This is a post about a specific, maybe touchy, issue in a very general field – we could use some internal support and shared respect as advocates of science, critical thinking and evidence-focused skepticism, as well as a reminder that the world is a diverse place of knowledge, opinions and expertise. And, I’m going to tell you a bit more about getting into the thick of things at a conference outside my comfort zone.
I’m very much a generalist, I know a bit about a whole lot of stuff, a lot about a good bit of stuff, and considered an expert in a very narrow range of subjects. This is an advantage in getting people across a wide social and educational scale thinking about weird things. If I can hit on at least of few of their interests, whether that be the paranormal, natural disasters, animals, the environment or health concerns a decent discussion will happen. This past weekend, I was at RavenCon in Richmond, VA, a sci-fi con of the BaltiCon and Dragon*Con type, which I had attended before. I can always find something of interest there. I may skip the Star Trek stuff and not know about this novel franchise but I’m all in for spooky stuff, Star Wars or LOTR discussion. I appreciate that the RavenCon folks decided to invite me and Bob Blaskiewicz to add a rational spin on some fringe topics. They understand the audience is diverse.
It seems indisputable to me that critical thinking habits must be taught as early as possible in order to have the greatest impact. That is, in the course of regular discussion, activities, and daily doings, incorporating good habits of inquiry and encouraging curiosity ought to be a goal of parents and educators for even the youngest kids. Generally, (I’m going to play the odds) when it comes to kids under 12, they love animals, monsters, dinosaurs, etc. This is an excellent gateway topic into thinking about how we know what we know and what to think about these possibly true, probably false, but popular and interesting topics. RavenCon had a kids programming track. I had developed a new presentation for kids about monsters and was eager to try it out. It was an interactive discussion about historic monsters (dragons and sea serpents), movie monsters (Frankenstein’s creature to vampires to Godzilla), legendary monsters (Jersey Devil and Chupacabra), and monsters some people think are real like Bigfoot and Nessie. What do we know? How do we know? What should we think about them in terms of fact or fiction?
KIDS KNOW ABOUT BIGFOOT AND NESSIE. Most of them think they are AWESOME. What better way to start a discussion about evidence than with a topic they have curiosity about! Other than realizing I don’t know my video game monsters so well, I think it worked. Even the parents were grateful, they had learned something. I know a good bit about a lot of monsters.
There are more crucial topics to discuss, many would say, but this was not the place. I’m not going to be able to talk to kids about alternative medical claims or cancer treatment. I can’t connect to them about psychic scams or consumer protection. The monster angle is ideal. You start somewhere and work on the methodology of applying effective skepticism using a fun example.
Also at RavenCon, I was on the panels for Bad Science, Ask a Scientist, and Paranormal: Fact or Faked. I sat in on two other presentations from a local paranormal group, who call themselves scientific, where I asked questions and engaged with them. By the end of the conference, I had made a positive impression on several people who DO NOT necessarily believe what I believe or approach inquiry the same way yet they listened to my comments. I had planted the seed. They did not think of me as the curmudgeonly dismissive, debunking skeptic. I even plan to work with the paranormal group in the future. That’s a WIN! Inserting techiniques of applying skepticism at a science-fiction con is a FANTASTIC way to get people thinking more deeply about this stuff.
I understand that some people engaged in skeptical advocacy and activism think that talking about Bigfoot and paranormal topics is boring and silly. That’s because you’ve already thought through it and decided it’s not your thing. A significant proportion of the American population (typically around 20%) believes in some aspect of the paranormal, whether that be Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts, psychic abilities, and the like. A huge number (varies depending on your religious affilation from 20-90%) would rather accept a supernatural explanation of the earth and species of life via Creationism. This is not trivial stuff. It’s normal. And there must be a voice of the counter-advocate. No, it’s not life or death (well, maybe it is about life, in general), it’s everyday life-enriching skills. We all need that. Learning to apply evidence-focused skepticism is a skill useful throughout life. Most people have not thought much about it. Most people also don’t have PhDs, read philosophy, know logical fallacies, or value reason over other criteria. They learn most everything from their communities of interest, family, and television often never getting a thoughtful science-based view. Engaging them in skeptical thinking about their interests and communicating at their level of science understanding means they are less likely to tune out and get them thinking about things in a new way.
A twitter discussion began between Orac, DJ Grothe and others regarding Harriet Hall’s review of Abominable Science and her mention of Bigfoot Skeptics. It was a fine piece about the value of talking about monsters. Since commenting was not available on the feature, a back-and-forth in 140 characters ensued. Twitter is probably the worst place to discuss a detailed, thoughtful article. It’s an exceptionally poor medium for hashing out goals and preferences regarding social causes. Confusion arose about the “importance” of various specialties of skepticism (i.e., Bigfoot vs medical quackery). There is NO DOUBT that medical topics are the more critical areas in which to apply sound skepticism. This is also one of the subject area that requires the most expertise in order to be qualified to give an opinion. I know enough about medical claims to be able to judge whether they appear off or not (because of the generalist thing), but I would not feel comfortable expounding about it in depth. So I won’t. But someone MUST. We count on the experts in this field like Orac and the team at Science-Based Medicine to do it. So, I point to their sites and cite their work. I can’t do it better so why attempt it.
Meanwhile, I run the ultimate generalist site over at DoubtfulNews.com. I talk to kids about monsters. I look into sham science. I write for Forteans and cryptozoologists. That’s my thing and I’m pretty good at it. I find when non-Bigfoot skeptics talk about this stuff, they miss the mark, mistakenly characterizing a sizable portion of the population as silly or stupid, conflating interest with gullibility and belief. That’s not only unhelpful, it’s wrong. Do people point to my work on these topics? Sometimes. It’s really great when they do and I notice and appreciate that.
I have received a ton of feedback from people who say they love Doubtful News site, they like my writing in other places, and say I am one of the “reasonable” skeptics. Therefore, preliminary results suggest my approach is working out pretty well. However, it is rare to be acknowledged publicly from high-profile skeptics. As I mentioned, I like to call out good work by others, so it does irk me when projects I invest a big effort in aren’t mentioned as worthwhile across the skeptical community. In a way this is not a big deal, since that is not the niche I am aiming to reach, yet, it is nice to be recognized by peers and get positive feedback once in a while instead of being publicly and harshly critiqued, looked down upon, or told my work or opinion means less than your own. This has occasionally happened to me and to many others and it’s obnoxious.
The point was also made during the Twitter discussion that individuals can’t do it all and it’s a good plan to play to our strengths – “I can’t address this certain speciality (not my interest or expertise) but I’m glad others can.” We need generalists and specialists of all types to make a strong network – doctors, pharmacists, veterinarians, geologists, historians, folklorists, artists, filmmakers, linguists, physicists, chemists, biologists, zoologists, philosophers, secularists, human rights advocates, mathematicians, computer and networking experts, and so on. I harken back to the concept of big tent of skepticism… because it makes the most sense. Anyone who has been paying any attention at all knows that forming ourselves into cliques with labels has been a terrible idea – causing huge rifts, increasing divisiveness and, consequently, limiting progress. I have been continually disappointed at the GENERAL lack of cooperation between skeptics but astounded by, and am grateful for, some SPECIFIC acts. There is a big tent and a place inside for enclaves of specialists, not cliques who believe this is better or more worthwhile than that. Tribalism, while it happens, should not be condoned. Respect should be maintained as well as understanding that there is a place for almost everyone, not ONE best way or one most important topic. (I don’t do to the Star Trek panels at sci-fi cons but I do like the Star Wars and LOTR ones.)
So, my trip abroad to the realm of sci-fi was a great experience. I’ll be writing it up for a future for Sounds Sciencey. I took seriously my role as a speaker and as a listener, to get the pulse of the opinions and attitudes around us and find out where we need to speak up and do more. What’s more important — teaching kids to think for themselves or saving some people from financial or health consequences? Well, that’s not a reasonable question, is it? The primary consideration for advocacy and activism must be the needs of the audience to which we are trying to communicate at that moment. Things change. Adjust accordingly.
I’m going to keep talking about monsters for a long time. If you can’t see the greater value in that, you are forgetting something fundamental about people – we are really diverse.