A little while back I conducted an interview with Sharon Hill, after reading a document that features on the Doubtful News website. It’s called The Media Guide To Skepticism and features some fascinating tips and guidance for anyone interested in finding out more about skepticism.
Sharon Hill has recently started writing for the Huffington Post at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sharon-hill and you can also find her monthly column “Sounds Sciencey“ over on the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website.
Kylie Sturgess: Right in front of me, I have on the “Doubtful News” website something called “The Media Guide to Skepticism.” Why write this guide to skepticism? Who’s the intended target audience?
Sharon Hill: I got the idea from seeing the “Media Guide to Volcanoes” when I was online. I said, “What a great idea!” A scientist wrote it because, I guess, he gets a lot of requests for interviews by reporters. It’s a cheat sheet, if you will. It gives you the basic information, some of the terminology, and some good places to go if you want to get that backup information when you’re doing a story. I thought that this would be great for reporters writing about the topic of skepticism, but it also would be great for the new people who attend skeptic events. They have the mindset, but they aren’t familiar with the literature, the language that we use, and, basically, the goals and the ideals around skepticism. So I thought it was important to have this document. It’s easy to read. It’s easy to understand.
Even though I’ve been in the skeptical neighborhood for twenty years now ‑ I finally thought I understood it well enough to take on this type of project ‑ I still realized that I would get it wrong.
What I do in my daily work is, I do community type documents. Everybody contributes to a document, and I have to put all the pieces together. It goes out to the public, and the public makes their comments on it because they have different interests.
What I did with this is, I put it out in a draft form on the website and contacted as many people as possible ‑ I put it out there in social media ‑ and particular people that I wanted to take a look at it who would go into it and decide what was wrong, what could be worded better, and what I messed up on.
That was out there for about a month. This was comments from people who were active in skepticism today. It really meant a lot to me for them to give me that feedback. It absolutely did what I needed it to do ‑ fix the things that I got wrong and what I missed.
Kylie: What were some of the big questions that you think need to be answered in skepticism, that you decided to focus on in this document?
Sharon: There are five major parts. I think there are five major categories that I wanted to focus on. First, what is skepticism? Let’s get a decent definition that pulls from everybody’s idea and makes it into something understandable and thorough that maybe people could agree on. The second part was what does it mean to be a skeptic. The third part was what skepticism isn’t, which is probably the most important part because it dispels some of the myths about skepticism. Then why it’s important to do skepticism, and then what do skeptics do. Why are we calling this a community, a network, a neighborhood, a movement or whatever we want to call it? What are some of the activities that we engage in? Those were the five big questions.
Kylie: Like most people online, but certainly not reflective of everybody out there in the skeptical community or people who go to conferences, I’ve noticed that there’s a backlash against defining skepticism in a traditional manner. People have even used the term “Bigfoot skeptic” as an insult towards the definition of scientific skepticism that people like yourself use. How do you respond to critics?
Sharon: I brush them off! Like I said, I’ve been at this for twenty years! It’s not going away! There will always be a place for people to push back against those promoting the paranormal, the unscientific, spiritual answers, extraordinary promises, incredible claims, all that stuff. That’s part of our culture. I think that there needs to be a mirror image to that. There needs to be a critique of that in order to keep things in a reasonable balance. You can’t just let that stuff go and take over the discussion. There has to be some pushback. I think that these beliefs do cause physical, mental, emotional, and monetary harm. There’s also insidious ways that they eat at our culture.
Using Bigfoot as an example, since you mentioned Bigfoot skeptics. I’d say I am one of those, but that’s OK. The iconic monster, Bigfoot, has never been more popular than he is now. He’s all over. People read the books and see the TV shows where they’re out looking for Bigfoot. They’re reading the media stories about DNA has been found and other traces of existence. They think there’s something to it. I could say the same about ghost hunters or UFO chasers.
It would be great if we didn’t have to worry about taking TV or entertainment too seriously, but hundreds of thousands of people believe this is genuine. I think it’s worth the time and money to tackle those things, because those people spend their time and money copying what the people are doing on TV. It devalues real science, real investigation and hard work.
My specialty is not in cancer treatment, psychology, religious claims, promoting atheism or promoting feminism. There are better‑prepared people who can do that. We have to capitalize on our individual passions and knowledge.
We can’t just focus on one topic which someone has dictated is the most important one. The world is not simple. It’s shallow thinking to believe that one thing is more important then the other. There will always be something new, at any moment, that’s more important than the last thing.
That’s why it’s definitely important to have this and to address those, but not take so much seriously the people who are, “You’re not doing real skepticism,” or, “That’s a waste of time.” I don’t think it is.
Kylie: Have people who have had different ideas about what skepticism involves approached you about this kind of guide? Have they said that they value it?
Sharon: I got two major complaints about the document. I don’t think either one is major, in my opinion. They’re just the ones that came to my attention. One was surprising ‑ that the document relied too much on science. When I first wrote the draft, I admit that I made a big mistake by conflating the scientific process with skepticism. My wonderful friends who are not scientists but are in the humanities ‑‑ their specialty is literature, linguistics and stuff like that ‑ came to me sand said, “You’re conflating the two. There is a difference. Skepticism is more than just science.”
Even after I fixed it, I did get the complaint that I relied too much on science. I didn’t think that was a supported argument, because science is a critical part of skepticism. Everything is a human endeavor. Sometimes science goes wrong or is done for the wrong reason, but that’s no reason to discard it entirely. I didn’t think that that was a fair critique. I felt that I balanced that.
The second one was from those outspoken atheists. Just two, really, commented in public that I saw, which isn’t too bad. But it’s not “The Media Guide to Atheism”! I figured they wouldn’t like it, so that’s not a surprise there.
Kylie: That’s true. I imagine people who are looking forward to “The Media Guide to Bigfoot” might have been terribly disappointed as well, but it is what it says on the label…
Sharon: When you do a document like that, you have to find a goal and stick to it, and not get too broad. Many people wanted me to go into the history of skepticism. I said, “That’s not what this is for. Think of it in the mind of a reporter or somebody who knows nothing about it, who needs this introduction. It’s got to be simple. It’s got to be straightforward.”
Kylie: I guess that’s what the guide’s for. It’s a media guide. It’s for outreach in terms of those people who were questioning and might not know exactly what the term means.
Kylie: Have there been any positive comments? Have you seen the document being passed on to any other groups?
Sharon: I’ve heard people say that it would be very valuable for them to use in their outreach efforts, their skeptical groups. One person, Myron Getman, the Mad Skeptic, also took the document and made it into a pamphlet form, which was easy to distribute. I said, “That’s a great idea.” Because it’s creative common licensing, you can take it and distribute it for free. There’s no copyright issues with it, so have at it, as long as there’s an attribution. You can even define it the way you want. You can take it as a basis and do what you want with it. It was definitely a community document, giving back and saying, “Here is what the ideal is today. If there’s something different or if there’s something that you want to do with this, feel free.”
Kylie: Lovely. I think it would be great to hand out at a skeptic camp, for example, or at conferences. Any newcomers.
Sharon: Especially in types of activities where maybe you’re bringing people who aren’t skeptics but are interested in things. If you’re having a psychic discussion or talking about UFOs, Bigfoot, ghosts or alt‑med, then you can hand out these documents and say, “Here is a process that you could use to evaluate these claims.”
Kylie: This is slightly off‑topic, but you recently went to a paranormal fair, didn’t you? Did some of that influence the writing of this kind of document?
Sharon: It was already done at the time, but every time I go to these conferences, I feel like I learn something. It is, again, a balance. You go to these events and you see people who don’t think of the world the same way you do. I think it’s very important to go to these types of events and see how affected people are with these types of beliefs. They’re emotionally invested in them. They do paranormal investigation as part of their serious hobby. That’s the way they spend their weekends, their spare time and also quite a bit of money. It’s a big emotional investment for them. They take this very seriously.
It’s not fair for people sitting on the other side of the fence to laugh at them. You have to go and you see these are real people first. They’re very much invested in these beliefs. It’s important to see that other side.
Kylie: That’s what I like about the DoubtfulNews.com site. It’s doubtful news, about belief. It’s not meant to be judgmental. I think it’s a great place to host “The Media Guide to Skepticism,” in that regard.
Sharon: I hope that reporters will contact me about it. I’m trying to get this out as far as possible. I did send it to a lot of reporters. I didn’t get much feedback back from them but, hopefully, they filed it away for future reference!
Sharon: I have to keep busy! I can’t just sit around and do nothing. I end up not watching very much TV, movies or things like that, but that’s OK. If I’ve got to give up something, I’ll give that up!