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Skeptics as Model Train Lovers (Part II)

by Daniel Loxton, Sep 19 2010

Train image by Daniel Loxton

[Continued from Part I]

Speaking personally, I must say it's a joy to watch the growth of the skeptical subculture, humming with its proliferation of cons and pub nights and vibrant online portals. And yet, much of that scene is related only indirectly to the cause I work to advance. At some risk of being misunderstood: it's not my goal to grow a social community, even though I am part of it.

My area of primary interest is more specific. As a (relatively junior) contributor to the specialized field of skepticism, I care most about active efforts to investigate fringe science topics, share the findings, and promote science literacy as widely as possible. After decades of work, this research and educational outreach effort eventually became the seed for a thriving subculture, but it is not synonymous with that subculture.

This is a distinction that could save a lot of flame wars:

Multiple Skepticisms

Sometimes when people refer to “skepticism” (or “the skeptical movement”) they intend this to mean the loose, voluntary association of people who identify in some way with the word “skeptic,” or consume skeptical media, or participate in skeptical events, or value an attitude of doubt (or so on). This diverse skeptical subculture comprises an ecosystem of opinions and values and world views. It has no particular rules or statements of belief (though it has, like all communities, emergent social norms). It does not require specialized knowledge, and has no litmus test. It is organic, self-defining, in flux. “Skepticism,” in this sense, is the varied totality of whatever skeptics choose to do.

Then, there is the traditional research and outreach project of scientific “skepticism,” which the major skeptical organizations and media were explicitly created to pursue. This work has a shared history which long predates my involvement (and which, indeed, predates even the major US organizations). Skepticism, in this sense, has common values and traditional relationships with other research disciplines. It has hard-won borders. It is distinct in its subject matter (empirical claims relating to pseudoscience, pseudo-history, and the paranormal) and unique in its particular mix of research methods. It has goals (to solve mysteries, catch crooks, publicize consumer protection information, and promote basic science literacy). It has a broad scholarly literature, and a range of domain expertise.

Unnecessary disagreements arise from the way these distinct meanings of “skepticism” or “the skeptical movement” are used interchangeably. They are not the same.

(Nor, however, are they mutually exclusive. The skeptical social scene now nurtures and elevates some of skepticism's finest investigators, spokespeople, and content-creators. Concepts like SkeptiCamp, technologies like blogging, and the digital era's dramatically improved access to the skeptical literature have all lowered the barriers for entry for those grassroots skeptics who wish to take their practice to a more serious level. I discuss some of the power and pitfalls of grassroots skeptical activism here.)

Two Objections

With this distinction in mind, let's look at two objections that tend to arise whenever discussion turns to best practices — objections which should, I think, be laid to rest.

The first is that discussion of tone, scope, ethics or practices equates to “imposing” a uniform, authoritarian view of skepticism. This would be moot even if true, since no one has any power to impose anything on the wider grassroots community. In any event, it is a misunderstanding.

Practitioners in any field sometimes talk seriously about their field: the lessons learned, the mistakes made, and the roadmap for future development. That's all there is to it. Those discussions are aimed at those who elect to participate in the specialized work of that field (on a professional basis or not) and at those who may participate in the future. Whether those discussions apply to us is our own decision to make.

A second common objection to meta-conversations is more troubling. This is the idea that such discussions are a shameful waste of time — that they represent a turning away from the hard work of skepticism. I can relate to frustration toward “navel-gazing,” as some have put it. Who couldn't? All the same, it's my opinion that this critique gets things badly turned around.

Ferocious Patience

Discussion of best practices is not a sign of distraction, but of dedication to the job at hand. I am reminded here of the last piece of advice given to me by my grandfather (a veteran of the Second World War). Martial metaphors can be misleading in a skeptical context, but I think this one applies: “The plan of the attack is half the battle won.”

That's a lesson we all know from other parts of our lives. Consider two general contractors. One shows up with a hammer, slaps something together, and leaves. The other thinks the job through, takes measurements twice, checks the underlying work, corrects legacy problems, chooses the best tools, and then does the job. Is craftsmanship a sign of passion? Ask Holmes on Homes.

Cover of Ben Radford's Scientific Paranormal InvestigationCan skepticism be so different, given our “science-based” aspirations? When experienced investigator Ben Radford devotes an entire book to the techniques of Scientific Paranormal Investigation, is this really a sign that his fire has gone out? I think Radford discusses best practices because he can't stop caring. Every bone in his body tells him that it matters — really, seriously, deeply matters — how skeptical investigators do their work.

Skeptical research is difficult, and unsexy. There are no short cuts. (MonsterTalk's Blake Smith jokes that he leaps to his feet shouting “Yes! YES!” during movies whenever an investigator character goes to the library.) If we want “gotcha” moments, those must be earned. Investigators routinely make hefty sacrifices in time and money in pursuit of a deeper answer, a witness, a primary document, a way to confirm a suspicion — or a better way to communicate a truth.

Why? Because they're consumed, addicted, head over heels in love with the work.

Why else would pioneer Ray Hyman, after all these long decades, still be calling for objective ways to measure skeptical success? How else could James Randi still keep testing claimants, keep quietly insisting that he hasn't disproved the existence of psi? That sort of fairness takes a deep, smoldering love for the true lessons of science. When the NCSE's Eugenie Scott goes on, year after year, making her mild points in that gentle, warm-hearted voice, I don't see a doormat. I see a relentless, immense, ferocious patience — a steely refusal to cut a corner, or lose sight of the stakes, or falter in her task. And when Phil Plait vibrates with the emotion of his appeal for focus and compassion (the exact same appeal Carl Sagan made in The Demon-Haunted World) I see the fire it takes to teach millions of people about science.

In this respect — in this meticulous obsession with the work — I think that my own heroes among the traditional scientific skeptics may indeed be something like model train fanatics.

After all, don't they devote thousands of hours to details no one else cares about?

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26 Responses to “Skeptics as Model Train Lovers (Part II)”

  1. badrescher says:

    I’m framing this.

  2. Leo says:

    Yes, yes, and yes! If this post along with its predecessor don’t get published in the next Skeptic Magazine, then Michael Shermer doesn’t know what talent he has working for him.

  3. Well put, Daniel!
    In the 1990s I shot video for a tradeshow group that had its convention each year in October at various US cities. One year it was Denver, then it’d be Minneapolis, or Atlanta, or Anaheim, lots of cities. Each year I’d see the same faces in the same booths and rather than seeming like it was “Same old, same old.” it was rather nice to see old friends each year

  4. Gah! I must have hit the “Submit Comment” button!
    To continue…
    Each year I’d see the same faces I saw the year before: the guy in the cowboy hat, the ladies clad in red leather (at one particular booth) or the photographer taking stills of the booths from atop a tall stepladder. It became like a second family, my “High-speed digital printing industry” family. When I saw these people, no matter what unfamiliar city I was in, I knew where I was, I was home.

    I attended my first Dragon*Con last year, and this year at my second, I got that same “I’m at home, these are MY people!” feeling again. Thanks, Dan, for reminding me of that.

  5. Ben Radford says:

    Well put, Daniel. I think you are quite right, and there is an important distinction between the two types of skepticism. It’s all well and good for skeptics to work to increase the number of people in a given room who will raise their hands when asked, “Who here considers himself or herself a skeptic?” That’s useful for building a base and getting the message out, but that by itself is not enough. Self-identifying as a skeptic, in the final analysis, means very little– the TAPS / Ghost Hunter guys have called themselves skeptics! Adopting that label is cheap and easy (“I doubt psychic powers, so I’m a skeptic”), and doesn’t really reflect any particular commitment to skepticism or research or critical inquiry. It’s actions, not words, that advance skepticism, and I’m proud to join people like you, Ray, Randi, Joe, Martin, Phil, Richard, and others who are in it for the long haul.

    • Reed Esau says:

      Sure, adopting the label may be cheap and easy, but that’s where most of us start.

      Our reaction ought not be dismissive because there’s no action to back up those words, but rather to provide substantive opportunities for the person to grow in their skills.

      • badrescher says:

        I think that’s extremely important and a lot like the scientific/skeptical stance of keeping an open mind.

        The distinction at that level is one between Skepticamp and Skeptics in the Pub.

  6. Jason Loxton says:


    (As your brother that probably isn’t worth that much, but nonetheless: Like.)

  7. Peter says:

    Well said. I’m glad I read this.

  8. Mike McRae says:

    Superbly written. I know the drum I love to bang is about communication, which I feel is vital for effective outreach and public engagement. But I also feel strongly about good skeptical investigation, which the likes of Ben (whose co-authored ‘Myths, Hoaxes and Mass Hysterias’ was significantly influential in my becoming engaged in the skeptical culture) and Joe Nickell are such great role models. Without them I’d have nothing to hold up as examples of what good critical thinking is about.

    • In the traditional model for scientific skepticism (and leaving aside the question of how effective these projects have been) research and outreach are facets of the same jewel. First, solve mysteries. Communicate the best available facts to the public. Teach the public how science and critical scholarship solve mysteries. They reenforce each other.

      • Mike McRae says:

        Hopefully we’ve come a bit further than that, however, and understand that the picture isn’t so clear cut.

        I think the research done by people and its communication are both equally important. Yet ‘solve mystery’ + ‘communicate solution’, as I see it, don’t equal critical thinking, and I think this has been a major problem with public outreach in the field. In a sense, it trivialises the underlying epistemology it took to get there and presumes it’s the normal state of the audience. It also presents a view of science as dichotomous, where there are ‘mysteries’ and ‘solutions’, which as we know isn’t how it really works.

        I agree that there is a necessary relationship between the application a scientific approach to paranormal topics and the changing of the public’s epistemology. Yet I sometimes feel like skeptics are somewhat like South Park’s underpants gnomes: Step 1) Solve mystery, Step 2) *shrug* Step 3) Show the public the solution. Unfortunately the Step 2 – teaching the public how science solves mysteries – is the kicker that relies on far more than explicit directions.

      • The part I would emphasize here, though, is that solving pseudoscientific mysteries and communicating that specific consumer awareness information are both goods in themselves — and, more to the point, those are the only unique goods skepticism offers. The other part of the traditional skeptical project (promoting general science literacy and critical thinking skills) is a mandate we share with science communication and other fields. (Those other projects under other banners often do a much better job, to boot.)

      • Mike McRae says:

        That is a good point. It demonstrates a danger in thinking of skepticism in isolation form science, but it is worth remembering the philosophical angle that skepticism presents to science.

      • NightHiker says:

        I guess it depends on how you define and think about “skepticism”. If it’s common to find self-described skeptics arguing about what skepticism encompasses, then it becomes important to be certain they are not talking about different things to which they ascribe the same word. Is it possible to reach a consensus about what skepticism entails? Probably not, but I’ll add my two cents:

        To me, skepticism is nothing more than a way of looking into the world and always asking, when we meet a new idea or concept, “Is this true? Can I find it out, and how?”, no matter how much we like or dislike any of the attached implications of such idea a priori. That means skepticism is, to me, at least ideally never dissociated from any intellectual enterprise, never a “thing of its own”. Because of that I find weird to discuss whether something is the focus of skepticism, or science, or education, as if they were different, completely exclusive activities. Science and education might be somewhat distinct, but the way I see it skepticism is, or at least should be, always present.

        When you say skepticism’s goal’s is to solve pseudoscientific mysteries and advocate consumer awareness only, I am inclined to think maybe you are confusing worthwhile enterprises of their own (claims investigation and communication of the results) with skepticism itself, as an approach to what life and the world around presents us.

        In that light, there’s nothing outside of the scope of skepticism, nor is it worth much if enclosed in some hermetic compartment of its own. Maybe that’s what Mike was talking about when he mentioned the philosophical angle of skepticism.

      • When you say skepticism’s goal’s is to solve pseudoscientific mysteries and advocate consumer awareness only, I am inclined to think maybe you are confusing worthwhile enterprises of their own (claims investigation and communication of the results) with skepticism itself, as an approach to what life and the world around presents us.

        You touch on an important distinction which I’ll have to come back to at a later date; it deserves a post of its own. In short, the sense in which you use the word “skepticism” is an ancient one, and it remains completely legitimate. It just isn’t the same sense in which I use the word here. Skepticblog belongs to a more recent intellectual tradition, often called “scientific skepticism” — a scholarly project distinct, by specialization, from the wider enterprise of science. “Skepticism” in this latter sense grew from the science-based criticism of quack medicine, spiritualism, and psychical research at the turn of the 19th century. Over the past hundred years or so, this myth busting, investigative skepticism has come to comprise a global network of organizations, research activities and media (including efforts like Skeptic, Skepticblog, and the Skeptologists pilot).

        The modern tradition of scientific skepticism is not the first or only tradition to lay legitimate claim on the word “skepticism,” and it may not be the most important use of the word. It is, however, a thing of its own — and, in my opinion, important enough.

      • NightHiker says:

        Fair enough, Daniel. I’ll wait for such future post to further comment on the issue.

      • Max says:

        How effective have these projects been?

      • badrescher says:

        It’s not exactly mystery solving, but it’s along the same lines (the challenge) that “snagged” me:

  9. Joshua Hunt says:

    Thank you for another great piece, Daniel! Ben Radford and Joe Nickell have inspired me to become a scientific paranormal investigator.

    I especially agree with the part about going to the library and doing your research.

    That’s why I created Critical Thinking 101:

    This page’s purpose is to provide skeptics with a solid foundation for investigating the paranormal from a scientific point-of-view. You wouldn’t build a house without laying a solid foundation first, would you? I wouldn’t want to do scientific paranormal investigation or try to solve mysteries without studying logical fallacies or mechanisms of self-deception. Which, I think, is the equivalent of laying a solid foundation for building a house.

  10. Wendy Hughes says:

    I loved both the essays, and, although I feel like such an amateur, I think both aspects of skepticism are important. The social matrix is the replacement for networking/friendship building that churchgoing is, and it goes without saying, I missed as a lone atheist. The grassroots skepticism as a hobby, that I have been doing for about six years, is an opportunity for practical application of critical thinking and contributing to society by dissemination of our findings in my grassroots skepticism group, and is much more than a person alone can usually do.

    The relief I felt, and still feel, when I am with my skeptic friends, whether it’s our book club group, my grassroots investigations group meetings, or other activities we plan together, has something to do with knowing that no matter what else we have in common or not, there is one very special thing we share; we are firmly into the evidence based world. It is a distinct difference from the social relationships I have with other friends, and is referred to by Carl Sagan in the Demon Haunted World when he quotes Tom Paine (quotation below) —

    There are so few “professional” skeptics — I’m a hobbyist. It’s all for fun, although I take it seriously, sometimes it keeps me awake at night. In my group, the creative processes we go through to figure out the claims, work through hypotheses, plan tests, and write our reports, take time; we are volunteers with day jobs and most of us are not career scientists. When we are together, we have fun. Usually.

    If my grassroots skepticism practical application hobby group ceased to exist, if I had to leave town and move to a place without one, I would start a new one myself. There must be people like us everywhere.

    Following is the quote from Tom Paine:

    “It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what one does not believe.”
    [Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason]

    • Thank you for your comment, Wendy. Your example (the work of the Independent Investigations Group) nicely underlines some of the themes of the post. The distinction between “professional” and “amateur” skeptics seems less important to me than seriousness of practice. The “hobbyists” at the IIG are working hard to keep skepticism’s proudest tradition alive: active, rigorous skeptical investigation. I think you guys set a wonderful example — and, as you say, enjoy the social benefits of community at the same time.

  11. jeff says:

    If skepticism is to compete with mainline scientific method, it needs a rigorous methodological foundation. For example, there are several models for the scientific method, but one firm model is IBE (inference to the best explanation), where several competing hypotheses are advanced to explain the evidence, and the one which predicts the evidence as an effect with the highest likelihood is the preferrable hypothesis. This lets us winnow out competing hypotheses. These hypotheses should satisfy adequacy conditions , such as containing one or more law-like statements, to be considered scientific hypotheses. For example, the assertions of astrology are not law-like, they simply state an association or correlation between things without an intervening lawlike mechanism , or otherwise they state a mechanism which is unbelievable ad hoc BS.

  12. Wendy Hughes says:

    Here’s a Loxtonian dilemma. (I wish I could take credit for the adjective; credit goes to Heidi Anderson) A non-skeptic, but very lovely friend of mine on facebook posted as her status update the other day this quote ‎”In order to make an apple pie from scratch- you must first create the universe” ~Carl Sagan. A friend of hers commented below:”That reminds me of a joke I heard once.
    A scientist says to God, “We don’t need you anymore. Science has finally figured out a way to create life out of nothing. In other words, we can now do what you did in the beginning. We can take dirt and form it into the likeness of You and breathe life into it, thus creating man.”
    “Well that’s interesting,” says God.” “Show Me.” So the scientist bends down to the earth and starts to mold the soil. “Oh, no, no, no,” interrupts God. “Get your own dirt.”

    There followed a lot of ha,ha,ha, and Mahalo, and God Bless, and I was thinking that Carl Sagan would want me to send those girls a DVD of Cosmos. But my Pale Blue Dottery also extends to knowing that this girl is one with the wind and the sea, and do I have to interfere in every thread I see on Facebook?

    I am already scanning the internet via Google Alerts for various woo for IIG all the time — and when I described this incident to my boyfriend, he looked at me and said it would really hurt our friend if I tried to argue with her about her faith. Is this the boundary: Friendship. I don’t want her to argue with me about mine… we agree to disagree. But it was hard to see on my newsfeed because it involved Carl Sagan… I want to be 100% what I am, but I guess I am defining my boundaries not by convenience, but by “not the enemy.” She is not my enemy. She is my friend, I know a lot about her, and she has no way of knowing how much the exchange I saw affected me. And in fact, she may have been accommodating her friend by agreeing that it was a funny joke; I didn’t ask. It is so complicated, sometimes. But this is one of those examples of why it is much, much more pure and comfortable to interact with my friends at CFI-LA and IIG.

  13. Mike McRae says:

    Everybody wants a quick fix, it seems. We want those friends who practice woo to suddenly see that it’s nonsense. We want the infomercials selling magnet therapies to disappear tomorrow. We want psychics to have to prove themselves ASAP, mothers to all vaccinate tomorrow and homeopaths to pack up and go home by the weekend. Ok, I exaggerate a bit, but in essence there is a sense that skeptics look on and despair that it is so damn difficult having to work out how to bring about change.

    Change won’t come about individual by individual, unfortunately. Epiphanies do occur every now and then, but not enough to bring any great revolution. And similar epiphanies do go the other way, where a person who always seemed to be so critical suffers a life changing event that makes them see god, believe in psychics or argue against vaccination.

    What is needed is a view to encourage a culture of critical thinking, not an individual practice. Yes, we will always have woo friends. Let it be and try not to trouble yourself over how they can be converted, or how you might oppose them. Role model critical thinking where you can, help promote resources that will increase the impact of outreach in effective settings and pick your battles, and the culture will evolve.