why skeptical groups died and why we need to bring them back
A recent article which mentioned the seedy underbelly of British skeptical groups referred to those who used to attend widespread skeptical meetups in the UK — and the U.S. — as “a loose network of people who were far too impressed with themselves for not believing in astrology and homeopathy.” And while this is unkind, it’s not entirely incorrect, especially after the full-blown meltdown these groups had in the early 2010s for reasons that can best be described as five parts high school drama, to one part legitimate scandals, to two parts political tribalism. It’s not that their work was unnecessary, it’s that the groups were around for under-appreciated reasons and had no strategy for moving forward or resolving internal friction.
Perhaps the biggest problem was really how to define what made one a skeptic. After all, the term is wide open and can be a polite euphemism for someone who denies ironclad scientific facts when presented with them, just like “climate skeptics” who are literally paid to spread disinformation about pollution and its role in climate change, and attempts to call anti-vaxx conspiracy theorists “vaccine skeptics.” The subsequent focus on debunking already often tackled themes like psychics, snake oil salespeople, cryptids, ghosts, and alien abductions created a sort of fuzzy gray space for scientists and engineers who wanted to participate and introduce new and less worn topics, often with little to no success.
I can even cite my personal experience in the absolute lack of interest skeptics showed toward my skeptical specialty: fact-checking the techno-utopianism and cargo cult studies of artificial intelligence by Singularitarians. It sounds like a niche topic to be sure, but with concepts like mind uploading and our future as cyborgs now mainstream, my articles cited by a number of publications asking me if I planned to write more, and popular skeptics themselves being sent links to this site to fact check their own takes on Singularitarianism, there was definitely a real need not being met. It’s not that I was the ultimate authority on the subject, it’s just that I had the relevant credentials and was one of just a handful of people writing about it.
But even after a few years during which comp sci content was pretty much everywhere and a lot of people had very real questions about AI and their future in a world dominated by robots and algorithms, skeptical groups never added talks about computer science to their rosters. If it wasn’t in their typical rotation of topics you were politely told that what you were doing was “advanced skepticism” and would be best treated as the next step after the content they put out, so your best hope to introduce people to new fields of scientific inquiry was getting listed in the sources or further reading section of one of their posts. The end result of all this very much amounted to boozy, self-congratulatory retreads of basic critical thinking tropes.
And maybe because it was boozy and very chummy, many of the groups ended up resembling co-ed fraternities rather than activist organizations, and problems weren’t handled according to clearly defined processes but ended up splashed across skeptical blogs in lurid detail, turning what were once aspiring hubs for high quality information and fact checking into tabloids that also made fun of cranks and pseudoscientists on the internet. People who weren’t interested in the drama and patting themselves and each other on the back for understanding that aliens are probably not crossing quadrillions of miles just to put things up our butts, left in droves. Pretty soon, there was no compelling reason to join a skeptic group or call oneself a skeptic.
So, what was the point? Well, promoting critical thinking and appreciation for facts, science, and research is invaluable today. We can see that in Finland’s success in tackling fake news with nothing more than critical thinking classes on media and information. The people who insist that psychics are real, Bigfoot and Nessie are out there, and scoff at “Western medicine” as they spend all their disposable income on the fad diet of the month, already made up their minds and there’s little we can do to change those beliefs. But people who already know all that and want skeptical takes on other, more diverse and complex topics need sources to turn to as well to get expert options on things they really don’t understand but want to.
In this light, skeptical groups set themselves up for failure from the start by focusing on just debunking what you see on trashy daytime TV instead of becoming reliable educators and trusted sources of information about everything related to science and technology. Can you imagine how much good they could have done by giving journalists and reporters numbers of experts to call when covering something about medicine, scientific discoveries, or new and impactful announcements in the world of AI and robotics? How much positive change could they have driven if instead of talking about the futility of homeopathy behind a podium in Las Vegas, they became clearinghouses of expert analysis and opinion on key subjects?
This is the direction in which they were being pulled by those who asked questions about the future of skepticism and if it makes sense to refer to the movement by such an amorphous term, and they either ignored the concerns or actively resisted them. It’s downright painful to see just how many opportunities were squandered by refusing to think about a future beyond picking low hanging fruit, then grabbing a drink and relaxing with your friends to talk about how ridiculous it was that anyone thinks juicing could cure cancer. If those groups ever want to stage a big comeback, they need to consider where they went wrong, reorganize, and rebrand with a clear and expansive vision for the future in mind. And they absolutely should make a comeback because the world still really, really needs them.