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.
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.