the pros and cons of growing skeptic groups
By all accounts, I fit what the media would refer to as a skeptic with room to spare. I’m close to the age group into which most skeptics fall, even a little on the younger side. I’m a grad student in a STEM discipline. I have an honest to goodness blog that’s actually read by a noticeable amount of people, and I rail against both bad science and crankery, quackery, and vacuous New Age tripe being passed off as scientific. And according to several major publications in the UK like the Telegraph and the Guardian, I’m part of a growing movement in society, one that seeks to institutionalize the scientific method and force homeopaths, naturopaths, psychics, and cosmic consciousness cranks to submit to the same level of scrutiny reserved for scientists. Now, I say that the publications which are trying to define the skeptic movement are in the UK because in the U.S. this is an issue that’s barely covered at all. And both the facts that skeptics are being united in the media as a brand new social movement, and that they’re getting all too little press in the American media is rather alarming…
On the one hand, there is a major skeptic movement and it does attract people who call themselves skeptics and are passionately interested in improving scientific education and literacy, as well as exposing frauds and charlatans who use tricks to separate people from their money, or get rich from spewing technobabble which they pass off as incredible insights gained from scientific investigations. They’re also very active in performing their due diligence when ridiculous rumors go viral, and try to inject some critical thinking and facts when an important conversation in a public forum is being dominated by emotion and dogmatism. This movement has been growing for a long time and in the past three years or so, it really took off, so much so, its starting to get some of the internal growing pains and debates experienced by other established social groups, including how skeptics should or shouldn’t address religious issues, with some skeptics growing scared of atheists in their midst, usually out of public relations concerns. But regardless of the internal politics of skeptics, they are a very much needed movement and I’m happy when blog portals and web directories list Weird Things as a skeptical inquiry blog because that’s what it has been from the start and what I want it to remain.
And yet, I have some mixed feelings about having a skeptical movement. At their core, skeptics are interested in only one thing: promoting good science and critical thinking. If something you read on a skeptical blog gave you the urge to go and buy a few good science books on a particular topic and question the next breathless or overly credulous report about, oh say, UFOs meddling in global politics, or random collections of quotes from conspiracy theorists who weave anything and everything into an elaborate New World Order plot, then we have done our jobs. Though notice how the notion of fact checking and examining claims from the standpoint of whats more plausible rather than what makes a good story, is pretty logical and straightforward. Needing a movement which teaches critical thinking skills to adults who really should have them at this point says some very disturbing things about the societies these movements inhabit. Even worse is how the media treats it. In the UK, the narrative is that of skeptics fighting believers over philosophical and scientific disagreements that started spilling over into the public eye, when its really more like concerned people who have some modicum of scientific literacy objecting to charlatans and quacks raiding government coffers and peoples wallets. And in the U.S., skeptics are used for culture wars segments which focus on the politics, not the facts.
So imagine, if you will, a not too distant future in which “skeptics” is an umbrella term to label those who have a genuine interest in scientific topics, and are familiar with basic math, physics, and biology enough to have a critical opinion on a popular out-of-left-field claim, from the average John and Jane Q. Public when a scientific education grounded in facts, figures, and critical thought should be the aim of basic schooling. Unfortunately, we seem to be doing all we can to degrade education down to route memorization and standardized tests for the benefit of keeping grossly overpaid administrators in their lucrative jobs, even if those administrators are being paid to basically dismantle an entire state’s educational system, making it seem eerily plausible that scientific education becomes pretty much optional. And if the politics aren’t poisoning education enough, way too many virulently anti-intellectual movements are trying to make things even worse by portraying scientific research as elitist quests undertaken by people who just like to use big words to confuse the public, making up things like evolution or global warming because they’re all just a bunch of evil communist spies who hate our deities. In the United States, as education is either being neglected or bludgeoned, we desperately need active skeptic movements, and not just fodder for political talk shows, but we seem to need these skeptics for all the wrong reasons, and using a special label to describe something all of us are able to do.