As 2012 became 2013 I wrote a blog post listing 4 lessons I had learnt that year. The lessons were ‘Become a better investigator’, ‘Talk and listen to young people’, ‘Never be too certain’ and ‘Be hungry for change’. Throughout 2013 I wrote a lot of criticisms of the modern skeptical movement. In fact, when looking back through my blog I was quite surprised at the extent to which I had blogged my thoughts. Here’s a quick recap:
Community, you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means
James Randi & Social Darwinism | James Randi and Social Darwinism revisited
How it is
Walking the Walk
Communication disaster, the damage skeptics cause
On Guerilla Skepticism and Skeptical Outreach | Further thoughts for the day
I am woo? I am skeptic!
If you go back further you find more and more blog posts from me questioning the movement that until recently I felt a part of. It’s what sceptics do – having an open mind and casting the scepticism inwards as well as outwards, and there really is some funky stuff going on within parts of the skeptical movement that warrants scrutiny. Yet, in recent months it has become clearer and clearer that it isn’t scepticism that is the problem, but indeed a small group of very vocal skeptics.
I have been really thinking about skepticism since blogging on the subject again last week and I have decided to blog once more in the hope that this will be my final summary of why I feel disconnected from the skeptical movement, and what skepticism means to me. Organising skeptics is often referred to as ‘herding cats’, yet we – as a wider collective of people – are represented in the media by such a small group of individuals. How messed up is that?
For many people, being a part of the skeptical movement is being a skeptic and being a skeptic is being part of the skeptical movement. When I say that I don’t identify as part of the skeptic movement it’s often presumed that I’m saying I’ve turned my back on skepticism but this isn’t the case.
Scientific scepticism is the practice of questioning whether claims are supported by empirical research and have reproducibility – it is this that I use as part of a wider methodological approach to my cases, and also an approach I take to things that I encounter on a regular basis. That is why I call myself a sceptic. To me it’s best to keep scepticism simple and well defined.
What does my scepticism look like? When I see claims made in public that are not supported by evidence I submit complaints to Trading Standards, OFCOM or the ASA if it is appropriate to do. I have gone undercover to unearth dubious health claims being marketed at the desperate, and to uncover hoaxes perpetrated to make a quick buck from the unsuspecting and undeserving who believe in fringe ideas.
Very recently I went undercover at a herbal medicine centre and told them about the very complex (and real) problems I am having with my ear. I told them all about my past surgery and my current symptoms which are indicative that I may have another tumor in my ear. The treatment required may involve surgery but the herbal medicine practitioner told me that acupuncture would treat my immune system and it was my immune system that was causing the problem in my ear. This is dangerous.
I’ve submitted hundreds of complaints to Trading Standards and the ASA since 2008 and have made international news through doing so (something I had no intention of doing). I also speak to a range of audiences about using scientific scepticism as a paranormal researcher – young children, older children, believers and non-believers alike. I act as a media adviser (for free) to outlets that range from the BBC and ITV right down to regional newspapers on weird stories they are covering or have been approached with. By doing these things I get to engage with people about paranormal phenomena and the best ways to seek the answers.
I have arrived at my current sceptical position because I was inspired by grassroots scepticism within the United Kingdom. It’s a scene that isn’t overly defined, where individuals come together to work or to share information and expertise, where there are no rules and there is very little point scoring. What works for one doesn’t always work for another but that’s okay because it’s organic, there are no expectations, but it often gets the job done.
Last year I spent almost a week in Stockholm listening to skeptics from all over Europe speaking about the work that their skeptic organisations do. Good, decent outreach work that tries to inspire the minds of the next generations, work in the media that counters misinformation, and lots of undercover work and research to make sure claims being made about products (especially medicinal products) are evidence based. Activism. It’s decent sceptical activism that makes a difference. It’s hating stupidity and loving people. It’s seeing wrong and caring enough to make it right.
Yet there is a small pocket within the wider movement/community inhabited by those who create a information feedback loop, who don’t actively research the claims they dismiss, who defend famed members of their movement despite their terrible wrong-doings (the cognitive dissonance is almost cult like). Ego is often the motivating factor, back-patting and a bigger platform is the reward, and differences of opinion are settled through point scoring and petty attacks. It’s a movement within a movement where agendas are hidden by smokescreens and mirrors, and where the rational aren’t very rational at all.
“They tend to block honest inquiry, in my opinion. Most of them are not agnostic toward claims of the paranormal; they are out to knock them. […] When an experiment of the paranormal meets their requirements, then they move the goal posts. Then, if the experiment is reputable, they say it’s a mere anomaly. – Marcello Truzzi
These people do not represent skepticism like they might claim to, but they do seem to have the bigger voice. They might have represented skepticism at one point, but in my experience, more and more rational people are becoming wary of such individuals and their increasingly irrational behaviour.
When I write criticisms of skepticism it isn’t that I’m saying skepticism is bad or unhealthy or that skeptics are bad people. I am rooting for the grassroots efforts. I’m saying ‘let us not tolerate bullshit from those who claim to be anti-bullshit’. Let’s not be consumed by a movement that drags us around and around, but let’s stand on our own two feet and question everything.
Let us be better investigators, let us engage with younger generations, let us not be too certain, and let us be hungry for change.