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Ode to Joy

by Daniel Loxton, Apr 27 2010

Many readers will recall a central scene in the action movie Die Hard, in which a group of brilliant thieves succeed in opening the seventh lock of a vault containing hundreds of millions of dollars. As the door opens, light spills across the awestruck faces of all present—and the soundtrack sweeps us forward into “Ode to Joy.”

That was almost exactly how I felt the first time I stepped into a university library. I mean, I actually made that comparison at the time, which isn’t entirely surprising; who at 18 does not believe they’re the central character of a Hollywood movie?

Stepping through those doors, I remember almost trembling with emotions as vast as they were pretentious. It’s a feeling I expect few young people in the developed world would have today—not because kids love knowledge (or pretension) any less, but because few in the internet era are so isolated from information.

Bishop's University library

Bishop's University library, c. 1993

I arrived on campus an atheist and a fledgling skeptic, and dramatically under-read. This wasn’t for lack of trying. In those days, it was genuinely difficult to get your hands on skeptical material: there were no podcasts, no Google, no Amazon, no blogs, no skeptical magazines on newsstands. If you couldn’t find it in your local book store, it didn’t exist.

I had one small taste of the skeptical literature: my well-read copy of the BC Skeptics’ thin Rational Enquirer newsletter, which CSICOP Fellow Barry Beyerstein handed out after a panel at a sci-fi convention I attended in Junior High. That small outreach effort was enough to make me powerfully interested in skepticism. I wanted more.

Walking into the Bishop’s University library was an Ode to Joy moment, and it just kept getting better. I recall my astonishment when I realized there was an entire second story to the collection! I spent days there those first weeks. (I can still remember some of the books I discovered: Blackmore’s Dying to Live, Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, and George H. Smith ‘s Atheism: The Case Against God come to mind.)

But the true treasure, the lamp at the end of the cave, the thing that helped set the course of my life, was hidden away in the periodical collection: a complete set of the Skeptical Inquirer, going back to its launch in 1976. I couldn’t believe such a wealth of skeptical research existed! I worked my way through the stack systematically, hungrily.

And that was it. I was truly head over heels for skepticism.

Back to Basics

I’ve been thinking of that experience a lot recently. These last weeks have been a rough ride for many skeptics, as longstanding debates about the scope and tone of skepticism have collided with the decentralized, organic nature of skepticism 2.0. I care a lot about those issues, advocating often for a back to basics approach to skepticism—a traditional, science-based skepticism that solves mysteries and educates the public.

So, I thought: why not really go back to the beginning? Why not go back to my own roots as a skeptic, reading those old back issues—and back further, to the roots of the skeptical project? The Achilles heel of skepticism 2.0 may be that new skeptics are unfamiliar with the literature.

And so, these last few days I’ve been losing myself in Skeptical Inquirer issues from 1977 and 1978. I’m falling in love all over again. The directness of those early voices is inspiring: here were investigable mysteries, and by god, skeptics were going to solve them.

And they did.

I’m learning a great deal by looking back once again at how they worked, about how things have changed and about how they haven’t. In coming posts, I’m going to dip increasingly into lessons from the early literature of skepticism. We’ve come a long way since 1976—further since the days of Houdini—but we’ve got things to learn from those who set us on this path. Let’s have another look at what those things are.

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32 Responses to “Ode to Joy”

  1. ZenMonkey says:

    This is a lovely paean to the basics of skepticism’s compelling attraction. I was the opposite of you: a skeptic my whole life, but no idea that that’s what I was, that there was such a thing as “skepticism.” Reading Why People Believe Weird Things, which I picked up because I desperately wanted to know the answers, was my Ode to Joy moment. I even have total recall of the exact moment, which was eating a beet and goat cheese salad at the Grand Lux Cafe on La Cienega and reading the chapter about Holocaust denial. It struck me so hard and with so much, well, joy, that there was a name and in fact a whole area of study devoted to the precepts I’d held my whole life.

    This is also why it’s been such an enormous pleasure to take part in skepticism 2.0, because I’ve been thirsting for this kind of discussion my whole life. But what tripped my wire, what changed my life, wasn’t finding this blog or that community. It was a moment when a very big part of my identity finally snapped into place.

  2. badrescher says:

    Timely and nostalgic. I wonder how many have memories like this one.

  3. I think my Ode to Joy moment was a bit before the Diehard movies, but I remember it as well too. It was at the closing credits to the first episode of Cosmos on PBS.

    And the library where I went to school (RPI) was also a treasure trove of inforation and material. It was almost appropriate that the converted chapel (converted into a computer center of all things!) was right next door.

  4. I had similar feelings about arriving at college, leaving home (and my parents’ church) and entering into a much-expanded intellectual world. I liked it so much, I decided to stay: hence my career in academia . . . though the initial thrill has worn off somewhat, as I have encountered varieties of muddle-headed, fuzzy thinking in all disciplines (perhaps especially in the sciences.)

    But must I always be the one to point out the discordant note in a post on this blog?

    Why is it our first appeal in expressing the feelings of entering a sublimely expanded universe is to a piece of music inspired by deeply (if non-specifically) religious sentiment, tangled up with the gushiest kind of feel-good humanism and a dash of Nature Romanticism? To wit:

    Be embraced, millions!
    This kiss for the whole world!
    Brothers, above the starry canopy
    Must a loving Father dwell.
    Do you bow down, millions?
    Do you sense the Creator, world?
    Seek Him beyond the starry canopy!
    Beyond the stars must He dwell.

    I mean, don’t get me wrong, Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s Ode unfailingly makes the hair stand up on the back of my head.

    But lest us pause for a moment to savor the irony.

    Hallelujah! I’m a Skeptic!

  5. skeptRic says:

    I was a big fan of Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Games column in Scientific American while still in high school in the early 70s. Branching out into more of Martin’s writings eventually led me to Skeptical Inquirer and from there to lots of other writers, publications, websites, podcasts, …

  6. CW says:

    Excellent post, Daniel. It seems to me that the skeptics of the last generation did a remarkable job in dispelling a lot of pseudoscience and paranormal claims. The more I read about people like Joe Nickell, James Randi, and others – it astounds me that they had the resources and motivation to keep tackling woo after woo, even when there were far considerable resources attempting to resist their investigations.

    (There’s a new science & skeptical group forming in Ann Arbor, MI. If anyone knows of anyone that may be interested, you can find us on Facebook group: http://bit.ly/aY1vvL and MeetUp: http://bit.ly/99hB34 – and if this is not allowed – I checked guidelines – then I am sorry and please delete)

  7. Chris Howard says:

    I’ve often thought that a “History of Skepticism” course, or rather courses, broken down into components, by era, would be great. “Skepticism 101, early philosophical movements” Skepticism through 1828″ “Modern Skepticism” etc. Set them up like grad. level dialogue courses, with some excellent online resources… couple that with classes on logic, and critical thinking, and a capstone course on “Modern Problems and Skepticism” and we’d have a winner!

    • Olof Liungman says:

      Chris, that’s a great idea! As a newcomer to the skeptical arena (though I’ve been one since I was a kid but without the label) I really would like to know more about what’s been done. No need for us newcomers to reinvent the wheel, right?

  8. Brian M says:

    Its not the fault of the young skeptic that they aren’t aware of the literature, I would place the blame solely on those who refuse to innovate and move to new media. Brian Dunning is a prime example of someone who has embraced podcasting and youtube for skeptical outreach. Expecting people to pick up magazines and even books when they have resources with video and audio, is simply not realistic. If they are unaware of the literature, its because the old “traditional” literature hasn’t been updated for an audience that demands a richer, and faster, method of information dissemination.

    • Skeptical organizations are innovating just as fast as their resources allow (embracing podcasting, releasing written content online for free, sharing videos on YouTube, and so on). We’ve got a long way to go, but that doesn’t get individuals off the hook: skepticism is an academic research area. It’s just not possible to be properly informed in this sprawling subject area without a great deal of reading and research. No one is obligated to care, of course, but there’s no shortcut.

      • Olof Liungman says:

        Although the internet and much of what it brings is great, I have started thinking if perhaps it is also a hindrance to critical thinking and a problem for the skeptic movement? Neither science nor critical thinking is a fast process, whereas the spreading of misinformation seems to break the light barrier every time. “Textbites” on a forum tend to disintegrate into name calling and don’t seem to lead to serious thought or worthwhile discussions as often as I would wish. In fact, isn’t todays information society the strongest argument for the need of critical thinking and knowledge of science in order to separate the trash from the truth?
        Hmm, this is probably a thread all in itself…

  9. Jim Grinstead says:

    When you’re done, why not come back to us with a Top 10 list of articles and/or books to read for the beginning skeptic.

  10. I feel extremely fortunate that my “Ode to Joy” moments placed me right in the center of the infant skeptical movement. My first meetup with CSICOP was at their press conference & executive meeting in a Manhattan hotel in 1977. I already knew Philip J. Klass, who invited me. He was there from CSICOP’s founding in 1976. At that (and subsequent) meetings, I made the acquaintance of Randi, Paul Kurtz, Ken Frazier, Ray Hyman, Melbourne Christopher, and many others. I remember sitting down and having lunch with Martin Gardner, a pleasure I never expected to enjoy. He is so incredibly modest, charming and delightful. Those early days of the late 1970s and early 80s were so exciting and invigorating. We felt we were at the beginning of a powerful pro-science movement, and that the near-monopoly that the paranormal promoters had in the media would be broken. (It was, but sensationalism is still the norm today.) We took on Uri Geller, Targ & Puthoff, Travis Walton, and many others. Bob Steiner and I founded the Bay Area Skeptics in 1982, and we started getting publicity for our challenges of all the California New Age hoo-hah. The BAS took on Sylvia Browne (she lived right in the neighborhood) long before anyone outside the Bay Area heard of her, and she had the nastiest things to say about us, all of it false. Ah, such fun it was!

  11. Mine… not sure, I just kind of grew up around being skeptical. Even though that really wasn’t what anyone called it, but that is what it was. Wasn’t until I saw my first Skeptic Magazine before I attached a ‘word’ to it.

    Not sure it was an ‘Ode to Joy’ moment, more like… “Ok, at least there is a word to attach how I have been pretty much my entire life.”

    All was made so much easier in my world because when we started Skepticality… my Mom and Dad heard it and said, “Well, no crap, we’ve been telling you this stuff your whole life.”. :)

    • Olof Liungman says:

      Derek, first e-Skeptic and then Skepticality is actually how I realized that I should label myself a skeptic, although, as you, I’d been one all my life.

  12. Jason says:

    I enjoyed this post, and really loved the ‘Where do we go from here’ document, which I had missed back in 2007. Prior to reading that, I had also been thinking that skeptics needed to broaden their focus, but you convinced me otherwise with your compelling argument for a ‘back to the basics’ approach.

  13. Robo Sapien says:

    My Ode to Joy moment was the first time I saw Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! – Having been a long time reader of Penn’s articles in various publications (He even used to write an editorial for PC Computing), I remember thinking “Aw man, I love these guys’ magic show, and this stuff really makes sense! And Penn swears a lot! And they show tits! And.. oh my god, did they just rip the hair off that guy’s anus? OUCH!” (see the “Hair” episode)

    I sort of half agree with Daniel, getting back to basics always bears some wisdom when people start going astray. Oh the flip side, I find an imperative in progressive action. The ideal situation, I believe, is the one being realized here – bring the oldschool skeptic mentality into newschool media.

    But we also need more new ideas for reaching out to people. The only problem I see in Daniel’s position is that Daniel is a unique and interesting guy. What appealed to him will likely only appeal to like-minded individuals. I made my own blog in the spirit of Penn & Teller’s caustic humor approach, it appeals to me, and I have fun writing it. I get mixed reviews on it too, some find it offensive, others think it is hysterical.

    “To each his own” should be the motto here. Reach out to different types of mentalities, and encourage them to reach out to their kind.

    • Max says:

      I agree with “to each his own” in terms of scope and style, but not if the style is substituted for sound reasoning, as in Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! Their shtick is to find the biggest morons on the opposing side, and be complete assholes toward them, and then be really nice to industry shills like Steven Milloy and other wingnuts from the Cato Institute.
      It’s similar to Bill O’Reilly’s shtick, except that O’Reilly has the guts to interview smart opponents like Richard Dawkins and be an asshole to their face, while Penn & Teller are assholes through the magic of editing and voiceovers.

  14. MadScientist says:

    Now with this newfangled internet thing, all we need are free ebooks so kids can download and read good educational materials without paying a fortune to the tree killing industry. Imagine large data centers housing material which is only edited by approved educators and researchers – that should help trim the education budget (and hopefully leave more money free for better teaching facilities especially for the sciences).

    • Michael says:

      I think the day is comming fairly soon. The R programming language already has several complete “how to” books freely available in pdf format with similar printed books selling for $50 and up.

      We just need the right mix of technology. The pdf books are clumsy to read on a normal computer and the typical e-reader isn’t quite the right platform either.

      I think something like the ipad is going to give us the right technology for those pdf books.

  15. Rhinanthus says:

    Not only did I enjoy this post, but I was amazed (and delighted) to see a picture of Bishop’s University library! I assume this is the Bishop’s in Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada? If so then your Ode To Joy mirrored my own because I had the same experience when I first entered this same library.

  16. Jeannette says:

    Actually I thought up scepticism all by myself, when I was about 5-6 (I know how old I was because of where we lived at the time). I can still remember the joy of clear logic when I looked down from the top of my street at the ocean and thought: some people say the white caps on the waves are white horses, but I know it’s the wind whipping up the foam. I went on from there to critique everything I was told – didn’t make me very popular.

    As for books: add Bernard Russell’s ‘Why I am not a Christian’ and Dobzhansky’s ‘Doubt and Certainty in Science’ – oldies but goodies.

  17. David Glück says:

    Somewhere back in the mid seventies, I came across a small magazine called The Zetetic, which was to become the Skeptical Inquirer. I had been trying out things like est and TM and whatever was in vogue at the moment. But nothing satisfied. The Zetetic opened me up to a different way of looking at things. I was already skeptical, but I didn’t know it yet. I found flaws in all of those silly things I tried out, and asked lots of questions that were never satisfactorily answered by the various “trainers” and “facilitators” and, well, you know.

    I used to buy science magazines too. And The Zetitec was in the science section on the magazine rack. I read that first one from cover to cover and that was it for me. My Ode to Joy moment. Never again would I waste my money or my time chasing after some illusive big T truth that would only deplete my funds and leave me wondering what in the hell I did that for?

    I still have several copies of The Zetetic’s and a whole collection of Skeptical Inquirer’s that I often refer back to. They changed my life. Or maybe it was more like I was already a skeptic looking for answers in all the wrong places. I don’t know…

    Thanks Danial, for the wonderful post.

  18. Lysistrata says:

    Extend the Ode to Joy to others. As Daniel discusses his return to the library that helped him have his experience this is a plea to skeptics to get involved in their local library and suggest content for the librarians to purchase and then check these out books. Today, Most libraries-especially public libraries-only keep books that earn their place -i.e. that get checked out at least 2 to 3 times a year. The woo goes fast. The skeptic books do not. So request that your local library has Randi’s, Shermer’s, and Daniel’s books on their shelf (Most libraries have electronic suggestion forms that can be filled out online for patrons to request that a book be purchased. Most libraries do not accept donations because it cost more to get these on the shelf than purchasing a new copy.) Then go to your library and check these out to make sure they remain on the shelf so new skeptics can read them and have their Ode to Joy moment.

    And while MadScientist talks about download able Ebooks-most children have their first experience books via hard copy ones that checked out form the library so make sure these are available in conjunction with others.

  19. Mike MacKay says:

    Ditto. Except it was the University of Guelph library that had the full set of Skeptical Inquirer. Of course, a collection of back issues going back to 1976 wasn’t that impressive in 1980.

  20. Laurie T. says:

    @Daniel:
    Yes! Exactly! “Head over heels for skepticism” is exactly how I felt, and feel. Thank you for all you do to help spread the word and educate the young. I look forward to your upcoming posts on looking back and what we still have to work on.