Helping the Truth Get its Shoes On: Sharon Hill and the Long Slog of Skepticism

September 13, 2012


Sharon Hill has been helping folks discern flim-flam from fact for going on two decades now, exposing “sciencey” sounding nonsense in all manner of formats. She’s a regular contributor to Skeptical Inquirer and the CSI website, she’s the impresario of Doubtful News, a one-stop shop for clarity in a very polluted media landscape, and she’s on the panel of the new Virtual Skeptics video podcast.

Inspired by her upcoming presentation at CSICon 2 in Nashville next month, CFI’s Paul Fidalgo talked to Sharon about what makes her tick, how we can process the implausible claims made in the modern news media, and how to talk about it with friends and family when they seem to be buying the hype. 

PF: Doubtful News recently turned one year old, and I know I rely on it day after day for my own work on CFI’s Morning Heresy. It’s totally invaluable. But you’ve been taking a critical eye to extraordinary claims for some time now. Your bio says you’ve been in the skeptic movement since 1992 — So what brought you to it? Was it popular culture? Wacky alt-med claims? What spurred you to associate yourself with the world of skepticism back then?

SH: Two things. My gateway was Stephen Jay Gould. My highway was the Internet.

As a geologist, I loved the topics covered by Gould (except for the baseball stuff which I skipped over). But his essays on evolution really fed my fascination with nature and scientific inquiry. His language and imagery made me read slowly and try to understand everything he said. His explanation of creationism was something I hadn’t experienced before and that topic truly drew me into other skeptical literature. 

I had forever been interested in ghosts, monsters and weird natural events. After a while I got tired of reading on these topics because they were storybooks. They were low-quality and they were unscientific. Once I recognized how poorly paranormal books were written, I looked for something more and found great satisfaction reading the skeptical literature. 

When the Internet was available I would spend day after day (I want to say “googling” but it was just a text-based browser and that term didn’t exist) searching for information on dinosaurs, hauntings, urban legends, and Fortean phenomena. It was such a bounty of riches, yet a lot of crap was already in there. Even back then I was making online friends that I still know today from the skeptical circles. It was a place I felt comfortable in and where I could learn so much, just by observing the conversation. So, yeah, I’ve seen a lot change in the past 20 years but much remains the same.

PF: Your talk at CSICon is going to focus on the media, on the way “unbelievable” news is presented to a scientifically untrained audience. With so much news now being consumed via the Internet, it’s never been easier to get the facts about claims made about the paranormal or conspiracies or what have you. But on the other hand, it’s never been easier (or cheaper) to spread those absurd claims. Where are we in that struggle? Is the truth winning out overall, or do the forces of pseudoscience have us outnumbered?

SH: That well-worn saying by Mark Twain is true: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” I think it’s even worse than that today when people can selectively choose their news topics and sources and completely personalize their worldview. It’s really clear that sensationalism wins the public attention contest. It’s ALWAYS been that way since media began. Dramatic news sells copy. It’s a battle that cannot be “won”. It’s more like a constant effort to be made to stop a disease from totally taking over. Since most people don’t seek out opposing viewpoints (except for those odd few who enjoy listening to conspiracy radio), advocates for these views need to find ways to slip them in there. They don’t ever have to be exposed to things they don’t want to hear (until maybe it’s too late, such as dealing with a health issue or falling prey to a scam or bogus product). One key way to deliver a skeptical view is through informal education opportunities like events at museums or libraries, camps for kids, meetings for local organizations. Even if it’s just a little mention that questions an alt-med treatment or a commonly believed myth, it helps. You just might hit the sweet spot and give that person an “a-ha” moment.

I think the good news is that, according to indicator surveys, scientists are still well-respected as a profession. There is work to be done for the image of science and a ways to go toward improving science content delivery to the public. Science carries weight. Everyone wants science on their side – it’s a big stick that works to beat back the nasties. There will always be those who think completely differently. We will never be rid of nonsense entirely. But someone must take the role of the rational voice and say, calm down, the world won’t end this year, there is no miracle cure, the UFOs aren’t coming to get us and those apparent paranormal things have a very normal explanation. It’s a chore to consider all the evidence and then be able to communicate that rational view to others without being dismissed. But it’s a worthwhile task. 

With Doubtful News, I cite the original story and provide links or allow comments that help to clarify it, reveal the problems or just frame it in context of what we already know to be true. Everyone should question media content delivered as news. Since there is so much information out there, we’d do well to practice honing our critical thinking filters. I hope some people interested in the crazy news stories will find the Doubtful News version and see the “facts” in a new way. If not, at least it’s been entertaining or informative to hear about the wacky world we’re in.

PF: I know that for me trouble arises when I am skeptical of something that someone, say, in my family totally buys into. I think a big challenge for skeptics these days is learning how to persuade — even converse — with people we love and respect, people who are otherwise smart or educated, but who give unwarranted credence to the unprovable or the absurd. For that friend who, for example, insists they have spoken to the ghost of their dead relative, or for that family member who can’t understand my reticence to spend money on alt-med herbs and whatnot, how do I have that conversation without  getting trapped in “That’s exactly what they WANT you to believe!”

SH: Very true about people around you — I don’t like confrontation. But, I’ve had some success with talking to people online who have a 180-degrees view from my own. It requires you treat them with respect and engage in a discussion. We all arrive at this moment as a result of different journeys. No one has experienced exactly what another person has. Experiences shape your worldview and your worldview is not something that one just wakes up and discards one day. So, I try to consider that a person’s beliefs are their rock. The best way to disavow them of a dangerous or nonsensical belief may be to gently chip at the rock, crack it, or persuade them it might be time to let it go. Being harsh usually does nothing but make the other person dig in deeper. Persuasion takes a long time and the person must agree to give up one view in place of another view. I will try to ask
that person questions about why they believe. How do they know? Making them feel stupid means you lose them entirely.

This year, I’ve talked quite a lot to kids. I have two of my own who will ask me flat out about things they don’t understand that they hear about from friends or in the news. I also spoke to classes of school age kids. They WANT to know about stuff. They seem to want to know the truth. So while many kids today adopt their parents’ ideas about the paranormal or lifestyle or religion, they are open to another path as they attempt to find out who they are as individuals. By just opening up that conversation, not being dismissive of ideas and exploring different angles, you may be able to help anyone see a different view. Then, just let it be. Even if you don’t think you’ve made any difference, you never know if they will retrieve that memory some other day and it will resonate then. 

In other cases, people aren’t even going to engage in a discussion. THEY “KNOW.” It’s a lost cause and probably not worth your time and efforts. Best to move on. After all, there are all those things wrong on the Internet that we have to go fix. 

PF: Here’s a bonus question: If you do a Google News search for “skeptic” or “skepticism,” most of your results are going to be about folks who are “skeptical” of the reality of climate change. When non-skeptics hijack the “skeptic” moniker, how crazy, exactly, does that drive you? 

SH: I’m not a fan of some words. I don’t like “spiritual” or “atheist” and I don’t care for “skeptic” because the average person won’t get the same meaning as what I consider it to be. But it is what it is and there is no term that will come around and usurp it anytime soon. I don’t use “skeptic” if I can avoid it because of the chance that it will be misunderstood or color a person’s impression of me. I’ve had some people use it deliberately and pejoratively against me. Two popular cryptozoology guys have done this in order to discredit my opinion. That’s low and I see it as an ad hominem ploy because they have nothing better to say. 

Labels are convenient but they are always problematic in the real world. It IS frustrating to have “skeptic” used in the “denial” sense but the best thing we can do is push to make skepticism a virtue by showing its value. It can knock out the scams, shams and film-flam. It’s a tool to make us better consumers and help us remain healthy and live a more fulfilling life. It’s not about calling yourself a “skeptic” and being smug about not believing nonsense. Being practiced at critical thinking is a truly valuable skill. Skepticism in practice is about getting to the best answer. I don’t want to turn people off (or have them turn me off) because of a label so I try to focus on actions and useful information that I can put out there that ANYONE can benefit from. Everyone is “skeptical” about something.

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You can catch Sharon Hill’s presentation at this year’s CSICon in Nashville, October 25-28!