Twenty years ago this past October, I discovered the skeptical literature at a panel discussion featuring BC Skeptics spokesperson Barry Beyerstein (a CSICOP Fellow, and psychopharmacologist at Simon Fraser University). In 2008, a year after Barry’s death, I took the opportunity to write about his influence upon me at the fledgling BC Skeptics blog site. Today, the BC Skeptics have largely faded from the stage, and I recently discovered that my tribute to Barry is no longer live. Happily, I am able to re-post it here now (with some minor revisions). For your interest, I have also talked about Beyerstein’s influence on my work on other, more recent occasions, including this eSkeptic article and my 2011 LogiCon keynote address (available on YouTube.)
A Life of Service.
(Originally published in 2008.)
When considering my first BC Skeptics blog post, the subject seemed to me obvious and unavoidable: remembering the great Barry Beyerstein, who passed away in 2007.
“Obvious” because Barry personally introduced me to skepticism; “unavoidable” because of the influence he continues to wield over my work.
I was in Junior High when I discovered skepticism at a small science fiction convention in Victoria, BC. I’d long been a fan of all topics paranormal, both the fictional (comics, sci-fi, D&D) and the allegedly true. At that point, it was a fond, long-standing dream of mine to pursue cryptozoological creatures and weird goings on. Even as a child, I’d devoured everything weird I could get my hands on, from the miracles of Uri Geller to the leviathan at Loch Ness.
Yet, everything I’d read had come from the credulous paranormal literature. I was passionate about the material, deeply interested in exploring these mysteries, but I hadn’t a clue that any sort of critical literature existed. How could I? At that time, Skeptic magazine didn’t exist. The venerable Skeptical Inquirer had a proud history already, but was known for the most part only to subscribers and university libraries. No skeptical magazines were available on newsstands. (No one was even dreaming of the access points that exist today, like skeptical podcasts and online forums.)
So, I walked into a small, poorly attended panel discussion at “I-Con 2” completely unprepared. What I heard was a life-altering shock to me, a road to Damascus moment.
On the panel was one Barry Beyerstein, from an organization called the BC Skeptics. He was genial, warm, and clear. He distributed free copies of the BC Skeptics newsletter, the Rational Enquirer (which was then a print publication).
And, he knew what he was talking about.
The small crowd meant there was ample chance to pepper him with questions. “What about UFOs?” from one side of the room. “What’s your take on Bigfoot?” from the other. Each time, his answers easily lifted another cobwebby shroud of misinformation and assumptions from my eyes.
I remember his answer to one question in particular, because it was so concrete and commonsensical and (once pointed out) so obviously true. In my memory I asked this question myself. (I know that’s not likely to be an accurate memory, but even now I can see him in my mind’s eye: speaking directly to me from the panel, treating a chubby, magic-besotted teenage nerd with respect and dignity.)
“What about firewalking?” I asked, shaken by the experience of finding myself woefully misinformed on the very topics of my greatest passion.
“Well,” Barry explained, patient and friendly, “it’s all a matter of how heat conducts. Imagine a tray of muffins in an oven. Everything in the oven—the walls of the oven, the tray, the muffins—has the same very high temperature. But if you’re careful and move quickly, you can kind of juggle the muffins out of the oven with your bare hands—so long as you don’t touch the tray or the sides of the oven.”
Lightbulb. You mean these mysteries can actually be solved?
I remembered that, and my interest in skepticism started to grow. I wrote to the BC Skeptics, asking for more copies of the Rational Enquirer. They were kind enough to send some, and I studied every word. Perhaps three years later, as a penniless freshman, I was overjoyed to discover a complete back issue collection of the journal-format Skeptical Inquirer in the fine little library at Bishop’s University in Quebec. Day after day, I worked happily through it all, cover to cover. I eagerly learned at the knee of my heroes: Isaac Asimov. James Randi. Joe Nickell. Martin Gardner. And, Barry Beyerstein.
When Skeptic magazine launched, I was there reading it (over coffee I couldn’t afford) in a little newsstand café in snowy Sherbrooke, Quebec. I was in love from the moment I opened it. (I can still hardly believe I’m a columnist for Skeptic today.)
After I took over the Junior Skeptic section of Skeptic magazine, I had the chance to tell Barry about the impact he had on me. And, I even had the opportunity to work with him on occasion. (We shared an interest in a particular bogus faith healer.) I’m pleased about that. It helps make up for the happenstance that I had to decline a lunch invitation from Barry just a few days before he passed away.
Today, Barry’s influence on me goes well beyond that “aha!” moment two long decades ago. In my view, Barry Beyerstein was the best of what skeptics can be—and should be. He was the class act we should follow.
In a Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast tribute to Barry, Dr. Steven Novella put it simply: “He was, without exaggeration, the single nicest guy I’ve met in the skeptical movement.” Echoing this thought, co-host Rebecca Watson put her finger on something I think is very important: warm personalities like Barry are “the people we most need in the skeptics movement, because it shows people that we’re not just all cynics. There are people out there [in skepticism] who are, y’know, enjoyable to be around.”
Amen. We skeptics are in the communication business, and communication begins with respect and approachability. As Eugenie Scott (another class act whom I greatly admire) told me, “Persuading people means treating them with respect—which is something we all ought to be doing anyway.”
I think that came naturally to Barry Beyerstein. The rest of us can do our best to live up to his example, and to his sense of mission.
Shortly before his death (in the last hard-copy issue of the Rational Enquirer, as it happens), Beyerstein addressed a topic I tackled myself in a manifesto-type essay (first released in audio format in the podcast Skepticality): the question of what the skeptical movement should be for. He was writing at almost the same time as I, and I’m pleased to know now that our opinions were in accord. Our resources, he wrote, should be spent “in direct pursuit of our skeptical mandate—investigation and education” without distraction into culture war issues.
Upon his passing, Barry’s daughter Lindsay wrote a concise and immensely moving memoriam note I feel compelled to quote: “Dad loved all knowledge, no matter how arcane or obscure. He believed in the power of reason, compassion, and humility. He lived a life of service.”
A year later, that phrase—“He lived a life of service”—continues to echo in my head. What a wonderful legacy. Will my own son one day be able to remember me in such a light?
I hope so. I’m working on it.
Because here’s the thing: in my mind, the skeptical project shouldn’t be a stage for self-promotion. It shouldn’t be a theatre in a culture war.
It’s a chance to help people. That, and only that.
And Barry Beyerstein knew it.
—Daniel Loxton, July 2008