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Should Scientific Skeptics Care About History?

by Daniel Loxton, Aug 22 2013

Today I’d like to share a slightly adapted version of my introduction to the “Preserving Skeptical History” workshop at The Amazing Meeting 2013 conference in Las Vegas. After the pleasure of introducing a distinguished panel (including Today in Skeptic History app creator Tim Farley, Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project organizer Susan Gerbic, 36-year veteran Skeptical Inquirer columnist Robert Sheaffer, and psychologist and CSICOP co-founder Ray Hyman) I took the liberty of opening the discussion with some conceptual remarks:

A classic science-based skeptical investigation of a paranormal claim, translated into English for the first time in Skeptic magazine

A classic science-based skeptical investigation of a paranormal claim, translated into English for the first time in Skeptic magazine

Does History Matter?

Should “scientific skeptics” care about history? You’ve chosen to attend a workshop with the dusty title “Preserving Skeptical History,” so I imagine you have opinions on this yourself. But you’d be surprised how often this question comes up.

It really breaks down to two different questions:

Should skeptics care about studying or preserving or exploring our own history?

And, to what extent should skeptics devote resources and time and attention to the study of the history of claims and hoaxes?

On the first of those questions: I’ve invested quite a bit of effort in recent years to the exploration of skeptical history, because this seemed necessary. There’s a lot of skeptical history, and it’s important to understand our place in that ongoing story. Any serious field talks about the hard won lessons of the past, the state of its own scholarship, and the road map for future development. It’s important to know something about what skeptics have learned.

But understanding our own history is something of a neglected area in skepticism. It’s not just that skeptics forget or mythologize the history of skepticism, either — some folks are actually scornful of the very idea of understanding where we have come from. Sometimes the entirety of the last three decades work and beyond is rejected as the irrelevant province of an “old guard” — as quaint, obsolete, unimportant.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t buy this “who cares” argument, but I’m familiar with it. Such sentiments have been around for a long time — certainly for well over a century. For this reason, serious students of hoaxes and fringe science claims have often felt a need to explain or apologize for the importance of studying our history.

As an example, I’m going to offer a comment made by my boss, Michael Shermer, in 1996. Michael had learned from Stephen Jay Gould that a rigourous investigation of an extraordinary claim — mesmerism — had once been commissioned by the King of France. It was conducted by some big names in the history of science, including Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier. The results were published in 1784 — in French. Two hundred years later, they had still never been translated into English! This was a really astonishing bit of neglect on the part of the skeptical literature, and Michael decided to fix it.

In 1996, the commission’s report was published in English translation for the very first time, in the pages of Skeptic magazine. We’ve since made this available online in eSkeptic, as well, so you can read it yourself for free. This is awesome stuff, but it brings me to Michael’s comment about skeptical history: in his introduction to this key source — profoundly relevant right now to ongoing energy healing claims — trained historian Michael Shermer found it necessary to argue,

It is not a waste of space because the history of skepticism and the skeptical movement should be tracked and recorded as any field should be, and this is the first scientific investigation that we know of into what would today be considered a paranormal or pseudoscientific claim.

“Not a waste of space.” I find this kind of an amazing thing for a historian to feel obligated to say.

Now, returning to the second question —

Should skeptics study the history of the paranormal?

Here the answer’s even simpler:

Much of what we call “scientific skepticism” is the study of the history of the paranormal. Scientific skepticism operates within an empirical framework, and it is closely tied to the ethos of science. But most of what we actually do as skeptical investigators is not science. Instead, much of what we do is to ask (and sometimes to answer) this question:

What really happened?

What really happened in this case? Was it paranormal, or was it something we can explain? This is fundamentally a historical question. The tools we use to answer it are very often the tools of historical sleuthing.

Often it’s not possible to cast light upon a fringe science claim except through historical means. Let me give you a quick example. Many of you are familiar with the iconic 1967 “Patterson-Gimlin” film, which allegedly records the existence of a sasquatch. I argue something in Abominable Science that may be unpopular with skeptics and proponents alike:

No one knows whether the Patterson-Gimlin film depicts a real Sasquatch. 

That is, the film itself cannot tell us. The film is consistent with a monster, or with a man in a suit. After 45 years of deadlocked argument and analysis, it’s not at all likely that we can do any experiment or make any observation that will specifically tell us what happened in this one-off event in the past. But we can place the film in its historical context — and this can help us to evaluate the paranormal claim at the heart of it.

It is important to know, for example, that a man named William Roe described a nearly identical encounter with a nearly identical monster ten years before the Patterson Gimlin film was created. It’s also important to know that Patterson not only was familiar with the Roe case before he made his film, but had personally drawn an illustration of Roe’s alleged encounter — looking for all the world like a storyboard for Patterson’s never-replicated film. This not-quite-closed case cannot be fairly considered without that information. Moreover, if this film ever is demonstrated once and for all to be a hoax, it will be historical evidence that settles it: strong new documentary evidence, or a confession from the surviving one of the two film-makers, or the discovery of a suit that was used in the film.

History matters to skeptics. Historical sleuthing is part of who we are.

So how do we do this? I’ll come back to that question in upcoming posts.

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6 Responses to “Should Scientific Skeptics Care About History?”

  1. Daniel says:

    Who is actually saying that studying/preserving skeptical history is irrelevant or not worth anyone’s time?

    While you can always take a good thing too far, I can’t see how anyone could argue that it’s a pointless endeavor. Bigfoot is still relevant to a lot cryptozoologists, (and evidently, the Discovery Channel) so it would be absolutely necessary to gather and preserve as much information as possible about the most cited “evidence”, if the goal is to seriously investigate Bigfoot sitings.

    But more than that, skeptical history is much more important to show that the scams of psychics have been around for a long, long time, and that they have always followed the same formula. Some otherwise credulous people might be convinced that John Edward is a fraud if you can show them that frauds have doing the same exact act for centuries.

    Conversely, as time goes by, more dated claims of paranormal abilities will tend to be perceived as having more credibility the less information there is about them. You get this a lot with Nostradamus, or physics that have supposedly aided police investigations.

  2. Trimegistus says:

    Mr. Loxton, I find your essays on the history of skeptics and debunking to be the most valuable things on this blog. More, more, more, please! I hope you’re putting all of this into a book.

  3. Max says:

    I don’t care that much about ghosts and Bigfoot, but I certainly see parallels between Holocaust denial and today’s conspiracy theories, and between the tobacco industry’s denial campaign and the fossil fuel industry’s denial campaign.

  4. Josh Hunt says:

    Daniel,

    I find history and everything you’ve been talking about in this post (and your other writings) very important. Please, tell me your TAM workshop will be available on YouTube. Was it filmed?