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The Big Tent of skepticism

by Phil Plait, Oct 29 2008

Note: This post is a modified version of an email I sent to someone who was concerned about the state of the skepticism movement. I think it should have a broader audience.

I am privileged to be the President of the James Randi Educational Foundation. I’m a skeptic, and I try to live my life that way (usually succeeding, I hope). Randi was one of the largest motivators for me to be a critical thinker, and my friendship and admiration for him go back many years.

Yet, as Randi himself has pointed out, he and I have very different backgrounds, both academically and in general. Randi comes into skepticism from his being a phenomenal conjurer, stage magician, and trickster. I come from the angle of being formally trained as a scientist, specifically an astronomer.

I don’t think anyone would argue Randi’s stature in the skeptical community. His knowledge of fakery, flim-flammery, and hoaxes is unparalleled, and his first-hand dealings with people who promote it have given him vast experience in dealing with it. I may have fewer face-to-face dealings with hoaxsters, but I have a pretty good supply of ideas in my toolbox as well.

Randi and me at TAM III

Randi and me at TAM III

And yet, Randi and I are working together to do what we can to promote critical thinking and skepticism. His background and mine are very different, but our goals are the same.

And we want to make the base even broader. We support what is called “grass-roots” skepticism: people not necessarily trained in science in skepticism, but who have shown a special ability for it, and who have gone out and started their own work for it. This would include such people as Robert Lancaster, who on his own started the “Stop Sylvia Brown” website; Michael Feldman, who created a skeptic group in New York City and has been doing quite a bit of work to make sure that the group meets socially as well as formally; and Rebecca Watson, who started Skepchick and is now a recognized figure in the field.

We all started somewhere, unknown to others. Grass roots don’t stay roots forever.

My point is that skepticism is what we call a “big tent”: a large area where there is room for everyone. We need professional conjurers like Randi and Banachek who can point out hoaxes and con artists, as well as trained scientists who can spot where science is being twisted for some sort of agenda. And we also need others who have enthusiasm, time, and the desire to help spread the ideas of critical and rational thinking. All of us — those who started the skeptical movement, and those who carry on in this tradition as well as breaking new ground — are working together, with both young and old respecting each other and each
other’s positions.

Sometimes I hear about some divide or another in the field: scientists versus magicians, trained skeptics versus lay people, or some other sort of artificial schism. I don’t see it in the U.S., and I’m glad. “You do your thing and we’ll do ours” is not the best way to go about doing skepticism, and in fact may be harmful to the cause. Working together is far better than working apart.

One final thought: at our annual meetings (called “The Amaz!ng Meetings”, or TAMs), we have many different speakers. Scientists, magicians, journalists, educators, entertainers, and sometimes just regular people who have stood up and made a difference. I like to think that the TAMs are a microcosm, a small example of the skeptical movement itself. There’s room for everyone, and if we all help each other we’ll go much farther than if we don’t.

22 Responses to “The Big Tent of skepticism”

  1. “There’s room for everyone, and if we all help each other we’ll go much farther than if we don’t.”

    Amen, Phil. On both points.

  2. Bill says:

    Count me in. I am a skeptical novice, but I suppose every great skeptic started as a novice.

  3. Bell says:

    Congrats Phil!, I’ve always been a secret admirer! Keep up the great work, mate!

  4. Dr. T says:

    I thank all the deities and spirits that there are people like you upholding the faith of skepticism. It was my good karma (due to fortuitous alignments of the stars and planets) that I found this web site last week. I pray to God and Gandhi that I can join you all under your “big tent.” Keep the faith!

  5. FerbZs says:

    Im a huge fan of Skeptic magazine and its writers. I got a signed copy of Why Darwin Matters by Michael Shermer who i met in Philly, count me in.

  6. FerbZs says:

    I suggest an edit option after a posted comment.

  7. Gary says:

    Wow! What a great collection of skeptics and what a joy to have them all collect their thoughts in a common forum. I’ve been spending my nearly 80 minute daily round-trip commute to work listening to the podcasts made available by many of the skeptologists (Skeptics Guide to the Universe, Bad Astronomy, Skepticality, and Skeptoid.)

    The work you all put in to creating informative and fun content is greatly appreciated. You guys rock!


  8. Ed Dyer says:

    The blogs and podcast of all the authors to this site have been both an inspiration and very valuable resource to me.

    I am now retired and I would guess that as little as 10 years ago an organized skeptical community may not have existed. We have come a long way.

    Getting the mainstream media to apply critical thinking their news reports, and gaining similar respect and recognition to that now given to religious leaders will be a very large hurdle to get over. I am 65 and I have seen some very dramatic changes in the way America thinks in the last decade. However, it will unfortunately no doubt take far too long to finally get over that hurdle. I am confident it will happen.

    You, Randi, and all the other authors contributing to this site, are doing a great service to the skeptical community. I am sure it will be hard work. I will also guess that it will be a lot of fun. I hope you realize just what a crazy group of people you guys are.

    Two years ago I didn’t even know what a blog was and now I have my own. It’s my own small contribution to skeptical community. I look forward to watching this community grow.

  9. Steve Goble says:

    This blog is awesome. Thanks for your efforts, all!

    I sometimes get into some of these issues on my own blog, but I have cut back a lot lately because of the arguments that ensued with people dear to me. I still try to follow these issues, though, and now I have a really good new source to help me keep up — and to refer people to when I can’t keep my mouth shut and decide to give creationists hell on my blog.

  10. Skepacabra says:

    Awesome blog. Couldn’t agree me. While skeptics may disagree over whether or not to embrace atheism or whether skeptics should be good cop or bad cop, or whatever other issues we disagree about, but at the end of the day we need people on all sides of these issues.

  11. Pewari says:

    Excellent post and I agree – I think we make artificial divisions where there are none.

    What I would like to see, moving forward, is for the skeptic movement to become a huge source of free thinking and ideas – much in the way TED are now releasing their talks for free on the internet, can we not have TAM talks available either on RSS via iTunes or as a standalone site? Would there be sponsorship available (TED seems mostly sponsored by BMW on its feeds, but in reality I have no idea how the funding model works or how much it would cost to get it out there).

    At the moment, TAM is limited to a geographical region and it’s not even clear if the DVDs for sale of it are region limited, NTSC/PAL or whatever. Think of how much further these ideas could spread when you’re able to link to a specific talk in an email to a friend and say “watch this, this is life changing”.

  12. rdriley says:

    I certainly hope there’s no serious schism in the movement. Randi is absolutely, 100% responsible for my earliest foray into skepticism. I got his book “Flim Flam” from the library when I was about 16, and the world has never looked the same.

    Today, thanks to the internet, I’ve been exposed to all the types of skeptics and thinkers you mention, and I appreciate the work of all of them, and hope to be able to add my own small efforts in time.

    So keep up the good work, all you freethinkers. You’re making the world a little better every day.

  13. Vy says:

    I too, think that skepticism has the great potential to expand into a “big tent” and attract other people who are interested in critical thinking and science in general. Here I think it’s important to recognize that our roots do lie in moon hoaxes, psychics, and UFOs, but also important to expand our boundaries and cover other areas where critical thinking may be (in)conspicuously absent.

    For example, I really enjoy the fact that SGU has been venturing into economics a bit. I also think it’s great that Rebecca began to examine the social and demographic aspects of skepticism and started Skepchick to draw more women into the movement. I’m sure the JREF has plenty of things to do and places to go, but I really want to support this idea of unification and expansion. (Partly because then people will know what I’m talking about when I mention skepticism or freethinking…)

    Keep up the great work everyone. I’m glad to have a new blog to read!

  14. Sprawn! says:

    I am interested to hear (perhaps in this ‘blog) how the Big Tent plans to initiate outreach to the Big Media. So far, it seems limited to trying to get a skeptical voice on Larry King from time to time. It’s a good thing, no doubt, but if Michael Shermer stood in front of a blue screen all day, every day, it wouldn’t be enough to put a dent in all the woo that passes through airwaves unchecked and unfiltered.

    The spirit of cooperativeness among skeptics seems to be at an all time high. Certainly if the Skeptologists makes it to air, that group could serve as a starting point for some kind of group of “Go-to” voices for the Scientific Rational Worldview. It seems to me that the problem has been perceived as media face time up until now. And it is important to get a smiling face with the word “Skeptic” underneath it on the screen. But my concerns are a little subtler. I am thinking of those reporters who are presented with and present stories that border on “woo” and have a little tingle in their brain that something is amiss, but don’t have any resources to combat the overwhelming drive to go after ratings. I am thinking about skeptics in the media who grit their teeth and read the teleprompter (how is that even possible?) despite knowing better.

    It seems to me that there needs to be some kind of group moving toward a different methodology for reporting on science. In as much as Skeptics get air time now, it is usually only to provide a sense of conflict. They treat the story as a “He said, She said, YOU DECIDE!” issue. It doesn’t seem possible for the Skeptic Movement to initiate a story. They can only show up in response to a story. Is it even possible for Skepticism to take the initiative? I wonder…

  15. Dr. Plait (I feel like I’m stalking you!),

    How do you deal with the immense frustration when you come across totally closed minds? I seem to live in an area that embraces ignorance, and deals with reality by putting their fingers in their ears and yelling, “LA! LA! LA! LA! I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” To say that I feel like a total outsider in this area is quite an understatement.

  16. Sucheir says:

    Going to have to call you on the ‘…is now a recognized figure in the field’ and Vy’s comment – as pardon my bluntness, it always comes across as so vague and not reflecting much at all in terms of actual scholastic and real-world impact every time Plait ‘cheerleads for his cheerleaders’.

    Recognized for what? More than Kiki, your blogmate here, who actually is a scientist and actively talks to young women in a system that provides access to scholarships rather than more blog-space that is open to all anyway? Than Susan Blackmore, who has already written extensively on the social/demographic elements since the 90s?

    More than authors like Lynne Kelly, Ann Druyan, Harriet Hall, Carol Tarvis or even podcasters like Swoopy and Dr Ginger Campbell? Why are they never called upon as much? More than many other women who seem to be less and less profiled in favor of the socialites of skepticism? Are presentations on ‘gods of Alaska’ and failed radio pilot show preening really that worth-while in comparison? Just how many women have gone on from TAM funded attendance to make a difference? The demographics are certainly lacking there.

    For all of women-kind involved in skepticism, there deserves to be better than one very poorly researched NY Skeptics presentation and a lot of back-patting from male colleagued to demonstrate what actual influence these ‘new women’ really have in skepticism. Since their own blog complained of how when absent from SGU, the sexist comments resurface, it’s clearly going to take more than drinking skeptically, if it’s indeed something people concern themselves with so much.

    I would argue instead that the ‘recognition of one small group of women’s contributions’ is non-negotiable in the face of general movement of skeptics towards adopting the power of the internet. The larger the swell, the more we will notice more issues in general. What sexist attitudes exist are more than something that can be challenged by blog-posts and naval-gazing – more tapping into what comes across as a neglected-by-JREF wider science/feminism sphere to see what can be drawn upon.

    To assume it’s all because of one element, comes across as cherry-picking; to compare to the general swell of feminist science blogs, females and STEM career blogs and access to other media that is done by Kiki – well, you can see my point. There’s more that could have been done and is being done better elsewhere. Skepticism could learn a lesson from women who are better qualified, sober and seemingly marginalized in such responses by Plait?

    There have been women active for years and years, even a conference held (the CSICOP’s Rational Feminist Alliance back in 1997) which demonstrated that the more that gender issues are raised in relation to skepticism, the more ‘diluted’ and relevant they become to both genders regardless. It would be good to see Plait move to actually ATTENDING a women’s science conference – like Kiki’s one she did recently – and see for himself how if indeed JREF supports women in science, let alone the subset of skepticism, how there are better ways to get it done. I will leave that as a thought.

  17. B Leier says:

    I’m interested in the strange way the term skeptic is used in this community. After listening to a few podcasts and having been familiar with Randi’s work, it seems that this community should be more properly described as naive empiricists and defenders of a ‘common sense’ status-quot. I would think that real skeptics would be apprehensive about the unquestioned endorsement of any endeavor or methodology, yet this community continually considers and dismisses challenges to societies institutions as ignorance or conspiracy.

    I am not trying to troll here, it just seems like this ‘skeptical’ community carries some fairly substantial ideological baggage.

  18. Linda Rosa says:

    JREF and Skeptic Society are greatly concerned about children, but outreach to students has room for improvement. Skeptics tend to get deeply involved with their own pet interests and few, if any, have children themselves, so children often get overlooked. (Being the mom of a skeptic kid over the last two decades made my family sensitive to the situation.) I suggest a conference where the big tent of skeptics can focus entirely on how we can encouraging children worldwide in rational/skeptical thought.

    I also would like to see skeptics more concerned about grooming activists, as in the area of quackery where skeptics are losing ground big time.

  19. urp says:

    Any skeptic will instantly recognize the name Randi. For the population at large it is generally unknown. Clearly blogs like this, and skeptics, have work to do.

  20. “Skeptics tend to get deeply involved with their own pet interests and few, if any, have children themselves, so children often get overlooked.”

    Not sure how that assessment was made – by my experience skeptics have as many or few kids as anyone. I have nine kids, by the way. First nine childless skeptics to apply get one, free of charge.

  21. Linda Rosa says:

    Nine kids! How do you have time to think, much less rationally?

    Are all your children bios, or adopted? I ask because one of my interests is adoption-related quackery: