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?
Now, part two of his article has been published. This time, Dacey backs away from the bigger picture and focuses on a couple examples of the types of things we should and should not be engaging in.
For example, he argues that there are some fields of skepticism we should just concede to other people:
Skeptics should not attempt to duplicate the efforts of those who are in a better position to be of service. For example, The Innocence Project is exposing faulty forensic science and eyewitness testimony in the wrongful convictions of hundreds of people in the United States who have thus far been exonerated by DNA evidence. As much as I think this is noble work, I think skeptics would be mistaken to go there, even though they would find bad thinking to discredit with evidence. Bad thinking is happening all over the place. Since in this instance there is already a specialized scientific field of forensics, experts in this field (as well as criminal law) are better placed than skeptics to be of service.
Very good point. Though I wonder what that says about our involvement in discussions about the drug war, abortion, gun control, etc. — areas in which experts are all over the place but our voices still need to be heard (especially if we’re concerned about making our demographics more diverse).
Are there any areas devoid of “experts” where can we help? Dacey has a suggestion:
A successful model of skeptical impact can already be found in the southern Indian context, where campaigns on witchcraft and sorcery, or banamati, are led by rationalists. Interdisciplinary teams of doctors, psychiatrists, social workers, social scientists, hypnotists, and magicians visit affected villages. They interview the accused and their alleged “victims,” educate the community, and help to train local police on effective enforcement and prevention.
That’s definitely an important (and all-too-ignored) focus for us. But I don’t think it needs to stop there. I don’t see us risking spreading ourselves too thin anytime soon.
Our problem isn’t that we’re focusing on the wrong areas, it’s that we’re not focusing on enough areas. Psychics, evolution, god — those are things you hear about all the time at skeptic gatherings. But we seem to ignore areas in which public policy doesn’t seem to stem from the evidence at hand — like marijuana legalization, the best methods for public education, and the problems with our nation’s prison system. We need to be addressing topics like those far more at our conferences and local meetings and in our blogs and books.