Once upon a time, writers with a penchant for science, education, and research spent many hours debunking everything from claims of cryptids and alien abductions to ads for snake oil and elaborate conspiracy theories. Their blogs lit up with traffic. Their posts were quoted in major outlets. They were invited on radio shows and TV segments. They got columns in both popular science and news publications. But around ten years ago, they vanished from public discourse, their blogs seemingly fading into obscurity.
Meanwhile, just about every horrible prediction they made has come true. Social media has been flooded with weaponized conspiracies, health scams that radicalize people against their friends and neighbors, confirmation bias has become a lucrative business that’s now tearing families apart, and entire societies have rejected even the idea of objective facts so much so, even natural crises have become sources of division rather than unity. Just as they warned, our world has been broken in fairly fundamental ways.
So, if they were so prescient, why did they vanish, you may rightfully ask. Surely, they would understand how to deal with many of today’s most severe problems. Well, the answer is that rather than continue broadening and building on their engagement with the world at large, far too many professional skeptics remained in insular, overly chummy communities that would plunge into drama, discord, and infighting. Readers quickly began to lose interest, as did the reporters who wanted to get a skeptical take on a breaking story.
With skeptical blogs now either consumed by gossip and squabbles or rehashing the same old debunking of the same old material, there just wasn’t anything there for new audiences to latch onto and explore. Of course, internal friction wasn’t the only culprit. Perhaps the far bigger problem was the lack of new topics and a cohesive narrative of what to do after you’re done debunking and want to move on to something constructive beyond a few platitudes about embracing science and engineering.
If you wanted to use skeptical meetups and conferences as a springboard to talk about space, the future of technology, and address topics in dire need of skeptical takes like transhumanism and the Singularity, which were making the leap from sci-fi to mainstream tech bro discourse, you were told that this was “advanced skepticism,” and white they were more than happy to cite you when those topics were brought up, they’d rather stick to defending evolution, once again debunking Bigfoot, alien abductions, the Chupacabra, and dunking on homeopathy.
Now, this is not to say that those things aren’t important or don’t need to be done. But where do you go once you digest these basic issues? What’s the next big thing? What’s the point of listening to the same group of people telling you that sasquatches are most likely misidentified bears standing on their hind legs, evolution is a real science, the odds of aliens visiting us are extremely remote, the Chupacabra are probably rabid or mangey coyotes, and homeopathy is just water sold with abject nonsense to the anxious and overly trusting?
With nothing beyond that, the mission statement of skeptical groups and writers went from educating, informing, and protecting their audiences to basically saying “look and scoff at all these people being wrong, and pity them in their wrongness.” Suddenly, reading pretty much the exact same post as last week on the same topic is a lot less appealing, and if you have an offer to join a skeptical group, your question is why since once you’ve been to one meetup or conference, you’ve pretty much been to them all.
Hold on though, isn’t social media being overran with outrage bait, conspiracies, and scams a big part of the problem, you may ask. Weren’t skeptics just outshouted by scammers and their fans? In part, this is true. But woo, frauds, and conspiracies always had much better billing than any skeptic, which is the exact problem we were just discussing. Facts and science are not fun and engaging all by themselves unless you make them, and social media relishes debates and conflicts, something skeptics used to be great at generating until they turned on each other.
It was always an uphill struggle to tell people something they may not have wanted to hear, or challenge beliefs on which they staked their identity and are inherently extremely difficult to change. After all, people don’t just admit they’re wrong simply because someone told them, they have to either have little emotional attachment to the topic or be open, and while social media helps people dig in and double, it hasn’t fundamentally changed the problem. Too many skeptics had simply given up on reaching and engaging more people, or simply refused to try.
As so many skeptics went dormant or just recycling their greatest hits, journalists looking for new pull quotes and fact checks had no need to keep up relationships. They already have the last quote to recycle, and the skeptics aren’t covering new ground, so why bother? Maybe this is why some of the original skeptical titans like Richard Dawkins and Michael Shermer enlisted in the culture wars, but now on the side of the people whose toxic, anti-scientific and post-factual influence they claimed to be battling for the public good. At least it gets them work.
Unfortunately, while skeptics fade and their work becomes increasingly obscure, the world is in dire need of critical thinking and entertaining defenders of science, research, and humanism ready to unflinchingly go toe to toe with liars while entertaining and inspiring audiences. With the public discourse now free of any norms or consequences, we’re bombarded by tsunamis of weapons grade bullshit. We see it. We know it. We’re disgusted that no one is calling it out. And we’ve lost trust that anyone in power is acting in good faith, which erodes civil society.
Unfortunately, our mistrust seems to be quite well placed. Just about every institution which used to run our lives now seems to be guilty of some irredeemable sin. Our politicians have devolved into social media trolls and wannabe influencers who turned our politics into a WWE soap opera. Various churches have been concealing centuries of horrific abuse against children. And the movers and shakers of the global economy were exposed as incapable of basic human decency and empathy, and prone to tax evasion and fraud.
With ever more and better education focused on critical thinking, greater ability to investigate scandals and corruption, and more ways to communicate our findings than ever before, many dark, old secrets intended to be buried forever are rising from their graves with disastrous and terrifying results. On the positive side, many of us are more skeptical and have far better honed bullshit detectors. On the negative side, this skepticism undermined the institutions and people we trusted and relied on for a peaceful, calm, orderly life, and now we’re seeing the backlash.
We can simply no longer trust those who we now know are putting profit, power, and a chance to fulfil their dark fantasies by abusing that power, but we don’t yet know what comes next. Do we reform existing institutions? It seems like an impossible task, as those who benefit from the status quo would need to be tasked with changing it. What are the chances they’ll find they did nothing wrong? Should we start to set up alternative institutions? Who would legitimize them, and how would any of them overrule their existing counterparts?
If this seems messy, complicated, and overwhelming, that’s because it is. It’s become extremely obvious that the way things are ran today simply doesn’t work for the vast majority of humans, and we’re going to need to make some profound changes to keep functioning over the next ten to fifty years. At the same time, because we still don’t know what that change has to look like in enough detail, and a noisy, outrage-driven social media is now present in every aspect of our lives, it’s trivial to derail meaningful conversations into toxic, sometimes lethal skirmishes.
Yet, while we try to figure out a way forward, our leaders are building their luxury bunkers for the collapse of society through nuclear war, economic catastrophe, or climate change, planning to die rich because they see it as preferable than spending any money to actually fix things. In the leadership vacuum, we get the classic clash between the utopian reformists who see their chance to build the world they’ve always wanted, and reactionaries who believe that we must return to the way things were. Ideally with them at charge. At gunpoint, if necessary.
Don’t just take my word for these extreme cases. In the United States, a think tank called the Claremont Institute has spent years telling its followers that the real need for so many guns on American streets is to drive out or forcibly eliminate anyone one iota to the left of people the John Birch Society would find backwards and a little too fanatical for their taste. In their minds, those who disagree that the future of America and the West should be a fascist gerontocracy, is fair game to be targeted for a replay of very literal Nazi extermination tactics.
Now, to be fair, we have to note that this view is extremely unpopular, and its proponents are downright reviled. Yet, at the same time, the battle for eyeballs, ratings, and clicks appears to have sucked all the oxygen out of the room for reasonable discussions, and purveyors of doom, gloom, and paranoia dominate the conversation. They don’t really believe much of what they say, it’s just a job to them. Unfortunately, their followers very much do, and their life of near-constant fear and rage has primed them to derail any meaningful progress.
And this brings us right back to skeptical movements which have left enough of a mark to make sure we’re questioning and debunking but refused to give us the framework of what to do next and push beyond their comfort zones. Believe it or not, knowing how to question tales of weird cryptids do equip you quite well to question politicians’ promises and call out when they’re just conspiracy-mongering or fell victim to their own paranoid snake oil. However, skepticism does not equip you to do more with that skill than ask good questions and pat yourself on the back.
Unless there’s a proper platform to organize and amplify those critical questions, present an alternative vision people can get behind, and keep hammering away with those questions and ideas until you get a seat at the table once again, you’re failing to prevent politicians pursuing asinine and actively malicious policies that fly in the face of science, math, and basic decency, and enabling the society-eating rot to take hold ever further. And if you’re not using your critical thinking to make things better, what are you actually doing with your life?
If you’re dealing with profound change, it’s tempting to want to go back, to not deal with AI, or bullshit jobs, or runaway automation, or out of control pollution. However, that’s not a viable option because we’re way too far down those paths. This is far from the first time that we had to change how our civilizations functioned, and hardly our first “incoming doomsday.” We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again because in the end, we’re not going to have a choice. To argue against adapting to change — whether we like it or not — is to argue against entropy.
We already know the worst thing to do now, which is exactly what we’ve been doing up to this point: nothing. Giving people no real motivation between mindless accumulation of ever more expensive material things and passive consumption in pursuit of seemingly nothing has led to an epidemic of weaponized misery and self-radicalizing boredom. Even worse, new research suggests that being bored and isolated seems to increase one’s predilection for sadistic and violent behavior towards others.
In other words, doing nothing is, in fact, the worst thing we could be doing because it doesn’t even maintain the status quo but actively deteriorates it. Critical thinking paired with big ideas and inspirational dreams holds the key to getting us out the clutches of sociopaths promoting their brand of anti-science nihilistic morass very few of us objectively enjoy with minimal, if any, pushback from those whose job it was supposed to be to provide said pushback. In short, we need organized skepticism to return but this time, see its job to the end.
It’s no longer enough to debunk, fact check, and tell people that everything they know or may be wrong. There’s an entire industry devoted to telling them that about everything, from how they cut their onions and wash their clothes to intricate geopolitical crises and pandemics. We are all exhausted from pundits on every platform afflicted with main character syndrome telling us what our real problem is and confidently offering “mind-blowing insights” on subjects they discovered exist just a few hours before posting their videos. More scolding won’t help.
We’re long overdue for passionate experts who can relate to us, guide us, who treat us not as foolish children or mindless suckers, but approach us as potential friends. We need skeptics who don’t just remind us that they’re here to help us every once in a while, but who make it a point to constantly remind their audience why they’re doing this, building connections, and going far beyond mere debunkings to opening up a show their readers, listeners, and viewers new world of possibilities. It’s going to be insanely difficult. Bust as we can see, far too much is at stake, and another failure is no longer an option.