They’re everywhere. They can be your next door neighbors. They can be your trusted doctor or librarian or bank teller. You could be sitting next to one of them at work and never know it. They’re skeptics, people who question dogmas and long held beliefs in the quest to find the truth for themselves. Jen Myers is one such skeptic, blogging on Skepchick.org and serving as the head of Central Ohioans for Rational Inquiry, a skeptic group in Columbus, OH, which incidentally happens to be where the writer of this blog is based.
Recently Jen and I had a chance to talk about skepticism as a process and what it means to be a skeptic at a time when headlines seem to be dominated with clashes over science and religion.
Q: How did CORI get started and what is its mission?
A: I started blogging at Skepchick after answering Rebecca Watson’s call for new writers. After I was writing for a while, I thought it would be interesting to talk in person about some of of the topics I was covering and came across CORI. By this time, the group has been around for close to ten years and sort of burned itself out. Many of the group’s members were in their 60s and were used to a highly organized structure that limited their ability to find new members. So the president of the group offered me the chance to set something up from what was left of CORI.
As a web designer by trade I started reaching out to younger skeptics, set up Google Groups, a blog and a Facebook group. Today’s generation is just so familiar with the web and I wanted to try and use that to attract young members with new ideas. Now we’re starting to get organized, give the group more structure and expand our outreach to help educate people about skeptics and skepticism in general.
Q: Many people seem to associate skepticism and free-thought with atheist groups. How fair is their assessment? What is the relationship between skeptic and atheist groups?
A: There’s a lot of overlap with the atheist community and I think that’s ok. Skepticism is about the process of thinking things through to their logical outcome and atheism can be one of the outcomes. Certainly that’s not the only outcome, but it’s a possible one. There are people who are really passionate atheism and they mix the two very heavily. I’m not sure that’s necessarily the right way to do it because what skeptics advocate is a rational thought process rather than any particular ideology or leading people to some sort of dogmatic belief system.
Q: Do you think there are skeptics that go too far in their skepticism and if yes, how so?
A: Yes, I think there are people who take it a little too far. There has to be a distinction between not believing in anything period and just figuring things out and evaluating all the information you have available. Skepticism can’t be illogical or dogmatic and still work. For example, there are people who say that you can’t believe anything the government says and they take it to the extreme of conspiracy theories like 9/11 Truthers. Certainly you shouldn’t just trust anything and everything the government says without some sort of research on your own, but there are plenty of cases when you can trust what the government puts out.
Also, some of our older members have problems with discussions of climate change because of their political beliefs and you can sometimes see political agendas creeping into discussions which is something I try to avoid. When ideology enters skepticism you have to be very careful not to let it take you the wrong way and make conclusions based on an agenda rather than the facts you have available.
Q: Other than evolution and creationism, what are some of the most popular topics in skeptic communities today?
A: Well, right now the anti-vaccine movement is a popular topic, especially with the attention to it in the media and with Wakefield’s studies being shown as false. There are always discussions about psychics and alternative medicine. Homeopathy has been slightly more mentioned since we have celebrities talk about it and a lot of people think it’s like natural supplements when it’s not really like that. But again, evolution is always the most important and the most heated topic.
Q: Do you think there are any issues with science education today and if so, what are they?
I think there’s a larger issue with education in general, especially science education. In schools today there’s a lot of memorization and in science class you’re just told things they want you to know for the test rather than being taught how to use the tools you’re being given.