, S., and some others.

    What would I want out of a skeptical community? A skeptical community:

    “Skeptical” in the sense you describe that the top of the post (although I might prefer to end it after the word ‘science’). Any claims, made by anyone, including ourselves.

    “Community” in the sense of feeling fellowship with others as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests and goals. There’s always been some amount of self-promotion/ego-building, smugness/condescension/sense-of-superiority, tribalism, and personality-cult/fanboy/hero-worship that I’ve seen among skeptics in the 20+ years I’ve been involved. Either I’ve become less tolerant of these things, or their volume has grown over the last few years to the point where it drowns out any sense of community.

  32. blackmudpuppy

    Collectively, I think we need to be extremely aware of how others perceive “the skeptic.” We have a massive PR problem in the sense that popular culture as a whole views us as smug wet blankets. Our reaction to outrageous claims is typified by open mockery and too often exactly what the stereotyping predicts: condescension. This has been an extremely hard thing for me to come to terms with personally. I operated under the belief that some claims are so stupid (creationism in my case) they deserve mockery, when truly if this is all for anything, it deserved compassion on my part. I still think humor is a powerful weapon, and it’s easy to get angry about this stuff precisely because it *matters*, but I think as a community we need to focus on distancing ourselves from the vocal “outrage culture” that’s grown up around skepticism.

  33. idoubtit

    I don’t mind seeing repeats or seconds or thirds. It lets me know this is important.

    I would add that I am not a fan of forums because some of those of the certain skeptical type have to have the last word. Hint. Let others have their say, you don’t need to have an opinion about or answer to everything.

  34. idoubtit

    I’ve moderated Jim because he hijacked the thread. So you won’t be seeing his replies. He’s pretty angry with me, calling me part of the problem (while oddly, I think he was the problem). This isn’t his forum; this was my effort to solicit comments without judgment. I guess I didn’t make that clear. Sorry. But I believe there is a time to say, “Thanks for your opinion, we’ll take that in consideration. Goodbye”.

  35. Hi. I’m not part of the skeptical community, though I certainly consider myself a skeptic. Never been to TAM and have no idea if there’s even a skeptics in the pub kind of thing in or near Dallas. Probably wouldn’t go, anyway, because the one personal experience I have with organized skepticism happened to be dominated by a couple of asses like that Jim Carr guy, whoever he is. Angry, arrogant, judgmental, disdainful, self-righteous. I’ve been pleased to read through this thread and see almost exclusively positive non-ass comments. And I don’t really think skeptics in general are like that. That would be sorta silly. They’re (you are?) just people, like everyone else.

    When it comes to this kind of thing I’m mostly a lurker. I just try to talk to my family and friends about choices, and when I’m teaching my community college government class I set aside a couple of days each semester to talk about conspiracy theories and alternative medicine and the like. (You might or might not be surprised to hear how effective Beyonce is at convincing college freshmen that the Illuminati are a lurking sinister force in the world.) And I challenge students when things come up to consider thoughtful rational alternatives to the silly stuff that can be so seductive.

    So I guess all of you are more qualified than I am to comment on this thread. Nevertheless, it went across my Twitter feed, so I decided to put in a thought. (Too much intro…. sorry.)

    My comment is that the thing I don’t see, though perhaps it’s just my ignorance, is enough outreach to legislators. City councils, state legislatures, U.S. Congress. I like “public education” efforts and (Ben and Daniel, though I don’t know you) I buy books like Abominable Science and Tracking the Chupacabra, among others, and forward links to people and all that sort of slacktivism. So I wouldn’t suggest anyone do any less of that. I’m just not sure how many converts they make. I’m not even sure it’s possible to convert people, in general.

    I just think the most helpful thing that could happen is public policy changes to do things like requirement of full pharmaceutical testing of supplements, better enforcement of diet scams, bracelets, faux-medical devices and MLMs, better monitoring of school boards adopting curricular materials, and on and on. Even global warming, though that takes it to a “whole ‘nother level.”

    I know things like that are happening, and people are working on them. But when I think about it, I think more and better efforts like that would provide the best bang for the buck, if at least one goal is to help people avoid being victimized by nonsense. I can’t say I’ve done much personally, though I have written some letters, asked questions in public forums, and made one solitary trip to Austin (I live in Texas) to meet a couple of state legislators. So I don’t claim to be doing much myself.

    But you asked what the skeptical community could do, and that’s what I think.

    Back to lurking……

    • With respect to climate change, there is an organization doing what you want: Citizens Climate Lobby, which works with Congress and the local media.

  36. I’m envisioning a multifaceted community.

    One in which there are political activists, artists, scientists, public intellectuals, educators and the rest of us that dabble a bit here and a bit there.

    All of us upholding the principles of skepticism, specifically the importance of applying critical thinking to everyday life.

    It would be nice if we (the community) could leave that whole “DBAD” bun fight where it belongs, in the past. We need to be supporting one and other, and not arguing over being, or not being, a d*#k.

    We can’t control how other skeptics are going to act, or what they’re going to say. We can’t control how others are going to perceive us, or our message. The only thing we can do is communicate the best we can, and hope for the best.

    All of us will lapse, from time to time, and say things we regret, or say and do things that we didn’t feel were innapropriate.

    So rather than judging people, hypocritically, over errors that we all make, and attempting to dictate how we think fellow skeptics should communicate, and should behave, lets just focus on what we can control, namely our own thoughts and behaviors.

    At the end of the day we cannot control who is, or is not, a skeptic. And I’m pretty certain that no one here wants to have to pass a litmus test, or fear being labeled a SINO (Skeptic In Name Only).

    Beyond that I’d like to see skepticism presented as a tool that is necessary for ethical decision making.

    And as much as this may inspire collective groans from the community (I suspect that I inspire that response, a lot) I suppose I’d really like to see a community of varied individuals, rather than one modeled after the professional scientific community.

    Being both an atheist, secular humanist AND a skeptic makes me a very small minority. A minority that is mistrusted, and often hated.

    So it would be nice to have a sense of belonging.

    I hope that was helpful.

  37. Wonderful blog, Sharon. Refreshing and even inspiring. Thanks for getting this one going. I see many fine comments here. Some are a bit long but all are delightful. I too could go on and on and on. For the moment though I’ll just pass along two thoughts: First, I’ve always wanted to put together a compendium of personal narratives on how one “discovers” that they are a skeptic. Second, I have seen the lines between atheists and skeptics blur all too often. Though I would define my religious position as atheistic, that holding is also provisional and must of necessity take a back seat to my skepticism. When we attack religious people for hanging into their personal woo, we alienate far too many folks who can and should become a valuable part of our skeptical community. We all didn’t start out as dedicated skeptics, and many (I dare say most) of us came from various and varying forms of religiously dogmatic backgrounds. When we succumb to the pomposity of our “righteous” sentiments (that we the “brights” and the holders of ultimate truths about reality), we are no less victims of our own hubris than are the closed minds of fundamentalists. Even those of us who disdain religion (and I do), should start all our efforts with one simple axiom: be kind…..

  38. I just want to know that I’m not alone. I don’t care how different everyone is, we share a common respect for proper analytic thought. I don’t necessarily need to “fight” every pseudoscience that pops up (it will ALWAYS pop up) or even participate in a great deal of activism to feel that we are relevant as a community. I need to interact with like-minded people once in a while who will share in a knowing smile and some advice when I tell them about my experiences with people telling me a copper bracelet cures ailments, or when a family member goes to a psychic, or when my co-worker starts sounding like a dangerous conspiracy whackjob. I think the “community” should be about the people and getting to know each other and what we go through on a daily basis. I think if we are personally invested with one another, we might find ourselves more inclined to back each other up, or hold each other accountable.

    • 1petermcc

      I’m with you David. Mental support and links for us, which we turn into friendly encouragement for our friends who may fall for different things seems the best idea.

      Those within this loose community who think getting up in everyone’s grill is helpful actually get zero success in helping folk along and I can’t help thinking it more about grandstanding than the betterment of society.

      Me? I’m happy to occasionally engage in a discussion and to regularly post items where scammers are finally doing time in the hope that folk will at least think twice before throwing away their money. I let plenty float past without comment in the name of friendship. When folk later ask for your view on a particular matter you know you are getting things going on the right track.

      How do we deal with the aggressive sceptics in our midst? Simply outnumbering them is the best way. The more we encourage, the better the take up rate whereas those in it for a fight usually end up with a fan base of one. If we embrace others of a different view we look a lot less like a religion and that has to be a plus.

  39. The state of skepticism in general I believe is fine. I, like some others here would like to see some more activism but I’m a realist and people these days with jobs and families only have so much time in the day.
    Not trying to be a self proofer, but I wrote a blog post recently about the lack of critical thinking and that it’s not a priority in our school system anymore. At least not where I live. It may be too late for us to make a difference directly in our daily lives, but if we are able to help shape the next generation? We’ll have accomplished something that’s more valuable than anything else.
    what I want to see from the skeptic immunity is just that: ensure the next generation becomes, for the most part, a generation of critical thinkers.

    Oh, and if people would put aside their ideology(whatever it happens to be) when making an argument? That would be good as well. :)

  40. Roger

    I’m 60 years old, and didn’t admit out loud that I don’t think I have a soul that will outlive me until perhaps 10 years ago. On the other hand, the first intensely skeptical moment I recall having was probably hearing the Red Queen’s assertion that she “could believe 6 impossible things before breakfast.” I may have been 7 or 8. There were many steps along the way, and I wasted a lot of agonized reflection time, trying to reconcile two quite different collections of values. I’m happy to say that since coming down on the more skeptical side, I find myself a lot happier, and I can spend more time working out how to get along with people who aren’t exactly like me, rather than tormenting myself.

    What I’m trying to get to, is that helping people be skeptics involves a lot of things. Some of the people who helped me along the way would look as you might think a skeptic would, for example the Grade 5 teacher who easily met my childish arguments against evolution with interesting examples, but who was kind enough to compliment my willingness to make and defend arguments. Others you would probably not see as allies, for example C.S. Lewis, who is known as a defender of a very traditional kind of Christianity, but whose lively discourses were like a breath of fresh air compared to the kind of apologetic style that I was exposed to. In other words, anyone who uses logic, values evidence, can maintain a debate with respect, can “do the math” or can help someone else understand it, can pass on a well-stated article, who loves the unfolding of knowledge as much or more than the supposed truths and takes some pleasure in the infinite complexities of the boundary between the theoretical and the actual can help someone else do the same.

    So we just need to keep being ourselves, and being visible (or audible) to accomplish quite a lot, over the long haul. I know the analogy to the gay community has been made before, but it’s a powerful lesson. Once a lot of people discovered they knew some gay people, many of whom they already cared about, entrenched attitudes shifted a lot faster. They didn’t have to be especially organized to be effective. The most powerful thing was being known and just being there.

  41. Like I’ve said to Christians: If you spent more effort practicing your faith and less effort pounding others with it, you would be much better off.

    I feel the same way about skepticism. Be a skeptic, and quit pounding away at others with it. I don’t bother arguing, because I will never change anyone’s mind by arguing.

  42. It is a most difficult question. The problem is that I don’t really have a way of evaluating if my view on this is useful. We always face a fundamental problem of teaching – we were rarely taught the way we propose that others be, and we come from a position biased by prior understanding.

    But let’s begin with what my view of what (some of) the goals of skepticism are:

    - An increased public understanding of the methods and results of science.
    - An increased public application of basic critical methods for evaluating claims (e.g: evaluating the newest miracle supplement fad.)
    - A decreased acceptance of promotions of pseudoscientific ideas – in my world, claiming that homeopathy helps for something should be seen as offensive.
    - Greater media scrutiny of research. While it may be above the average consumer to evaluate clinical studies of poor quality, the media definitely needs to get better at this – and failure to do so should be seen as an embarassment.
    - A greater prominence of well-founded, easily accessible information on contentious topics (alternative medicine, climate change, chemtrails, GMO, conspiracy theories, misconceptions…)

    But how does one achieve these things? Let me be frank: I don’t really know. But my hunch is that focusing on education above debunking, on correct information over refutations of incorrect such, on talks above debates, is a key to achieving the above. Skeptics must be the ones with the key to understanding, rather than the antagonistic nay-sayers. That is not to say that debunking or challenging is never needed, but in my opinion it should be careful and considered, and preferably presented as education on the topic.

    But there are so many problems. How much can we compromise with our ideals? Must fire sometimes be fought with fire? When the promoters of ideas that are harmful rely on innuendo, misleading, pandering, vitriol and dishonesty, is it always sufficient to take the higher ground? I certainly hope so…

    I hope some of my sentiments come across; I’m in poor health at the moment and my mind is not in the best shape it has been. Thank you for your time.

    • I might add that my vision is of a largely, but not entirely “grass-roots” or locally driven skepticism. The big names are important, but so is consistently arranging talks, information campaigns and so on on a local level.

    • Sorry for another addendum, but another point I would like to echo is the call for slightly more empathy, or appreciation of experiences. When someone relays a personal experience, for example, it is not always necessary to badger that person with requests for evidence of that experience. That’s something I see a LOT within the skeptic community. We should try to focus on ideas, hard claims and strong positions, not personal feelings about an occurrence or event.

  43. My background is Liberal Arts and Social Sciences—that in itself usually sets off a wave of poorly judged comment. Although I find a lot of ‘skeptical’ comment amusing—including the spelling of skeptical—I do worry about the closed mindedness too often on display. It seems to rather overvalue the rational aspect of human thought. Rationality is not an easily attained skill.

    I absolutely agree that creationists—actually religion in general—anti vaxxers, alt med advocates, bigfoot researchers and so on are likely going down a path that will prove to be wrong. However, many of these people really do believe this stuff. We even know why, with studies into belief perseverance, schema theory, social and cultural reproduction and so on helping us to understand. The human thinking process is a rather wobbly one.

    Skeptics (your spelling not mine) should ensure that their attacks are against the ideas presented, rather than the person presenting them. I do not suggest that the Ken Hams and Dr Ozs of this world are beyond reproach; clearly each of them avoid the weight of evidence for their own reasons. Nevertheless, it should be the ideas that are the first target, or we risk looking infantile in our responses. Those that we might seek to educate—and what other reason is there for the discussion—are mostly human beings whose upbringing and human frailty has led them into unquestioned/unquestionable understandings of the world.

    The sad part is that while we understand how these beliefs are constructed and maintained and they do not, too often it is us that ridicule them. I’d like that to change.

  44. When it comes to people with special needs, whether they be infirmed, aged, grieving over a loss, etc., they are easy prey for the woo artists. However, I am not reserving this term (“woo artists”) for the Gellers, Popkins, Edwardses, and the like, nor the faith healers, quacks or the plethora of similar and sundry con artists. The religious community also provides their own form of “solace in a bottle.” Any kind of faith-based salve is a form of flim flam. The guts of the problem is the way we have been programed to think, both by nature and nurture. As to nurture, we as the “skeptics community” – in terms of activism – have as one of our principal aims — influencing the way people are educated and nurtured (at home by parents and in schools by educators). This is not simply a case of debunking. It involves two areas of endeavor: influencing child-rearing skills and getting critical-thinking-based curricula adopted in all our school systems. These are two lofty endeavors and well worth the time, money and dedication of the skeptics community.

  45. I would like the “skeptic” community to actually apply what is in the definition above in all areas not just those areas of no concern to massive corporate interests. I would like “skeptics” to stop using logical fallacies, including wrongfully applying them, to support their corporate-corrupted beliefs systems.

    For example, I am a 9/11 skeptic and no mainstream “skeptic” has ever dealt with my simple purely science-based arguments except by using puerile sophistry.

    • And what makes you imagine that any kind of true skeptic is a person who demands evidence as to one particular (or a multitude of) claims? True skepticism is the application of reason, critical-thinking skills, to all aspects of life…..anything less is being less of a skeptic. Here’s an example: a deeply-religious, fundamentalist non-Christian (e.g., Moslim) says, “I demand proof to support your claim as to the virgin birth of Jesus.” He even goes so far as to demand scientific evidence of the possibility of a virgin birth (i.e., parthenogenesis, but of course, Jesus would have had to be a woman then). He is certainly not a skeptic just because he is practicing some skepticism.

      • No, just a definition of someone who is not a skeptic (he would just be skeptical about something). The fact that most people are not PURE skeptics (or that there can be varying degrees of skepticism or of being a skeptic), beyond some semantic fun, really is not that important to the issue of a skeptical movement or skeptical activism. We should embrace, acknowledge and encourage good skeptical practices regardless of the quarter we find them in.

      • Case in point. I ask skeptics to apply skepticism equally to all areas and somehow you bizarrely believe that I was asking application only to one specific area. That’s called a straw man.

      • The topic is the nature of skepticism in the context of skeptic alactivism. It’s corollary topic is the definition of a skeptic (or what “being a skeptic” means to you – us). My point was (and is) that we are not defined only by WHAT we apply our skeptical-thinking toolkit to, but how we apply It, and to what extent we apply it.

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