Howdy, folks! It’s been a while since my last post. I’ve been buckled down hard under deadlines for my next two books (the followup to my children’s paleofiction book Ankylosaur Attack; and my hefty skeptical tome with Skepticblog’s own Don Prothero, Abominable Science). But now that I have the chance, I thought I might stop in with a few personal thoughts before jumping back in with more new posts.
Laboring away on those very big projects while also rolling out regular Junior Skeptic articles has taken some doing—working more weekends and holidays and late nights than I care to dwell upon. It’s been a very long road. For my family at least as much as for me.
Wrapping up Pterosaur Trouble in August finally opened a window for a genuine family vacation. We loaded the whole gang into our rickety old station wagon and took to the road for Drumheller, Alberta’s world famous Royal Tyrrell Museum. The Tyrrell was every bit as ecstatic an experience as I’d been led to expect (did you know that I kinda dig dinosaurs?), but really we could have gone anywhere. It was the two weeks in a station wagon with my family that really meant the world.
After so many months of marathon production, I set aside the bleeping devices, the work-related reading, the whole skeptical world for a couple of weeks. I had to. It was time.
Most of all, I left behind the blogosphere.
Running on Empty
Skeptical burnout is not new. Even under that name, it’s been a topic of discussion for decades. I see that it was the theme for a Paul Kurtz editorial in the Skeptical Inquirer some 24 years ago, for example.
“Do you ever get skeptic’s burnout?” asked Barry Karr, CSICOP’s astute young public-relations director. This question came at the end of a long, hard day during the particularly exhausting three weeks following Donald Regan’s revelation of the Reagans’ use of astrology at the White House.1
But it seems to me that the cycle of exhaustion has been radically accelerated in the internet age. I’ve been involved in skepticism in one way or another for over 20 years, and I’m just a newbie compared to long-time workers like Ray Hyman or Kendrick Frazier. Yet today, I see people who discover the skeptical movement (or the atheist blogosphere, which is sometimes mistaken for the same thing), become involved, become disillusioned, and flame out—all in the space of two or three years. Some of that rapid cycle of burnout is an artifact of the rapid growth and mutual conflation of several parallel but distinct rationalist movements (growth and conflation pressures which are both themselves fueled by the internet); sometimes it takes new folks a couple years to realize that these movements are not able to become what they hoped or expected. But some burnout is just simply that—burnout. The internet piles on the pressures so much faster and more intensely than ever before. When the latest rounds of online flaming can follow us to our kitchen tables and into our bedrooms and onto the bus with us, there can seem to be no escape.
I may still be a bit new to this in some important senses, but after 21 years I can at least say, “Well, I’m still here.” A lot of folks can say that, and much more. The field of scientific skepticism has many long-time practitioners, folks who’ve been laboring away for multiple decades. How do they do it?
I decided to ask a some more experienced practitioners how they’ve managed to walk that long road and still stay on their feet. Here’s what Kendrick Frazier, 35-year Editor of the Skeptical Inquirer had to say:
I know that skeptical burnout is a common problem, especially perhaps among young, newly motivated skeptics who get all gung-ho and then get disillusioned when they can’t change the world in 12 months. … I don’t know that I have any good answer to your question, except to propose to people that they try their best to think long term—that all skeptical writing and activity does some good, that education of new generations is always a continuous process and not a one-and-done thing, and that some historical perspective on levels and episodes of nonscientific belief in the past helps to see oneself in a context of past skeptical inquirers and their challenges.2
Taking the long view can help. Remember that all academic fields and intellectual movements have their share of schisms, scandals, and personality conflicts. In the long run, most of that stuff gets forgotten—relegated to a footnote, reduced to a punchline. How many embittered arguments flared during the Sociobiology Wars of the 1970s; how many angry letters were drafted; how many lost nights’ sleep? Yet even science enthusiasts may strain to remember why protesters once dumped a pitcher of water on E.O.Wilson’s head3—and science just rolls on. In their day, the incandescent hatred of the Bone Wars waged between paleontologists Edward Cope and O.C. Marsh was shockingly public; but few today have heard of their campaigns of mutual destruction, while their dinosaur discoveries are known to every child. (It’s worth noting that these examples come to mind exactly because they’re among the best remembered. Most academic battles—consuming as they may seem to those involved—ultimately prove as ephemeral as smoke rings.)
At the same time, it helps not to let the long view distract us from the local, human, day-to-day good that skepticism can do. Many small steps add up to a marathon; it is the small victories which give skepticism its rewards. “Do not expect to create a rational Utopia,” cautions Skeptics Society co-founder Pat Linse. “You are moving the ball down the field—scoring a victory here, raising your voice against irrational thought there, and lighting the proverbial candle in the dark whenever you can.”4
Ongoing work can’t be non-stop. People need breaks. In his reply to me, Frazier reflected that he “watched a big black bear amble around two sides of our cabin this morning. That kind of refreshment of the mind is also an antidote to burnout, of all types.”
The road is long—longer than you or I can ever hope to go. No matter how far we travel, the road goes on ahead of us. Paranormal claims and pseudoscientific mischief will always stretch to the horizon. If you feel the call of that endless road, then do what you can to make the journey easier. Bring companions who lighten the hours. Take your time. See some sights along the way.
And when you get tired, pull over.
Update: James Randi comments that much of his own strength comes from the encouragement he receives:
I’m fortunate in that I receive—almost daily—serious thank-you notes from persons for whom my efforts have been effective, and at my public appearances, even more so. That encourages me very strongly and sends me back to battle refreshed….5
Skeptical Inquirer‘s Benjamin Radford adds his advice:
I guess my main advice would be to do your own thing and have the work be its own reward. Nobody in skepticism is getting rich selling books or doing the work we do—we do it because we believe in the cause and want to do good in the world. If that comes off as lofty or idealistic then so be it, but I think that desire is an important part of staying motivated year after year. That, and support from the community.6
- Paul Kurtz. “Skeptic’s Burnout: Hard Weeks on the Astrology Battle Line.” Skeptical Inquirer, Vol 13, No 1. Fall 1988. p. 4
- Kendrick Frazier. Personal communication. September 3, 2012
- Steven Pinker. The Blank Slate. (Penguin Books, 2003.) p.111
- Pat Linse. Personal communication. September 2, 2012
- James Randi. Personal communication. September 4, 2012
- Benjamin Radford. Personal communication. September 4, 2012