Troy Campbell

Kickstarting the Inquiry at CSICon

October 18, 2019

I have to admit, it’s hard to feel any sense of joy about being a skeptic when you think about the fact that fake news and misinformation pervade the media and drive our national discourse, and that fake medicine and fake doctors are being legitimized by the government at every level. 

No one knows fake news like Snopes does, and its founder, David Mikkselson, spoke at CSICon today about the various ways bad or false information gets regurgitated and propagated online. He cited a few especially sneaky or egregious examples of obvious propaganda disguised as news, including a “study” reported by Breitbart that seemed to say that climate change was being fabricated. 

David Mikkelson (photo by Karl Withakay)

Some relatively easy digging into the context surrounding the so-called study quickly made clear that this allegedly “peer-reviewed” study was a load of bunk, not having come out of a university or scientific institution, but the Heartland Institute, the climate science-denying right-wing think tank. The authors of the study, who bedecked their names with the honorific “Dr.” held credentials that ranged from irrelevant to made-up. And the “peers” that reviewed it merely signed off on a conclusion they already agreed with. 

Later, Jann Bellamy gave us a horrifying look at how legislative and regulatory sausage is made when it comes to chiropractors and naturopaths and how they have convinced governments to grant them extraordinary powers to practice actual medicine. 

Jann Bellamy (photo by Karl Withakay)

For pete’s sake, chiropractors are inventing “specialities” for themselves, and declaring themselves “internists” allowed to provide “primary care!” It’s like sorcerers declaring themselves to be tax accountants and having the state give them the OK.

Hard to feel too jazzed about being part of the reality-based community when reality seems to be so powerless.

Troy Campbell, however, counsels a different view. It’s hard to encapsulate his very novel presentation, but it involved a great deal of attendees talking amongst themselves, learning about each other, sharing something of significance, and making “skeptical faces” at each other. Yeah, it’s hard to explain.

Campbell had a lot to say about our cognitive biases and how they apply not just to our judgments, but what we decide to inquire about. His example was from his time as a college student with an “art-punk” haircut, and he scoffed at the idea of taking a class that scientifically examined love and relationships. 

Embodying his college-age self, he lamented, “All this science stuff is going to destroy this thing that all these grown men whine about in songs!”

But what he has come to realize is that inquiry about something beautiful doesn’t take away its beauty. It enhances it.

The issue is that people need a way to “kickstart the inquiry,” a place from which to start that is graspable and personal. It’s starting with the personal that lets us gradually become more proficient at inquiry into the larger global issues.

What he was getting at, really, was finding joy in inquiry, like we skeptics are supposed to do. Skeptical inquiry leads to a more fulfilled and joyful life, he said. 

So I think about how much fun we had with Mikkelson’s talk as he picked apart the absurdities in various “news” articles, and how the inquiry sparked such delight and laughter. Maybe that’s something?

“May your life be a wonderful personal skeptical experience,” said Campbell. Okay, maybe. Let’s see how much joy we can get by inquiring the hell out of those chiropractors.

(photo by Karl Withakay)