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Tribal Skepticism?

by Daniel Loxton, Feb 21 2012

I’ve been enjoying an “Uncorrected Advance Reading Copy” of the upcoming U.S. edition of Mike McRae’s Tribal Science from Prometheus Books, which has once again put me in mind of something I think about often: the considerable bogusness of the conceit of “skeptics” versus “believers.” There is a social subculture that can be called “skepticism” and there is a niche of scholarly activity by the same name, but it’s a mistake to suppose that skeptics and believers are very different sorts of people. The true landscape of skepticism and belief is so complex that I can’t resist summing it up with this wonderful T-shirt slogan from Ben Goldacre: “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.” Bulldozing the complexity of human striving for understanding into tribal “skeptic” and “believer ” piles distorts reality, and makes it harder to do the already difficult work of solving mysteries and promoting science literacy.

The truth is that self-identified skeptics are not so terribly good at critical or scientific thinking. There’s little shame in that; nobody is all that good at those things. Nor, on the other hand, are paranormal “believers” all that terribly bad. Regardless of our intellectual commitments, regardless of our investments in this or that ideology or belief, humans everywhere are pretty damn smart—and also pretty dumb.

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Skepticism’s Oldest Debate:
A Prehistory of “DBAD” (1838–2010)

by Daniel Loxton, Jun 21 2011
Still from Phil Plait's DBAD speech at TAM8

“The Amazing Meeting 9″ conference — organized skepticism's biggest, broadest, and most important meeting of the minds — is almost upon us. It seems a good moment to look back at the most widely discussed presentation at last year's TAM: astronomer Phil Plait's “Don't be a Dick” speech (video) calling for less name-calling1 and more civility in skeptical outreach:

The best idea ever thought of in the history of humanity is useless unless someone communicates it. It will die in the test tube. And in our case, what we’re communicating here to people is not necessarily something they want to hear. And so, our demeanor — how we deliver this message — takes on crucial, crucial importance.

As some readers may know, Plait's “DBAD” speech touched off an online firestorm that smolders to this day.

I explore the ethics of skepticism quite often2 (it's one of the main reasons I blog in addition to writing books and Skeptic magazine articles) but today I'd like to look at something simpler and more concrete. Let's explore a straightforward historical question:

Was Plait's call for civility something new for skepticism?

It happens that the answer is, “No, not even a little bit.” (Please note: this is a long article, running over 4500 words.)

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Horse-Laughs, the Rapture, and Ticking Bombs

by Daniel Loxton, May 24 2011

As most of you will have heard, Christian radio mogul Harold Camping's predicted “Rapture” came and went on May 21st without so much as a trumpet sounding. This failure of prophecy unfolded to a clamour of Tweets and parties from the nonbelievers' side of the aisle. There's something undeniably funny about a confident prediction unfulfilled, and Camping's prediction couldn't have been much more confident: “We know without any shadow of a doubt it is going to happen.”

Still, personally, I had a hard time enjoying the circus. It seemed ghoulish to crack wise when so many hopes and dreams — and lives — hung in the balance. Belief, as we skeptics know all too well, cuts across lines. Beliefs unite the clever and the dull, the young and the old, the righteous and the wicked. Camping's fear-mongering meant good people sold homes, quit jobs, broke up families, or spent the college money on apocalyptic billboards. I worried especially about the kids lying awake that week waiting for the end of the world, just as I worry about the kids suffering artificial, unnecessary terror over 2012.

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Anatomy of an Activist Stunt

by Daniel Loxton, Jan 18 2011

The other day I was talking with Desiree Schell about activist stunts. What makes one stunt an effective protest action, and another a placebo protest (in Tribal Science author Mike McRae's memorably pointed  phrase)?

Cover of What Do I Do Next?

This 68-page PDF brings together 13 leading skeptics for a panel-format discussion of skeptical activism

As skeptics consider skeptical activism (perhaps using some of the ideas described in this 68-page PDF panel discussion, or this point form version), what steps can we take to maximize the impact of our hard work? How can we make the best use of our limited resources? And, how can we avoid the trap McRae describes: “outreach efforts that have no real prior goal other than a vague sense of improvement in the public’s awareness of how silly something sounds and how sensible science must be.” (I give more weight to awareness campaigns than does McRae, but his point about goals is well taken.)

Desiree Schell is the person to ask. She's well known as the host of Skeptically Speaking (a live radio talk show carried on dozens of stations, also released as a podcast), but it's her day job that makes her a relevant expert: Desiree is a professional union organizer. Not only has she organized dozens of marches, rallies, protests, and other direct actions, but she literally teaches courses instructing other labour organizers about effective direct action strategies.
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Skeptics as Model Train Lovers (Part II)

by Daniel Loxton, Sep 19 2010

Train image by Daniel Loxton

[Continued from Part I]

Speaking personally, I must say it's a joy to watch the growth of the skeptical subculture, humming with its proliferation of cons and pub nights and vibrant online portals. And yet, much of that scene is related only indirectly to the cause I work to advance. At some risk of being misunderstood: it's not my goal to grow a social community, even though I am part of it.

My area of primary interest is more specific. As a (relatively junior) contributor to the specialized field of skepticism, I care most about active efforts to investigate fringe science topics, share the findings, and promote science literacy as widely as possible. After decades of work, this research and educational outreach effort eventually became the seed for a thriving subculture, but it is not synonymous with that subculture.

This is a distinction that could save a lot of flame wars:

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The Reasonableness of Weird Things

by Daniel Loxton, Jul 26 2010

The audience of TAM8The Amazing Meeting (TAM) conference in Las Vegas is always the center of the skeptical universe, and TAM8 was no exception. Bigger and more representative than any previous year (it was co-sponsored by all three national US skeptics groups), TAM8 was an unprecedented summit for North American skepticism.

A lot happened. For a detailed discussion of TAM8, check out my roundtable chat with Tim Farley (What’s the Harm?), Blake Smith (MonsterTalk), and Derek & Swoopy on Skepticality. There’s been a lot to talk about. Continue reading…

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