Friday, November 2, 2007

The future of skepticism

Earlier, when a reader had sent me a news article about psychics, I privately thought to myself, "That seems like such old-fashioned skepticism." I'm not sure where I got this notion, but certain kinds of nonsense just strike me as pertaining more to the previous generation. This includes: psychics, clairvoyants, bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts, water dowsing, etc. Sure, some people still believe in these things, but they have largely fallen out of favor when compared to, say, the 70s. Skeptics feel like they're beating a dead horse; I feel like they're beating a dead horse.

On this note, I'd like to link to an an essay featured on Skepticality, the official podcast of the Skeptic's Society (also in pdf form). Skeptic Magazine editor Daniel Loxton talks about the goals and future of the skeptical movement. I found it both sad and inspiring, though people with a more normal sense of emotion might not feel the same way. I highly recommend listening to or reading it. (Thanks to Aardvarchaeology for the link.)

In brief, Daniel thinks that we should stick to the basic goals of skepticism, though the individual topics may change as different kinds of bunk go in and out of fashion. Of particular interest is that he thinks we should not link skepticism with libertarianism, humanism, or atheism. On this point, I agree. There may be noticeable overlaps, particularly with atheism, and there's no hiding that fact, but skepticism is a distinct concept from the others. I would hate to see anyone barred from skepticism just because they don't agree with a particular viewpoint that is common among the movement.

The essay also inspires me to debunk homeopathy in the future (however few readers I have). Daniel points out that this is one piece of bunk that has come into favor, despite being one of the most egregious examples of nonsense out there. Damn it, that makes even me angry.


Anonymous said...

I laughed loud and long when I read that you felt that psychics, etc., belonged to a previous generation. I would agree with you, if it were not for the many signs that have sprung up recently advertising the new businesses of psychics in our neighborhood. Still, they don’t bother me much because they are not a dominant feature of our society.

However, there are other non-scientific opinions that I felt were passé more than 50 years ago, and they have returned with renewed vigor in the current generation. The most prominent of these goes by the current name of Intelligent Design. I was sure that this war with evolution was over when I read The Origin of Species 56 years ago. But today more than half of the American people still do not accept the evidence for evolution, and this includes well-educated people. What occurred to cause this resurgence of anti-scientific opinion? I think it is one symptom of a widespread preference to rely on word-for-word infallibility of ancient texts over the use of logic in our own minds. It seems to be occurring in every major religion. Why?

That would not bother me much either, if it were not for the fact that the number of people who reject logic has reached the tipping point where they are becoming the majority, and they seem to be eager to apply their beliefs to the regulation of our lives.

In my opinion, this same disregard for logic caused the war in Iraq. However, on that issue we can’t be sure that the failure of Congress to oppose the war from the start was not the result of political calculations of what would sell to the American people. Nearly everyone in Congress thought that the only safe position was to appear tough.

miller said...

Yes, ID is yet another piece of bunk that has come into favor as of late. But I think ID is a different sort of beast. ID is so prevalent because it has a whole massive PR organization behind it. It has also been the subject of much (unwarranted) politicization. Another recent topic that has been unreasonably politicized is global warming.

Since skepticism is facing threats of a fundamentally different nature than a generation ago, it should not be surprising that skepticism has changed. But I agree with Daniel that the basic goals, science literacy and consumer protection, have not changed.

For my opinions on the war, read my post on the sunk-cost fallacy and, um, read between the lines.