I recently had the pleasure of representing the Skeptics Society as a guest of the CFI Summit conference in Tacoma, Washington, hosted jointly by the Center for Inquiry, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. I was invited to contribute a 20-minute talk as part of the October 25, 2013 opening panel on the topic “Humanism and Skepticism: Separate or Joint Agendas?” with Ron Lindsay, Barry Kosmin, Ophelia Benson, Mark Hatcher, Ray Hyman, and Michael De Dora. Most of the panel argued that these two traditions either overlap very extensively, or can be usefully packaged together. As expected, Ray Hyman and I were the exceptions.
As a frequent critic of conflation between skepticism and parallel rationalist movements, I was asked to revisit some of my arguments regarding skepticism’s distinctiveness. Regular readers will recognize that the central portion of my speech was adapted from my two-chapter historical exploration “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” (PDF)—notably from a section which I have previously posted as a standalone blog post. Nonetheless, there is also much here which I have not said publicly in the past.
I present my remarks here essentially as they were delivered:
I’d like to thank the folks here at the Center for Inquiry for inviting me to join you here today.
I work for Pat Linse and Michael Shermer over at the Skeptics Society, so in some sense I’m an outsider here. And yet I feel intimately connected to the history and work and people—connected to both of the distinct traditions—that are represented at this event.
To begin with, I identify as a secular humanist in my private life. When people ask me what I personally believe, what my values are, or even what my “religion” might be, “secular humanist” is the answer I give them—humanist, rather than “atheist” or “skeptic.”
It’s true on the one hand that I am an atheist, but that’s just a fact, like my shoe size. It’s true, but it says almost nothing about my character, or my values, or the things that I believe. The mere fact that I am an atheist seems honestly pretty trivial.
When people ask who I am as a person, I tell them that I am a humanist. When I say that, I mean that my values and my portfolio of personal beliefs are very much in alignment with the Kurtzian tradition of the Council for Secular Humanism. In my private life, I feel part of that tradition.
At the same time, in my professional capacity, I am exclusively concerned with the other great tradition represented here: old school, scientific skepticism. That is—critical, evidence-based, science-informed scholarship and investigation into fringe science claims and claims of the paranormal. “Skeptic” is not my personal identity, or at least not the whole of it; it is my professional task.
I am a second-generation, CSI-style—or, perhaps better for my old school outlook—CSICOP-style scientific skeptic. In a very deep sense, I was created by CSICOP (and the projects that CSICOP inspired, such as the Skeptics Society).
I certainly didn’t start out that way! When I discovered the skeptical literature over 20 years ago, I came to it as a kind of junior Fox Mulder. I believed everything. Aliens. Bigfoot. Telepathy. Pyramid power. Ghosts. All of it.
When I happened to hear the late CSICOP Fellow Barry Beyerstein give an outreach talk at a little local science fiction convention, I was a True Believer—one of those people whom conventional wisdom insists can never be reached. But the gentle, resolute, just-the-facts clarity of scientific skepticism guided me in a new direction.
When I walk that path today, I don’t remotely pretend that I blazed it myself. I didn’t. It was here already. The scope of my field, the work we do at Skeptic magazine, the theme of my professional remarks today—all this was hashed out around the time I was born, by the nonbelievers and people of faith who came together to define the modern, empirical skeptical project. Their mission is my mission. The “testable claims” scope they adopted is the scope I work within. Their focus on the paranormal and pseudoscience—that’s my focus, too.
Scientific skepticism is an old and noble public service tradition that I am proud to be part of.
A very small, very recent part. I’d like you to let this really resonate for a moment:
There are people in this room right now who have fought the battles of scientific skepticism for over sixty years—people who were already doing this work not only before I was born, but when my father was a baby.
And even they were not the first to take up that fight. Not by decades. Not by centuries.
Increasingly, as time goes by, skepticism’s legacy of useful labour is left to younger people. Like any continuing discipline, skepticism is a relay race. But as the laps go on, year after year and decade after decade, the question becomes—and this question has burned through some corners of the blogosphere especially—what do we do with the baton we are handed?
Do we bother to carry it forward? Do we pick up the work that others began, and continue that work in a sustained, serious way? Or do we walk away from the race?
As a humanist, I want everyone to pursue the work that makes the world better according to the priorities of their own conscience—whatever that work is…wherever they feel called to contribute.
If they feel drawn more to some parallel rationalist movement, or social justice cause, or public service, or academic discipline, or art form, or even faith group than they do to scientific skepticism, that’s fine. It’s a big world. Life is short. There are lots of worthy causes.
But I submit that someone should continue the specific work of scientific skepticism—not as an afterthought to some other project, but as their focused, primary cause.
Hopefully a lot of someones, because honestly, it’s a really big job.
There are countless thousands of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims in hundreds of categories, many believed by millions—even billions—of people. Some are weighty issues in ethical and practical and policy terms. Some actually are issues of life and death.
And yet, skeptics have often felt pressured to apologize for caring about this work—felt pressured to explain why paranormal criticism is a job worth doing. Physicist Daniel Hering addressed such complaints in his book, Foibles and Fallacies of Science—written in 1924, half a century before CSICOP.
It may be asked, “Why give so much attention to subjects so antiquated as astrology or perpetual motion—subjects long ago abandoned or at any rate now passé?” The question would be more pertinent if either of these or any other of the general topics here considered were actually obsolete or even obsolescent. The excuse for including them lies in the force with which these things once seized and commanded general interest, and in the fact that with very many supposedly intelligent people similar things are little less compelling today than they were in the Dark Ages.1
This passage was written around the time Al Capone was taking over Chicago. It could have been written yesterday. The work Hering was talking about—it isn’t done. It will never be done.
So let’s talk about that work. Before we spend this weekend exploring skepticism’s genuine common interests with humanism and other rationalist causes, let’s first talk about the mandate that makes skepticism unique. Let’s talk about why there is a skeptical movement at all.
The 1976 creation of CSICOP is generally considered the “birth of the modern skeptical movement,” at least for the English-speaking world. The history there is actually quite complicated. The genre of evidence-based criticism of extraordinary or paranormal claims goes back a long way—through twentieth century figures like Martin Gardner and Harry Houdini (or Joseph Jastrow, or Rose Mackenberg, or Joseph Rinn, Julien Proskauer, or many, many other authors and activists); through their 19th century forebears like Henry Lee and P.T. Barnum; and all the way back to figures of classical antiquity like psychic debunker Lucian of Samosata.
But CSICOP altered the landscape. It unified what had been scattered. It recognized a literature of common insights, gathered together the people who pursued this type of work and showed that their investigations of weird things collectively comprised a distinct field of study.
To better appreciate the dimensions of that unique project, it’s useful to consider the other movements, organizations, and scholarly fields that already existed in North America before CSICOP was formed:
For example, there was already an atheist movement. American Atheists was formed in 1963. Thirteen years before CSICOP, atheist activists had already overturned school Bible readings in the US Supreme Court—and of course the “Freethought” movement goes back much, much further.
There were already humanist organizations many decades before CSICOP was formed. As some of you know, CSICOP was a spin-off from the American Humanist Association. It was conceived at a humanist conference—yet conceived as a distinct group, with a distinct mandate. As co-founder Paul Kurtz recalled, “the Executive Council decided immediately that it would separately incorporate and that it would pursue its own agenda.”2
Similarly, before CSICOP there were already groups and movements working to advance democratic ideals, civil liberties, and feminism. There were already groups fighting for gay rights, for church-state separation, and against racial discrimination.
Likewise, science advocates already existed. There were already science popularizers. Science education and science journalism were established professional fields before CSICOP came along. CSICOP was even predated by existing critical thinking activism.
With all those movements doing all that work, why bother forming CSICOP? If other movements already promoted humanism, atheism, rationalism, science education and even critical thinking, what possible need could there be for an additional, new movement—a “skeptical” movement?
The answer is very simple: there was other work to do—important work that those previous movements and disciplines had left undone—work that they still do not wish to make their focus today, because they have their own stuff to do.
CSICOP—and with it the global network of likeminded organizations that CSICOP inspired, such as the Skeptics Society and the JREF—was created with a specific, ambitious goal: filling a large and serious gap in scholarship, and in public discourse.
The skeptical movement sought to bring organized critical focus to the same ancient problem that isolated, outnumbered, independent voices had been struggling to address for centuries—a virtually endless number of unexamined, potentially harmful paranormal or pseudoscientific claims neglected by mainstream scientists and scholars, ignored by law enforcement, and given a gob-smackingly free ride by media.
Kendrick Frazier explained this point after 25 years in the Editor’s chair of the Skeptical Inquirer:
The gap means there is a danger that high-level scientific competence may not be applied in examining paranormal and fringe science claims… This is where I think CSICOP, the Skeptical Inquirer, and the skeptical movement in general come in. We help fill that gap. We are in effect a surrogate in that area for institutional science.3
To pursue that ambitious goal, organized skeptics decided to set aside a priori scoffing and strive instead to become honest brokers, actively working to learn what light the methods of science and scholarship could shine on the vast, shadowy landscape of paranormal and fringe science topics.
The first issue of North America’s founding skeptical periodical was unapologetic about this practical, evidence-based, just-the-facts mandate.
This journal, the official organ of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, is intended to communicate scientific information about the many esoteric claims that have shown a growing influence upon the general public, educational curricula, and scientific institutions themselves. … The Committee takes no position regarding nonempirical or mystical claims. … Those concerned with metaphysics and supernatural claims are directed to those journals of philosophy and religion dedicated to such matters.4
Organized skepticism was not the place for people to talk big about their beliefs or their disbeliefs, but instead to ante up concrete evidence. After all, opinions are like noses—everyone’s got one, and everyone already had one without organized skepticism. The world was already well-supplied with scoffers who thought paranormal beliefs were stupid. Skeptics were determined to provide something different—something more useful: demonstrable, verifiable facts on which the public could rely.
The sheer overwhelming practicality of concentrating on the investigable aspects of paranormal claims—of investigating those things which can be investigated—inspired a generation of skeptics like me. CSICOP’s “testable claims” approach became the enduring engine for an organization, which grew into a network of organizations, which grew into a movement.
This weekend is dedicated to the question of when and if humanism and skepticism can productively collaborate. I’ll leave it to others to discuss opportunities for these two distinct movements to make common cause, but I wish to be clear that such opportunities do exist. We’ve always had stuff in common. There’s always been demographic overlap between these movements, and we’ve often shared interests in science and critical thinking.
These two movements have often shared champions, sometimes even office space. I’ve long thought of us as old and friendly neighbours, able to share news over the back fence, trade cups of sugar, invite each other to BBQs. But the shared project of building a better neighborhood grows out of mutual respect for each other’s spaces and priorities and differences—good fences for good neighbours.
There are many good reasons for keeping skepticism distinct from parallel rationalist movements such as humanism or atheism, and likewise separate from the political ideologies that individual skeptics may feel drawn toward, such as libertarianism or my own left-liberal values. There are reasons of tactics and history and expertise and accessibility and division of labour.
But the most important reasons to keep skepticism distinct from politics and metaphysics are simply honesty and clarity. When we position skepticism as “science-based,” when we position ourselves as science-based critics or science advocates, we take on an obligation to be honest about the sorts of questions science can answer—an obligation to work within, or at very least forthrightly describe, the empirical framework of science.
It is exactly because humanism is so central to me personally that I care so much about keeping the mission of scientific skepticism distinct, and rigorous, and accountable, and consistent, and unencumbered. The difference is between a valuable field of research, and my personal motivation for participating in that research.
This isn’t a weird distinction. Across science and academia, journalism and law enforcement, serious projects draw lines that define their subject matter, establish standards of practice, and promise some level of objectivity.
I care about climate change for two reasons. One reason is my ten year old daughter…. The second reason is my faith. I’m a Christian and… I believe in a God who has a heart for the poor and expects Christians to feel the same way. And as I read the peer-reviewed science, I see more and more evidence that the poorest, most vulnerable countries will be (and currently are) those hardest hit by global warming. … To me, personally, it’s not an environmental issue—it’s a social justice issue.5
But his website is about the scientific evidence. It seems to me that because he is a Christian, Cook is motivated to set aside his own Christianity and do the secular, evidence-based labour of debunking pseudoscience. Because I am a humanist, I set aside my humanism, and my atheism, and my political ideals when I do my work at Skeptic magazine. None of these personal beliefs are relevant to the useful work of solving mysteries and telling the public what we have learned. Indeed, this is the very message that skeptical activism promotes: it doesn’t matter what we believe—the question is what we can demonstrate to be so.
Making this effort, aspiring to this clarity, is worthwhile. The work of skepticism matters. It matters in abstract, scholarly terms; it matters in the lives of real people. It should matter to humanists when we hear phrases like “I lost my life savings,” or “they said it was medicine” or “I’m afraid to sleep in the house” or “the world is ending” or “my child should not have died.” There’s a clear public need for a discipline dedicated to the endless wilderness of pseudoscientific and paranormal claims.
After all these centuries, the need for that tedious, difficult, infuriating work is still as great as it always has been. We humanists and atheists can support that work—even when scientific skepticism is not our primary cause.
I hope that my fellow humanists will always help skeptics to go on studying and investigating with ever-increasing rigor and fairness and responsibility; help skeptics to keep focus; and help skeptics to maintain the integrity and clarity that their work demands.
- Daniel W. Hering. Foibles and Fallacies of Science. (New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, 1924.) p. 3
- Paul Kurtz. “Introduction.” Skeptical Odysseys, Paul Kurtz ed. (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2001.) pp. 15–16
- Kendrick Frazier. “From the Editor’s Seat: Thoughts on Science and Skepticism in the Twenty- First Century (Part Two).” Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 25, No. 4. July/August, 2001. p. 50
- Marcello Truzzi. The Zetetic (aka, Skeptical Inquirer). Vol. 1, No. 1. Fall/Winter, 1976. pp. 5–6
- John Cook. “Why I care about climate change.” http://www.skepticalscience.com/Why-I-care-about-climate-change.html (Accessed November 26, 2013.)
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