Bigfoot Skepticism: This Is Not A Defense

John Horgan has offered up a written version of a talk he delivered at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS) over at Scientific American. The post is titled Dear ‘Skeptics,’ Bash Homeopathy and Bigfoot Less, Mammograms and War More” and in it he makes various arguments about things that skeptics should be spending their time focussing on instead of “soft targets”.

Daniel Loxton and Steven Novella have both written great responses to Horgan that are worth reading. (PZ Myers, on the other hand, not so much…)

I’ve defended the role of skeptics in paranormal research fields time and time again on this blog and I refuse to do so today. Sometimes people seem so focussed on trying to justify skepticism with the levels of harm that a chosen topic can cause but here’s a fact – you don’t need to justify skepticism.

Bad ideas deserve to be challenged with good ideas, bad information with good information, bad knowledge with good knowledge. There’s your justification right there.

Skepticism is a way in which you process information and claims that you encounter and I cannot think of a single person I know in this vast community of self-identified skeptics who doesn’t have the ability to rationally approach a whole range of claims – from health to astronomy, politics to religion and beyond. Some of us are even selfish and focus on subjects that apply to our personal lives, like cults, LGBT rights, superstitions about witchcraft, exorcisms, sexism, bogus medical treatments that we’ve encountered, and more…

I happen to be knowledgeable about the paranormal but my skepticism is something I use in all aspects of my life. If your skepticism is self-limiting to the point that you can only focus on one subject at a time then that’s your problem.

I view Horgan’s comments as extremely dismissive of the work that many skeptics have achieved in a whole range of areas of society. From bringing to the public eye the dodgy behaviour of rich psychics, to having a hand in defunding homeopathy on the National Health Service in the UK (where funding is currently in a bit of a crisis situation), to protecting cancer patients from harmful treatments that might not help them… if these are considered soft targets then I have no choice but to politely disagree.

Ultimately though, us skeptics thought to be hitting only the soft targets are often actually doing way more than those who sit around and tell us we’re doing it wrong. And do you know who doesn’t reflect inwardly about whether they’re focussing their efforts in the right way? Peddlers of misinformation, that’s who.  By the way, the latest claim is that Bigfoot is a ghost.


About Hayley Stevens 425 Articles
Hayley is a ghost geek and started to blog in 2007. She uses scientific scepticism to investigate weird stuff and writes about it here while also speaking publicly about how to hunt ghosts as a skeptic.

6 Comments on Bigfoot Skepticism: This Is Not A Defense

  1. “Bad ideas deserve to be challenged with good ideas, bad information with good information, bad knowledge with good knowledge.”

    Exactly. Contrast this with Phil Plait’s “don’t be a dick” talk at TAM8. There were certainly skeptics who disagreed, but you would be hard pressed to find our so called Skeptical leaders disagreeing with this criticism of skepticism.

  2. “Daniel Loxton and Steven Novella have both written great responses to Horgan that are worth reading.”

    So you judge the health of your community by giving the thumbs up to members of your community defending that community? Does this not seem a little circular to you? Maybe ask members OUTSIDE your self-identifying community what they think?

    What would you seriously think of an NRA member congratulating other members on their excellent defense of the NRA that doesn’t actually allow for discussing the issues at all, and instead simply negates them with the proud smile of a 10’th grade debate club member?

    The two pieces you cite come across to most “non-involved” humans as defensive at best and somewhat neurotic at worst. Here was a real chance to debate some real issues about the politics of “professional skepticism” and the impact of what windmills to tilt and all that was achieved was a round of wagon circling and back slapping. Much like was done when the issues of Misogyny in the community came up. A few people said “Hey! What about…?” and the result was rules lawerying and definition dueling.

    I am sorry, I like your work but I am saddened to see you so happy to miss an opportunity for growth.

    “you don’t need to justify skepticism.”

    This is true, but sometimes you need to justify stamping it on your t-shirt.

    You and the community are the ones guilty of making a thought process into an identity. Fair enough. But its up to you to answer to the worth of that identity, and so far, the response to that question has been less than inspiring.

    Now if you will excuse me I am going to put on my “Crime Fighter” t-shirt and go and yell at small children dropping bubblegum wrappers on the street.

    • Frankly I think Loxton and Novella do a lot more than many others to promote critical thinking skills so I am baffled by your comments.

      You have also assumed that I do nothing more than write about ghosts. I am actually a constituency campaigner for Oxfam with whom I work towards championing humanitarian causes in my own community and beyond – and I do a lot more besides.

      In the blog post I wrote that skepticism influences all areas of my life and this includes political activism and more.

      I also think it is laughable that you would dismiss me as not giving a shit about misogyny when a) I am female b) I blog and podcast, and c) have been harrassed online by skeptics.

      I know there are opportunities for growth and I dont need YOU to tell me what they are and that you’re disappointed that I don’t have the same outlook as you. Totally patronising…

      By the way – I have 0 t-shirts with skepticism written on them. You should be careful whom you presume to be, and then dismiss as a “back slapper” before you isolate yourself from the people who are actually like-minded once you look beyond the blog.

    • True, the defences come from within the skeptical community. But just because a defence comes from within the targeted community doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily wrong. You have to look at the nature of the defence itself, otherwise you are simply making an assumption that “they would say this wouldn’t they”. That’s just lazy logic.

      To my reading, Novella and Loxton are making strong claims that Horgan mischaracterised the views being put forward by scientists and sceptics in order to advance his own views. For example, hardly anyone in the skeptical community is trying to force people to believe in string theory and the singularity. Hardly anyone in the skeptical community is trying to convince people to believe that medicine is perfect (just that it happens to work better than non-medicine). Hardly anyone in the skeptical community is intent on convincing people that there is a gay gene or a liberal gene. Horgan created a whole load of straw men, then attacked positions that hardly anyone in that community was making in the first place.

      Horgan called cancer quackery, religious fanaticism, anti-vaccine and anti-GMO “soft targets”. Tell that to the many sceptics that have been sued or threatened, had FOIA requests made against them, lost their jobs, been expelled from their countries, or been killed for their views. Tell them their subjects are soft, just because they are “out-group” issues. If they were so soft, then why such negative consequences for them?

      On the subject of war, Horgan advances his own political views. Hardly anyone in the sceptical community is saying that war is good, but many within the community might see war as very, very complex. The solution might be an anti-war movement, but it also might *not* be, and if history is any guide, the bullies and the psychopaths will simply roll over such movements in order to pursue bigger prizes. Horgan is making a somewhat extraordinary claim, and then he’s slagging off sceptics because we’re sceptical about it. Yeah, well, we’re quite used to that type of trash talk.

      Even a cursory look at discussions and blogs in the skeptical will reveal our biggest problems, but Horgan ignored them entirely. Just off the top of my head: sexism, tribalism, parochialism, snobbery, arrogance. Ridicule when it’s not warranted. Picking the wrong targets for our criticism. Picking the right targets, but going about it the wrong way. Using bad research and bad logic when attacking a viewpoint. Fallacy farming. Look, there are loads of problems, and if he had read up on them, he would have received a better reception.

  3. “Totally patronising…”

    Hmm, could dark matter be composed completely of irony?

    Also could you explain to me how the following is a proof?

    “I also think it is laughable that you would dismiss me as not giving a shit about misogyny when a) I am female b) I blog and podcast,”

    a) there is nothing about being female that makes you automatically care or oppose misogyny. If this were true the battle would have been won long ago.
    b) Did you mean to write a longer sentence here? Like ‘I blog and podcast ON issues of misogyny and the harm of the Good Ol’ Boy network all the time”, because without that it seems like you are trying to take some sort of moral high ground based PURELY on blogging and podcasting. Which would be a little dubious from the proof point of view.

    Anyway, you have responded to my post questioning the response by being very defensive and making sure your wagon is properly placed in the defensive circle. And that’s fine. I didn’t say I was disappointed, btw, I said I was saddened by a missed opportunity. You may not need me to do that, but on the other hand you do spend a lot of time telling people, at least by example, what and how they should think. You do an excellent job of it as well and are often right and that’s why I read your stuff. But the 2 pieces you cited were nothing more than rebuttals. And while that is satisfying emotionally for a movement, maybe that’s not the most useful thing to take away from this event.

    “Ill-placed resentment doesn’t make friends or allies.”

    Fair enough but

    Ill-placed defensiveness is NEVER healthy for a movement.

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