Note: This post is a modified version of an email I sent to someone who was concerned about the state of the skepticism movement. I think it should have a broader audience.
I am privileged to be the President of the James Randi Educational Foundation. I’m a skeptic, and I try to live my life that way (usually succeeding, I hope). Randi was one of the largest motivators for me to be a critical thinker, and my friendship and admiration for him go back many years.
Yet, as Randi himself has pointed out, he and I have very different backgrounds, both academically and in general. Randi comes into skepticism from his being a phenomenal conjurer, stage magician, and trickster. I come from the angle of being formally trained as a scientist, specifically an astronomer.
I don’t think anyone would argue Randi’s stature in the skeptical community. His knowledge of fakery, flim-flammery, and hoaxes is unparalleled, and his first-hand dealings with people who promote it have given him vast experience in dealing with it. I may have fewer face-to-face dealings with hoaxsters, but I have a pretty good supply of ideas in my toolbox as well.
And yet, Randi and I are working together to do what we can to promote critical thinking and skepticism. His background and mine are very different, but our goals are the same.
And we want to make the base even broader. We support what is called “grass-roots” skepticism: people not necessarily trained in science in skepticism, but who have shown a special ability for it, and who have gone out and started their own work for it. This would include such people as Robert Lancaster, who on his own started the “Stop Sylvia Brown” website; Michael Feldman, who created a skeptic group in New York City and has been doing quite a bit of work to make sure that the group meets socially as well as formally; and Rebecca Watson, who started Skepchick and is now a recognized figure in the field.
We all started somewhere, unknown to others. Grass roots don’t stay roots forever.
My point is that skepticism is what we call a “big tent”: a large area where there is room for everyone. We need professional conjurers like Randi and Banachek who can point out hoaxes and con artists, as well as trained scientists who can spot where science is being twisted for some sort of agenda. And we also need others who have enthusiasm, time, and the desire to help spread the ideas of critical and rational thinking. All of us — those who started the skeptical movement, and those who carry on in this tradition as well as breaking new ground — are working together, with both young and old respecting each other and each
Sometimes I hear about some divide or another in the field: scientists versus magicians, trained skeptics versus lay people, or some other sort of artificial schism. I don’t see it in the U.S., and I’m glad. “You do your thing and we’ll do ours” is not the best way to go about doing skepticism, and in fact may be harmful to the cause. Working together is far better than working apart.
One final thought: at our annual meetings (called “The Amaz!ng Meetings”, or TAMs), we have many different speakers. Scientists, magicians, journalists, educators, entertainers, and sometimes just regular people who have stood up and made a difference. I like to think that the TAMs are a microcosm, a small example of the skeptical movement itself. There’s room for everyone, and if we all help each other we’ll go much farther than if we don’t.