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:
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.)
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.
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.
Can 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?