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Skeptical Battlegrounds: Part I – Background

by Steven Novella, Dec 01 2008

The skeptical movement, in my opinion, serves a vital role in modern society. We are increasingly dependent upon cutting edge science for our quality of life, and even just to run our complex civilization. And yet, while there seems to be broad respect for science – or at least the fruits of science – in the general public, there is also widespread distrust and overwhelming scientific illiteracy.

We are also in the midst of an endless culture war, a struggle between two aspects of human nature. On the one hand are the proponents of mysticism, superstition, pseudoscience, and anti-science. On the other are the defenders of science and reason.

Some of my skeptical colleagues have objected to the military analogy, but we are engaged in a real struggle, and we are fighting over more than bragging rights. The stakes are real: control of resources, support and recognition of government, the running of institutions, access to the media and to the halls of academia and education.

Right now science is institutionalized and enjoys the benefits of public financing and support. But it is under systematic assault by those who either want a piece of the pie, want to subvert the process of science so that the ends can be made to fit the purposes of their ideology, or who simply have an anti-scientific world view. Hiding amidst their ranks are charlatans and con-artists who are simply trying to exploit the whole situation for a fast buck.

It is both interesting and unfortunate that the mainstream scientific community seems mostly disinterested in the broader culture war. I have seen this at my own institution, among my own colleagues – an ivory tower naiveté. They assume on the one hand that anyone pretending to do science is sincere. But they also feel that any ideas that are too wacky or bizarre are beneath them, and addressing them in any way will taint their academic purity.

They therefore conclude that the best way to deal with pseudoscientific nonsense is to simply ignore it. There is some truth to this – most cranks and charlatans are best left to wallow in their own anonymity. Within academia the cold shoulder of indifference is the harshest criticism – it says that your ideas are so worthless they are not even worth the time it would take to refute them.

But what they miss is that the institutions of science and academia are embedded in society. The beliefs, knowledge, and attitudes of that society matter. They determine how much funding is available for research, what gets funded, how science is applied by the government to meet the problems and challenges of society, and how the next generation is educated.

When a belief, claim, idea or product rises out of anonymity and capture the public’s attention, it can no longer be ignored. It needs to be addressed.

That’s where we come in.

The skeptical community is doing the job that the mainstream scientific community should be doing, but largely isn’t. There are, of course, exceptions – many skeptics are scientists and academics. But we are a distinct community.

We have skills and a knowledge base that many scientists don’t have: knowledge of the many ways in which people fool themselves and others, the many forms of pseudoscience and the denial of science, of the specific claims, fallacies, and history of the various prominent pseudosciences, and the tactics employed by those who attack science.

But I also believe that in order to be successful in the long term the skeptical community must have the mainstream scientific community as an ally. In fact, we would do well to merge, at least to a degree. Skepticism is science, and all scientists should be skeptics. The skeptical community can teach the scientific community how to deal with dangerous pseudoscience. And scientists should embrace and support more fully those who seek to popularize their work and their profession.

Over the next few weeks I am going to address some of the specific large battles that skeptics are fighting. Some we are winning, some we are losing, and perhaps there are lessons we can derive from stepping back to survey the battlefield.

28 Responses to “Skeptical Battlegrounds: Part I – Background”

  1. As a mere foot-soldier (grunt if you will) in this war, I proudly report for duty!

    I must say, sometimes I do feel that the idiots drag me down to their level and beat me with their vast experience of assclownery all too often, but I keep fighting the good fight. If you could add in resources and tools for us poor foot-soldiers to use and distribute to the blog roll, I’d be sincerely appreciative.

    Praise the Ramen and pass the ammo!

  2. Greg Dardas says:

    Good points, all Steven.

    This site is attracting attention within my sphere of influence, such as it is.

    Thanks for all your hard work and that of your colleagues. It is wonderful to be informed as well as entertained in the process!

  3. Wrangling about the appropriateness of military language is an old chestnut for skepticism. It goes back and forth, partly because skepticism concerns many wildly different subjects — some of which are better described by this type of language, and some not.

    It makes sense to talk about “fighting” pseudoscience proponents who are literally engaged in crime, or who literally do knowing harm to others. Really, how else could one describe this? Any other description is not so much a choice about language as a failure of resolve, a failure to appreciate the human cost of con artistry.

    Likewise, I think it can be useful to talk about “fighting” scientific illiteracy, bad information, or superstition, in the same way that it’s useful to talk about fighting illiteracy in general, or poverty, or disease. There is a lot of work to do, and language that crystalizes a sense of cause can do a lot of good.

    It is murkier, in my view, to talk about winning “a culture war,” as it implies we’re fighting some *one* rather than some *thing.* I’m uncomfortable with this, though I suppose the language is to some degree forced upon us the minute any other party thinks it’s appropriate. The uncomfortable truth, there are many organized parties (consider the proponents of Intelligent Design) who conceive of themselves fighting as a war against us — a war on Darwin, a war on secularism, a war on vaccination, a war on materialism, or what have you.

    But for much (perhaps most ) of what skeptics do — consumer protection, critical thinking education, science communication — the military analogy is less useful.

    For the broad strokes of skepticism, it helps both to keep us focussed and to communicate the social value of our project to keep our language squarely on the main goal: *helping people.*

  4. teacherninja says:

    As an educator, you have my full support.

  5. ejdalise says:

    It is a taxing and largely frustrating effort, especially for those of us who have little association with those of similar mind, and who seldom, if ever, see any fruit from our labors.

    I admit a waning ardor for the cause, and find myself more often than not opting to avert my attention. Still, it’s good to hear others still stoked about the potential for a better future.

    Daniel, I think you are correct in recognizing the warfare analogy may be trust upon us from the other side, and that perhaps points to something history seems to teach rather well; whether you like it or not, when attacked one must take up arms if one is to prevail.

    Figuratively speaking, of course . . . or at least I hope so.

  6. Incidentally, I sometimes use this sort of language myself, writing about slaying dragons and doing “whatever it takes to keep us fighting, keep us from just giving up and walking away.” I wouldn’t want to distance myself from my own writing on this topic.

    It’s just that I urge skeptics to keep in mind (as I know Steven does): we’re fighting to help people. Believers in the paranormal are not the enemy; they are the vast majority of the population, and they’re the very people we’re trying to talk to.

  7. Daniel – you are absolutely correct. That is a big part of what we do. But there is also an element of activist skepticism which is specifically engaged in a struggle with those of a differing ideology over control of resources – that is the very essence of war.

    I prefer to engage in an honest search for common ground – for reason and evidence. But there are those who deny reason and evidence itself. With them there is no common ground. It is a clash of mutually-exclusive world views.

  8. Will we get uniforms? Please, please, please, can we have Skeptical Army uniforms?????

    [I don't think the manner in which we describe the effort will much affect the effort or its importance. After all, we are a society in which there are people in organizations who 'fight the war' against obese pets, poor grammar, and unreasonable parking meter rates. 'Fighting the war against ___________' has become pretty much blah-zay, a highly diluted term and concept.]

  9. Well met, Stephen. I highly respect scientists like yourself who give the skeptic movement credibility and keep us honest.

    It’s also important that we fight this on several fronts. My personal battlefront is the everyday credulity found where we live, work, and play. The demographic I target is unlikely to care about bigfoot, UFO’s, etc. Instead, they change their diets based on what they hear on Oprah or a glorified “study” on the evening news. They might get media from a biased source and believe it without question when a quick Google search would show them the light. They believe a full moon really correlates to higher traffic than normal in the ER.

    I want to recruit the average Joe skeptic into my platoon, to share their own stories about credulous friends and family around them. When they spot logical fallacies, I want them to write about it and expand the knowledge base. Many of these things are in the “long tail” and don’t get air time on major skeptic blogs and shows.

    Thanks for all you and the Skeptologists are doing, and for all active participants in the skeptic movement, everywhere.

    Josh Nankivel

  10. Max says:

    In practice, the essence of war is “the ends justify the means”. This could mean propaganda, censorship, bribery, coercion through litigation, often the tactics of our enemies. It may be an effective way to “control resources”, but it’s no longer critical thinking.

  11. Max – you are taking the war metaphor too far and turning it into a straw man. You will see what I mean in future posts. Again – this is not all we do, but it’s one important aspect. Don’t apply it to the wrong things. Think of the efforts of creationists to hamper the teaching of evolution, to redefine science, and to push religious beliefs into the science classrooms. They have an ideological anti-scientific agenda. And we are resisting that agenda.

    We have mutually exclusive goals based upon differing world views. Sure – we should use education and reason to make our case to the public and to change attitudes. But in the meantime their agenda needs to be vigorously opposed.

    There are those who want to eliminate the standard of care in medicine. Same thing.

    There are those who want to destroy the vaccine program.

    You get the idea.

    And – of course – you cannot violate the principles of skepticism in order to promote it. No one has said otherwise. That is partly why we have such a hard job.

  12. Steven — You are also absolutely correct. I certainly don’t disagree: there are vicious criminals in the paranormal realm. There are also many examples of the sorts of committed, dangerous ideologues to whom you refer.

    Fighting those sorts of battles is indeed appropriate — and an ethical imperative.

  13. Ian Mason says:

    Damn good blog that illuminates a real set of problems.
    In my experience there are two elements:
    1) The means. On any day of any week there will be headlines, features, news items etc. about the new medical/scientific/slimming/sex-enhancing miracle that Great Minds have found. This, I think, is the result of the race for funding. Publish early and “sex it up” (horrible phrase) in order to keep the money flowing.
    2) The myths are more interesting, with easier answers than boring, difficut science. I had this discussion recently at my place of education (health school) and the student who had attended a public meeting with a clairvoyant was listened too with great attention while my comment that I’d seen Derren Brown do the same as part of a magic show was ignored.
    What to do about this is a problem. How to make things interesting without misleading? What about the press, distorting research to increase circulation? Sane but comprehensible communication in bite-size chunks would be nice, but how many inspired communicators are there?
    We have to keep plodding on and hoping to prevail in the end.
    Another foot soldier – and poet – but who reads poetry?

  14. patrik.e says:

    I don’t know, Steven… The more I talk to people and the more I see on the news, the more I am convinced that the war is already lost. People simply WANT to belive in stupid things, even when they are confronted with facts. Often they rather accuse the skeptic of just being negative or a besserwisser, rather than actually considering the skeptics views and then making up their minds.

    That said, we still need to fight the good fight. Even if all we can do is postpone the inevitable… =/

  15. Jim Brock says:

    How about sticking to the basic tenets of science? The proof of a theory is in its ability to predict results? Identification of a means to disprove the theory if it is false? Reliance on data rather than speculation?

    And…I have read that NASA’s Hansen has reused September’s data to prove that October set a record for global October temperatures…and then, when called out, found an Arctic hot spot to make up the difference.

    This is science?

  16. So what if Mordor is at the gates? Keep plodding to Mt. Doom. It’s either that or giving in, and letting the malignance win.

    Thanks to your example and that of the SGU, I’ve joined the fight, for what little my contribution is worth. It’s what I can do, so I’m doing it. See you next TAM. I owe you a mint julep, at the very least.

    PS: Just one thing… reserve a bigger restaurant next time. ;)

  17. Dr. T says:

    Anyone who thinks that a handful of skeptics can prevail against the hordes of magical thinkers, science haters, sensationalists (the media), creationists, charlatans, etc. is as delusional as a believer in homeopathy. We already lost the war. Our present struggles are about staying alive and functional while in enemy territory.

    I believe that evolution screwed up with humans. We needed to be only a bit smarter than the great apes to survive (an average IQ of ~75). Instead, we leaped to an average IQ of 100, which was more than enough for survival, perfect for getting us into trouble, and too low to form societies based on intellect instead of magical thinking. The result is that smart skeptics are tiny minorities in every society. Most people with IQs below 110 have difficulty thinking rationally, scientifically, and skeptically. Most people with IQs above 110 are too lazy to think rationally, scientifically, and skeptically. Instead of admitting to intellectual laziness, many of the high IQ people demonize the skeptics. It’s pathetic and discouraging, but it’s what we’ve got to face.

    We live in a society where testimonials by actresses receive more credence than explanations by scientists. This doesn’t happen by chance. The people in our society deliberately make choices based on ignorance and illogic even when evidence- and logic-based choices are readily available. This doesn’t happen by chance either. Both behaviors show tremendous biases exist against using logic and evidence in decision making. (The results of many jury trials exemplify this, too.) These deeply ingrained behaviors will not be changed by a skepticism-oriented TV show or a few presentations to junior high school kids.

    Before anyone asks, I have no alternate plan. Atheists will have to live as a small minority among religionists and anti-atheists, and skeptics will have to live as a small minority among non-skeptics and anti-skeptics. If anyone wants to fund an undersea colony populated only by atheist skeptics, I’d be happy to participate. (My version of the John Galt approach to a failing society.)

  18. Jim says:

    I think Skeptics also can usefully form alliances with accountants. Often accountants hold the purse strings and especially in government here in the UK we emphasize again and again evidence based policy. If we pilot a policy and the evidence shows it doesn’t work, we don’t spend money on it. Accountants will be the ones who can do a lot to kill off homeopathy and the likes in the UK, convince the accountants the stuff doesn’t work and they won’t fund it from taxpayers money..

  19. Dr. T – I have to disagree with your pessimism. You are also committing a false dichotomy – treating victory or failure as complete. There is a vast middle ground where we can make a significant difference, even if it is less that total victory. The point is to have a positive influence on society, not to achieve ultimate victory.

  20. Max says:

    The war metaphor implies that the goal is total victory. How far should we take this analogy?

  21. BillDarryl says:

    And Dr. Novella delivers the Logical Fallacy Smackdown! Love it.

    But I’ll disagree with you, Dr. T, from a different angle – history is LOADED with examples of extreme minority positions being persistent and pulling off the seemingly impossible task of eventually changing the minds of the majority.

    So we know it can be done because it HAS been done.

  22. I also disagree with Dr. T (would he be Mr. T’s neurologist?). The fact is that *everybody* is a skeptic, varying only in degree, consistency, and efficacy. This is something I use when trying to talk with a believer – I look for examples of when he or she has been skeptical and suggest they apply the same process to the woo woo belief in question. That guy who believes wholeheartedly in ghosts, bigfoot, and UFOs as aliens ships? Watch him get all skeptical as he approaches an aircraft, suitcase in hand, and sees that the plane is leaking fuel, has parts hanging loose, and the pilot is drunk.

    What’s the potential penalty for trusting that pilot and plane? Yikes! But what’s the personal penalty, the negative consequence, for believing in bigfoot, ghosts, or UFOs?

    Even the narliest believers can and will get skeptical (albeit, surgically) when they perceive the results of not being skeptical to be dire.

  23. Ian Mason says:

    Hear hear! Even the most ardent Super would prefer a sober pilot at the controls to any God in any pantheon. Also, how can bigots produce a “GAHD HATES FAGS” website – or any other manifestation of ignorance
    to be found on the web, be it ever so benign – when they don’t believe in the science? Perhaps they think that the Almighty IS the hub of the information superhighway. If He is, He must then approve of the amount of pornography flying about. Logical, innit.

  24. BillDarryl says:

    I also disagree with Dr. T (would he be Mr. T’s neurologist?).

    Of course not! Everyone knows Dr. T is the famous Dr. Terwilliker, composer of “Ten Happy Fingers” et. al.

    (now there’s a children’s movie that will give you nightmares well into your 20s)

  25. Alas, in my case that would have to be well into my 120s. My 20s are multiples of 20s in my past. *sigh*

  26. ejdalise says:

    Well, heck, I’ll agree with Dr. T.

    And while I agree with Dr. Novella that it’s not about the war, but trying to have a positive impact, I have no illusions regarding the ultimate outcome.

    History does teach us one thing; people would far rather embrace the nonsensical. And while we may argue as to why, I will point to the current “how”.

    Speed of communication. One youtube video about some fantastical claim will spread through society with unprecedented speed. By the time a counter argument can be mounted, literally millions will have see it. Add the fact whatever correction is put out is likely less interesting to most viewers, and you have the a pretty good picture of the way many people get their “information” these days.

    It’s not just the willingness to believe (although that is a part of it), it’s a matter of effort. It takes effort to slug through well reasoned information refuting a given claim. Most people’s eyes will glaze over after a few moments. All they want is the “bottom line”, and sensational claims are most efficient at providing it.

    So, a statement of “I’ve seen a ghost!” gets a lot more attention than an explanation as to why that is not possible, and conjecture regarding what it might have been.

    Yes, I think the war is lost, and all I hope for is to negotiate some favorable terms of surrender.

  27. Danny says:

    I agree whole heartedly – not as a scientist, but as a historian of science. It is important for people to know that the community that is humankind has always and will continue to benefit from the fruits of science in ways that most people don’t understand. For what its worth, I am trying to do my part as well, having recently started my own science/skepticism blog @

  28. callmebaka says:

    my first post so be kind pleasssssssseeeeeee

    there is someting to be said for the excepion so long as it so long as it never wants to become the rule – Neitzche
    forgive me quoting i dont mean to try to pull a trump card by apealing to a higher athoraty such a thing would be unforgivable in a sceptic i do so only becuuse it seem to sum up my position prety well and probibly more clearly than i am able to my self basicly the sheeple the unthinking masses are a neasary evil they create the basis for the stability of sociaty enabling it function while the exepions stop it from self destructing