The Diversity Skeptics Rarely Talk About: Part 2

Back in July, I mentioned that Dr. Austin Dacey, author of The Secular Conscience, had written an article about how Skeptics need to branch out a lot more when it comes to issues we care about:

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.

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.

  • Anonymous

    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?

    The fact that the core of these areas is irrational thinking and misuse or misrepresentation of science. Every one of these areas is either entirely devoid of scientific or rational merit or (like alternative medicine) so deeply corrupted by bad science/bullshit as to render it a perfect target. The Innocence Project is very worthy, but it does not seek to invalidate forensic science or even eyewitness testimony as a valid resource entirely, just weed out cases where it’s been botched or misused. The skeptic community seems to be a lot more about going after entire areas that are bullshit, not valid pursuits that aren’t always used well.

    Even if we don’t amplify to include every place reason and science are being misused, there are plenty of subjects to cover. The drug war, prostitution and sexual ethics generally, moral panics, so-called “scientific” racism and climate change are all areas that could use a skeptical eye.

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

    It’s too easy to trivialize skepticism if its followers are thought to care only about UFOs, homeopathy and psychics.  There are so many areas that would benefit by being held to some kind of rational account–educational policy would be one HUGE thing.

  • b00ger

    I’m going to have to disagree with Dr. Dacey on this one. While it is important that professional experts in various fields fight against the misuse of their particular field, the lay skeptic still has a part to play. That is encouraging skepticism and rational thought processes in the lay public. Just because forensic scientists and the Innocence Project are working to overturn wrongful convictions, does not mean that myself (or Hemant, or Richard, or PZ, or Ophelia, or etc…) shouldn’t right and speak about those topics. 

    This is like saying the ACLU is helping people with their civil liberties so the rest of us should just not worry about it. NOW works towards women’s rights so the rest of us should just shut up. NORMAL works toward reform for Marajuana laws so, shut up Joe Potsmoker. Hell, by this logic, unless you are officially a member of one of the national skeptic or secular societies you should just shut the hell up. 

    The individual skeptic should focus on any of a wide variety of topics that interest them. Duplication of effort is just fine by me. You can get twice as much accomplished with twice as much effort. Logic Fail Dr. Dacey.

    • Ian

      I think you’re misreading Dacey and strawmanning his arguments. He isn’t saying that you shouldn’t get involved, but that the JREF or CFI, with finite resources, should leave some areas to those with better expertise.

      • Demonhype

        Bad communication then.  I kind of read it similarly myself.  Kind of
        sounded like he was indirectly saying that organizations like the
        Innocence Project are not experts and therefore responsible for getting 
        killers freed or something.  If that’s not what he was saying, then he
        may need to reword things just a little bit or add a few disclaimers
        because that’s how he’s coming off.

        Fact is, laymen and non-experts in forensics and law still have a part
        to play.  I may not be an expert in any of those things, but I will at
        times be forced to sit on a jury and judge other citizens, perhaps one
        day in a murder trial.  And to not get involved, to not educate myself
        on not only the methods of law enforcement and forensics and such but
        the ways they can be screwed up through incompetence or dishonesty,
        means that I can be easily bamboozled by a dishonest law enforcement or
        prosecution and/or by an incompetent law enforcement or forensics team
        into making the worst of wrong decisions and putting an innocent man in
        jail or even on death row.  BTW, every time that happens the real killer
        goes free, for those death-penalty cheerleaders out there.

        Maybe non-experts shouldn’t step into places where they shouldn’t, but
        that won’t be an argument against the Innocence Project until the legal
        system stops using non-expert average citizens to make up juries.  You
        don’t get to use non-experts in such a way and then claim the
        non-experts should shut their mouths and not question the very methods
        they are expected to trust in making a decision about whether to jail or
        kill someone.

        • Demonhype

          Sorry about the screwy formatting.  I had to close out and copy paste into a new browser, and it got scrambled a bit.

  • b00ger

    I’m going to have to disagree with Dr. Dacey on this one. While it is important that professional experts in various fields fight against the misuse of their particular field, the lay skeptic still has a part to play. That is encouraging skepticism and rational thought processes in the lay public. Just because forensic scientists and the Innocence Project are working to overturn wrongful convictions, does not mean that myself (or Hemant, or Richard, or PZ, or Ophelia, or etc…) shouldn’t right and speak about those topics. 

    This is like saying the ACLU is helping people with their civil liberties so the rest of us should just not worry about it. NOW works towards women’s rights so the rest of us should just shut up. NORMAL works toward reform for Marajuana laws so, shut up Joe Potsmoker. Hell, by this logic, unless you are officially a member of one of the national skeptic or secular societies you should just shut the hell up. 

    The individual skeptic should focus on any of a wide variety of topics that interest them. Duplication of effort is just fine by me. You can get twice as much accomplished with twice as much effort. Logic Fail Dr. Dacey.

  • Ian

    I agree with your take here Hemant. Dacey’s suggestion is noble – we should be looking to promote skepticism beyond our borders – but still limited. He’s almost arguing that we need to now fight the traditional skeptical topics – but in Africa. I think there are lots of areas in the Western world that still need skeptical eyes. Politics is a huge area which is often neglected due to differing political opinions and the need to be non-partisan for tax-exemption status.

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    There are areas that could use skepticism. But need to be careful. Psychics and homeopathy for example have something in common that applies to the vast majority  of the things skeptics focus on- the claims being made are simply factually incorrect.

    This is not necessarily true with the other areas. Abortion for example is ultimately a value issue. While specific aspects of it can be informed by skepticism (e.g. claims that abortions cause breast cancer are pretty blatantly wrong) the ultimate dispute is a value issue not a factual issue. 

  • http://twitter.com/TPRyan007 TPRyan

    The reason the same issues keep getting discussed in the skeptic arena is because they still get credibility with the public. When the public stop believing in, and being influenced by, gods, ghosts, psychics, homeopaths and UFOs is the day we can stop having public debates about them. 

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

    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.

    Indeed, I wouldn’t expect skeptics to contribute to the Innocence Project in any meaningful way unless they are forensic or legal experts. But skeptics can be of great help to popularize the knowledge about how unreliable eye-witness testimony is, or that even confessions don’t guarantee a guilty verdict. And once you understand the vulnerability of the legal system for false testimony and false confessions, they can be involved in pushing for changes in police procedures, for instance calling for mandatory video recording of all interrogations.

  • Anonymous

    Scepticism isn’t something that you can turn off.  If someone makes a claim, no matter what area it is in, it will be treated sceptically.  It doesn’t matter if it is your eccentric aunt who believes that they can talk to the spirit world or if it is a multi million pound industry selling sugar pills.  It doesn’t matter if it’s the horoscope or the anti-vaccine brigade.  Treat every claim sceptically so as to better understand reality.


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