SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

Skeptics – Getting Under Their Skin

by Steven Novella, Jan 25 2010

As the activist skeptical movement grows and increasingly networks, thanks largely to social media, we seem to be irritating those who are the targets of our critical analysis. This is a good thing. It’s a sign that we are doing our job and having an impact.

Recently there has been an increase in those attacking skeptics and skepticism. One tactic is to attempt to intimidate critics and silence public debate through libel lawsuits or the threat of such suits. The blustering by Bonnie Vent and her minions following Mark Edwards’ latest post is a good example. Clearly, they are not familiar with libel laws in the US, or they hope that we are not, or they simply don’t care.

To be clear, we take very seriously our responsibility to be fair and factually accurate, and we will happily correct mistakes if they are pointed out to us. The original version of Mark’s article contained the word “apparently” to refer to second-hand information. This was probably enough of a qualification, but we strengthened it to “allegedly” just to be sure, and even added the caveat about the original source. (Read the post for details.)

Fortunately in the US we have rational libel laws. In order to prove libel the plaintiff will have to prove that the defendant wrote something that was wrong, they knew it was wrong, and they did it deliberately out of malice. In some states you also have to prove harm, but a few have what is called “libel per se” which means that certain accusations are considered automatically damaging to one’s reputation.

On the other hand, some states also have anti-SLAPP laws – strategic lawsuit against public participation. In essence, if you use a libel suit to silence a critic and remove their right to participate in free speech, you may be counter sued under anti-SLAPP laws. The courts, in short, have recognized the threat that SLAPP suits pose to first amendment rights.

The Canadian Supreme Court recently recognized this as well, ruling in one case:

The Supreme Court said it examined laws in other countries with similar legal systems, such as the United Kingdom and Australia. It found that Canadian law was strict by comparison and did not give enough weight to the value of free expression.

“This, in turn, may have a chilling effect on what is published,” said the text of one of the rulings. “Information that is reliable and in the public’s interest to know may never see the light of day.”

Unfortunately, English libel law is still in the dark ages, as some of our colleagues across the pond have discovered. Simon Singh is currently defending a libel suit in British court against the British Chiropractic Association (BCA). Apparently he stung them and made it hurt when he pointed out they promote treatments that are not supported by evidence. This resulted in a backlash against the BCA and a campaign to reform English libel laws.

Previously Ben Goldacre and The Guardian were the target of a libel suit from one Matthias Rath, for selling dubious treatments for serious illnesses, like AIDS, in Africa. Ben emerged victorious from this suit.

Back on this side, Robert Lancaster was threatened with suit by Sylvia Browne for his website, Robert refused to back down or be intimidated by Browne, who had not case against him. Unfortunately, Robert suffered a stroke and during his recovery period it appears that the registration for the domain name lapsed and the url was picked up by a psychic promoter.

Paul Offit and Amy Wallace from Wired Magazine have also recently been sued by anti-vaccinationist Barbara Loe Fisher, the head of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC). This one is over the claim by Offit printed in Wired Magazine that “she lies” – referring to Fisher. If it actually gets to court  it is likely, in my opinion, that Offit will be able to demonstrate that Fisher has made comments that are less than truthful. But usually in such cases the point of the suit is not to defend it in court, but simply to force a settlement.

Threat of libel is not the only way that the cranks of the world are trying to fight back against skeptics. They are also trying to take us on in their own critical writing, which of course they have the right to do. But just like with the libel suits, this strategy has been backfiring more often than not. It seems that if we irritate them enough, we can goad them into embarrassing themselves by trying to do something they clearly are not good at – critical analysis.

Recently Deepak Chopra, Rustom Roy, and Larry Dossey attacked Science-Based Medicine in the Huffington Post. Invariably such attempts butcher the skeptical position (always a marker of intellectual sloppiness) and just provide more fodder for us to criticize, and this was no exception. In the world of alternative medicine defenders on nonsense, like the three above, have an especially hard time because they do need to seem scientific while attacking science and defending pseudoscience. So it is easy to trip them up in self-contradiction. As David Gorski writes:

Dr. Dossey just spent two articles whining that his beloved CAM is being treated so very, very unfairly by promoters of science-based medicine, but from my viewpoint it’s being treated more than fairly these days; it’s being given a free pass, by and large. Again, that’s why I’ll repeat it one more time. If Dr. Dossey really wants CAM to be evaluated on a truly equal scientific footing with science-based medicine, I have one thing to say to him one last time:

Bring it on!

Mike Adams, editor of, has also felt the sting of skeptics and decided to fight back with his own rhetoric. In it he raises an army of particularly flimsy strawmen against skeptics, easily dismantled. He was joined by fellow natural guru Joseph Mercola, who attacked one of our Australian colleagues, Rachael Dunlop. Mercola’s comments were in such poor taste that his own followers flinched.

Speaking of which, the winner of the most callous, distasteful, and strategically moronic attack on skeptics of 2009 goes to the Age of Autism for their photoshopped picture of various critics of the anti-vaccine movement (including yours truly) eating a baby at Thanksgiving dinner. Even some of their devoted followers were put off by this despicable (and mysogynistic) display, and they quickly decided to take it down.


As the skeptical movement grows we will increasingly become the targets of counter-attacks like those I discuss above. Like it or not, we are engaged in conflict with the promoters of pseudoscience and an anti-scientific world view, and they will fight back. But we have shown in recent years that we can stick together and we will not be intimidated. Try to silence one of us, and the criticism will only be magnified 100 fold.

Bonnie Vent could have just taken Mark’s criticism and moved on, but instead she chose to try to have the criticism taken down, resorting to empty libel threats as an intimidation tactic. But all she has accomplished is to focus our attention on her all the more.

The BCA was soundly embarrassed by the attention they received as a consequence of their lawsuit. It even led to skeptical activists reporting instances of chiropractors making false claims, which in turn led to one chiropractic group advising their members to take down all claims on their websites (which seems like a curious admission that their claims do not hold up to scrutiny).

I am particularly amused when the purveyors of pseudoscience try to engage skeptics in critical analysis. That is our arena, and we will be happy to trounce them all day long. In fact, we want a serious discussion of logic and evidence – that is what skepticism is all about. If we can get them engaging us in such discussion that can only serve our ends. Even if they can demonstrate that they are correct about a claim – that is all we want, to base claims on logic and evidence.

More likely, however, we will get what Mike Adams served up – a frothing rant that is so disconnected from reality it accomplishes our work for us.

So keep it up, fellow skeptics. We are having an impact, and the cranks of the world are feeling the pain.

39 Responses to “Skeptics – Getting Under Their Skin”

  1. johnc says:

    Great point about using critical analysis and getting it wrong.

    The thing is if you only try and *appear* to be using it, the facade soon crumbles. If you *do* use you risk proving yourself wrong (assuming you are wrong to begin with)

    • @ johnc #1

      But that is the great thing about being wrong and proved wrong. If we are proved wrong then we learn so much more about this universe, ourselves and those around us.

      If someone can prove that they can talk to the dead, fantastic, we can then start to harness that, maybe get faster internet and or solve other mysteries.

  2. Hagge says:

    I recently had a discussion with a Mercola-follower about vaccines, engaging her and discussing it rationally and calmly brough forward all kinds of conspiration-theories (NWO etc) as proof that the medical establishment can’t be trusted. Basically she ruined any credibility much better than I did by pointing out facts and fallacies. Interesting bunch these people, very good at shooting themselves in the foot when you give them enough rope.. (and yes, i’m mixing metaphors, analogs, whatever :) ).

  3. Jason says:

    I though that Mike Adams’ piece on skeptics was hilarious particularly since it revealed that his ‘research’ consists of plumbing the depths of his own imagination.

  4. Matthew Roman says:

    I really like the positive tone to this article. With the increasing amount of attacks on skeptics, you see this as a good thing. I couldn’t agree more!

    One thing I worry about is “our arena.” We can use evidence to silence our critics, but if that is the only thing left for them to hide behind, could there be a wave of corruption in science ahead? Perhaps believers of non-scientific ideologies will be forced to invade with increased biased experimentation and their own published articles. Then they too will hold their own in ‘our arena.’ Obviously we will be able to filter their biased and improper experiments and evidence from more trusted sources, but will the public as well? I doubt it.

  5. Dan says:

    The gold standard of science is a theory that can be proven by whatever methodology is appropriate to that science. Science proves to be an invaluable resource to us. Skeptics are an invaluable resource to this world. Without skeptics, we would be blind sheep following people without question. All one asks is that you base your arguments on proof and not opinion. Don’t pre-judge. Don’t get personal. Is there any way you can come to some understanding to discuss this with Bonnie and then make your decision about her? I think that would be fair. And for what it is worth, I do not believe that most psychics are genuine either. I do let people prove themselves, however. Thank you.

    • Paul T. says:

      Dan, thank you so much for your post. I personally cannot see any evidence that makes Bonnie any different from any other psychic making the same claims. Naturally anyone here would look at any evidence that Bonnie or anyone else would like present. Skeptics are not searching for enemies just searching for the true.

      If she would like to test her claims that could be arranged as well. I guarantee you she would be treated with respect and courtesy, if Bonnie would like to have a discussion of protocol just let us know.

      All the best


  6. Max says:

    “In order to prove libel the plaintiff will have to prove that the defendant wrote something that was wrong, they knew it was wrong, and they did it deliberately out of malice.”

    I’m not sure that’s true in all cases.
    “Since proof of the writer’s malicious intentions is hard to provide, proof that the writer knowingly published a falsehood was generally accepted as proof of malice, under the assumption that only a malicious person would knowingly publish a falsehood.”

  7. What A Bunch of Lemmings You Are says:

    Skeptics are like mindless robots. Parroting whatever Big Pharma and tyrannical government officials say. Lemmings.

    • Jeff E. says:

      Actually, I’d say we’re quite mindful robots. We have one main tenet: follow verifiable evidence. I take medicine every day that is manufactured by ‘Big Pharma’ and with high efficacy and low side-effect, so as long as they have good science to back up their claims, ‘Big Pharma’ trumps Alternative Medicine any day.

    • stargazer9915 says:

      If that ain’t the pot calling the frying pan a fire! (Mixed analogies again?)

    • Shahar Lubin says:

      Robotic lemmings who can fly like parrots?

      Now that’s cool.

  8. Max says:

    The quacks are quick to use Anti-SLAPP when sued by skeptics, as when Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch sued Ilena Rosenthal and lost.

    For some reason, that case focused on Ilena Rosenthal, who merely reposted libelous claims made by Tim Bolen, a “publicist” for Hulda Clark. I don’t know what happened with Tim Bolen.

    Stephen Barrett has been involved in a number of libel lawsuits back and forth.

  9. Max – you are right in that there is a great deal of legal complexity to the concept of malice, and it varies from federal law and the various states. As I said, some states allow libel per se, which does not even require a proof of malice or harm.

    In any case there generally needs to be some reason to conclude malice – by the type of falsehood that was spread, for example. It is not as simple as proving that the claim itself is wrong.

  10. AUJT says:

    Yes! As Hagge so eloquently stated, give the woo enough rope and they’ll shoot themselves with it. :-) And yes, when they start talking, they do our work for us.

    I’ve heard the woo woo suggest that skeptics have made or are making them famous. In fact, I believe that Uri Geller said that of James Randi quite some time ago. Where they get it wrong is that we make them infamous. I’m sure that they don’t know the difference or that they simply don’t care.

    This just may be a good way to tell the delusional from the plain ol’ liars and cons. The ones that are consciously aware of their fraudulent nature will retreat and become less visible while the delusional will stand their ground.Either way works for me but I think I’d rather have them whine, complain and threaten as it amplifies their notoriety, makes them more famous. ;-)

    Chip Coffey is apparently, oooops, I mean allegedly one of those who knows that he’s a scammer as he seems to have slithered away from the limelight a bit. He even played down the fact that there’s a Facebook group called ‘Chip Coffey Sucks’ to one of his Facebook fans when they pointed it out to him.

  11. Bryan says:

    We have discovered that if you are getting people threatening with some type of lawsuit you must be doing something right.

    We have a case in the Denver area where a “U.F.O.” Case is being used to promote a local political issue. (The Denver Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission).
    When we came to the public with the facts behind the claims of the people involved and we were threatened wih copyright threats, threats of libel lawsuits and were even told that we were the prime suspects in a theft and a shooting and that the police were going to contact us. This was of course all false claims (the Police were never even contacted). We learned that this is the tactic of someone who is attempting to scare off the people who bring the truth to the public.

    We have just seen the same people threaten another person who discussed the truth in a public forum.

    All I can say is keep up the good work.. These type of threats mean that we are getting their attention.

  12. Susan Gerbic says:

    Thank you Steve. As usual you are clear and well reasoned. Skeptic activism or Gorilla skeptism as Mark Edward is promoting is really making a difference, and we are only just gettingGorilla started. Just catching our hair and having your thoughts telling us what our rights really are is clearly helpful.

    As someone who has little experience with lawsuits and lawyers it can be very intimating to have someone threaten legal action as in the case of Mark Edward’s post. Only with some reflection did I stop to use my critical thinking skills and say, “wait a minute, what proof do I have that this is a lawyer talking? How do I know it isn’t Bonnie helfself?” Once that thought occurs then I started reasoning that this is not how an attorney would proceed at all, on a blog post? A federal judge too, I mean come on that is just too much. Then the “judge” says they have proof of Bonnie”s abilities…(maybe we know why they are an ex-judge).

    Btw for the two or three people out there that don’t know, Robert Lancaster is recovering from his stroke, the skeptical movement bannded behind him, his site which is back up at will begin to have new content hopefully soon. Other people will be targeted.

    But we arn’t just waiting for Robert. The movement is all over the place. Check out Mark Edward punking Sylvia Browne at

    • Max says:

      I hope you meant “guerilla skepticism.”

      • AUJT says:

        I’m good with Gorilla Skepticism. :-)

      • Max says:

        I hope it doesn’t involve flinging feces at the enemy.

        Jon Ronson followed some Canadian Green Party activists who showed up at a David Icke book signing wearing lizard costumes, which was funny, but then they tried to pie Icke in the face, and missed, and ended up looking foolish.

      • Sgerbic says:

        I bet the woo would retreat if we started flinging feces.

      • Max says:

        Forget fighting fire with fire. Fight woo with poo!

      • Sgerbic says:

        Okay, I just reread my post. I think I did pretty good typing that all out on my iPhone. I’m lucky I spelled the animal name correctly.

        “and we are only just gettingGorilla started”

        nice Susan

    • Dan says:

      Perhaps the attorney is waiting for a response to the letter that Bonnie sent to you. Not all attorneys want to run to court to file a lawsuit. There are decent attorneys out there. I would love to see skeptics argue that point. In any event, Bonnie hoped you would “take down the blog” because she felt it included inaccurate information. Think of how all of you would react in your professions if you were called a fraud, crazy, etc.

      Also, attorneys are human beings with likes, dislikes, and beliefs. Some believe in God, some don’t. Some believe in justice, some believe in money. Some believe in the possibility of extra sensory perception, some don’t. To attack an attorney and imply that they are no longer a judge because they are crazy is really uncalled for and rises to the level of a personal attack. That is not rationalism at it’s best. This does not represent the best and brightest of what skepticism has to offer. In any event, several overtures were made to you to take down the blog while the facts were being researched and when that didn’t happen, it seemed that the situation was pre-judged. Clearly you do not believe in speaking to dead people. I accept and respect that. But calling someone a fraud and stating that they are making money off Jackson when they have not made a dime is a far different matter. I believe that you all are trying to protect society from dangers that they perhaps are not even aware of. I even get why you feel about certain psychics. Just know that doing damage control on a person’s site that is their life’s work is emotionally and physically draining–and perhaps that is why she brought in the big guns or whatever you implied when she felt that you had pre-judged her and that her reputation was being destroyed by a falsity. We are all human. We all have feeliings. Please don’t attack people such as her or her attorney or her visitors to her site. Keep to the facts. How can I help with this? Thank you all for your time.

      • Max says:

        If Bonnie pays her lawyer to post on blogs, how can I apply for the position?

        A real lawyer would sign with a full name instead of “JD”, which I assume stands for the law degree “juris doctor”, not a person’s initials. You don’t see Dr. Novella signing his posts “MD”.

      • Dan says:

        Again, a person attack on a person. What difference does a screen name make? Attorneys remain confidential for a variety of reasons, including the request of their client. Dr.Novella can select whatever name he wants to. Why did you pick Max? You have completely ignored the subject matter of the post and focused on a person’s initials. Is analyzing the user name part of the critical thinking process? Let’s stick to the original article and the allegations you have made and discuss those.

      • tmac57 says:

        You seem to have a very low threshold for what you consider an “attack”.

      • Sgerbic says:

        Making the claim that #1 are a lawyer and #2 are a retired federal judge requires some backup. A name would be nice, there are only so many living federal judges. Maybe hers is a dead federal judge that she is channeling? Once you open the can of worms that she is hearing MJ and others, then you can’t know what is what when Bonnie makes a statement.

        I want a name.

      • Paul T. says:

        Dan:Here’s the deal simply put,Bonnie could have asked Mark politely to modify his blog with an explanation as to why. More than likely Mark would have reviewed the situation and made the modifications necessary.

        But instead Bonnie elected to threatened possible legal action and demanded taking down the entire blog. It’s the equivalent of bringing a hand grenade to a schoolyard fight. This is no way to start a dialogue. And if you go to the blog page there are a lot of threats over there, don’t think it hasn’t captured a lot of attention.

        Bonnie and her entire website are open for criticism, it is difficult for me to believe that the moment she made her Michael Jackson channeling claims that it would not eventually open the floodgates of criticism Bonnie is intelligent enough to know better.

        I would say anything you could bring to the table you can personal message Mark Edward. Dan thank you for your post.

  13. Actually they put Michael Shermer in a gorilla suit. It’s quite effective. :)

  14. steelsheen11b says:

    “attorneys are human beings”

    There is just so much wrong with that statement I don’t know where to start.

  15. I are Bonnie’s Attorney.

    How convincing was that?

  16. SicPreFix says:

    Hey, woah, slow right down now. I are Bonnie’s Attorney! Sgerbic’s pink unicorn told me so.

  17. JimB says:

    Direct from Ms. Vent’s website:

    “Celebrity clients include: Michael Jackson, George Carlin, Steve Irwin and more. Validation has been provided on all of these mediumistic communications. This same high quality spirit communication work is now available to you.”


    “If you are looking to connect with someone who has passed, Bonnie Vent will connect to those who have passed and who are able to communicate with you at the time of the reading. You will be free to ask the spirit person questions and receive answers in real time. This is very much like having a conversation. Normally they will provide information that identifies them exclusively to you. Validation is a very important part of this process. The intention is to leave no doubt that a real conversation has occurred with your loved one.”

    If that doesn’t imply that she’s contacting Jackson during private readings (for which she charges real, actual money, rather than ghost dollars), then I’m a poo-flinging monkey’s uncle.

  18. Pino Santuro says:

    absolutey draining, critical hubris in its utmost “certainty”, bitter-critical predatory “analysis”, which is unable to feel the breeze – for a change…Go to the fields, work in Morocco with the Berbers for a change ( they know what working hard means, yet the Berbers sing and dance their heart content, regardless of all your cynical criticism – knowing that one is a yo-yo of the sky ( Allah, the creator, the ultimate, you name it). Leave your ( well-paid or not) criticism for a few second – and have the courage of shut up while one dance the dances of the dances….Then…came back to your endless inner-outer babbling.

    • tmac57 says:

      Sounds like you intimately know about “hubris” and “babbling” my friend.

    • stargazer9915 says:

      I know it’s cliched, but what the hell kind of drugs is this guy on??? Or maybe this is the disjointed automatic writing from one of Bonnie’s “clients”.

    • Paul T. says:

      Beautiful! I’m thinking about having this embroidered on a pillow. Or perhaps printed on T-shirts.