The Scope of Skeptical Activism: A Personal Story Part 1 of 2

March 13, 2013

Part 1 of 2

I’ve been working at the Center for Inquiry’s Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly CSICOP) for fifteen years. I’m best known for my skeptical investigations and research into paranormal subjects such as ghosts, lake monsters, chupacabras, near-death experiences, crop circles, psychics, and all that. It’s not surprising that people tend to focus on that, since those are weird, sensational claims, but that’s only a small part of my work.

Recently there has been renewed discussion about the role and nature of skepticism. Daniel Loxton, Steven Novella, and Sharon Hill-among many others-have written blogs and full-length articles examining the scope and meaning of skepticism.

I’ve written some on this topic before, in Skeptical Inquirer magazine, in my books, and elsewhere, but upon reflection I realized that I had never really analyzed nor discussed my body of work in terms of larger themes and personal motivations and values. I pretty much plug away month after month and year after year, doing articles, columns, investigations, books, and so on, with no particular grand scheme. But a look at that scheme may be informative.

It was a matter of stepping back to find the forest among the trees, to pick out themes I’m otherwise unaware of because time spent reflecting on my work is time not spent writing or researching. I offer this analysis partly as insight (if anyone wants it) into my work as one of the world’s top skeptics, but also as a more personal story about the breadth of (and motivations for) my skepticism. As Daniel Loxton recently wrote in his piece “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” “I spend a lot of time talking about the virtues of focus and the limits of science, but I’m not a robot: I care about many things beyond my narrow professional field. I have political causes I wish personally to advance, moral principles to uphold, existential meaning to embody. I’m involved in many movements.”

Everyone has a different journey to skepticism, and here I speak only for myself. My specialties include skeptical investigation and media literacy, and science literacy. I try to apply skepticism across the board, to all claims including advertising, politics, and social issues. Here’s a representative sample of some of the topics I’ve written about and investigated over the past few years. Many of these have an obvious paranormal angle, but others don’t.

Social Justice

I find that social justice is one common thread in my work, including speaking out against minority oppression, and those who can’t speak for themselves, or where I believe fear and unreason have drowned out rational discussion.

1) Attacks on albinos in Africa; men, women, and children who have been targeted because their body parts are thought to be magical. Many have been killed or had their limbs hacked off with machetes. To those who believe in science, albinism is merely a rare medical condition; to those who believe in witchcraft and magic, it is a reason to murder and mutilate the innocent.

2) Women who have been attacked and disfigured by their husbands or family members

3) Racism and attacks in minorities and immigrants. For example in 2011 I wrote about racist rumors that Arizona wildfires that ravaged the state had been caused by illegal immigrants; I referenced relevant folklore experts to explain how racism can latch on to rumor.

4) Child abuse, especially on children whose murders typically don’t attract media attention

5) Endangered species being killed off by alternative medicines

6) The dangers of belief in demonic possession and exorcisms

7) Anti-vaccination pseudoscience and campaigns

Another theme I’ve noticed in my work is promoting religious tolerance. I’ve written several pieces about Islam, including addressing conspiracy claims about Obama being Muslim, and explaining Islamic practices including Ramadan; my purpose was to promote religious tolerance. Along similar lines I’ve often written about witchcraft (for example when Senate hopeful Christine O’Donnell was accused of being a witch in 2010); my aim was to improve the public’s understanding of Wicca and make it clear that modern witchcraft has nothing in common with Satanism. Some of my pieces have a public service message, for example reminding people of the dangers of ignoring official warnings to take shelter during public events.

Personal Interests

The news media, by its very nature, is inherently alarmist and systematically exaggerates the real threats of most crimes, tragedies, and disasters (a bias I discuss at length in my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us). I tend to try to explain to people why many of the things they fear, or are concerned about, are either fabricated or greatly exaggerated. Examples include vaccination fears, witchcraft and Satanism, stranger danger child abductions and attacks, shark attacks, terr
orism, and so on.

Conversely, when the public tends to underestimate the true risk or danger of certain threats, I try to address that as well. Examples include sexual assaults and murders by friends and family members (far more children are killed, assaulted, and abducted by their parents than strangers); the dangers of alternative medicine; and belief in magic.

Like most people I tend to have a particular interest and concern in areas that I have some personal experience in; marine biologists, for example, are much more likely than the average person to be concerned about overfishing, and families of victims of bicycling accidents are more likely to campaign and fight for increased bicycle safety laws. People whose lives have been affected by breast cancer are much more likely to be better informed and more activist about preventing and trying to cure the disease than others.

There are many cases in which expertise has precisely the opposite effect, that of much less concern about widely-held or publicly perceived problems and threats precisely because knowledge of a field puts risks in perspective. Examples include GMOs, power lines, and MMR vaccinations-all of which many in the public fear because of misinformation or incomplete information. Other common examples include pilots who aren’t afraid to fly (knowing that statistically people are safer in the air than on the nation’s highways), and laypeople who become panicked upon waking up in bed apparently paralyzed, while a psychologist would recognize the experience as a harmless and common sleep-related phenomenon.

There are countless causes I support, including environmentalism, feminism, animal protection, social justice, exposing hypocrisy, and others. Yet there are only so many hours in the day, only so many dollars in my bank account. We can’t do everything, so we must pick and choose our causes. I also tend to pick smaller, lesser-known causes to support, those which seem to get less money and attention than high-profile causes. I’ve supported and donated to breast cancer research in the past, but I’m more likely to try to raise awareness of male breast cancer, partly because I feel it’s often overlooked, and partly because a (male) friend of mine died from it. This of course in no way detracts from the importance of female breast cancer-it’s not a zero-sum game-but is simply a way to remind people that a disease closely associated with women can also strike men.

Science Communication

Because skepticism and science are inextricably entertwined, there is a lot of crossover in my work. I see my job as a skeptic and also a science literacy communicator. I look for opportunities to not only provide a skeptical side to a given “paranormal” or “unexplained” topic (a side which is all too often ignored), but also to look for ways to teach my audience about important skeptical and scientific premises which they can hopefully use and apply to other situations. It’s that old “teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” trope, but it’s true. For every news story a person sees that I provide a skeptical critique of, he or she encounters dozens or hundreds of others that have no skeptical or scientific commentary at all. My hope is that someone will take something I explained-maybe it’s as simple as knowing that correlation does not imply causation, or that eyewitness testimony is unreliable, or why a double-blind study is important, or how the placebo effect can make a treatment seem effective when it is not-and apply it to the next “mystery” or “weird news” story they see.

This is why, in my opinion, skepticism is not really about debunking this UFO video, or that ghost sighting. It’s about the process of investigation and applying critical thinking to the topic. I wrote my book Scientific Paranormal Investigation for exactly that reason, to try to explain the approaches and techniques that I and others use to solve real-world mysteries. In a real way, my goal is to democratize and demystify the process, to show that these things can be solved through hard work, persistence, good scholarship, and critical thinking (and, sometimes, a bit of luck).

“Bigfoot Skeptics”

Occasionally, people who know only a little about skepticism make dismissive comments about “Bigfoot skeptics,” as if that phrase somehow represents a fool’s errand and time wasted on frivolous claims (like Bigfoot) too silly to contemplate.

Yet this is wrongheaded, for several reasons. The most obvious is that, whether Bigfoot, ghosts, angels, and other such “silliness” exist or not is rather beside the point. What matters is that a significant number of people do believe in them, and often make decisions based upon those beliefs-from selling their home because they think it’s haunted to marrying a suitor because a psychic said it was a good idea.

I address a more important point in the final chapter of my book Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore, as a response to those who suggest that my research into an unknown monster was a waste of time. It’s not about the monster; it’s about psychology, journalism, folklore, misunderstandings, cognitive misperceptions, pop culture, and the human condition: “My research is not really about the chupacabra, for the vampiric beast almost certainly cannot and does not exist. This book is about folklore made ‘real,’ how ancient superstitions inherent in the human mind gave the European vampire a fearsome new face at the end of the twentieth century. It is about how sincere, respected eyewitnesses who claim to have seen monsters can be completely wrong. It is about how careful investigation and science can solve mysteries created by rumor, speculation, and sloppy research. It is about how rumor combined with sensationalized news reports and an anti-intellectual disdain for experts helped create a monster. It is about how the chupacabra label fills the gap between what laypeople guess and what scientists know.” This is the value in “Bigfoot skepticism.”

Other Skeptical Activism

Other forms of my skeptical activism are more direct-such as the Convicted Felon Sylvia Browne welcome banner I created, and which has greeted fake psychic Browne on her tours in about a half-dozen cities so far-and donating auction items for skeptical fundraisers like Bob Blaskiewicz’s recent efforts against childhood cancer quack doctor Burzynski. In addition to my skepticism, over the years, as opportunity and finances allow, I’ve also held fundraisers donating all profits from sales of my board game Playing Gods to various causes. For example I raised $300 for Doctors Without Borders and S.H.A.R.E. (Secular Humanist Aid & Relief Effort) for victims of the Haiti earthquake in 2010; $150 last year for Acid Survivors Trust International, a group helping women who have been victims of domestic violence and acid attacks in Pakistan, India, and the Middle East; and so on. There are many ways to participate as a skeptic, from investigations to supporting organizations to joining local groups, and we can use all the help we can get.

In Part 2 of this piece, which I hope to finish in a week or two, I will go into more depth about what I see as the proper and practical scope of skepticism and skeptical activism. I conclude here with another comment from Daniel Loxton: “Whatever it is that you value, please do your own good work-the work that moves and inspires you, the work that makes the world better according to the priorities of your conscience-whatever that work is, and wherever you feel called to contribute.”