Monday, December 31, 2007

Skepticism on the Internet in 1996

Last night while looking for something else, I came across my copy of the September 1996 issue of Internet Underground, a short-lived glossy magazine promoting interesting things on the Internet. This issue featured an article I wrote for them about skepticism on the Internet, which I present for your enjoyment below. If I had to update it today, I'd need to add information about blogs (like Science Blogs), podcasts, and various online forums that have come into existence in the last eleven and a half years or so (including IIDB, its offshoots like Freethought Forum and Heathen Hangout, and skeptical forums like those of the James Randi Educational Foundation and Richard Dawkins), but everything I described below is still around, despite some name and domain changes (I've updated the links) and diminishing significance of Usenet. I'm not sure how I missed the Skeptics Dictionary or Snopes.com, which were both around at the time.

You can see a PDF of the article in its original format here.

403 Forbidden: Skeptics Seek the Cold Hard Truth
By Jim Lippard

The Internet is a place where world views collide. Christianity meets atheist, conventional wisdom meets conspiracy theory, fringe belief meets orthodox science. While most Usenet newsgroups promote particular views and are populated mostly by their purveyors, the critics make up the majority on sci.skeptic. These critics who refer to themselves as "skeptics" have only a tenuous connection to the skepticism of the ancient Greeks, such as Pyrrho, who denied the possibility of knowledge of any kind. Instead, they tend to hold that while knowledge is quite possible, it must be grounded in scientific inquiry and rational investigation. Doubt is valued as a means to reliable knowledge rather than an end in itself.

Skeptics often share an interest in the unusual, bizarre, and the seemingly impossible with the denizens of newsgroups such as alt.paranormal, alt.astrology, alt.alien.visitors, and alt.forteana.misc. There are plenty of fans of The X-Files to be found among skeptics. Where skeptics differ from "believers" is with regard to what are acceptable standards of evidence and what constitutes reasonable methods of investigation. A commonly touted skeptical aphorism is "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," and testimonials, feelings and handwaving are not considered extraordinary enough to carry the weight.

Yet skeptics are not necessarily dogmatic disbelievers. Skeptics may be knee-jerk naysayers who reject anything supernatural or paranormal, open-minded doubters, or even those who shelter a few fringe beliefs of their own. The most outspoken critics of one paranormal theory are frequently advocates of other fringe theories, and such criticisms are often accepted and promoted by the skeptics. (In a similar vein, it has been pointed out that Christians agree with atheists about the nonexistence of all gods save one.)

Organized skepticism has largely centered around the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), http://www.csicop.org/, since its founding in 1976. But the growth of local, regional and national skeptical groups, and their interaction via the Internet has led to a diversification of approaches and emphases. The Los Angeles-based Skeptics Society, http://www.skeptic.com/, has published a thick magazine, Skeptic, since 1992 which emphasizes thorough and open investigation of claims, allows detailed responses from those who are criticized, is willing to examine claims within conventional science as well as on the fringes and encourages self-criticism of the skeptical movement. Likewise, the sci.skeptic newsgroup and the SKEPTIC mailing list (skeptic at listproc.hcf.jhu.edu) are places where
well-reasoned arguments by promoters of paranormal claims and skeptical detractors can find an attentive audience (amongst the obligatory flames and ridicule, of course--but flamers may find themselves skewered by their fellow skeptics if they aren't careful).

Within the broad class of skeptics are those who focus on more specific issues, like the Internet Infidels (http://freethought.tamu.edu/), whose Secular Web expresses skepticism about the existence of gods and value of religion. The National Center for Science Education (http://www.natcenscied.org/) engages in religiously neutral criticism of creationist pseudoscience. Trancenet (http://www.trancenet.org/) criticizes Transcendental Meditation. Each has related newsgroups (alt.atheism, talk.origins, alt.meditation.transcendental) and mailing lists, traffic from which tends to overflow into sci.skeptic, the catch-all newsgroup for skeptics.

The Internet has served as a means for skeptics worldwide to coordinate and expand their efforts; the skeptical organizations and publications have shown considerable growth in the last few years despite the fact that major media tends to give skeptical viewpoints short shrift.

Jim Lippard ([email address removed]), a skeptic, Web administrator and philosopher, is the Internet representative for Skeptic magazine.

Skeptics Society Web
http://www.skeptic.com

Other Skeptical Resources
http://www.primenet.com/~lippard/skeptical.html

6 comments:

Heathen Dan said...

While I started using the Interwebs in 1996, I didn't start going to skeptic website till 2000. I wish I had read your essay earlier.

Happy new year! :D

olvlzl said...

Skeptics may be knee-jerk naysayers who reject anything supernatural or paranormal, open-minded doubters, or even those who shelter a few fringe beliefs of their own.

As commonly used today by people who adopt it to describe themselves, "skeptics" are people who share a narrow orthodoxy and, more particularly, an attitude of self-congratulatory superiority and a fraternity of dismissive ridicule and mockery of anyone who doesn't rigidly adhere to that orthodoxy. In that rigid orthodoxy, they are remarkably predictable and unvaried. Scientism is their religion. "Skeptics" generally are almost entirely ignorant of those ideas that fall outside of their orthodoxy, gossip and received opinion replacing dispassionate scholarship. In many cases such necessary groundwork to have any idea what they are talking about is dismissed as unimportant since what they take as science is supposed to be the only reliable oracle.

I've been thinking a lot about the idea of "humanism" as the word has been so unfortunately appropriated, and the irony of its use by people who rail against the idea of anthropomorphic exceptionalism it assigns to religious people. I, for one, don't think that people have a special vantage point from which to observe and perceive the universe and that our means of comprehending it are limited, one suspects very limited. I suspect that our science, as much as our other attempts to understand reality is at best colored and limited by our peculiar point of view. Why I am not a "humanist".

Jim Lippard said...

I think you've got a narrow view of skeptics. I know quite a few of them, and I think there is much more diversity and sophistication among skeptics than you give them credit for.

That you go on to rail against humanists--a distinct but overlapping group of people--suggests that you're again taking a rather narrow view of skeptics. I don't think humanists are even a majority of skeptics, which is why many leaders of regional skeptical groups have opposed Paul Kurtz's combination of humanists and skeptics under his Centers for Inquiry (e.g., this letter in Skeptical Inquirer in 1999).

olvlzl said...

Jim Lippard, I was reacting to the list in your post. What I said was the clear and obvious substance of that kind of "skepticism", they seem to generally spout the same kind of stuff as the "humanists", the truly broadminded form of skepticism you advocate is the clear minority position in the movement, if "movement" is the right word for people more attracted to their in-group bigotry than in integrity and honesty.

Religious liberals are always having to answer for people they have no connection to, you can't fault me for applying the same rule to skeptics who, by their own actions, unite with bigots like Dawkins and frauds like Randi.

Jim Lippard said...

Well, you were definitely projecting, because there's not a single humanist group listed.

On the other hand, I'm not sure I've ever seen a group of any size that hasn't made decisions that favor in-group over out-group to the detriment of honesty and integrity. In my opinion, that's something that is sadly inherent to the human condition and social organization.

olvlzl said...

Jim Lippard, the compartmentalization of "skepticism" from "humanism" in the manner you, perhaps correctly, propose requires a rather fine distinction, one which most of the "skeptics" I've seen in the groups you mention would seem incapable of carrying out. I would point out that it is far less difficult, considering the overlap in personnel within the "skeptics" and "humanists", to make the far less difficult distinction between religious liberals and fundamentalists, something which is almost never done among those pretending to complete objectivity.