Skeptics of CSICon: A Tight and Clever Pack

October 19, 2019

Many skeptics know what it is to feel alone. If you’re the only parent in your social circle who accepts the science of vaccines, or you’re an atheist in a deeply religious family, or you’re the bubble-burster to refuses to concede that your friend spoke to their dead relative through a psychic medium, a skeptic can feel like they are standing against a very big and credulous tide. 

But if you’ve come to CSICon, you already know you’re not really alone, and three Saturday sessions all gave us a richer appreciation for the community we currently have to lean on and some ideas about how to expand its influence.

Many readers will be familiar with Britt Hermes, the former naturopathic doctor who realized the fraud her industry was perpetrating on sick people, and began devoting her considerable talents toward exposing that fraud. Naturopaths are “setting up their own research bubble, their own information bubble,” she said. “Patients are falling for this and dying,” citing research showing that cancer patients who rely on alternative medicine are ten times as likely to die from the disease.

She was recently the target of a defamation lawsuit in Germany for her characterizations of a “naturopathic oncologist” (two words which should never have come together), and she got herself a little choked up on stage as she described how a global community of skeptics came to her aid. She found out about the lawsuit on the same day she found out she was pregnant, so this was a truly dizzying time for her. 

But this community contributed to her legal defense, and she won her suit outright. There is plenty of money left in that fund, actually, and she is now going to use it to establish an international legal defense fund for skeptics in similar situations. Now that’s a great way to help foster a community.

Jonathan Jarry from the McGill Office for Science and Society then encouraged us to broaden our scope when it comes to fostering that community. Jarry cited several instances in which strategic and friendly outreach to members of the media on issues of pseudoscience and quackery yielded incredibly positive results. 

But these successes did not come about because one skeptic got mad and started yelling at the internet for being wrong. Instead, Jarry pointed to his “unofficial network” of current and potential allies, which includes subject matter experts, activists, and the journalists themselves who would tell the stories that need to be told.

Jarry was adamant that skeptics reject overtly hostile or condescending public behavior, saying that we have a lot of work to do to shed the stereotype of arrogance. “We need to act less like know-it-alls and more like therapists,” he said. What pays off is not the satisfaction of calling out someone who’s wrong, but finding an opportunity to educate. Skepticism, he said, is not just for the stars.

But we are all stars, aren’t we? Not in the sense of everyone getting a trophy for showing up, but in the sense of our literal origins. We are all star stuff. This idea is what captivated young activist and author Bailey Harris at the age of eight (she is now thirteen) and inspired her to write her series of Stardust books for kids. The original title for her first book? The Book of Truth, a direct rejoinder to The Book of Mormon that was aggressively foisted upon her by peers in Utah.

Harris has of course gotten a great deal of support and encouragement for her skeptical work at such a young age, naturally so. Our community is going to have the benefit of her talent, brains, and enthusiasm for decades to come. But what I think inspires so much of her work is not just the wonderment of science that viewings of Cosmos always inspires in me, but her attitude toward how we treat others.

Harris spoke about being raised to follow the “Platinum Rule,” which, rather than framing things in terms of how you’d like others to do unto you, says, “Treat others the way they would like to be treated.” It’s a subtle difference but its implications are enormous. 

If we take the approach in which we seek to make connections with people on terms with which they are familiar, that resonate with them and their values, we really can make our existing community stronger and increase its numbers. Rather than always being on the attack (and sometimes you do need to be on the attack), skeptics can choose to offer a helping hand, a listening ear, and ideas to start to change people’s thinking.

As Hermes said, “Skeptics are not lone wolves. We are a very tight and clever pack.” That’s a lot to work with.