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Are We Gaining Ground, or Losing?

by Brian Dunning, May 12 2011

It’s a question that’s asked a lot, and should be. Keeping our finger on the pulse of our own success lets us know when we need to turn up the heat, and where we should refocus our efforts. I’m reminded of a panel on which I sat at The Amazing Meeting Australia in late 2010 when that question was put to us. I felt somewhat lonely in that my answer to the question seemed to be much more doomier and gloomier than the others.

I said I thought skepticism is losing ground, and also that I expected that trend to continue and worsen.

Why? Primarily because of money. I see the public’s level of skepticism to be largely media driven. Those whose message reaches the most people are likely to win the battle of hearts and minds. Reaching people via the most common media requires money. And money is where skeptics are going to continue to lose ground. The reason is that skeptics are not selling anything; indeed, we caution consumers not to buy certain items. Conversely, the opposition — the charlatans, the hoaxers, the ripoff artists, and the honestly deluded — are there specifically to sell products. Miracle cures and magically easy solutions to every problem in life are the real enemy. And, so long as human natures encourages most people to throw their money in that direction, the promoters of those quack products and services are going to continue to be in the driver’s seat. If you have nothing to sell, as skeptics have, you have no economic engine driving your message. And this is why I believe we’re going to continue to lose ground.

One gentleman in the audience pointed out “But we know how to use the Internet.” And so we do. But no better than woo promoters who know how to “use the Internet”; probably not even as well. Shoot, NaturalNews.com alone has some 60,000 pages indexed on Google; compare that to any skeptical web site. PrisonPlanet.com has over 150,000. Oprah.com is pushing a million. The total number of skeptical blogs and web sites probably numbers in the low hundreds, of which maybe a few dozen are at all relevant. How many web sites are there that promote alternative medicine, woo, conspiracy theories? Thousands, at least, if not tens of thousands, and maybe more. Right now I get the Quantum Jumping ad on virtually any Google search or any AdSense page. How many paid ads have I seen for The Amazing Meeting?

No, we are not winning any wars on the Internet.

Randi countered my gloom-doomery with an assertive point: “But we’re right.” He said it with a strike of the fist, and authoritative aplomb. The audience cheered. Yes, we’re right. But the last I checked, being right is not what made Oprah the world’s most influential woman. Being right is not what sold The Secret. Being right is not what launched the most popular shows on The History Channel to the top. Actually working is not what sells Power Balance bracelets. Being right is not what made Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Michael Savage the four most listened-to radio personalities.

No, being right has nothing to do with how successfully your message propagates.

We’re way behind, and as the promoters and woo get more and more money behind them, we’re going to continue to drop behind. But it’s not over (and never will be). We’re running a distant second in a marathon. Every opportunity to catch up is ours. And we are growing; not as fast as the opposition, perhaps, but still building numbers. I get emails nearly every day from people who thank me for having changed their lives, and I know that my colleagues here on SkepticBlog and elsewhere get them too. As more rational people learn to appreciate the value of reason, more resources are added to our pool.

So, don’t misinterpret my observation as pessimism. I think of our second-place position as an increasingly target-rich environment. We have more and more people to reach. Every blog post, every podcast, ever public talk is heard by someone to whom the material is new. Appreciate the opportunity that we have to make up ground, and do the work that it takes to make it happen. Being right, or having evidence, or being able to prove what we say, are not enough and have historically proven not to cut the mustard. We have to do the work.

65 Responses to “Are We Gaining Ground, or Losing?”

  1. Ihle says:

    I think we have another advantage, we are the smartest, the most educated. When James Randi says we are right, i take it to mean that in any real honest discourse we will win terrain. More and more people are getting educated, and I hope that leads to at least an appreciation of an honest discourse.

    But maybe this is just wishful thinking….

    • Nyar says:

      That may or may not be the case. Many smart people believe in some type of woo as do many educated people. Patting ourselves on the back for being smarter and better educated than the less skeptical probably isn’t an effective strategy for promoting skepticism.

      • PaulC says:

        I agree Nyar. One problem with most skeptics is the “Greater then thou” attitude many take. I am Skeptical and logical and therefore I am better then you plebians.

        The great success of many of the woo-sters is that they come off as ordinary people who are real experts and identify with that audience. That is where most skeptics fail. That is, they do not identify with the intended audience and even vilify that audience as uneducated and naive. and NO ONE likes to be called Naive.

    • Trimegistus says:

      We’re more humble, too!

  2. klem says:

    What planet are you livng on? Back here on earth climate skepticism has already won. Australia is one of the last places on earth that is still debating climate change and deciding whether to introduce a carbon tax or carbon price or Cap&Trade. Just about all other places of the world this is a dead issue. That ship has sailed.

    The EU is the only place where carbon is traded, it used to trade about $30 per ton now its about $15 and the market is soft. Virtually no other countries in the world are decideding to join in that foolishness, except Australia. Come the next election, I’ll bet carbon won’t be an issue there any longer. Cheers

    • MadScientist says:

      The EU Emissions Trading Scam is a joke, but climate change denialism is a problem. Australia’s proposals are wrong because they are made to be ‘gamed’ and will not contribute to actually reducing emissions; the Australian proposal seems to be aspiring to ape the failed EU ETS. (By the way, government officials crow about how wonderful the EU ETS is, but I know of no scientist on the planet who believes it is a success.) Even in this global recession I see governments at different levels taking small steps to reduce emissions – that’s a start but there’s a long way to go yet. In Norway many CO2 sources are taxed and the taxes have been sufficient for industry to find means of reducing emissions. Claiming there is no problem and advocating to ignore problems and spend on ‘adaptation’ instead is naive and silly. Unfortunately the UK climate denial lobby groups seem to be redoubling their efforts and taking advantage of the current economic situation in the UK to scare people into clamoring for the status quo.

      • Dan Hillman says:

        I think the object lesson here is that its difficult to have a meaningful discussion when one or both parties distrust the motives of the other. The perfect example of this is how “global warming” became so politicized. If you say anything you are pegged as belonging to a “side” and therefore your motives are suspect and any information you have is just propaganda.

        Of course people do use issues for their own purposes, this should not surprise anyone but if we want a rational discussion we need to avoid drawing ideological lines as much as possible as these are huge impediments to meaningful communications.

        We also tend to routinely use inflammatory language when discussing subjects like this.

        “The EU Emissions Trading Scam is a joke” as one example, and “What planet are you living on?” as another.

        In fairness to the posters, this issue has become so politicized its hard not to do this. But if one gets drawn into a debate, do try to be the rational person.

  3. NaturalNews may or may not have “big money” behind it; I know PrisonPlanet doesn’t.

    What DOES, though, are folks Brian didn’t mention … Competitive Enterprise Institute, Heartland, Manhattan Institute, JunkScience.org, etc.

    Brian, if you’re going to finger big money, then actually finger it … including all the libertarian/big biz folks.

    Oprah might be the one “big money” person actually named on your list, but she doesn’t have the money of Exxon or the KochBros.

    • Jason M says:

      Thanks, this comment clarifies some of your previous ones.

      • Jason M says:

        Just to clarify that, it seems you feel the need to bring up politics when the topic is skepticism in general.

      • Brian raised the money issue in reference to, for lack of a better phrase, “skepticism deniers.” I merely pointed out some of the primarily sources of that money, and identified what could be called either their philosophical or their political leanings as “libertarian.”

        The “media driven” applies, too. Look at the money folks like CEI spent on ad campaigns. Remember the “CO2 is good for you” ad? FAR more money behind that than behind NatureNews, I have no doubt.

        If you don’t like me pointing out that observation, I’ll trump yours:

        Why does Brian deliberately ignore political groups that spend big money on skeptical denial? Isn’t that intruding politics by the back door?

      • And, Jason, it ain’t just me — Beelzebud weighs in, too, noting Shermer’s past:

        http://skepticblog.org/2011/05/12/are-we-gaining-ground-or-losing/#comment-56226

      • Edwin says:

        This sub-topic is a red-herring, and a painfully obvious one. The topic we should be discussing is the relative gains made by skeptical activism, not which political enterprises are or are not being discussed by which skeptics. If you feel that this is a problem, go blog about it or something.

      • I don’t think it is a subtopic or a red herring. Brian himself introduced the issue of *money.* Again, I’m just pointing out some of the antiskeptical sources of that money that he missed. It *just so happens,* I guess, that he missed politically motivated sources.

  4. David H. says:

    I recently made a trip back to the Deep (American) South, my home area, for a few days. I had almost forgotten the pervasiveness of deep-seated, unshakable, irrational religious belief. And, in some areas, literally a church on every corner, with two more in the middle of the block. There is absolutely NO WAY to fight that level of superstition.

    SHOULD we be fighting it? Bruce Hood (“Supersense”) suggests that we shouldn’t, because it’s futile. But it is our duty to continue the attempt to educate, nonetheless. Not to drag down, belittle, and demean, but to educate to the best of our ability. Not necessarily to undermine religion, which is only one manifestation of uncritical thinking (all of the other woo comes to mind here), rather to raise the level of awareness as high as we can, to plant the seeds of a critical-thinking mindset in the populace and see where they grow.

    • Trimegistus says:

      I think you (and a lot of other skeptics) are conflating two separate issues. Are we, as skeptics, supposed to be fighting against ERROR, or BELIEF?

      Religion and science are not fundamentally opposed. One or two segments of religious people may think so, but the vast majority of believers are perfectly happy to learn from Creation as well as Scripture. This has been Catholic doctrine since Aquinas, and most Protestant denominations accept the same principle. Remember who created science: devout Christians like Kepler, Newton, Galileo (he was heretical, but a staunch believer), Priestley, etc.

      Meanwhile nonbelievers have more than their fair share of quackery and idiocy. Consider how strongly rooted the anti-vaccine movement and “alternative medicine” are among modern progressives who disdain religion.

      All of which means skeptics should target actual error and fraud, not belief. Debunk Creationism rather than Christianity. Because otherwise you’re forcing people to make a choice between God and James Randi, and while they both have impressive beards, I fear God will win out.

      • Somite says:

        Believer: There is a God.

        Skeptic: There is no evidence for that.

        I see a conflict.

      • That’s an interesting point. I’m not sure the difference matters. The source of the error, be it bad information in culture or religious indoctrination, doesn’t matter so much as how dangerous the error is. If someone thinks their dog is psychic, that’s pretty low on the priority list because it’s pretty harmless. If someone thinks vaccines cause autism, that’s high priority because of the danger. I tend to look at things in terms of the low hanging fruit: Where can we most successfully make the most difference that helps the most people? Those are the significant factors to my way of thinking.

      • David H. says:

        Yes, that was my point: “But it is our duty to continue the attempt to educate, nonetheless.” I think that you and I agree. There’s no reason to fight belief, or faith, because it’s always a losing battle. We can work against errors in thought, although in many cases we can’t make much headway there, either, because so MANY people are blinkered by their faith,upbringing, experience, etc. As Brian pointed out below, we can at least go for the low-hanging fruit.

      • David H. says:

        Rather, as Brian pointed out ABOVE”…

        And my comments were intended as a response to Trimegistus.

      • MadScientist says:

        Different people will concentrate on different problems. Why tell folks that they must only concentrate on one particular problem? Nor is it a choice between Amaz!ng and god.

      • Mario says:

        I think that we are transgressing the 9th Law: Win through your actions, never through argument.
        We have come so far now, the movement is slow but steady, it’s science and technology what it’s keeping us alive not beliefs, that paradigm which sounds so obvious to us is hard to get into believers mind.

        Probably 98% of my friends are religious people, but they embrace many of my ideas simple because I’m not antagonizing them.

        This is not a war cause “they” are not enemies but friends and family , as much as I admire Dr. Dawkins, I’d rather use Dr. Tyson approach to the matter, cause I remember how hard my brain fought that religious kind of thinking.

      • Michael Kingsford Gray says:

        @Trimegistus

        Religion and science are not fundamentally opposed.

        Of course they are.
        Completely and implacably opposed their very core.
        It is only if one implicitly or explicitly lies about this divide that one can pretend that they are compatible in the most basic sense.
        Some folk are willing to lie to theists in order to gain political advantage.
        I am not.
        That one is willing to lie about compatibility for possible short-term advantage does not make any more true.

    • MadScientist says:

      In quite a few places in Europe you’ll see the same sort of thing – magnificent churches pretty close together. However, many are no longer used for religious purposes nor even owned by a religious group. As the numbers of church-goers drops and a church can no longer be maintained, it will either rot away or be put to some other use. Mere current numbers are no indication of their future state. I’m looking forward to seeing the ‘Crystal Cathedral’ converted to a shopping mall.

    • M167A1 says:

      Hi David,

      Your post has a bit of a missionary tone to it.

      This is natural, but if you always act like you are on a mission to convert the sub-human irrational heathens you will likely end up preaching to an empty room. That or get punched.

      There is no reason a person can’t be a theist and a perfectly rational human being. One just has to accept two things. The first is that some matters are matters of faith, and that those are beyond testing. The second is that these two fields never meet and so can’t contradict each other. This not to say many are never able to draw the line, our Young-Earth friends for example.

      I prefer nice people and I don’t like jerks. What the heck do I care if they go to church on Sunday. What I do speak up about is when someone gets Ideology or Theology confused with Biology or other field of study.

      • Michael Kingsford Gray says:

        There is no reason a person can’t be a theist and a perfectly rational human being

        Yes there is a very good reason!
        A perfectly rational human being does not believe fairy tales as thought they were real.

      • tmac57 says:

        Should we assume from your comment that you believe yourself to be ‘perfectly rational’ Michael? Or is it more the case that nobody is ‘perfectly’ rational,but we are all along a continuum of rationality?

      • That’s the bottom line. A lot of things in life are on continua, and not just at one or the other ends of a polarity.

  5. shawmutt says:

    The woomeisters definitely have the web figured out. I’ve recently decided to embrace a healthier lifestyle and learn all I can about nutrition and health…and woah there’s a lot of crap out there. Every fad diet has an army of promoters putting out fake reviews and insuring the Google searches result in positive hits.

    Recently I researched and blogged about the Dukan diet, and even the wikipedia page was a joke, obviously written by a promoter. Thankfully the neutrality of that article has been disputed, but it remains unchanged. The articles I was finding with an actual skeptical bent are now further down on the search page.

  6. Richard says:

    I suspect that many people would like some help to sift the truth from the BS. I sometimes think of skepticism as intellectual karate.

  7. Joshua Hunt says:

    Brian,

    What do you suggest we do to gain ground? How do we catch up?

  8. Joshua Hunt says:

    Brian,

    What do you suggest we do to gain ground? How do we catch up?

  9. James says:

    I’ve noticed the shift of many prominent skeptics toward political ideology driven viewpoints hasn’t helped.

    Non-libertarians normally view libertarians as extreme republicans (if they don’t know much about it) or an odd faith based “free marketism” that is closely linked with pseudo/anti-science views (if they are familiar with their belief system). The open advocacy and use of libertarian ideology as an unfalsifiable, unassailable starting point for “skeptical” positions has resulted in a lot of people viewing skepticism as “just another whack-a-doodle ideology”.

    In other words, it’s made the skeptic movement is just another snake oil salesman. I’ve been told as much.

  10. Before you can determine if you are winning, you must first establish what victory conditions are. #BoardGamerWisdom

    • MadScientist says:

      Shhh … if the goals are predetermined that makes it all the more difficult to shift ‘em.

  11. Beelzebud says:

    Stop poisoning the well with blind ideology.

    Things like this:
    http://skepticblog.org/2008/12/09/regulation-schmegulation/

    and this:
    http://skepticblog.org/2010/11/16/throwing-cold-water-on-a-hot-topic/

    and this:
    http://skepticblog.org/2010/12/09/skeptoids-massive-ddt-fail/

    These are cases where ideology has made you guys make some pretty lousy arguments. It’s not unfair to point out that this all relates to Libertarianism, and the attempt to co-opt the skeptical movement. Case in point, is Penn and Teller being invited to JREF events after airing a lot of bullshit on their show, named bullshit. I’m also reminded of the Petition Project, which still has some traction with “skeptics”, so much so, that James Randi even gave credence to it, before being politely told by Phil Plait that he was absolutely wrong.

    • Yes, Mr. Skala, commenting just two blog posts ago, a Petition Project signer and booster.

    • M167A1 says:

      Hi BB..

      Well said in general but I do have a point although it’s an ideological one.

      Most Libertarians I’ve talked to believe they are exercising critical thinking, for that matter who doesn’t? I would use this more as a teaching moment for people like P&T who seem to be headed in the right general direction, but are still having trouble with compartmentalizing things intellectually.

      We’ve all been there, the numbers say X but everything else says Y…. Its rare to meet someone who goes “WOW! That’s not at all what I expected!”

  12. Dan Kennan says:

    I have to say that I’m quite pessimistic, and admit to doing less and less simply because it’s a losing battle.

    As some posts above show, even skeptics are now divided and spending as much time sniping at each other as they spend sniping at nonsense…over at CFI they’ve gone into overdrive attacking “accomodationists”.

    I can either spend my energy in a futile effort to get people to look at reality, or I can spend time with my family and enjoy life. I’m choosing the latter more and more.

  13. Somite says:

    Accomodationism causes more harm than good because all it accomplishes is to legitimize religion and magical thinking. What we need are sources that are perceived to be uncontaminated by ideology, religion and other goals other than the truth.

    Jerry Coyne as usual puts it best:

    “Now if accommodation is so effective at turning the faithful to evolution, as Chris Mooney and others maintain, where are the hundreds of emails and letters from the faithful thanking Mooney, Josh Rosenau, the people of BioLogos, and their accommodationist confrères for—by showing that science and faith are compatible—helping them accept evolution at last?  I’m not aware of a single such piece of testimony.  All we have is the discredited fictions of Walter Smith, aka “Tom Johnson.””

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/05/13/the-path-to-atheism/

    The claim that skepticism needs money to succeed is hogwash. The money will follow if people enjoy your books and writings. I’m positive “The God Delusion” and “The End of Faith” were commercial successes because of how well they were written. Their controversial nature helped more than harmed their success.

    • There’s no guarantee confrontationalism is any better, Somite.

      And, per Mike McRae and others, I call myself a “connectionist,” for want of a better word, not an “accommodationist.”

      Beyond this, there’s two other issues.

      One is a question of what tactics to employ when, how many tools should be in one’s toolbox, etc.

      Two is a question of what psychological background one brings to the table in general, and not just on dealing with an understanding and acceptance of evolution in people of faith.

      Some “Gnus” actually seem to *relish* confrontation for confrontation’s sake, in my book. Maybe they’re the … FU Atheists?

    • There’s no guarantee confrontationalism is any better, Somite.

      And, per Mike McRae and others, I call myself a “connectionist,” for want of a better word, not an “accommodationist.”

      Beyond this, there’s two other issues.

      One is a question of what tactics to employ when, how many tools should be in one’s toolbox, etc.

      Two is a question of what psychological background one brings to the table in general, and not just on dealing with an understanding and acceptance of evolution in people of faith.

      Some “Gnus” actually seem to *relish* confrontation for confrontation’s sake, in my book. Maybe they’re the … FU Atheists?

    • Max says:

      I doubt that giving up religion is easier than giving up Creationism.

      Money is needed for marketing, but marketing can’t make up for an unpopular product. I doubt that a video debunking Loose Change could be as popular as Loose Change. Still, if you look for “9/11 pentagon” on YouTube, the top video with 3 million views is a nice simulation showing how the plane toppled light poles in its path. All the other videos, including a couple with over 5 million views are conspiracy theorist.

    • tmac57 says:

      I view this whole debate as a false dichotomy. Both sides have their strengths and weaknesses,and adherents,and opponents. It’s fine to argue for your particular point of view,but just realize that there is no “right” answer,and even if one approach is better than another,it will never be the “only” effective one.We have a well stocked toolbox,lets not always try to use a hammer.

      • Well put. Pardon a biblical quote, but, “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven.”

        I have no problem being confrontational when:
        A. It’s warranted;
        B. It will be of benefit to advancing secularism or atheism, or skepticism. (Cui bono, as I’ve said before.)

        Folks like Coyne and Myers attacking the likes of Genie Scott and the NCSE fail both the A and B counts, though.

        Take the atheism bus ads and billboards. A phrase like “Being good without god” is a good message. “Christians: you don’t have a lock on morality” would be less so. “Churchgoers: don’t be sanctimonious about your morals” would be far less so.

  14. Guy McCardle says:

    Brian Dunning is dead on right, we skeptics are losing. We are in a battle against human nature. Would the average person on the street rather believe that a ten dollar bracelet you can buy at the checkout counter at Wal-mart will cure their aches and pains or go on with their daily discomfort? They just want to feel better, dammit, and nothing else is helping. As a species we want to believe, we want hope. It is a willful suspension of disbelief. This is why people still buy lottery tickets when they stand a better chance of being struck by lightening twice in the same day.

    The vast majority of us would rather not hear the truth. Let me correct that, most us don’t want to hear a negative truth. If the fact is that we actually won the lottery, then it is OK. Everyone believes that they are above average, that nothing bad will ever happen to them, that muggings and cancer and tax audits only happen to other people.

    I persist as a skeptic because I fully believe and live by the idea of James Randi when he said with such conviction, “we are right”. All the homeopathic, wheat grass chewing, magnetic bracelet selling charlatans in the world won’t change that fact. For one, I intend to join the losing battle of espousing my skeptical viewpoints to the world in the modest hope of knowing that I can bring some of the people to the truth some of the time. It is just the right thing to do.

    • Max says:

      The truth can be positive, like the fact that vaccines don’t cause autism, but some people still deny it.
      I think the really basic problem is that going against the grain gets boring after the first run. That is, the first claim that goes against the grain is interesting, whether it’s a conspiracy theory or a New Atheist book, but a debunking of that claim just sounds like a defense of the grain, and is less interesting. After more than two levels of back-and-forth, the public loses all interest.

      • Guy McCardle says:

        Good point, Max. That may be the heart of the issue. The “back and forth” gets boring. Unless you are a hardcore skeptic, you most likely just give up the topic altogether for something more of your liking. Again, human nature. I’m not sure how to overcome that…yet.

  15. KWombles says:

    Brian,

    It often feels like we’re losing ground, and the research coming out concerning college students and gains in critical thinking skills is grim. I keep plugging away, working to create an environment that fosters critical thinking in my students and affords them the opportunity to woo fight. Your work, and the work of other skeptical bloggers here and at other sites, is invaluable.

    My thanks to you, Michael Shermer and Steven Novella for providing some of the key texts I use with my students.

  16. Martin says:

    The problem with skepticism – and one which skeptics don’t seem to understand – is one of presentation, being able to target an audience and being able to speak to that audience in a language it finds easy to understand and engaging.

    Not everybody is interested in science, not everybody finds endless discussions about logical fallacies and critical thinking engaging – in fact if you are interested in any of those things you represent a very small minority of the planet’s population.

    If skeptics want to reach out and actually gain some traction this needs to be addressed – and I can think of no better technique than borrowing a few tricks from woo peddlers the world over. Jump about on stage like a born again preacher, publish books with shape-shifting reptilians on the front, promise “answers” and the “TRUTH!”, but most of all remember that your audience is more likely to be persuaded with a gentle prod or poke in the right place, rather than calling them a bunch of f@$£ing idiots.

    • Guy McCardle says:

      Martin, you may be the Sun Tzu of skepticism. Know thy “enemy” as you know yourself. We (I) may complain about human nature and the desire to believe woo, but the true problem may be in the platform and the presentation.

      I used to do presentations of government mandated infection prevention materials to large groups of medical professionals on a weekly basis. Not the most interesting subject matter in and of itself but still very necessary. Quickly I learned that if I didn’t want people to nod off I better inject some interesting photos, appropriate humor and some audience interaction. Maybe as a whole we can work on making the truth more fun or at least interesting.

  17. M167A1 says:

    I think many including Brian are trying to fight this battle on the enemies ground.

    I don’t know of a way to make rationality “popular” or “trendy” while it applies across a vast battlefield of topics, it loses the individual battle for interest more often than not. At best it can be presented as consumer protection. Adding logic and rhetoric to school curriculum would be useful but this would be either subverted by one Ideology or another or protested to bits for a variety of reasons.

    Lets face it scatological aliens coming to work you over with the Probulator 6000(tm) are more interesting than illumination flares, and probably always will be.

  18. James T. Todd says:

    Mr. Dunning’s comments feel right, at least they do in my work dealing with fake autism treatments, although the sentiments are not new.

    For what might be the most specific historical precedent, we should turn to Ernst Mach’s book, “Science of Mechanics,” where we find this passage:

    “In what a strange light should we ourselves appear, centuries hence, If our popular literature, which by reason of its quantity is less easily destructible, should alone outlive the productions of science?” (p. 3, 1897 edition)

    Mach was worried about popular books and magazines. Compared to the internet, those were certainly of relatively limited distribution and damage-causing potential. Had he lived, he might have seen a reprieve in the early- to mid-twentieth century, first with Progressivism and then, in a last gasp, the reaction to Sputnik. Those times are long gone. There’s no chance nowadays of a President coming to Congress asking for a huge special appropriation for something like a moon shot, and getting support for it even from many of his political rivals.

    Another perspective on the same issues comes from Ohio State historian John Burnham’s book, “How Superstition Won and Science Lost.” It’s a book that predates the internet, but seems spot on if we extrapolate to the web Burnham’s concerns with the erosion of standards in science reporting and journalism.

    James T. Todd, Ph.D.
    Eastern Michigan University

  19. Adam Hafdahl says:

    Three belated comments, some of which echo others’ remarks:

    1. It’s hard to evaluate claims about whether (or the degree to which) skeptics are gaining or losing ground without solid operational definitions of what this means. Can’t this be framed as an empirical question and evaluated against evidence? Granted, these questions are in the realm of social/behavioral science, where operationally defining focal constructs is fraught with threats to validity, but some scientists earn their living tackling such messy questions (e.g., program evaluators: http://www.eval.org).

    2. For a few years I’ve been floating the idea of Evidence-Based Skeptical Advocacy (EBSA), though I haven’t yet put my money where my mouth is. The idea is simple: Use science and rationality to promote science and rationality. As skeptics we could better exploit skeptical tools to our own ends. For instance, what do the relevant sciences tell us about how to most efficiently accomplish whatever we’re trying to accomplish as a community, given limited money and other resources? It surprises me that we don’t do this better; I suspect it relates to the cat-herding problem and skeptics’ limited experience with social and behavioral sciences.

    3. Could organized skepticism take some cues from consumer-protection organizations? Some of our aims seem similar — helping people improve their decision making and avoid being duped by unscrupulous (or self-deluded) purveyors of shoddy products or services. For instance, how did Consumer Reports achieve its status, and how does it remain lucrative (if that’s the case)?

  20. You are always right. Think about it…Have you ever known anybody in your life who was always right? Does the word annoying come to mind? I mean, I don’t wanna rain on your parade,but…

  21. Baseball bats. They work.

  22. Julie says:

    Just after reading this post, I came across something in Paul Offit’s book Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All that shows somewhat why I disagree with your reasoning, Brian. Compare skeptics with the Anti-Vaccine crowd. The Anti-Vaxxers aren’t selling anything either. They’re fighting against something (which makes no sense), but they’re seriously passionate (and ignorant, delusional, and crazy…but I digress), which is what convinces people to believe them. Here’s the quote:

    “Anti-vaccine groups are well organized and passionate. they have used popular settings such as Oprah and Larry King Live to make strong emotional appeals and get parents to think twice about having their children vaccinated. People, logical or not, do not forget this kind of emotional prowess. On the other hand, our medical and scientific experts counter with accurate evidence and citations of studies, which do not resonate with many parents. Dispassionate messages are not sticky. Gut-wrenching stories…are. It is time we change.”

    Skeptics don’t have the emotional appeal, for the most part. Not just because we’re not selling something, but because we don’t have the emotional blackmail to get people on our side. Appealing to people’s intelligence, logic, and reason just isn’t all that exciting or romantic. Sometimes being louder and more passionate about it is what we need.

  23. usethebrainsgodgiveyou says:

    >>>>Skeptics don’t have the emotional appeal, for the most part<<<<

    That's because they're only using half of their mind, the left side.

    Emotionalism is seen as the opposite of skepticism. It's not. The right side has access to knowledge (wisdom) that the left cannot access without words. It's intuition, not emotionalism.

    Strawman, fallacy…just thought I'd put those 2 "skeptical" words in there so as to speaka da language…

  24. usethebrainsgodgiveyou says:

    Just wondering…does my name piss you off??