Wednesday, November 04, 2009

What are the goals of Skepticism 2.0?

Yesterday I listened to D.J. Grothe's interview with Ben Radford on the Point of Inquiry podcast about the latest issue of the Skeptical Inquirer (November/December 2009) about "Skepticism 2.0," the bottom-up grassroots expansion of the skeptical movement through Internet communications tools like blogs, podcasts, online videos and forums, and the real-world activities that have become possible through them, like meetups and SkeptiCamps.

Near the end of the podcast, D.J. asked Ben what he thought would be the results of Skepticism 2.0 in five years time. He said (1) more skeptics and (2) more cooperative projects between the three major U.S. skeptical groups, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the James Randi Educational Foundation, and the Skeptics Society.

That struck me as a rather disappointingly modest set of goals, as well as rather "old school" skepticism thinking, and insular. Surely we can come up with ideas for something more exciting, interesting, and useful than merely the self-perpetuation and growth of the skeptical movement and cooperation among the traditional top-down skeptical organizations over the next five years.

A few thoughts that came to my mind:
  • If skeptics want to promote public understanding of science and critical thinking, why not partnerships with other organizations that also have those purposes? The National Academies of Science, the National Center for Education, teacher's groups and school groups at a local level?
  • If skeptics want to promote the activity of science, why not look at ways to help motivate students to enter science as a career, and support them in doing so? I've previously suggested to Phil Plait that JREF might partly model itself after the Institute for Humane Studies, an organization which provides support for undergraduate and graduate students who favor classical liberal political ideals, in order to help them achieve success in careers of thought leadership, including academics, journalists, filmmakers, public policy wonks, and so on. In order for skepticism and critical thinking to have a significant impact, it's not necessary that everyone become a skeptic, only that a sufficient number of people in the right places engage in and encourage critical thinking.
  • If skeptics want to see more diversity in the skeptical movement, why not look at ways to reach out to other communities? The podcast did mention the SkepTrack at Dragon*Con, which is one of the most innovative ideas for outreach for skeptical ideas since the founding of CSICOP in 1976.
  • If skeptics want to act as a form of consumer protection against fraud and deception, why not try to find ways to interact with regulators, investigators, politicians, and the media to get fraudulent products and services off the market? The UK complaints against chiropractors making false claims on their websites as a response to the British Chiropractic Association libel lawsuit against Simon Singh, or the Australian complaint against bogus claims by anti-vaccinationists (though see my comment on that blog post for some reservations) might suggest some ideas.
It seems to me that the skeptical movement should be concerned about more than just increasing its own numbers and getting the existing national groups to work together. I think that Skepticism 2.0 has and will continue to force the existing groups to cooperate with each other and with the grassroots movement if they don't want to become obsolete and irrelevant. And at this point growth is, at least for the near-term, a foregone conclusion. But in order to continue to grow and thrive, there should be some goals that have something to do with being useful and making the world a better place, by which the skeptical movement can measure its effectiveness and success.

I'm sure readers of this blog have further suggestions. What else?


By the way, with regard to my first suggestion, here's a question that may provide some motivation and food for thought: Why do the Parapsychological Association and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine have better and more formal ties to official institutions of science than any skeptical organization? The PA is a member of the AAAS, and NCCAM is an agency within the National Institutes of Health. The main difference between those organization and skeptical organizations is that they actually do and publish peer-reviewed scientific research.


Reed said...

"In order for skepticism and critical thinking to have a significant impact, it's not necessary that everyone become a skeptic, only that a sufficient number of people in the right places engage in and encourage critical thinking."

While it's important to have skeptics in positions of influence, why limit ourselves to the elite demographics?

Whether through organizational or grassroots efforts, I'd suggest that Skepticism 2.0 has the potential to become nothing less than a popular social movement through which individuals can pass to build critical thinking skills and develop a deep appreciation for the value of science and how it works.

Where our public schools have failed us in producing critical thinkers, we skeptics look to be well-positioned to step in to fill that gap through our podcasts, events, etc.

Dragon*Con (as you point out) shows potential for outreach in this way. Too, Phil Plait's recent talk at Gnomedex suggests the tech community is fertile ground for promoting our ideas.

swoopy said...

As you can imagine, Skepticism 2.0 is near and dear to my heart. That you kindly compare our work with Skeptrack at Dragon*Con as akin to the founding of CSICOP is somewhat gobsmacking.

But it does echo what both Derek and I really believe is the future of skepticism, and that's Skepticism everywhere. As we say at the start of each podcast, "news and interviews with scientists and skeptics from around the world and all walks of life". For me, the key part of that phrase is "all walks of life". Skeptics are everywhere, in every niche community and social group. We need to find them, and let them know how much their voices of critical thinking and reason, are needed and why.

My hope for the future, is that everyone is a skeptic and we're no longer a niche group. I've heard some folks say they don't want skepticism to get too big, that they enjoy the intimacy and camaraderie of our merry band. I think we won't lose that simply by being more accessible. To really make a difference, we have to grow and diversify.

Let's scoot outside our comfort zone a little, and invite more people in.

Jim Lippard said...

Reed: I didn't mean to suggest that we "limit ourselves to the elite demographics," only that we look for ways to be supportive of helping young skeptics get into those fields. I'm not generally one for limiting the scope and breadth of skepticism-as-movement except on ethical and rational grounds.

Swoopy: I'm supportive of most of what you say, except that I think the idea of "everyone is a skeptic" is overly optimistic and at odds with human psychology and social organization.

We all tend to give more credence to testimony within our in-group, and be more skeptical about testimony from those outside, and this is quite evident within skeptical circles if you look for it. The actual work of skeptical inquiry and scientific research will always be done via a "division of cognitive labor" rather than by each individual on their own, and the bulk of the population will be armchair skeptics who are relying on the witness of others--I suspect even many skeptics are "parrots" (cf. slide 15 of my SkeptiCamp Phoenix 2009 talk). If everybody's nominally a skeptic, there will still be dogmatic claims that require skeptical attention.

Regarding the division of cognitive labor, I think society also *needs* people who are more concerned about Type II errors (failing to believe something true) than Type I errors (believing something false)--people generating the crazy ideas that are mostly wrong, but some of which result in new discoveries and innovations. I think skeptical and fortean attitudes are in some ways complementary, beyond the mere fact that forteans and other advocates of anomalous claims provide most of the source material that give skeptics their raison d'ĂȘtre.

Reed said...

In the podcast, did you note a disconnect in DJ's/Ben's suggestion for 2.0 skeptics to become familiar with the 1.0 literature?

So long as the 1.0 literature is represented by out-of-print books that are vanishing from library shelves as well as back issue magazines that are seen only as revenue sources, I fear that it's all but invisible to the new generation.

Jim Lippard said...

The solution's simple--put it online!

Reed said...

"The solution's simple--put it online!"

I wonder what it would take for CSI and/or SS to re-license the magazine back issue articles with Creative Commons, allowing a crowdsourced effort to get it all online?

Gridman said...

I completely agree that "organized skepticism" ought to have more associations with scientific institutions.

I suppose one reason that they may not is a presumption that scientific organizations ought already be organizations of skepticism.

Sadly, that's obviously not true.

Further, imagine if you were such an organization - and you weren't adequately skeptical (although you wouldn't know that) - when some group like the complementary medicine people come along, they appear to be working to advance and expand the field. Oddly enough, that's a positive position.

However, if a skeptical organization came along, there could be some professional feelings hurt but the implication that "you're obviously not rigorous enough our help." A negative position, as it were.

This may need to be approached very cautiously.

Gridman said...

Oops, typing error: Should read:

"you're obviously not rigorous enough and need our help."

Jim Lippard said...

Daniel Loxton pointed out privately that "The solution's simple--put it online!" overlooks the obstacles of format conversion and copyright releases... quite true, though the Google Books Settlement may have an impact on the latter.

Mike said...

Excellent article, and one that echoes my own sentiments.

I work for the education department of a major scientific research organisation. I've been both a teacher and a scientist, and do freelance writing and radio for a fairly major broadcasting network. As a part of my work I'm painfully aware of just how insular the internet world is. A relatively small percentage of the population follows blogs, especially science blogs. Let alone skeptical blogs. So while this number might be slowly increasing, there are a number of outside opportunities for outreach being missed.

I admit, I've long since decided to go it alone in terms of science and skeptical communication and education, primarily for the very reason outlined in the above article. I've attempted to create links between sci-com and educational bodies and skeptical groups, only to be met by apathy, ignorance and cynicism on the part of the skeptics. I once interviewed Randi, and discussed in part the topic of education. Sadly, I can't say I was either greatly enthused or impressed by his response to it.

There has already been amazing, productive and inspirational work done by non-skeptical science education and communication groups. Rather than reinventing the wheel, skeptic groups should be informing themselves on what else has been done, forming broader networks with other organisations and start seeing the internet as but a single communication tool amongst many.

Jim Lippard said...


Thanks for your comment, and sorry to hear about your experience.

Can you elaborate a bit more on your comment about "how insular the internet world is"? Do you see that as an endemic problem, with siloed communities despite the social networking? My own experience hasn't been like that.