42 years have passed since the birth of CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and its magazine Skeptical Inquirer. Soon after, there was a global wave in the spread of skepticism. A great visionary was at the centre of the explosion: Paul Kurtz, who saw skepticism as a global worldwide endeavour. The Australian Skeptics took off in 1980 with Mark Plummer as president. A decade later, in the mid-80s, CSICOP encouraged skeptics all over the world to form their groups. Mark Plummer, then Executive Director of CSICOP, and Wendy Grossman, founder of the magazine The Skeptic in the United Kingdom, toured Europe in this mission resulting in many new groups.
Paul Kurtz also defined skepticism as he saw fit for the movement in his book the New Skepticism. This variant is what we would now call scientific skepticism. It is distinct from the ancient Greek variety of skepticism that denied that we could acquire knowledge and wanted us not to take a stand, to suspend judgment.
Skeptics today do take a stand. They insist on skeptical inquiry, which is at the core of scientific research, as a fundamental and indisposable tool. At the same time, they also acknowledge that the body of science represents reliable knowledge of a real world. More importantly, they stand up and advocate what we know about science and pseudoscience, even when others including friends and colleagues frown on us. Skeptics today are committed to scientific realism.
Initially, the movement focused mainly on fringe science claims ignored by the scientific establishment. A decade ago, Kendrick Frazier, editor of the journal Skeptical Inquirer extended the scope. In the book “Science under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience”, he put the defence of science itself on the map. Publications and events organised by skeptics had been increasingly taking up anthropogenic global warming, GMOs and the anti-vaccination movement. Conspiracy theories are a recent addition.
With the 21st century of “alternative facts” well underway, new questions have come up.
But the time is ripe for a revitalising vision for the future. In this connection, Marco Kovic has posed questions in a recent blog. Which are issues we need to address?
We do need to begin by framing our cause and our identity as skeptics worldwide. Let us start from the very core.
Why do we do what we do?
Why do we bother? What drives us? Do we just enjoy showing that others are wrong? Or do we want to show that we are somehow better than others who we believe to be ignorant?
The answer is very different and central to the skeptical movement. It defines the ambition of contemporary skepticism.
Our overall goals and vision must be at the very core of our motivation, at what drives us. Let us take an example from someone who set out to change the world, Martin Luther King Jr. He had a dream; what is ours?
We strive for a world in which pseudoscientific claims do not deceive or harm anyone.
Our motivation also defines what we are concerned with: unfounded, unscientific, pseudoscientific, anti-scientific or plainly false claims. With our tools of skeptical inquiry and with the background of reliable, scientific knowledge, we do not want ourselves or others to be fooled or deceived and thus harmed. By doing so, we also want to understand better the world around us and the mechanisms by which our wishful thinking leads us astray.
So how do we reach our goals or strive to fulfil our dream? How do we limit deception and harm caused by pseudoscientific claims? The missions that most skeptical organisations define centre on science and critical thinking as the best available instruments of reliable knowledge by far:
We provide reliable information on claims that contradict science and the tools of skeptical inquiry to evaluate and investigate them.
What makes us different?
Some of what I have said so far may look like something that other organisations are doing already. Skeptics are neither the first nor the only people informing the public on science or on what might be disadvantageous for them.
We have consumer protection agencies, testing agencies and companies, science communicators, the scientific establishment itself and information portals, such as on climate change
It does not make sense to duplicate others’ efforts. There is, however, something particular and unique to what we have been doing and will very likely continue doing in the future. I see three elements that define our scope and approach:
- We take on issues on which others for various reasons are silent. Initially, these were limited to fringe science issues, but this has changed significantly of late.
- We focus on delusion, self-delusion and wishful thinking that may lead us astray. It has not been a matter of chance that magicians were part of the movement from the very start.
- We are truly independent and know that every political, ideological and religious inclination can lead to self-delusion is some areas. Even skeptics may fall for claims that they wish to be true if they do not remind themselves that they too have their political, ideological and religious or non-religious bias that could cloud their objectivity.
The reason we have taken up such issues is that others are reluctant to deal with them for fear of antagonising people they need to work with or on whom their career paths may depend.
Our work is much harder than it would be in an ideal world because many of those who should know better are failing. Universities have allowed pseudoscience in their curricula. Too many leading scientists and renowned experts are silent when they should be speaking up. We often need to do the dirty work of others as in keeping quackery out of medicine. Several NGOs have gone off course and have ignored science and evidence.
Alternative facts and fake news are not new. And even the use of these terms is losing its meaning when those who spread bullshit attribute them to those who are more factual than they.
As skeptics, we have a growing job to do, and this will mean much more work for us all.
Scientific skepticism is central to our well-being
Contemporary skepticism is about everybody, not just us as skeptics. It is about everyone’s well-being, now and in the future. Its approach combines science and critical thinking – twins of sorts.
As skeptics, we place our confidence in science as by far the best means to acquire knowledge that we can rely on even on matters of life and death. We are also aware that we as humans have a massive capability to fool ourselves. This human limitation can both severely damage us individually or the planet as a whole, and it can also prevent us from taking useful action.
The potential consequences also point to how we would want to prioritise our efforts. As a disclaimer, any prioritisation should not discourage anyone from pursuing their own favourite project or topic. Our success depends on enthusiasm, and we do not know whether a “pet” topic of today could become a significant problem in some years or decades. People are best at doing what they love doing.
Many skeptical organisations are already prioritising their work based on how much harm some areas cause or how much benefit they prevent. Examples are:
- Pseudomedicine in all its forms, such as homoeopathy
- Denying the usefulness of vaccination or even the fact that viruses cause diseases
- Superstition gone wild and with significant damaging potential; rationalists in India and skeptics in Africa face physical threats and endanger their lives with their engagement
In line with a view on possible consequences and possible harm or denied improvement, Global Warming and GMOs have been rightly taken up.
Prioritised and “pet” topics have both led to a wealth of information worldwide. We can all draw from these resources and have done so in the past. The German skeptics reacted very quickly when the claims related to Facilitated Communication came up. Their magazine Skeptiker published an earlier article by Gina Green and benefited from the experience gained in Australia and the USA.
How we work across the globe
There are now skeptics and rationalist organisations all over the world. But we also need networking between skeptics globally to help us all be more effective and efficient. Science has been doing this all along. This kind of networking must be at the heart of our future work.
It remains, however, essential that we do not make the mistake many other NGOs have made. Each and every country and region has its specific problems and approach. The network of skeptical organisations must learn from each other and at the same time avoid imposing on each other.
These considerations also frame the ability and limitations of organisations, such as ECSO, the European Council of Skeptical Organisations. ECSO was formed to bring together skeptical organisations in Europe. Organisations like ECSO must focus on facilitating the exchange of information, promoting the creation of new groups and organising events to bring people from all over a region or the world together. They can reflect shared values, motivations and scopes, but they should not be telling individual organisations what to do.
At every level, it will always be a challenge to achieve the right mix between useful consolidation and individuality to avoid fragmentation. Should we consolidate the movement based on language, country or region? How large or small should these regions be? Those concerned need to decide how to solve this on a case-by-case basis, and I do not see a one-size-fits-all formula to solve this problem.
Skeptics are human
We have been fortunate to have all sorts of people driving the skeptical movement and ensuring that it moves on. Some are doers, who form the backbone. They make sure that the organisations keep running, magazines keep appearing, and events keep happening. We also need leaders, who organise skepticism and keep individual organisations across the world together. Then there are personalities like James Randi who inspire us all. A healthy combination of this diversity helps us all.
If we want others to see ourselves as pushing a universal cause, we must also ensure diversity in a different sense of the word. Skeptical groups must have women and individuals from minority communities in visible positions. Increasing diversity requires particular and constant attention.
What we do not need are those who put themselves above the movement. When we do involve stars, we need to make sure if they will benefit our cause, and not just use our common cause to boost their reputation.
However, it is unavoidable that, in the long run, we will have problems with well-known and lesser-known skeptics. Problematic people are not unique to skeptical organisations, but rather something that the movement, and particularly its leaders, will have to manage.
Being a skeptic does not mean that we are all good people. A few may not be. Similarly, some of those we argue against may have good intentions. Within skeptical organisations, we will have to both be just and take action, defending those who interested parties accuse unjustly, as well as acting firmly on unacceptable behaviour. We have to prepare even for unlikely occurrences and ensure that mechanisms are in place to prevent misbehaviour, such as for sexual harassment.
It is the job of the leaders of the skeptical movement to deal with such problems and issues that will not go away but will remain a constant challenge.
A limitation rightly pointed out is that we are all far too dependent on voluntary activity. We need more skeptics who can do this as a paid job. Marko Kovic identified the problem behind it: The lack of funds. And I would therefore wholeheartedly support his demand: “One of the highest priorities of skeptical organisations should be to generate revenue streams that are as large and as sustainable as possible.”
There have been three ways to generate revenue. The first is via membership of organisations, which has been the prime source of income for the German skeptics organisation GWUP. The second is via donations and bequests, which is the way other organisations work, and CSI / CSICOP and the Australian Skeptics are examples of this. The third is what almost all organisations do anyway, that is providing services, such as a magazine or events.
It is the first two that can significantly improve their financial basis of cause-based organisations. We have not yet been able to present our cause and why we do what we do well enough. Much more than what we do, we have to bring across why we put in all our time and effort. We are unwilling to accept the danger from alternative facts and pseudoscientific claims.
Skeptical organisations should not show themselves as places for careers. They must build on our cause as the primary motivator followed by the fun of doing things, with career considerations coming last.
So who are we? Should we call ourselves skeptics despite the negative connotation? Does it match our vision and purpose?
I think we should be pragmatic here. The term skeptic does often convey a negative association, and some use it in a way we don’t like. We oppose climate “skeptics” and refuse to accept the term in this connection.
At the same time, we as a movement have been known to be skeptics. With any search on google for skeptic or “Skeptiker” in German, we show up, not the climate or GMO “skeptics”.
Not only will it be a waste of resources looking for a new word or brand, but this will also detract from our actual purpose and work. We have been able to establish the term scientific skepticism. What we need to do whenever we show up is to say that it is we who are the skeptics. The others are not. Let us identify our cause, our mission and our community as skeptics when we do what we do.
Reform or refocus?
We have come a long way since the 70s. It is in fact the late 19th century if we go back to some earlier skeptical organisations. The Vereniging tegen de Kwakzalverij, the association against quackery in the Netherlands, was founded in 1881. Comité Para in Belgium took off in 1949. There is a lot we have achieved, and we all have an excellent reason to be proud of it. We are here to stay.
But we also have an even longer way to go. We should never be satisfied with what we have achieved and build for the future. As a movement and with organisations that are independent of specific or vested interests, we are more credible than most.
So here is my take on our future priorities:
- Get a consistent message out on the skeptical movement. Focus on what drives us and why we are needed. The “why” is at the very core to motivate and grow skeptical groups.
- Make being a skeptic as being those who adhere to scientific scepticism. This will not be easy.
- Prioritize on topics with the most significant potential for harm, be it directly or by omission. At the same time, let those with a strong motivation continue working on favourite subjects. You never know when they may turn out to be critical.
- Make use of the immense global resources of skeptics. Involve women and people from minority communities. Network across countries and regions.
- Support those who work under the hardest conditions, such as in Africa. Don’t be condescending and provide advice only when asked.
- Make it clear that we are the people who are not committed to any interest groups and will stand up for science and critical thinking even if it means alienating some of our “friends”. This is what makes us different or, as some would say, our unique selling point.
Let us make it clear that we have a cause of utmost significance and that this requires support, both regarding work and financial resources. Should it not be on everyone’s agenda to not be deceived or harmed? Let us get on with it!
- Paul Kurtz, The New Skepticism, Prometheus Books, 1992
- Kendrick Frazier, Science under Siege, Prometheus Books, 2009
- Marco Kovic, Some Problems of the Skeptical Movement