Saturday, October 11, 2008

Dragon*con panel: The future of skepticism

At the last Dragon*Con, there was a panel called "The future of skepticism", inspired by Daniel Loxton's essay "Where do we go from here". The panel has been recorded and hosted by the Skepticality Podcast. When Loxton's essay came out almost a year ago, I commented on this blog that I thought it was sad and inspiring. I don't know if I agree with last-year-me (all opinions have a finite half-life), but I'm obviously still interested in the topic.

One thing that struck me is all the various perspectives that people have on skepticism. For instance, James Randi contrasted himself with Michael Shermer. Randi was a very questioning child from a young age, and his questions got him kicked out of Sunday school. Shermer was a born-again Christian, and also into alt-med. As for me... (Storytime!)

So it starts around high school maybe. Before that, I'm quite sure my interests were completely orthogonal to skepticism. But one of those interests was reading Scientific American, and that's how I saw Michael Shermer's "skeptic" column. This makes Shermer my Favorite Skeptic, even though I often disagree with him. Honestly, they did not seem like new ideas to me at the time. Surely, everyone intuitively knows that to find truth, we must discern it from non-truth. At the time, I thought it was exciting that Shermer was debunking moon hoax conspiracies and bottled water, but I also felt like I had agreed with him all along, if not actively so.

Of course, I thought Shermer was just this guy who wrote a really interesting column, and thought of it the same way I thought of Anti-Gravity (the humor column). I didn't learn about the skeptical movement, that there is actually a group of "skeptics", until a bit later. Basically, I was into puzzles at the time (still am, did you notice?), and puzzles were first thing on the internet that ever interested me. Through puzzles, I learned about infinite set theory, combinatorics, and also found some useful resources like this Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences and the Internet Anagram Server. In a fortuitous browsing moment, I looked at the fan e-mail that had been sent to the Internet Anagram Server, and saw one by Phil Plait, The Bad Astronomer (anagram of "moon trash debater"). That makes Phil Plait my Second Favorite Skeptic. At the time, Bad Astronomy was just this webpage, not a blog, but I kept on coming back to it until I said, "Hey, what's this, a blog?"

As for the kind of skeptic I turned out to be, I figure my regular readers know just as well as I do. Because I'm a really abstract thinker, I can only get a real grip on general abstractions like "critical thinking", "confirmation bias", or "hoax vs honest belief"; I have trouble holding interest in such specific examples as "psychics", "moon hoax", or "bigfoot". Though I think these are all really important skeptical topics (except for bigfoot), I don't think I could ever seriously debunk them myself. That's why I'm glad we have people with different approaches, like James Randi, even if I get slightly annoyed by how little he seems to care about the "hoax vs honest belief" issue. In the mean time, I'll just keep on doing whatever it is I think I'm doing.

Another topic that came up: atheism! It's not skepticism! In the panel, someone commented that skepticism and atheism are two different enterprises. Though this comment met applause, most speakers continued on as if atheism and skepticism were the same thing! I find this grating. It's an odd situation. The panel was talking about how there are all these young new people becoming active in the movement. I bet many many of them have found the skeptical movement via the atheist movement. I just hope the new people don't conflate the two. I'd love to rant more, but this deserves a new post all to itself.

The panel also made me think about skepticism as a label. Personally, I don't really care if people call themselves skeptics, or if they consider themselves part of the skeptical movement. Yes, we need activists, but we don't need everyone to be an activist. And "skepticism" is just a word. I care that people realize that critical thinking is a vital tool for the modern age. I care that people recognize the importance of science, the importance of discerning truth from non-truth. The end-game of skepticism is not a world where everyone is a skeptic. There is no end-game at all, in fact. We just need to promote critical thinking as best we can, generation by generation. By its very nature, critical thinking is not something we simply accept and be done with. To think critically is a forever changing, nontrivial task.


Anonymous said...

Too bad you (probably) missed out on Martin Gardner's "Mathematical Games" column in Scientific American, as did I. I do hope you've read his columns in book form!

miller said...

Yes, yes I did miss the column. However I now have all his columns on DVD! Martin Gardner is my Third Favorite Skeptic, because he is credited with starting the modern skeptical movement AND with the popularization of recreational math. I know little else about him, but how could I not idolize him?

Leona Raisin said...

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Anagram refers to your post
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Include the URL in the email

miller said...

The anagram is of part of the post title.

I do not fulfill requests for e-mails.