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On February 6th of this year, the Skeptics Society announced a new project over on the Skepticblogs site, authored by Daniel Loxton:
For over twenty years, the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine have labored at the forefront of the skeptical movement—constantly experimenting, often pushing the boundaries, but always circling back to the heart of the skeptical tradition.
This week, we’re pleased to present Daniel Loxton’s challenging and provocative new project, “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” (PDF). Almost two years in the writing, these two meticulously-researched chapter-length explorations dig deeply into the roots, founding principles, and purpose of scientific skepticism.
If you don’t know who Daniel Loxton is, then you really need a history lesson. But for those who came in late, he’s the Editor of Junior Skeptic (the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine). He’s is the author and illustrator of the national award-winning kids’ science book Evolution: How We And All Living Things Came to Be and is also the author and illustrator (with Jim W. W. Smith) of Ankylosaur Attack, a paleofiction storybook for ages four and up. This is the first book in the “Tales of Prehistoric Life” series from Kids Can Press, with Pterosaur Trouble now out and another new book, Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids, co-authored with fellow Skepticblogger Professor Donald Prothero.
Daniel has written for critical thinking publications including Skeptic, Skeptical Briefs, eSkeptic and the Skeptical Inquirer, and contributed cover art to Skeptic, Yes mag, and Free Inquiry.
Why Is There A Skeptical Movement is an impressive document, covering two millennia of paranormal skepticism, and even if you are convinced that you know what skepticism is about, is well worth reading for the fascinating narrative of investigators, scientists and activists from years past.
Kylie Sturgess: What initially inspired your research? It began about two or so years ago? And why produce this particular document?
Daniel Loxton: Well, most of my work in Junior Skeptic, which is the 10-page kids’ section bound inside Skeptic Magazine here in North America, is just kind of historical sleuthing, and often involves this look back at old mysteries, which may feel a little bit quaint or a little bit passe – but, they generally aren’t! In this case, I was inspired to look more deeply at the skeptical history – partly just as a continuation of my ongoing research, but also partly as a reaction to this change in flavor that I’ve been commenting on in previous pieces and in my blogs and so on.
This change in flavor of the skeptical movement, or a shifting-baseline of concepts about what we’re here for, what we do as skeptics. In some ways, it’s a sequel to my 2007 piece, “Where Do We Go From Here?” which is an argument in favor of traditional scientific skepticism. The kind of skepticism which organizations like The Committee For the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal in the United States were formed to address, in the 1970s.
The kind of skepticism that I discovered when I got involved, just over 20 years ago, at the dawn of the 1990s. It’s a kind of skepticism that is empirical, practical, it’s designed as a public service, as a consumer protection science-literacy outreach project.
Kylie: For those who might not be familiar with the document, it begins with a particular part, a quote. Then, you follow it up with, “Published almost a century ago, Hering’s 1924 book was, even then, only the latest in a very old literature devoted to the debunking of superstitious beliefs and the investigations of weird claims. As he alluded to in this passage, the need of such paranormal criticism goes back a long way. Attempts to fill that need go back just as far.”
Were you surprised at just how far back the investigations of claims went? And have there been unsinkable rubber ducks or claims that just keep on coming back despite this historical weight of investigation and revelation?
Daniel: I was surprised. I think a lot of people reading this document will be surprised at how deep the history that can be considered, retroactively, as part of the tradition of scientific skepticism. I think a lot of people will be surprised at how deep that was, as I was. Even though I am relatively familiar with this history. I’m kind of a newbie, I’ve been involved for just 20 years! I’ve dug fairly deeply through the course of my research!
Kylie: “Only” 20 years?!
Daniel: I’m not kidding when I say that! There are people working in skepticism right now who have been doing this exact work for 35 years. Even 50 years, in some cases. Of course, there are people who are no longer with us who had been doing that work a lot longer. In the new PDF, the big two-chapter piece that we’re talking about, “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” (PDF), it looks back almost as far as almost 2,000 years, back to classical Rome. I was surprised by that, in some sense. Yet, I shouldn’t have been!
As someone who thinks of himself as sort of literate about this movement and the literature around the paranormal and fringe claims. I shouldn’t have been surprised, because Lucian, the example I use in there, Lucian of Samosata, was discussed by Carl Sagan in “The Demon-Haunted World.” He was discussed by David Hume. He’s always been part of the literature, part of the discussion.
It’s just that I didn’t know that. I hadn’t learned it. I think that many people who come to this are going to be in the same boat. Learning this stuff for the first time, even though previous generations would’ve considered that just a given baseline part of the literature.
Kylie: You’ve investigated a great many figures in skeptical history. Who do you think are some of the ones that have been overlooked or neglected? And who should we revisit in order to learn more about skepticism?
Daniel: I would start with the people who are still alive and working! There are a lot of characters now who have been slaving away for 35 years or more, who are forgotten now, during their own careers. Kendrick Frazier has been the editor of the Skeptical Inquirer for 35 years!
Pat Linse, co-founder of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine. Very few people know who she is. Once you go beyond those people, the people that I grew up studying, the Carl Sagans, the Phil Klass’s, Robert Sheaffer, who’s still working now.
Many of these characters were the pioneers of movement skepticism, skepticism as an organized project. Before this period, looking back over the last 2,000 years, there’s always been this impulse to tackle strange claims,and try and figure out, “What’s really up with that? That seems a little too good to be true.”
With CSICOP, starting in 1976, and some earlier projects, there was attempt to bring individual workers together on this project, and build something more organized.
Kylie: Minority groups and those people who may be overlooked – this is one of the criticisms of historical record-keeping in general, marginalization; such as women and those people who might be from different cultures. Did you find this to be an issue, when researching the history of skepticism?
Daniel: Oh, absolutely. There’s more than one source of this bias, too. On the one hand, the literature that I’m looking at – I’m an English speaker only, so I’m looking at the English literature – exists globally, in many languages. As well, just as an artifact of larger cultural trends, women just were not involved as much, prior to, I don’t know, the 1970’s, say.
But that’s not the only source of bias, the cultural factors that kept women from getting involved in science and scholarship and eventually scientific skepticism. There’s also the matter that history just doesn’t record them as much, as is also true in science. Some of the figures that I mention in passing in the new document – in particular Rose Mackenberg and Mary Sullivan, two women that really leapt out at me – their stories were so interesting that I just touched on them in this document and then I blew up their stories into a whole issue of Junior Skeptic.
That’s the upcoming issue of Junior Skeptic, is on these women who were really hard-core skeptical investigators. The kind who were putting crooks in jail, the ones who were investigating in person, the ones who were going undercover. Yet these women are not remembered at all!
During this most recent phase of research over the last six months or so, it was the first time I had ever heard of them, or their work. Yet, you’re talking about people who slaved for decades. Rose Mackenberg is a good example. She was a young woman, a private eye, who, in the course of her regular private investigation work, was coming across cases which had some kind of paranormal component. At the time, it was quite common, for example, for spirit mediums to find that the spirits were giving fraudulent stock market advice!
Or the spirits were urging people to give up their inheritance, to sign over documents to the medium or their friend, these kind of things, where it’s straight up confidence crime. Rose Mackenberg, she came across one of these cases and she looked around and said, “OK. Well, who’s the best available expert in the world on this, at this period?” She marched right up to Harry Houdini! And consulted with him, and, with his advice, was able to able to eventually solve this case, and put this nefarious character in jail.
Well, Houdini was so impressed with her work that he hired her to lead his kind of private army of private investigators, which is another aspect of the history of skepticism that’s not well known. When skeptics today look back at the period of, say, from 1900, or even 1890, through to almost the 1950s, Houdini is probably the only name that they can think of as an active skeptic during that period. A lot of work gets collapsed down to Houdini unfairly. There were whole careers expended in scientific skepticism during that period, of which Houdini’s was only one.
But he was, even during his life, a leading figure, and yet didn’t do it alone. One of the wrinkles here is that he had this private army of investigators who would travel ahead of him. One of these was a niece of his. Another was Rose Mackenberg. She was the head of his intelligence task force. They would travel ahead of him from city to city, and they would visit all the mediums and get all the dirt, so he would be ready when he showed up there. He’d already have the inside scoop on everything that was going on in that town, because his undercover agents had already been there.
After his early death, Rose Mackenberg continued that same work from the mid-’20s right up until the 1950s. You’ve got decades of pioneering work by a hardcore woman investigator in skepticism lost to history. I think it’s important that we find that work again and celebrate it. That was part of the goal of this project.
Kylie: I imagine it’s also a challenge for other countries as well to see if they might be able to document and keep record of similar sorts of figures who may have been lost in their skeptical history.
Daniel: Yeah, I’m sure that’s true. One example I came across, a contemporary of Houdini’s, a Jesuit priest who was involved in this, at the time really it could almost be described as a skeptical movement. There were organizations. There was a kind of network of connected figures. Anyway, this contemporary of Houdini’s, the Jesuit priest, most of his work was in Mexico. I know his English-language work from the 1920s. I don’t know his Spanish-language work. I’m looking forward to continuing to dig deeper.
Early responses to “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?”, talking about the first chapter, the historical chapter, they’ve been very complimentary. Some of my heroes have given me some very nice compliments, which is personally flattering to me. Yet I’m very, very aware that I’m just scratching the surface here.
I’ve been voraciously buying these old books. I’ve been going through them as best I can, but there are entire careers. There are dozens and dozens and dozens of these figures who worked and vanished. This should be considered the first step on quite a long road of historical rediscovery.
Kylie: Definitely. I agree. I’m really looking forward to the next edition of “The Skeptic.” I saw the picture of the female investigators…
Daniel: It’s a good story. Most of it’s actually about Mary Sullivan, the other woman, just because it’s harder to get information on Mackenberg. She wrote a book – but it was never published, it’s in private hands, so I couldn’t get it. She had no children, so there’s no access to her family or anything like that. There aren’t a lot of records about her. She just kind of pops into existence as a working investigator, and then she disappears when she stops working…
Kylie: Wow. She’s like a ghost or something herself. That is so cool…
Daniel: Yes, almost!
Kylie: Now, that would actually make a really cool documentary.
Daniel: Wouldn’t it?
Kylie: Ideas!! Now, concerns about mission-drift and questions about redefining skepticism is of course one of the reasons why such documents like yours, “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?”, are produced. I only have to point at the recent writings like Radford, Novella, DJ Grothe, ongoing work of skeptics – like Stollznow, Hill, Nicholl, Stevens – to show that there are skeptics who are steadily continuing in the traditional methods of scientific skepticism, and they’re not too involved with changing their approaches. They’re just continuing on to get the job done.
What’s your best argument as to how skepticism should be defined? Why we should value that definition rather than broader skepticism’s scope, which is one of the big issues that has been thrown around recently?
Daniel: Well, it’s quite a big discussion in my piece. I must give something like 15,000 words of discussion in there, so I do hope people will look at it. I think there are some strong arguments that bear on this. Part of it, I would say to anybody, is that if you’re going to talk about changing the foundation of a field, of taking it in a new direction, I think it’s really important that first you understand where it has been and why it was there to start with. What it grew out of, what it was intended to accomplish. Those are some of the things that I wanted to address in this piece.
When I got into skepticism 20 years ago, there was an established subculture of skeptics. At that time, they weren’t called scientific skeptics. They were just called skeptics, and those were synonyms. They were empirical in scope, they were tolerant to religion, they were interested in solving paranormal mysteries. That was it. For a long time, that stayed true, through the ’90s, I think, right up until the very end of the 90’s.
There started to be a little bit of agitation to expand that, first into general science questions and then eventually into these larger philosophical questions about metaphysics and ethics and religion and politics. Much messier questions, questions which are really much harder to answer and, in many cases, are just outside of the ability of science to answer.
Particularly after 9/11, things started to really change! Like many people who were religious nonbelievers, and like billions of religious believers as well, 9/11 was just so viscerally horrifying that people really cried out to turn critical attention to religion. They wanted to rein in the excesses, the dangers of religion. This was the rise of the new atheism. It was a very powerful moment in history. A lot of people were swept along by this. I was, to some extent. Most people of conscience were to some extent swept along by this.
At the same time we had really large technological changes. Starting around 2005, with first blogs and then podcasting, we went through this huge moment of expansion of the entry-level tier of practicing skeptics, people who were identifying with the subculture, who were interested in consuming the products of skepticism, who were fans, which is not a bad thing. This was my role in skepticism for the first eight, ten years that I was involved, just the same.
Things expanded at that foundation, at that base, so quickly, that a lot of people who became involved went from knowing very little about the history of skepticism to being thought leaders, almost instantly. There’s a value to this. It elevates voices that were otherwise not going to be heard. It allows new discoveries of new talent, very quickly. On the other hand, it reminds me of this shifting-baselines argument that we hear in other topics. For example in coral reef loss.
People who go diving now on a coral reef, they’ll see ten fish and they’ll think, “That’s spectacular!” if they’ve never been diving on a coral reef in previous decades. If they have been, they’ll come and they’ll think, “Jeez, this is dead. The whole thing is dead!“ This is a similar kind of shifting-baseline situation, where people get involved and just have no idea that the conversation used to be different.
This is one of the things I wanted to address, was, “Why did this conversation start, and what was it about?” If there are going to be changes, and I’m one of those who argues that there should not be, it has to start with a really intimate understanding of the arguments and thinkers that have come before us.
Kylie: Speaking of conversations, sometimes online conversations can be detrimental as well as beneficial. I noticed that closing down comments, even on the “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” blogpost has been done. Do you think that there’s a general civil discourse due to online interaction that has been disrupted? Is it better for us to start closing down, or focusing more on civil discussions rather that letting loose on occasion? Because skeptics do love to let loose; we do love to be argumentative. Do you think that that’s a factor in perhaps holding us back?
Daniel: This is a pretty big can of worms! Addressing first the small point that, when I had announced that this document would be closed for comments, it was just an announcement. Not every news item or announcement of fact has to be open to debate, you know? “I’m going to the grocery store.” “Your entire world view is wrong!!”
It’s just not necessary. In general, I am one of those who thinks that truth-seeking behaviour in science and the academic world, certainly in skepticism, requires a certain kind of civility. It requires a certain shared space for conversation.
The Internet has a way of really encouraging shouting. I am one of those who encourages people to opt to use their real names online, to be accountable for what they say. I encourage bloggers to moderate and to shut down comments. Go for it. I like dialogue as much as the next person, but I don’t owe it to every tagger to tag my wall.
Kylie: If there was one historical figure that you would hope people would get to learn more about, which one would it be?
Daniel: That’s a tough one! There are so many interesting characters!
Kylie: You choose out of all those favorites that you’ve researched!
Kylie: Yeah, Houdini?
Daniel: Yeah, Houdini’s maybe the most important. This was a really important moment in skepticism, where there had been this little fledgling skeptics movement growing up in New York City. Houdini and his friends were involved in that.
In fact, Houdini was not the original leader of that. He was a peripheral character and eventually got dragged in by his friends. He was busy building a career at the same time older, better established colleagues of his had the financial freedom and freedom of time to devote to debunking or investigating mysteries. Houdini was busy doing magic. Eventually, he did get involved and in a really big way. He had the clout and financial resources and fame, to really make a big splash. He is justifiably thought of as a thought leader in this area.
Some of the lessons that current skeptics can take from his work, both from its tone of restrained anger, indignation, righteousness, but tied to the accountability of investigation, of investigating first. I think that tone is very valuable to learn. The area of this sub-specialty, he knew very well: spirit mediums and fake psychics. As well, he argued, effectively, that paranormal investigation was its own discipline that required a kind of specialisation. It required a lot of investment in time and study.
He argued that his expertise, studying the paranormal, not just his expertise in magic, but his direct on-site investigation of seances and some of these associated phenomena. He attended hundreds of seances himself. He argued that this experience made him more qualified than, for example, a working scientist looking into the same topic. These topics require expertise which is specific to themselves, and if we accept that these topics were a scholarship of some sort, then the next question becomes, how are we going to over time, over generations, make sure that we have people who are qualified to do that work?
Kylie: Do you think that maybe there should be an online course in skepticism – specifically, the history of skepticism? I’m seeing the popularity of courses in a variety of things. Everything from critical thinking, to one I signed up for recently, on indigenous history. Do you think that might be something that skeptics should do?
Daniel: Well, college courses in this kind of general, critical way do look at the paranormal themes – they’ve existed for decades. Recently, at the Skeptics Society, we’ve tried to compile those resources for educators who are thinking about a project like that. I do think that we need to figure out how to carry forward this legacy knowledge. Certainly, online tools are going to be a part of that. But, at this point, it’s frustrating, because that’s where my interest is. I want to see scientific skepticism develop as a field. I want our tools to get better.
I want our skills to get better. I want our behavior and our ethical conduct to get more serious, more professional. But at the same time, in order to accomplish any of those things, you first have to have some kind of consensus on what you’re here to do.
It’s a consensus that existed up until about 2005, and then it’s gotten very, very complicated, really, really fast. So fast, that older working skeptics really, I think, didn’t quite see this confusion coming. We weren’t quite prepared to address it. So, documents like my new one, “Why is there a skeptical movement?” in some ways, it’s an attempt to close the barn door after the horse has gotten out, you know? It’s an attempt to re-introduce clarity that we didn’t think we had to express, in 2004, 2005 or 1995.
But it turns out that we did, and without that constant repetition of clarity, without that shared and constantly expressed consensus, it just turned into a mess. What we wound up with, is a lot of different people in a lot of different movements, whose interests were really naturally drawn in different directions, all traveling under the same banner, sort of artificially. It’s inevitably going to lead to conflict.
As far as I can see? The best way forward is just to go back to our original territories as much as possible and just own our own areas of interest. If your thing is that you are really fascinated by criticism of religion or you think that that’s morally very important, well there are movements that do that. If you are interested in preserving church-state separation, well secularists do that. If you are interested in investigating some weird paranormal mysteries, well scientific skeptics do that. I think it’s valuable for us all to know what we’re here to do.
Kylie: There’s certainly lots of historical figures who have pointed the way for us which is one of the wonderful things about your document. Thanks so much for talking to me Daniel.
Daniel: Thank you very much for having me on your show!