During The Amazing Meeting 9, one of the panel discussions (which I happened to be on) was about “Diversity in Skepticism.” I’ll admit I thought we would talk primarily about gender/ethnic/racial diversity — because that’s what we always talk about — and maybe we’d touch on topics like age/class/education diversity (JREF president DJ Grothe even suggested “religious diversity,” which is a completely separate discussion)… but we ended up focusing on something very different.
The gist of the conversation was this: If we truly advocate skepticism, and we want to apply it to all areas of life, then why do we always seem to limit our conversations to the paranormal or science? Why don’t we ever talk about the Drug War, or Gun Control, or Abortion, or the entire panoply of topics for which there’s available data and plenty of false information spread about them?
It’s a valid point. When I first heard it, it seemed a bit jarring. It didn’t “sound” right to go to a Skeptics conference (or an atheism conference) and hear discussions about the pros and cons of marijuana legalization, or the facts/myths about abortion, or the problems with our country’s prison system. Not because those aren’t important topics, but because they just don’t sound like “our” focus.
That’s really the point, though, isn’t it? Why should’t those things part of our focus? We would be using the same set of tools to analyze them as we do claims of the supernatural. Or we would talk about how certain wrong ideas have perpetuated despite the lack of evidence for them.
Dr. Austin Dacey, author of The Secular Conscience, explains how we’re incredibly myopic when it comes to matters of skepticism (***Link is now fixed***):
The titles vary across skeptics meetings, but at the core are the now-familiar topics: psychics, monsters, ghosts, UFOs, creationism, alternative and complementary medicine, popularization of science, and, somewhat less reliably, false memory syndrome, communication with the dead, faith healing, doomsdays prophesies, conspiracy theories, climate science, fringe science, and science and faith. This combination, while not exhaustive, represents a kind of canon, a statistical mode of the set of conversations and at the same time a normative model of what is worthy of talking about. If the particular combination that makes up the canon seems quite unamazing and natural to those in the community, that is precisely the point. To the outsider, however, it can appear quite odd and contingent. What is it, besides the paper of the conference programs they are printed on, that binds together ginko biloba and El Chupacabra, cold reading and cosmic fine tuning? Why this canon?
Dacey argues that the answers lies in part with the founders of our movement. These were the topics they were most interested in, they were the ones who popularized them (and made so many of us passionate about them), and that’s why we still talk about those subjects.
But now, it’s been a few decades since the birth of our movement. Maybe it’s time we grow up:
It is critically important that the second generation grapple with the canon problem. When the first generation did much of their work, they did not do so as professional staff of skeptic organizations. At the time, there were no such things. They were tenured professors, writers, entertainers—people who had established and distinguished themselves in fields other than organized skepticism. They brought to their skeptical activism this external experience and social capital. The coming generation of organized skepticism is being led, or will soon be led, by people whose primary professional background is organized skepticism itself. The danger is that in looking only to a time-slice of the founders’ work, they will create a kind of cargo cult that carries on rituals of imitation instead of a living tradition whose continuity with the founders is based on deep principles.
He’s absolutely right here.
It’s not that stopping Creationism or getting TV psychics off the air or getting everyone vaccinated is the end goal of our movement. Those would be great achievements, but they’re just byproducts of our real aim.
Our main goal is to get people thinking critically about the claims people make — especially the extraordinary ones — and examining the evidence properly. That doesn’t just apply to religion and the paranormal. That applies to everything.
One worry is that we risk spreading ourselves too thin and losing our sense of focus — “mission drift” — and I said as much in the panel. As someone who’s worked with organizations that hold annual conferences, I know how important it is that people feel comfortable enough with the event that they come back year after year. If we expanded our scope, I thought JREF (and other skeptical groups) might risk that.
But the more I think about it, the less worried I get.
If anything, we’d be living up to our own ideals and that would only draw more people — including the ones who don’t give a damn about the paranormal — into our doors.