The Diversity Skeptics Rarely Talk About

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.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://profiles.google.com/flimsyman25 Christopher Stephens

    Hear hear.  The Skeptical Movement is extremely important to me, but, to be perfectly frank, I couldn’t care less about paranormal claims.  Yes, thinking critically about extraordinary claims and all that jazz, but paranormal issues just 1.  Don’t have the real-world impact on people’s lives, and 2.  Don’t have the widespread acceptance and familiarity as other political and ethical issues that we could be tackling, like political claims about abortion and homosexuality.

    It’s for this reason that I’ve been burned out on many of the big skepticism conferences.

  • http://profiles.google.com/flimsyman25 Christopher Stephens

    Hear hear.  The Skeptical Movement is extremely important to me, but, to be perfectly frank, I couldn’t care less about paranormal claims.  Yes, thinking critically about extraordinary claims and all that jazz, but paranormal issues just 1.  Don’t have the real-world impact on people’s lives, and 2.  Don’t have the widespread acceptance and familiarity as other political and ethical issues that we could be tackling, like political claims about abortion and homosexuality.

    It’s for this reason that I’ve been burned out on many of the big skepticism conferences.

  • http://msmith13.wordpress.com/ Mark

    I’ve long felt this way, although my own area of interest is consumerism in general, and advertising and marketing in particular. It’s easy to recognize psychics and faith healers as consumer issues, but mainstream advertising generates huge amounts of phony science and misinformation and saturates our culture with it.

    There’s every reason that politics and public policy should be evidence based as much as possible. The current state of the world suggests that B.S. has taken us about as far as it can.

  • Rob

    Right on.

    There seems to be a dogma that skepticism can rightly only be applied to certain topics. And some folks think belief in god is not one of those topics. They are wrong. (See Barb Dreschar’s recent blog post. http://icbseverywhere.com/blog/2011/07/the-amazng-meeting-tam9-some-notes/#comments

  • Grumble F Kitty

    I’ve been seeing discussions of whether there are too many skeptical/atheist conferences. You can kill two birds with one stone here. Avoid dilution, and give focus to conferences by making them themed. This one is for the paranormal, that one is for medical claims, this third one is about current legal issues…

    • Anonymous

      I’d like to see more of these conferences be geographically diverse instead. American Atheists started doing that and lowering their rates and their conference numbers have exploded as a result.

  • G-bird

    I fear that if we don’t apply our sceptical attitudes to other areas of life, we’ll come across to the mainstream just another bunch of conspiracy theorists, rather than a political driving force with valid views and contributions to make to the bigger arguments. Oh and before anyone says it, I know that the Skepchicks group will inevitably debate abortion etc. in some ways as it can be seen as a feminist issue, but it should not be confined to just that part of the atheist/sceptic groups.

  • Simon

    The link you used is for a post by Daniel Loxton, not Austin Dacey (unless I’m missing something): http://skepticblog.org/2011/07/22/surprising-twists/

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      You’re right. It’s fixed now. Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/Toxicpath Somite

    Not to mention the founders of skepticism had no problem taken on topics like religion, evolution and climate change.  Asimov in particular wrote a whole book basically debunking the Bible (Asimov’s guide to the Bible) and evolved to be vocally atheistic; as much as Dawkins is today.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LO0sCs8jI4k

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think we should be so concerned with Mission Creep as Grothe or Loxton seem to be.  So what if scientific skepticism has been historically had a more narrow focus than one that looks at larger societal issues such as the drug war or aboriton.  Skepticism isn’t a box that we put a bunch of topic into that can be dissected.  And even if it were, who’s the gatekeeper?  There isn’t a trademark on Sketicism ™ because it represents, not an organization, but a method for understanding reality.  Seriously, do these people think that if you call yourself a skeptic that you shouldn’t talk about the facts of sex education because that isn’t in the arbitrarily strict scope that the whitebeards have defined? 

    That said, organizations need to have clearly articulated missions, and in terms of funding, they should be transparent about what kind of works public funding or dontaitons are supporting.  But skepticism is a way of adducing reality from logic, evidence and reasonable premises.  And if they are applicable to social issues, “skeptics” should not feel that they are going out of bounds.  In fact, I would propose that as skeptics, who are concerned with the accurate representation of reality, it is our obligation to address such issues.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1535286477 Roxane Farrell Murray

    I’ve always viewed the Skeptical Movement and the Atheist Movement as two separate but overlapping things–if for no other reason than the fact that not all skeptics are atheists.  It would be lovely if the Skeptical Movement could take on more than the paranormal, because everything can be approached with skepticism, rationalism and critical thinking, and these traits should indeed be applied to public policies of all sorts.  Nowhere is Rationalism more desperately needed than in the halls of government.

    But it seems to me that the Atheist Movement has–and should have–a narrower focus. We’ve got our work cut out for us as it is with church-state separation and trying to improve the image of atheists.  On another forum, there was recently a discussion about whether an atheist party or lobbying group should have a formal position about LGBT rights.  I didn’t think we should–even though the vast majority of us, myself included, are 100% in favor of these rights.  There are long-established and successful groups promoting LGBT rights, but as far as I know, they don’t have platforms promoting atheism–not out of animosity, I’m sure, but because it isn’t their core issue.  I would prefer to see atheism remain a big tent where all are welcome–even an atheist acquaintance of mine who belongs to the Tea Party.

  • caffeine_stream

    Agreed, I have a feeling a large amount of the new generation of skeptics like myself could not give a crap about the paranormal. It seems so irrelevant as such a small group of people believe in it and those that do so often come across as clearly deranged.

    • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

      Is it really a small group of people though? Almost everyone I’ve ever met (that it’s come up with) believes in some form of the paranormal. Obviously, the circle of people I’ve met is not statistically representative, but its enough to make want a proper survey or five done. 

  • Anonymous

    I think Penn & Teller deserve some credit for
    being ahead of the curve in this regard. Bullshit! has covered a wide
    variety of skeptically non-traditional topics, including the War on
    Drugs, recycling, exercise vs. genetics, gun control, endangered
    species, the death penalty, abstinence, obesity, Wal-Mart, and
    immigration.

    • http://twitter.com/Toxicpath Somite

      Also to their shame they spread climate change and conservation denialism; and FFS they were skeptic of second hand smoking.  Just goes to show what happens when you combine skepticism with ignorance.

      • Karen

        Or perhaps the problem is combining skepticism with ideology.

        • Deen

          Indeed, the episodes where their skepticism intersected with their libertarianism were consistently the worst.

          But the problem is letting your ideology inform your skepticism. Letting your skepticism inform your ideology is fine – but much rarer.

          • Valhar2000

            That’s the kind of thing I was talking about before: Penn and Teller and good at being skeptics about the paranormal, but when they go beyond that they are very likely to end up spouting libertarian propaganda. Michael Shermer and Sam Harris can also be caught saying all kinds of silly stuff if they go off-topic, and I’m sure there are countless others.

            If “going off topic” becomes fashionable, I think we’ll see a lot of this, and a lot of tribal warfare will follow.

            • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1161192139 Susan Graham

              While Penn and Teller did miss the mark on a few things (climate change and smoking), they have also said as much (at least about the smoking thing).  Why is it that when libertarian minded skeptics like Shermer and Harris apply their reasoning to economics and public policy, suddenly they are seen as “silly”?  We need to question dogma.  Period.  Our own and others. 

              • Gundamnovaesquadron

                Sure. But if you’ve questioned dogma and still find them wrong, then what?

              • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

                They are not seen as silly because they question economics and public policy, they are seen as silly because many question libertarian dogma.

            • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

              The thing is, different people can have different specialties. The skeptic movement as a whole could discuss a much wider variety of topics than it does now without anyone ever “going off topic” at all.

      • Anonymous

        Of course since you don’t like smoking, second hand smoking must be bad.  I’ve not been able to find good data on it anywhere.  When someone cherry picks data (or in the case of the EPA, whole studies) to support a pre-determined conclusion you know that they are pretty much full of shit.

        Show me a good study with all data collected published and I’ll believe it.

        • http://twitter.com/Toxicpath Somite

          Here’s a couple of good ones:
          Second hand smoke, age of exposure and lung cancer risk.All individuals exposed to SHS have a higher risk of lung cancer. Furthermore, this study suggests that subjects first exposed before age 25 have a higher lung cancer risk compared to those for whom first exposure occurred after age 25 years.
          http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18191495

          This one deserves the whole abstract

          Risk of lung cancer from environmental exposures to tobacco smoke.Dockery DW, Trichopoulos D.Source
          Environmental Epidemiology Program, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA 02115, USA.AbstractEpidemiologic evidence on the relation between environmental tobacco smoke and cancer is reviewed. The labeling of tobacco smoke as an environmental cause of lung cancer has been challenged based on allegations of bias in the epidemiologic data. However, tobacco smoke has been shown to increase the risk of lung cancer down to the lowest exposure levels. Environmental tobacco smoke contains the same carcinogenic compounds as those found in the tobacco smoke inhaled directly by the smoker. Nonsmokers environmentally exposed have elevated levels of tobacco smoke byproducts in biological samples. These observations alone are sufficient to identify tobacco smoke as an environmental carcinogen. The epidemiologic studies showing that environmental exposure to tobacco smoke is associated weakly but consistently with increased risk of lung cancer. While these epidemiologic studies have been challenged, it does not appear that the observed epidemiologic associations are due to misclassification or confounding. Indeed, the epidemiologic results, particularly among the studies with superior data collection methods and better control of bias and confounding, find consistent associations between environmental tobacco smoke and lung cancer. This paper summarizes the evidence that environmental exposure to tobacco smoke increases the risk of lung cancer, and considers the criticisms of the epidemiologic evidence which have been raised.

          http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9498897

        • http://timothy.green.name/ Timothy (TRiG)

          Second-hand smoke isn’t just about lung cancer (where the data is unclear), but about a number of other issues, such as asthma and eye irritation, where the data is abundantly clear.

          TRiG.

      • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/5YJSHE7GHZT7GUZ5IH6NDOO6SM Stephen

        Absolutely right. One show of theirs was about animal welfare/rights issues and I have rarely seen such laughable nonsense, even from the dumbest rednecks out there. I couldn’t finished watching it, being so disgusted at the misinformation, lies and ignorance they were peddling.  After that I couldn’t trust them on any subject.

    • Tinker

      Penn and Teller are the only true skeptics I have ever seen in the mass media. If they ran for presidential office I would quit my job to campaign for them. I have been shocked to find out how many of my fellow atheists only think skeptically about religion and nothing else. Question those studies, people! Follow the money!

  • http://dramatic-exaggeration.blogspot.com/ WhiteJM

    That’s a really good point, and it’s
    one of the reasons that I started my blog: a major focus of it is
    based on the misinformation campaign of the Religious Right to
    re-cast American history as evangelical Christian in nature, when it
    clearly wasn’t. Sure it doesn’t meant that, for instance, I can prove
    that Benjamin Franklin was an atheist, but that isn’t the point—
    David Barton wants Franklin to think exactly the same way he does. I
    simply want to show that there are answers out there,
    that we don’t have to make history fit our ideology, and that there
    are good reasons for accepting and embracing the uncertainty of
    history, or favoring one interpretation over another without turning
    it into some legalistic absolutism as Barton does, particularly in
    his writing about originalist interpretation of the Constitution (the
    book Original Meanings dismisses
    the idea that originalism is even possible or appropriate in
    determining constitutional issues). We can also explain why it was
    that for all their skepticism that Enlightenment Americans generally
    chose Deism over agnosticism or atheism, why a god was necessary in
    their world view, by charting the history of ideas and understanding
    the world from their point of view

    I was a little dismayed when I thought
    about how I could contribute, since my focus isn’t ancient history
    like Richard Carrier’s is, or a scientist like PZ Myers, but I
    realized I had my own “creationists” to fight, within my own
    field, using the things I study and am in the process of becoming an
    expert in. I can also help explain historical methodology to people
    in fields I’m not an expert in, helping others understand what is
    legitimate and reliable historical knowledge and what isn’t, and how
    to spot subversive histories. I think applying our individual talents
    against every aspect of misinformation, especially that
    misinformation propagated by those with subversive religious
    intentions, will diversify the movement immensely, may even solve
    some of the racial/class/education issues at the same time.

  • Valhar2000

    What sort of other issues could be dealt with skeptically? In an effective manner? It’s just that it seems to me that through a great deal of luck the skeptic movement has formed itself into something that works, and, given the average human’s pathetic ability for skeptical thought, this is nothing short of amazing.

    The suggestions given here, well-meaning as they are, could disrupt this delicate structure and destroy it. By this I mean that it seems to me much more likely than anything that introducing wider topics in these conferences will result in little more than tribal warfare and nothing will ever get done. It is perfectly possible to apply skepticism to a narrow range of topics and believe the most outrages bullshit when it comes to another set of topics, and I’m afraid that we would see a lot of that.

    Too pessimistic? I’d like to think so, but I really don’t.

  • Jim Rogers

    I second Christopher’s thoughts – I’ve been an atheist and skeptic for a long time and I’m done with the subjects of religion, the paranormal, and aliens.

    Tackling current political and social issues can make skepticism relevant to a much wider audience, and might draw into the movement people who are passionate about those kinds of issues. It might also make skepticm more challenging and more interesting to the people already involved with it.

  • Anonymous

    Glad to see you coming out on the side of the light. If being a skeptic is confined to congratulating myself and others for disbelieving in psychics, count me out. 

    The idea that we’d stop ourselves from attacking misinformation as soon as it refers to sensitive political issues is really upsetting. It’s cowardly, really. And as far as being accommodating to proudly-inconsistent “skeptics,” I think it’s fine to be welcoming and nice to everyone, but you’re doing someone a favor if you point out problems in their reasoning. It gives them an opportunity to be a clearer thinker and to have a more rational worldview. If that’s not a central value of the Skeptical Movement, then we should change it so that it is.

    • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com Siggy

      “If being a skeptic is confined to congratulating myself and others for disbelieving in psychics, count me out.”

      I believe this characterization would be just as unfair as saying that the atheist movement is confined to congratulating itself for disbelieving gods.  Which is what a lot of outside observers seem to think.

      • Anonymous

        Yes. I was oversimplifying for dramatic effect. 

  • Deen

    As I’ve said elsewhere (including in comments to Daniel Loxton’s post that you link to), it’s OK if organizations individuals want to specialize in certain topics. For instance, the JREF focuses on paranormal claims. But I don’t think that skepticism, when used as a tool to help you make choices in the world, is limited to the “traditional” topics of skepticism. So while limiting the scope of a particular organization makes perfect sense, I don’t think trying to limit the scope of the entire movement (or of everyone who calls themselves a skeptic) makes much sense at all.

    I think the worry of “traditional” skeptics is that this expanded diversity of subjects will hurt “Big Tent Skepticism”, as it may alienate skeptics with certain political or religious affiliations, and that it will therefore actually lead to less diversity. Maybe they fear that this would result in “skeptical purity tests”, or something. Of course, skeptics meetings aren’t closed either to altmed proponents, or UFO or bigfoot hunters, and nobody pretty much worries that they will be. So I’m sure we can deal with some robust discussions about political subjects (and religion) too.

    Of course, this does require people to get over the social taboo that it is impolite to discuss politics or religion.

  • Placibo Domingo

    How about this, the skeptical movement should strive to become the Snopes of all reality.  Annual conventions should be organized around themes, like P & T’s “Bullshit”, only better. (Love you, guys, but sometimes you miss the mark). Each year TAM could  focus on ”Drugs”, or, “Abortion” or “Welfare” of “Media Bias” or “Guns”, and we spend the year immersed in the issue, and then we present papers, and have panels, and go deep, and see where the evidence leads. Maybe, just maybe, we can do a better job of getting beyond ideology and questioning our assumptions than we have seen happen in the political realm. The paranormal, homeopathy, UFOs, that stuff is just preaching to the choir.  We could find and publicize the best research on that year’s topic and become the go-to source for evidence based conclusions on the important policy issues of our time.
    Or we could just keep talking about how the Loch Ness Monster still isn’t real.

    • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

      While I would personally welcome a large skeptics event with diverse, current topics, I wouldn’t necessarily make TAM to be that event. TAM is JREF’s meeting, and JREF has its own focus and specialty. I don’t want to tell JREF what to do any more than I want them to tell other skeptics what they should talk about.

    • Anonymous

      For a movement this size (and growing), I think limiting it to one topic a year might not be the best option. Instead, organizing it into core groups based on individuals’ talents and knowledge to address several areas simultaneously would probably be a better choice.

    • http://twitter.com/Toxicpath Somite

      Really like this idea.  This is how other professional organizations structure their annual meetings.

    • Anonymous

      The issue is separating facts from values. Sure, we might be able to analyze the facts concerning gun control or drug legalization, but that doesn’t tell us which side is better. No matter what the facts are, some people are going to prefer a society where guns are common and some are going to prefer a society where they aren’t. There are tradeoffs for each side and it just depends on what advantages you value more. Do you value protecting your family with a gun more or cutting down on street violence more? Skepticism isn’t going to answer that question. Only your personal values can.

      • http://twitter.com/Toxicpath Somite

        But skepticism and science can answer specific questions.  Does more gun control result in lower gun related crime or deaths? Does owning a gun really protects you against crime, etc.  People can then apply their ideology but not their own facts.

  • Red

    Paranormal beliefs do have a real world impact on  people’s lives.  Just ask Marshall Applewhite.  So I don’t think it’s wise to abandon being publicly skeptical of UFOs and bigfoot.

    Having said that, I’m all for expanding the stable of topics to which we turn a skeptical eye.  Similarly to valhar2000, I’m not sure that other topics can be treated as effectively by us as homeopathy can.  Sure, you can cite statistics about when abortions take place and discuss rights and freedom and such, but if someone believes that their god thinks that abortion is out and out murder, logic and reason won’t matter to them.  Similarly, I don’t see gun laws being swayed much by calm reasoning.

    That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t promote reproductive rights or gun control but the line delineating science from psuedoscience is much fuzzier for those topics than for the ‘traditional’ ones.  And many of these more political topics come down to more differences in opinion than a lack of scientific rigor.  It’s a simple matter to show someone that vaccines do not cause autism.  Disabusing someone of the notion that abortion is wrong is much less straightforward.

    • None

      “or gun control” ???  as a skeptic it’s important to examine the facts and evidence, then draw a conclusion.  This is one area that i have read a lot of research and we have too much “gun control”.   It is factually correct to say that more guns (in the hands of law-abiding citizens) reduced crime.

      Here’s a fun fact:  The past three years have seen a huge increase (about 1,000,000) in gun purchases (after an FBI background check), yet for the past three years violent crime continues to go down.

      At the same time, laws across the country are being changed back to the original intent of the founding fathers, with respect to the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution, and yet violent crime decreases year after year.

      Two things: Fuck all gods and fuck you

      • http://twitter.com/Toxicpath Somite

        Violent crime is not the only issue.  Please read the conclusion.

        Firearm availability and suicide, homicide, and unintentional firearm deaths among women.Miller M, Azrael D, Hemenway D.Source
        Department of Health Policy and Management, Boston, MA 02115, USA. mmiller@hsph.harvard.eduAbstractCONTEXT:In the United States, more than 45,000 women died from gun violence over the last decade.OBJECTIVE:To determine whether measures of firearm availability are related to rates of suicide, homicide, and unintentional firearm deaths among women in the United States.DESIGN:Pooled cross-sectional time series data on suicide, homicide, and unintentional firearm deaths (1988-1997) were used to estimate the association between the rate of violent death among women and four proxies of firearm availability. Two proxies came from survey reports of household firearm ownership rates; two were derived from mortality statistics.SETTING:United States, 1988-1997.RESULTS:The increased rate of suicide and homicide in states with high gun levels was accounted for primarily by significantly elevated firearm suicide and firearm homicide rates. Unintentional firearm death rates were also increased in states with more guns. At the regional level, qualitatively similar results were obtained.CONCLUSION:Between 1988 and 1997, the suicide, homicide, and unintentional firearm death rates among women were disproportionately higher in states where guns were more prevalent. The elevated rates of violent death in states with more guns was not entirely explained by a state’s poverty or urbanization and was driven primarily by lethal firearm violence, not by lethal nonfirearm violence.

  • Villa

    In addition to ‘mission drift’ there’s also ‘mission creep’.  When I talk about ‘tolerating’ different beliefs, what I really mean is, “We have a common goal.  We’ll agree to set our differences aside where they’re not relevant to this project.”

    If we make our mission huge, then the number of people who are on board for all of it shrinks.  This is my problem with mixing (specific strains of) humanism with skepticism or atheism.

    If our mission is, “We want people to reason well.  It’s bad to have fallacies or positions placed above thought” then we can get a bunch of people to accept that as a ‘common goal’.

    As soon as we start bringing politics in, we get a tension between, ‘Before all else, you should think clearly and for yourself’ and ‘PS we want you to come to these specific conclusions’.   We also lose a bunch of people who are allies on the ‘make people think clearly’ project, but not the ‘these are our moral positions’ project.

    If people want to form advocacy groups for some specific faction of politics, then more power too them.  If skeptics want to do it, great!  But let’s be careful to not conflate ‘being a skeptic’ with ‘sharing MY politics’. 

    • Stephanie

      This.
      I sat in on this panel at TAM and was horrified with the idea. Skepticism is a tool, much like critical thinking and scientific methodology which are both related but not identical techniques. They are a way to arrive at an answer, but the answer is also dependent upon the question or the wording. In politics, semantics get very hazy.

      Do you want a political party of skepticism run by a social libertarian if you are a liberal? People I talked to in the bar at South Point seemed to think libertarians were dangerous.  Do you want a political party of skepticism run by a social liberal if you are a libertarian? I think there might be a problem when asking someone up for coffee in an elevator was considered hate speech not free speech. Frankly, I am a moderate on almost all levels, and I don’t think I could get behind skepticism as any sort of political force. It dilutes the message to the point where there is no weight behind the word.

      • http://twitter.com/Toxicpath Somite

        But what if it was a way to discern fact from opinion leaving the ideology to each individual.  The problem with current media is that it is mostly driven by ideology rather than facts.

        • Stephanie

          I personally would love some watchdog arm of skeptics to act as a fact check on most things. In fact, I would suggest politifact.com already acts in that capacity. 
          But I believe that taking a side in any of the current political debates would be as likely to fracture the loose association of people who call themselves skeptics as it would to create a politically active community.

          • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

            And who says anyone has to “take sides”? Why can’t we just “take the side of” the facts, regardless of political affiliation or personal bias?

            • Stephanie

              wmdkitty, I refer you to the smoking discussion a couple of comments above for the answer to that. ;)  

              One thing I think all skeptics can agree on is that we can’t stand to remain silent once we do decide the facts prove or falsify something. I think the failure would be in the confidence interval for where some could draw the line for our study of an issue being conclusive  or not.

              • http://twitter.com/Toxicpath Somite

                Determining what is the best possible data and conclusion at the moment is fairly easy. It is the more recent peer-reviewed literature on the subject.  TAMs could be a review of the most recent thinking about a subject by the experts.

                Shermer and Penn and Teller got into trouble because they have no expertise on what they were talking about and it was easy to see they were injecting ideology.

                • Stephanie

                  Alright, let’s pick a topic like abortion rights. What is the best possible data on when an abortion is the appropriate action? What position could someone solely motivated by skepticism come to on this issue and then expect everyone else who self-identified as a skeptic to also accept? 
                  Another? Decriminalization of marijuana. Or the flip side, criminalization of alcohol. Data points to both these substances being dangerous, and- I fully believe I’m out of my depths here but from what little I’ve read on the topics alcohol seems more dangerous both in a directly biological way and indirectly through driving and aggressiveness toward others. But studies also show the ineffectiveness of trying to control these substances.I just don’t see clear cut answers to many of the murky issues no matter how much I prefer common sense and logic over rhetoric. 

                • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

                  Seeing as how prohibition of marijuana is causing more damage than marijuana itself, the logical position — to me, at least — is to legalize, regulate, and (moderately) tax.

                • Stephanie

                  I completely agree with that as a personal value statement, but I don’t know that there’s enough evidence to prove that criminalization causes more damage than legalization would. I think it’s still at the conjecture point. Which is why as a left leaning moderate, I’d be completely behind this, but it would not be something I would want Skeptics as a bloc to endorse. Also, I think we’re running out of room for discussion- boo! I have enjoyed this back and forth immensely- it’s given me a lot to ponder.

                • http://twitter.com/Toxicpath Somite

                  The point is to work hard to distinguish opinion from fact.  It won’t be easy but it can be attempted.

                • Stephanie

                  It can be attempted and more power to anyone doing the sifting. But I don’t think it would be easy to come to consensus even on when there is enough evidence to officially endorse the more controversial issues. That is my main complaint about expanding the official scope of skeptics as a group. Personally, skepticism should be employed whenever possible, even on issues with which you personally agree and support. I don’t believe in sacred cows anymore than I believe in any deities. IMHO, this is what keeps me moderate.

  • Red

    Running people off is not something we should be worried about, in my opinion.  Sometimes, you have to scrape off dead weight (even if that dead weight reads your blogs and buys your books and attends your conferences) if you want to move forward.  A small, focused group can move more swiftly and decisively than a bloated one that tries to be all things to all people.

    Besides, isn’t the idea to teach critical thinking more than simply debunk extraordinary claims?  Assuming it is, it’s much easier to do that using UFO’s and homeopathy as your teaching examples than if you were using homosexuality.  Given the near universal dearth of critical thinking in the US right now, I think anything that will get folks thinking more skeptically is a good thing.  There’s nothing wrong with encouraging people to apply skepticism to all their beliefs, but if they don’t even understand what ‘skepticism’ means, arguing for gay marriage is going to completely lose them.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    Everyone’s in favor of widening the scope of skepticism until it widens to an area they personally don’t feel comfortable with.  Then suddenly it’s mission creep.  For instance, many people would be uncomfortable with the skeptical movement becoming partisan.  Hardly anyone liked when Michael Shermer wrote Mind of the Market and started talking about libertarianism a lot.

    Also, the focus on the paranormal and pseudoscience isn’t totally arbitrary.  There are already organizations out there who talk about abortion, and they probably do it better than us.  Nobody knows more about pseudoscience than we do.

    Lastly, these topics already are part of the skeptical chatter, if not the official skeptical agenda.  Skeptical blogs talk about all sorts of things, just like atheist blogs.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Barbara-A-Drescher/1307296112 Barbara A. Drescher

      Yup. Couldn’t agree more.

      The issue that’s missing from the discussion here is that “plenty of data” is both relative and insufficient. Politics and economics are extremely complex and Skepticism is packed with undereducated people who are immensely overconfident in their understanding and interpretations of evidence.  

      Yes, skepticism should be applied to all aspects of life, but it should be applied with care. It is much easier for laypersons to gain expertise in the pseudosciences of the paranormal than to try to take on topics which require years of study to understand with any depth. 

  • caffeine_stream

    I think the major point is most of us are not just interested in being a skeptic and focusing on any narrow band of what a “true skeptic” should focus on. Instead we are interested in being critical thinkers, rational & cutting out ideology wherever we find it. My goal is to inspire people to make their decisi0ns based on evidence and logic not based on tradition, party ideology or religious ideology.
     
    I.e. the opposite of what we see in American government.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_4YBPT4NTXVGGOPYDXUTN2RH5DI Patrick

    To a certain degree, there’s nothing to which skepticism and critical thinking cannot be applied.  That doesn’t imply that the skeptic movement should be about everything.

    I feel like this conversation mirrors one that happens periodically in Christian groups.  They reason like this:

    1. We’ve got Jesus and God.
    2. We spend a lot of time focusing on X, Y, and Z.
    3. But Jesus and God are the solution to EVERYTHING EVER.
    4. So we should be paying more attention to… stuff!  All of it!

    And the problem is the same.  Mission dilution, a lack of subject matter expertise, the fact that the chosen silver bullet isn’t always as effective as hoped, and the tendency to develop an orthodoxy on subjects where the group’s organizing feature shouldn’t necessarily lead to orthodoxy.

    So personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing some skeptically oriented spin off groups dedicated to various subject matter.  But… I don’t know.  This whole thing seems a little like hubris.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-Hickey/30117548 Patrick Hickey

    *deleted by author due to double post error*

  • Dconnors Image

    It would be great to hear more sceptical views on issues of the day like drug laws, consumerism, and war.  That way I could use the eloquent words and ideas of other to help bolster my  own when deciding what to say to my local politician. (She’s not very interested in religious arguments, nor do I really need to make them…Canada, here). 

  • Darlene

    Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes!

    Politicians make wacky claims All. The. Time. Shouldn’t everyone be fact checking them? Seeing if they are accurate? We don’t have to make value judgements–although they can naturally lead from an examination of the available evidence–but make sure there is truth in what is being said must have value.

    Education needs this. So many models are based on unproven theories of learning, and evidence-based models are overlooked and ignored. If we know how children best learn maths, or languages, or anything…why wouldn’t we demand that textbook companies and schools implement those tactics over others? Why support charter schools that haven’t been proven to work, or testing that isn’t correlated with actual learning? Why aren’t people even asking these questions?

    Abortion: we can look at what the science says, what we know to be true. That abortion doesn’t increase the risk of breast cancer or lead to mental illness, for example. That real sex education is more effective than abstinence only ‘education’. That sexuality shouldn’t be something parents can opt out of any more than a math class or history class.

    Skepticism should be a mindset, a way of life. And I live in the real world where real-world application of healthy skepticism matters. Visiting a doctor who offers an antibiotic prescription, I can ask, “If it’s a viral infection, why are you giving me this? Do I need it? Will I be okay without it?”

    The supermarket selling supplements; the drugstore selling SPF 100; the motorcycle with the bell to keep the road gremlins away (okay, that one is real and works, but worth questioning :-p )…

    We have a world much bigger than big feet, psychics, and ghost hunters…am I supposed to accept everything unless it’s been approved by the skeptical community? Because it might spread us too thin?

    Sorry, I’m a bit skeptical of that assertion. Citation and evidence, please. And be sure to address the idea: might it be good to spread ourselves thick? To be a part of everything, everyday?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1072340277 Doug Greer

    I never really gave a damn about paranormal beliefs.  My involvement with Skepticism has always been to promote critical thinking.  I’m glad to hear others share my perspective.  This perspective has lead me to spend most of my time in the Media Reform Movement instead of the Skepticism Movement.  Here are a few good resources which demonstrate critical thinking applied to the Media:  FAIR’s Counter-spin (http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=5), Robert McChesney’s Media Matters (http://will.illinois.edu/mediamatters/) and SourceWatch (http://www.sourcewatch.org/).

    The mainstream (corporate) media is in desperate need of stronger critical thinking skills, especially in light of the overwhelming amount of lies and propaganda which come from Libertarian and Conservative think tanks like the Heartland Institute (http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Heartland_Institute), The Heritage Foundation (http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Heritage_Foundation) and the Cato Institute (http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Cato).  

    Far too often, false dichotomies are pushed by the mainstream media.  One case is to equate the media reform organizations funded by Liberal/Progressive organizations with the ones funded by Right-wing organizations.  The Center for Media and Democracy funds SourceWatch while Exxon Mobil and the Sarah Scaife Foundation funds The Media Research Center (http://www.mrc.org/).  It seems obvious to me which of these organizations utilize critical thinkers and which one employes ideologues.  
    Here’s the SourceWatch page on the Media Research Center:  http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Media_Research_Center
    Search the Media Research Center page (www.mrc.org/) for SourceWatch or The Center for Media and Democracy. The extent of their criticisms are just rants about perceived “liberal bias”.

    The climate change denialism of Penn and Teller has been called out by Skeptics like Massimo Pigliucci (http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2009/09/dear-penn-and-teller-bullshit.html).  There’s still prominent Skeptics like Michael Shermer who have taken the position of the “lukewarmers” (http://www.pointofinquiry.org/michael_shermer_the_believing_brain/).  This position acknowledges that the evidence that humans are changing the climate is overwhelming, but they substitute their own opinions on how to deal with the situation over actual climate scientists who are actually qualified to provide expert opinion on the subject.  In the case of Shermer, his stance is probably just the arrogance of a Libertarian with unreasonable faith in the advancement of technology.   One place for Skeptics to question their economic beliefs is the Heterodox Economics Newsletter:  http://www.heterodoxnews.com/.

    Think tanks don’t just spread disinformation about Climate Science, most of them spread economic woo, anti-government hysteria, red-baiting and public school teacher scapegoating.  We must apply critical thinking skills to all these issues.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1161192139 Susan Graham

    I would love to see this movement advocate using reason to look closely at issues like our failed drug war, economic policy, and civil liberties.   My experience with the skeptical community at large is that it doesn’t seem willing to apply its razor sharp reasoning ability to areas of government and economics.  A few skeptics like Penn Jillette, Michael Shermer, and John Stossel do add apply their skepticism to these areas, but I would love to see more doing the same. 

  • Anonymous

    If I appear ignorant of this topic its because I am.  My understanding is that a movement takes on the personality of the leadership.  And a leader can either start a movement from scratch or get in front of one that already exists.  Does the skeptic movement have organizational leadership?  Does that leadership establish a concrete mission statement and steer the movement along that path?  If this is the case then subsets could be established to deal with specific subjects such as atheism, politics, sex education, ideologies, stereotypes, etc.  I suspect that the relevant topics will attract the most interest within their own time frame.  There are more questions than there are  answers and education merely exposes more questions.  I would rather be skeptical of life and death issues than the chronology of the chicken and the egg.

  • Chris Dunkel

    It would be awesome if the skeptic movement applied the same intellectual rigor to politics and economics as they do to science and religion.  As people have already pointed out, these topics have far more immediate effect on the lives of everyone in the country and the world, and I’m sure there is just as much, if not more, lies and misinformation.

    I was in Las Vegas the same weekend as TAM attending a different conference down the street called Freedom Fest (definitely wanted to be in two places at once that weekend).  Freedom Fest focuses on politics and economics, and I couldn’t help but spend the entire weekend thinking how great it would be to mix Freedom Fest and TAM.  Especially since most of the skeptics I know are politically liberal and most of the crowd at Freedom Fest lean libertarian.  Think of the fantastic debates that could be had!  The TAM members could force the more conservative members of the Republican/libertarian crowd to face their crazy beliefs about religion and science and the Freedom Fest group could challenge the skeptics on public policy and the best way to achieve prosperity.

    Now THAT’S a conference I’d like to attend.

  • http://www.facebook.com/emptycoldclear Noel Ang

    All atheists are skeptics, but not all skeptics are atheists.

    Not believing in mysticism, defining yourself primarily as a negation or repudiation, has never been enough, and I’m delighted to see that more people are thinking about it.

    Lacking the blind certainty of religion as a moral guide, we still have to make sense of the  reality at large, and trusting prima facie to the rigor of every avowed atheist’s rational faculty is as ill-conceived as any other form of faith. Atheists are not excused from formulating a proper philosophy and establishing first principles. And we have our work cut out for us: thinking (and getting it right) is harder than believing.

    UFOs and Bible contradictions are child’s play. From environmentalism, statism, to collectivism, God is in the environment, the government, the people, and their primacy is at the expense of every sovereign mind. The divine vein runs deep (it has a few thousands of years’ head start).  Any consideration of living a moral life — a rational, free, and good life — necessarily involves
    political considerations, because collective, irrational decisions
    constantly impinge and jeopardize your ability to live one.

    • pureone

      not all atheists are skeptics. 

    • http://twitter.com/Toxicpath Somite

      Post-modern much? Skepticism can only be scientific because it is supposed to be a conclusion based on facts. It is not another way of knowing; it is the only way that includes a process to know what is true.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Barbara-A-Drescher/1307296112 Barbara A. Drescher

        Skepticism is not “a conclusion” at all. You’re confusing “fact” with “truth” and methods with conclusions.

        • http://twitter.com/Toxicpath Somite

          I don’t think so. I would modify my comment to say that skepticism is a method to arrive at the correct conclusion but I stand by the rest.

  • Brandon

    What this country needs is a party of Reason.  The Dems and Rebubs have had their day.  The two-party system has failed.  There needs to be more diversity in our democracy and better lobbies to fight the good fight.  I say we start campaigning for the Reason Party.  Or the Rationalist Party.  Whichever sounds better.  A party that bases all of their arguments on fact and reason instead of ideology.  The main argument should be to fight ideology (left or right wing) and operate solely on facts and reasoned political science.

    • http://twitter.com/Toxicpath Somite

      Of course we have the uphill battle that one of the existing parties has made irrationality a political platform with great success.

    • Anonymous

      The problem with this is that reason can only be used in tandem with ideology. The ideology determines what kind of outcomes you value; reason helps you to pursue those outcomes in a way that will work. 

      This is why I like the idea of skeptics serving as a universal watchdog, and not as a group with a concrete political platform. In this way, political diversity can still be encouraged (left critiques right, right critiques left), and all politicians can be kept under strict skeptical scrutiny. In this way, we can be simply pro-democracy, because we’d be making sure the public is actually voting for what they think they’re voting for, and not being misled by charlatans…um I mean politicians.

      • http://twitter.com/Toxicpath Somite

        Completely disagree with your first paragraph. Reason should replace ideology to achieve the best outcome for most.

    • Steve

      Great comment! Right now, our choices are t diametrically opposed groups of extremists.

    • http://profiles.google.com/cartman86 Brice Gilbert

      Libertarian and worse Objectivist ideologies have already sort of hijacked these words. I fear any attempt by the skeptical movement to delve into politics will no doubt clash with the members who subscribe to these ideals.

      That being said I certainly would like to give it a go. Trying to come to decisions based on rational discourse and fact based initiatives is certainly better then what we have now.

    • http://profiles.google.com/cartman86 Brice Gilbert

      Libertarian and worse Objectivist ideologies have already sort of hijacked these words. I fear any attempt by the skeptical movement to delve into politics will no doubt clash with the members who subscribe to these ideals.

      That being said I certainly would like to give it a go. Trying to come to decisions based on rational discourse and fact based initiatives is certainly better then what we have now.

  • http://profiles.google.com/aprilbrooks April Brooks

    Fantastic!!!

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    I’m not all that interested in apply skepticism to the paranormal.  That is low-hanging fruit.  I agree with others commenting here that the belief in the paranormal isn’t really a big problem in our society.  I am, though,  very interested in applying skepticism to religious claims since religion has a very real influence on politics and policies developed. 

    In general, though, we need to move from a culture of “circling the wagons” and defending beliefs to a culture of being self-critical.  In the scientific method you are **suppose to** form a hypothesis and then try to disprove it.  I would love for us to move away from a culture where it’s always the “other side” that tries to disprove one’s hypothesis and then that “proof” is dismissed because it comes from the “other side”.  Then each side puts forth anecdotal “evidence” to support their own side. 

    If the skeptical movement could be a champion of each “side” being more self critical that would be a big help.  We need to call fowl when a politician brings up an anecdotal story to reinforce whatever unexamined policy they are advocating.

    • Anonymous

      I like your comment about the paranormal being “low-hanging fruit.” I was thinking of the same phrase myself. But I disagree that it isn’t important. If we can’t convince people that belief in the paranormal is a mistake, what hope do we have of moving from there to religion and then to the more complex social issues like climate change and national debt?

      Those topics are useful if for nothing else than to refine our toolbox and hone our skills, to find out what works and what doesn’t work in convincing the non-skeptical among us.

      By the way, has anyone seen ANYTHING that works?

    • Anonymous

      I like your comment about the paranormal being “low-hanging fruit.” I was thinking of the same phrase myself. But I disagree that it isn’t important. If we can’t convince people that belief in the paranormal is a mistake, what hope do we have of moving from there to religion and then to the more complex social issues like climate change and national debt?

      Those topics are useful if for nothing else than to refine our toolbox and hone our skills, to find out what works and what doesn’t work in convincing the non-skeptical among us.

      By the way, has anyone seen ANYTHING that works?

  • Jeff Wagg

    I think what’s actually being proposed here is the start of a political movement, and one I’d likely be proud to be a part of, but I don’t think it’s skepticism.
    Skepticism’s roots aren’t the paranormal or what a bunch of old men were interested in, but science. Skepticism IS science. And what can science tell us about values, or politics? Very little. And while many people who are involved in skepticism share similar values, that’s a by product of skepticism, and not skepticism itself.Once you consider values, you have dogma. And once you have dogma, you have politics or religion. Not skepticism. 

    • Rob

      And what can science tell us about values or politics? Your answer is “very little”. My answer is “a hell of a lot”.

    • http://twitter.com/Toxicpath Somite

      One of the primary goals of skepticism is to show precisely that science and facts do have a lot to say about values and politics.  What is the alternative? Relinquishing values to religious frauds like Rick Warren and politics to, well, whatever the hell we have for politics right now.

      • Gundamnovaesquadron

        What’s that phrase? Science tells you how, not why?
        For example: Is freedom always good? Have fun using science to answer that conclusion well.

    • http://timothy.green.name/ Timothy (TRiG)

      Science, and scepticism, do not answer political or moral questions. They do, however, clarify what the question actually is. And that’s a very important first step.

      TRiG.

  • Gundamnovaesquadron

    Wee, clickjacking warning.

    Side note: Any party, based on reason, will itself be an ideological one. Just one that strongly values freedom/rationalism. Skeptics (I’m not really counting myself as one since I never decicided if I counted) value that, and therefore, that’s a good reason to them. It’s just..

  • Anonymous

    No, it shouldn’t be.  It’s already starting to look like too much of a lefty circle jerk to me as it is, with too much pomo jargon that only serves to make certain claims non-falsifiable (How often have you heard a feminist dismiss to dissent by just claiming that you can’t see it because you have “privelege”?) and much name calling (“Rethuglicans”, “teabaggers”).

    Why should I support organizations that want to replace the protective daddy god they no longer believe in with a protective daddy state, who want to make a visit to the doctor resemble a visit to the DMV, who want to create a state where only the police are armed, who assume that any man accused of sexual assault/domestic violence is guilty, who think it is fine to confiscate someones money just because he has more, who have no problem promoting junk science when it supports their agenda, and who have no problem with government regulation of pretty much anything except the narrowly personal.

    I’m already becoming disenchanted.  While I’ve always supported gay marriage (In a half assed, “sure, I’ll sign your petition” kind of way), I remained silent when it was brought up in skeptical fora because I thought it wasn’t relevant.  The reasons I never brought up my opposition to skeptical community involvement is that I would immediately be branded a “homophobe” and a kind of guilty pleasure in seeing it stuck to the fundies.

    Keeping causes separate is good strategy.  I find common cause with various groups that I don’t support because they will use part of my money against me.  The ACLU is great on speech and criminal procedure issues yet they oppose the second amendment and ignore the takings clause of the fifth, so no money for them. 

    Shit, gotta go to work now…maybe more later, depending on the responses.

    • http://twitter.com/Toxicpath Somite

      Each of your questions could have an answer if it was researched.  Maybe you wouldn’t like the answer but for example it is possible gun-related deaths would be greatly reduced if only the police were allowed to have guns, maybe government-run health care is better.  To be skeptical you have to recognize your ideology may not match the answer after you look at the problem skeptically.

    • Gundamnovaesquadron

      Why should I support organizations that want to replace the protective
      daddy god they no longer believe in with a protective daddy state, who
      want to make a visit to the doctor resemble a visit to the DMV, who want
      to create a state where only the police are armed, who assume that any
      man accused of sexual assault/domestic violence is guilty, who think it
      is fine to confiscate someones money just because he has more, who have
      no problem promoting junk science when it supports their agenda, and who
      have no problem with

      You know, when you make this kind of statement I don’t think you need to worry about applying skeptical thought to politics.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stephan-Goodwin/676660806 Stephan Goodwin

    I’ve been saying to friends for a while now that what really need is reality-based politics.  This seems like the perfect place for the skeptic movement to reach into, but I expect it to cause major divides amongst us as some things will quickly become problematic, mostly based around ethics, the limits of personal freedom, who should pay for our governmental systems.  Skepticism, in general, has one goal: to come closer to believing the truth and not believing the false.  Politics…for many it isn’t about truth.  It is about what OUGHT to be. 

    I welcome it, but it will get really ugly really fast.

  • Joshua Zelinsky

    It might make sense to apply it to such situations but doing so is a lot tougher.  For all these sorts of political issues the actual answers are much less clear.  These deal with the much more complicated issues of policy and economics. That’s very different from something like homeopathy or acupuncture where the results are pretty clear cut. Moreover, many of these issues connect not just with difficult to answer emperical questions but also with questions about values, which are much harder to address. There’s also  the issue that people are much more likely to have knee-jerk, tribalistic reactions about political issues than they are about many other things. Politics is the mind-killer http://lesswrong.com/lw/gw/politics_is_the_mindkiller/ 

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

    I, for one, would love to see some skeptics tackling the Drug War.

  • GuestLurker

    It seems to me that considering topics outside of the “canon” of the skeptic movement is also relevant to the type of diversity that Hemant mentioned expecting. After all, applying critical thinking to topics like evolutionary psychology, marketing, and modern medicine (as opposed to just “alternative” medicine… there’s a lot of murkiness in the overlap of large pharmaceutical companies marketing and research divisions) could potentially bring in more people with different perspectives.

    I agree that if a group needs to consider their core mission: an atheist group should focus on how to get gods out of public life. But skepticism is a methodology that can be applied to any number of things. Having themed conferences, as someone suggested, with panelists who understand the specifics of that particular area, would be excellent. Not only could it attract people who haven’t thought about skepticism as a life strategy, but it could attract people to attend more gatherings (since they won’t be hearing the same talks every time).

  • Anonymous

    I think we should debate these issues simply because it is fun to see the progressives and libertarians bitch at each other, each so convinced that their values can be proven by science.

    • http://twitter.com/Toxicpath Somite

      As opposed to the conservative’s unwavering commitment to facts 

  • Anonymous

    Why even limit ourselves to the Big Issues?   For instance, the other day on an information show, I heard a doctor telling people that if they encountered poison ivy, they should wash in hot soapy water.   That is the worst thing to do, because it makes the oil thin enough to penetrate the skin and spreads it around.
    This is a myth that arose because it sounds logical, but when tested it was determined to be wrong.
    The best response to coming in contact with poison ivy and like irritants is to jump in a lake or take a long (non-low flow) tepid shower with no soap.  The cold water keeps the oil together while carrying it away.  Don’t substitute a cold bath for the lake though, because the oil floats and when you get out, it clings all over.

    And while we are at it, how about flow restricters on a shower head?  I put the plug in to test the theory, and the high flow showers used 1/2 or less of the water the low-flow showers used.  The fallacy is that the end of a shower is determined by a duration, whereas for many folks, getting clean then getting the shampoo out and the soap off determines when it is complete.  If the rinsing is difficult it takes a whole lot longer and it takes a lot more water.   Likewise, a low flow toilet that takes two flushes doesn’t save water over the toilet that uses 1-1/2 times a much water but never misses.

    • Rob

      Could you point me to that poison ivy study? Thanks.

      • Anonymous

        Alas, I can’t find my link to the research I was depending on for my statement, and another link is coming up 404, but maybe this will do: 
        http://apps.caes.uga.edu/urbanag/Home&Garden/indexFS.cfm?storyid=2683

        I have anecdotal evidence, too, if you will accept that.
        Two family members, both responsive to urushiol,  found themselves in a patch of poison ivy, and one (the one more sensitive to the oil) jumped in the lake and swam for a bit while the other was dragged off for a hot shower with soap.  The lake jumper was unaffected, but the showered one ended up in the hospital for the better part of a week.

        I used to use the warm water and detergent plan, and I always got blisters anyway.  Since I have switched to flooding with cold water, no outbreaks.
        Of course, if you miss the window of opportunity while the oil is still above the protective layer of the skin, and the oil has started to affect the skin, or sink in, then the warm water and detergent is necessary, as is washing the exposed clothing aggressively in hot water and detergent.

        Also recommended is an anti-histamine for the very allergic, and we have had good results with jewel weed juice after the skin starts to itch.
        http://klemow.wilkes.edu/Impatiens.html
        Antihistamines (such as liquid Actifed) are effective applied directly to the affected area, as well as taken internally.

  • SJR

    Respectfully, Hemant, I think your initial gut feeling about this was actually the right one.  

    IMO, Dacey misses the point, starting with the use of the favorite lit-crit punching bag, the use of the term “canon”, with all its musty, dead white guy, patriarchal overtones.  I’d offer than skepticism tends to apply itself to certain issues because they’re suited to experimentation.  You can use the scientific method (or just simple critical thought) for deflating psychics, evaluating the use of boiled eye of newt vs. chemo to treat cancer, or even to see if you can prove god exists.  But it works because there’s a way of finding something like “truth” baked into it.  

    Public policy…not so much.  There are too many value judgement involved in deciding if an outcome is “good”.  How do you falsify the idea that a preference for the collective good over individual freedoms, or any of a zillion other choices societies make is “right”? (Although I’d love to see a study like “Congress: Better Than Placebo?”…)  A lot of it boils down in effect to saying, “My values are better than yours”  That’s not skepticism, it’s a polemic, and it belongs in a different venue, with a different audience.  

    We have enough incivility and rancor already swirling around polarizing social issues.  If you want to open minds, I’d say skepticism is a good place to start.  If you want to change society or influence politics, perhaps politics is a better realm.  But mixing them strikes me as unlikely to illuminate very much.  

    • Robin Marie

      You are right that at the heart of most political issues are value questions which probably cannot be empirically proved one way or the other. However, we’re not necessarily talking about putting “all men are created equal” to an empirical test. We’re talking about looking at policy that has a stated objective – let’s say, the reduction of drug addiction – that everyone agrees on, and then measuring whether or not said policy accomplishes the goal.

      This process is also fuzzier than in the hard sciences, because it is difficult and usually impossible to run controlled experiments. But that does not mean we cannot collect compelling evidence and determine that one conclusion is oodles more likely than another to be based on reality. And as far as that goes, I see no reason why not to extend skepticism to these questions. True, it might ruffle some political feathers, but shouldn’t the skeptical community be at the forefront of trying hard to understand and account for how political (ie social & cultural) biases impact our rational judgement? Wouldn’t this be a great way to go about it?

      • Sjr

        Robin Marie, I like your approach in principle!  I think you hit the nail on the head talking about identifying bias as a key element that’s under-acknowledged.  Perspective is everything, and a lot of people don’t seem to bother to examine how their personal situation, biases, etc, might affect theirs. 

        I’d love to see — and would help with — an effort to promote a broader appreciation of critical thinking skills.  Personally, I’d approach the political/social hot button issues obliquely and in a scrupulously neutral way, though. (One of my personal biases: I’m a recovering policy junkie, so my enthusiasm for smashmouth discussions is pretty low.) Maybe start with discussing common cognitive issues like the framework effect or confirmation bias, and then apply those to other issues, while letting others draw their own conclusions? 

  • Steve

    I sat through this panel discussion at TAM and at first, it rankled a little. Then, I started to go through a little internal searching and I was able to think about it in a different light… And, some of the people on the panel were right. “Skepticism” gets used a bunch of different ways and in a lot of society is used to turn people off to the idea of demanding people present credible evidence for their claims. The woman who brought the whole topic up (and, I am sorry I forget her name) was speaking a truth. Skepticism in its philosophical/historical sense is what gets most of us  into atheism. But, it works in other spheres. Helping others to start to look at the world skeptically will help society move forward. Some of the panelists got into a touchy-feely period that I don’t agree with. More of us need to go public and just say no to nonsense. I don’t care how well-intentioned it is it is still is nonsense. It would help a lot – not right away – if we all started challenging everyday nonsense, in a firm, but pleasant fashion. You won’t change everyone, but slowly, we’ll win some people back from the ‘dark side’.

  • Robin Marie

    I totally agree with this post — if you remember we talked a bit about
    this on the last podcast. This explicitly that is. But there is a lot
    more to say about it and I think we should go for it and have that discussion.

    Because if you think about it, it does get complicated. I think
    skeptics should increasingly apply their process to the non-sciencey
    stuff; I’m a historian, after all, so I am completely enamored with the
    power of skeptical thinking in the social realms. But there are
    questions about how to go about this when dealing with the power of
    bias, because all social questions are ultimately political questions.

    Take economics — this sounds like something that should be pretty
    straight forward, pretty sciency. But currently it appears that there
    are whole camps of economists who completely disagree with each other
    about some pretty fundamental basics — anyone who reads Paul Krugman’s
    columns quickly finds this out. Now, I think Krugman’s theory of
    economics — which is basically Keynesian — is the model more
    descriptive of reality. BUT, I find it weird that economists seem to
    lack consensus on these questions. Why? Are they not all looking at the
    same body of evidence?

    http://anamericanatheist.org/

  • Rick

    I think that efforts to bring more political issues to atheist meeting arenas  are a bad idea.   It seems that approximately 80% of attendees at atheist meetings are classic liberals and about 15% libertarians.  As a libertarian who is strongly opposed to gun control and to the parts of the feminist agenda which are anti-male and anti-freedom, it seems that the practical effect of your efforts would be to jettison libertarians from the atheist movement (it has  been suggested by PZ Myers that this would be a good idea).  The philosophical gap between the liberals and the libertarians is so huge that most people on both sides would not feel comfortable attending if these political issues formed a main part of the meeting.

  • Ethan Clow

    I’m really happy that you’ve embraced the “skepticism of everything” idea, Hemant. When I watched the diversity panel at TAM I must admit I had a hard time understanding what you were arguing for. However, based on this post, I’m in total agreement.

  • http://profiles.google.com/thom.raff Thomas Rafferty

    My blog, ratioprimoris.blogspot.com, has been addressing much more that alternative medicine and religion.  Please check it out.

  • WhatPaleBlueDot

    Some of us do.

  • Southern Geologist

    It would be interesting if it was done fairly and actually did apply a skeptical lens.  As an example:  The gun control debate would need to include things like the fact that allowing concealed carry reduces violent crime against both civilians and police (albeit, slightly).  We would also need to consider that non-gun related violent and property crimes (break-ins in particular) tend to see a sharp increase whenever gun control is put in place and balance that against, say, suicide rates and deaths by shooting.  After all, it does no good to stop people from being gunned down if far more are being stabbed due to being unable to defend themselves from criminals, right?  We also need to figure out why it is that gun-related deaths go down when gun control laws are loosened.  (Chicago immediately comes to mind.)

    For that matter, why not look at gun control through a historical lens to see what the primary goal behind it has been in the past?  Look at medieval Europe (crossbow ban in that case), medieval Japan, and the American south for a start.  (HINT: It’s been used throughout history to keep ‘under-classes’ from doing anything about government abuse of power.)

    This is just one example, but it’s quite clear from the posts here that the ‘truth’ behind certain political issues has been decided beforehand.  I highly doubt that serious dissent would be tolerated.

    • http://twitter.com/Toxicpath Somite

      Do you have proper references for those statements?  They appear to contradict the published peer-reviewed literature on the subject.  For example:

      1. J Trauma. 2011 Jan;70(1):238-43.

      Homicide, suicide, and unintentional firearm fatality: comparing the United
      States with other high-income countries, 2003.

      Richardson EG, Hemenway D.

      Department of Health Services, UCLA School of Public Health, Los Angeles,
      California 90095-1772, USA. erin.richardson@gmail.com

      BACKGROUND: Violent death is a major public health problem in the United States
      and throughout the world.
      METHODS: A cross-sectional analysis of the World Health Organization Mortality
      Database analyzes homicides and suicides (both disaggregated as firearm related
      and non-firearm related) and unintentional and undetermined firearm deaths from
      23 populous high-income Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development
      countries that provided data to the World Health Organization for 2003.
      RESULTS: The US homicide rates were 6.9 times higher than rates in the other
      high-income countries, driven by firearm homicide rates that were 19.5 times
      higher. For 15-year olds to 24-year olds, firearm homicide rates in the United
      States were 42.7 times higher than in the other countries. For US males, firearm
      homicide rates were 22.0 times higher, and for US females, firearm homicide rates
      were 11.4 times higher. The US firearm suicide rates were 5.8 times higher than
      in the other countries, though overall suicide rates were 30% lower. The US
      unintentional firearm deaths were 5.2 times higher than in the other countries.
      Among these 23 countries, 80% of all firearm deaths occurred in the United
      States, 86% of women killed by firearms were US women, and 87% of all children
      aged 0 to 14 killed by firearms were US children.
      CONCLUSIONS: The United States has far higher rates of firearm deaths-firearm
      homicides, firearm suicides, and unintentional firearm deaths compared with other
      high-income countries. The US overall suicide rate is not out of line with these
      countries, but the United States is an outlier in terms of our overall homicide
      rate.

      PMID: 20571454 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

  • Charon

    We don’t do that because there are questions that are purely ones of science, and ones that aren’t.

    Does homeopathy work? Is telepathy real? Is climate change occurring? Are UFOs of extraterrestrial origin? These are yes/no questions that can be answered purely by applying science. Whoever lists the “traditional” skeptical topics and can’t see this link… is missing the point.

    Should abortion be legal? Should it be legal before 6 months, then illegal afterwards? Should marijuana be legal for medical reasons? For any use? These are not scientific questions. Science, facts, and critical thinking help us address them – it’s hard to make the right choice if your facts are wrong – but ultimately there’s a moral component that science doesn’t address.

    I’m all for injecting science into economic, moral, and political debates… but there’s no pure evidence-based answer to these questions.

    • Charon

      My brother is an energy engineer/consultant, and was working on one project where they were trying to build a green building. He put the argument on economic terms – explaining how it was actually cheaper to do it green – because he was dealing with a businessman. Who told him no, don’t do it green, even if it’s cheaper. Because he hated the environment that much. (Not kidding, that’s what the guy actually said.)

      And here’s the thing: I disagree with this guy, and think he made the wrong choice, but I can’t prove that. Because there’s no objective metric here, just a moral decision. Skepticism doesn’t apply.