Advocating for the importance of skeptical scholarship is a bit of a theme for me—the scholarship practiced by skeptics, and also scholarship about skepticism. In particular, I’ve devoted quite a bit of attention to the exploration of the history of (“scientific”) skepticism. Especially over the past couple of years, historical reflection has become a larger ongoing concern that unifies much of my work.
With that in mind, I thought it might be useful to start a post here in which I can collect, list, and link to some of my work relating to the history of skepticism. The idea is that I can return to update this post with new links as time goes by.
You’ll forgive me if my criteria for including or excluding this or that content under the heading of “skeptical history” is a bit loosey-goosey. The history of skepticism and the history of fringe science and paranormal claims are closely interrelated. I write about both (my recent book with Don Prothero, Abominable Science! belongs to the latter category) but for our purposes here I am specifically interested in the internal history of skeptics and skepticism—the history of critical investigation of paranormal claims. I’ve selected a few examples of my work that seem to speak to that topic:
Selected Examples of My Skeptical History Stuff
“Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” (PDF) The first section of this two-chapter piece dives swiftly through two millennia of skeptical history. The second chapter describes the foundational ideals and ethos of the modern, organized movement of (“scientific”) skepticism. This is my most substantial and most intensely researched contribution to the discussion of skeptical history.
“Modern Skepticism’s Unique Mandate.” This excerpt from part two of “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” notes some of the other parallel movements and practices that already existed when the modern skeptical movement was conceived—and discusses the useful work those other movements left undone.
Should Scientific Skeptics Care About History? A slightly adapted version of my introduction to the “Preserving Skeptical History” workshop at The Amazing Meeting 2013 conference in Las Vegas. Argues that “Much of what we call ‘scientific skepticism’ is the study of the history of the paranormal.”
“Learning From Martin Gardner.” A reflection upon the death of Martin Gardner—a father of modern scientific skepticism—at age 95. (Make sure to check out the comment thread, where I am schooled on some important history myself.)
“Skepticism’s Oldest Debate: A Prehistory Of ‘DBAD’ (1838–2010).” A quick historical tour of some of skepticism’s many calls for more compassionate, more nuanced, more accessible outreach.
“Wonderful Phenomena Demand Wonderful Evidence.” A detailed exploration of the roots of the common skeptical slogan, “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.”
“The Remarkable Mr. Rinn.” An introduction to Joseph Rinn, a leading media skeptic at the dawn of the twentieth century.
“That Time Houdini Threatened To Shoot All the Psychics.” Discussion of a whimsical but ethically questionable activist stunt by Joseph Rinn and Harry Houdini.
“You Have Been Poked By God.” Discussion of a seemingly paranormal incident experienced by Isaac Asimov in 1990, in which he was prompted to take action based on a psychic premonition.
“Echoing the Past.” Riffing on a Paul Kurtz quote to consider the depth and cycles of skeptical history. (I’ve written many such general conceptual pieces; I’ll refrain from listing them all here.)
“Bishop Pontoppidan Versus The Tree Geese.” Considering the strange claim that geese hatch out of rotten wood, as investigated by the Right Revered Erich Pontoppidan (Bishop of Bergen in Norway from 1747 to 1754).
“Same Darkness, Same Light.” Brief discussion of Father Carlos M. de Heredia—a practicing Jesuit priest, magician, and media skeptic active during the early twentieth century.
“The Rough Fist of Reason!” The full text of an out-of-copyright detective story from 1916, which features a hard-boiled debunker as its protagonist. With an introduction discussing the context of this work, and the importance of studying and understanding skeptical history.
Junior Skeptic #32: “Great American Skeptics” (PDF). Free sample issue of Junior Skeptic explores skeptical work by Ben Franklin, Harry Houdini, Mark Twain, and Johnny Carson.
Junior Skeptic #45: “Dark Secrets of the Oracle-Monger.” Second-century Roman debunker Lucian of Samosata goes head to head with a prominent fraudulent medium of his period. View table of contents or order issue here.
Junior Skeptic #46: “Ghostbuster Girls!” In-depth discussion of the careers of early twentieth century skeptical investigators Mary Sullivan (of the New York Police Department) and Rose Mackenberg (Houdini’s top undercover sleuth). View table of contents or order issue here.
Junior Skeptic #34: “40 Years of Scooby-Doo!.” 40th anniversary celebration of one of the purest and most successful skeptical TV shows of all time. View table of contents or order issue here.
Selected Essential Sources for Further Research Into Skeptical History
The skeptical literature is too vast for any list of relevant sources to be anywhere near complete. I won’t even attempt such a list here, but will mention a few key sources that I often find especially useful in my own work:
Sixty Years of Psychical Research (1950), by Joseph Rinn. Though rarely consulted today, this remains among the deepest and most important sources of the skeptical literature on paranormal investigation from about 1890–1950. This is a key volume for any skeptical library, but it is unfortunately fairly difficult to find. (Used copies seem to run about 60 bucks.)
The Demon-Haunted World (1996) by Carl Sagan. In print and readily available in multiple formats, The Demon-Haunted World is the single best introduction to scientific skepticism. Notably for our purposes here, Sagan was interested in the history of skepticism. For example, this classic book discussed Lucian of Samosata, and drew its title from the 1655 skeptical work Candle in the Dark: Or, A Treatise Concerning the Nature of Witches & Witchcraft by Thomas Ady.