Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Where is the academic literature on skepticism as a social movement?

Here's all I've been able to find so far, independent of self-descriptions from within the movement (and excluding history and philosophy of Pyrrhonism, Academic Skepticism, the Carvaka, the Enlightenment, British Empiricism, and lots of work on the development of the enterprise of science):
  • George Hansen, "CSICOP and the Skeptics: An Overview," The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research vol. 86, no. 1, January 1992, pp. 19-63. I've not seen a more detailed history of contemporary skepticism elsewhere.
  • Stephanie A. Hall, "Folklore and the Rise of Moderation Among Organized Skeptics," New Directions in Folklore vol. 4, no. 1, March 2000.
  • David J. Hess, Science in the New Age: The Paranormal, Its Defenders and Debunkers, and American Culture, 1993, The University of Wisconsin Press.
I note that Paul Kurtz's The New Skepticism: Inquiry and Reliable Knowledge (1992, Prometheus Books) puts contemporary skepticism in the lineage of several of the other forms of philosophical skepticism I mentioned above, identifying his form of skepticism as a descendant of pragmatism in the C.S. Peirce/John Dewey/Sidney Hook tradition (and not the Richard Rorty style of pragmatism). But I think that says more about Kurtz than about the skeptical movement, which also draws upon other epistemological traditions and probably doesn't really have a sophisticated epistemological framework to call its own.

There's a lot of literature on parallel social movements of various sorts, including much about advocates of some of the subject matter that skeptics criticize, and some of that touches upon skeptics. For example:
  • Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, "The Construction of the Paranormal: Nothing Unscientific is Happening," in Roy Wallis, editor, On the Margins of Science: The Social Construction of Rejected Knowledge, 1979, University of Keele Press, pp. 237-270.
  • Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, Frames of Meaning: The Social Construction of Extraordinary Science, 1982, Taylor & Francis.
  • Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, 2nd edition, 2006, Harvard University Press.
  • Christopher P. Toumey, God's Own Scientists: Creationists in a Secular World, 1994, Rutgers University Press.
The Toumey book doesn't really have anything about skeptics, but is an anthropological study of creationists in the United States which describes the connection between "creationism as a national movement" and "creationism as a local experience" that seems intriguingly similar to the skeptical movement, especially in light of the fact (as I mentioned in my previous post) that national skeptical organizations are independent of established institutions of science that provide the key literature of the movement and at least implicitly assume that the average layman can develop the ability to discern truth from falsehood, at least within a particular domain, from that literature.

In some ways, the skeptical movement also resembles a sort of layman's version of the activist element in the field of science and technology studies, based on positivist views of science that are the "vulgar skepticism" dismissed in this article:
I think if contemporary skepticism wants to achieve academic respectability, it will need to develop a more sophisticated view of science that comes to terms with post-Popper philosophy of science and post-Merton sociology of science; my recommendation for skeptics who are interested in that subject is to read, as a start:
  • Philip Kitcher, The Advancement of Science: Science Without Legend, Objectivity Without Illusions, 1995, Oxford University Press.
There's an enormous relevant literature on those topics, an interesting broad overview is:
  • R.C. Olby, G.N. Cantor, J.R.R. Christie, and M.J.S. Hodge, Companion to the History of Modern Science, 1990, Routledge.
I welcome any new revelations about sources of relevance that I've missed, particularly if there is other academic work specifically addressing the history, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology of the contemporary skeptical movement--three sources ain't much.

UPDATE (September 27, 2014): Some additional works I recommend for skeptics:

  • Harry Collins, Are We All Scientific Experts Now?, 2014, Polity Press.  A very brief and quick overview of science studies with respect to expertise.
  • Massimo Pigliucci, Nonsense On Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk, 2010, University of Chicago Press. A good corrective to the overuse of Popper, easy read.
  • Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry, Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem, 2013, University of Chicago Press. Good collection of essays reopening the debate many thought closed by Larry Laudan on whether there can be philosophical criteria for distinguishing the boundary between science and pseudoscience.


Reed said...

Though not an academic work, I collected data on the skeptics groups on Meetup and reported the numbers in the appendix of my 2008 "Raising Our Game" piece.

Jim Johnson said...

And, of course, the pragmatists you mention (except maybe Kurtz) were hardly skeptics. Here I think Putnam is correct that American pragmatism is distinctive to a large degree because it combines fallibilism with anti-skepticism. It is not just belief that requires justification but doubt too.

I Doubt It said...

I did a search in the UB library database for "skepticism", "skeptical" and "modern" and came up with squat.

I think you've got it all. What are you going to do with it? Seems ripe for some new literature. What do you suggest? (I need a thesis topic.)

Jim Lippard said...

Jim: The modern skeptical movement has essentially redefined skepticism--they're not philosophical skeptics, they're skeptics about knowledge claims that are empirically testable yet not supported by scientific evidence.

I Doubt It: I need to write a literature review paper of potential relevance to a research project for next year, but if this is it, then I need to find an analogous literature, say, about some other social movement, from which to identify relevant issues that I want to research--such as how do new media change concepts of authority and credibility, how are experts identified, what's the individual's capacity to know what's true, are there cultural differences between countries that affect the trajectories of social movements, etc.

Podblack said...

The person you might be interested in contacting is Dr Martin Bridgstock (featured ep #47 of the Skeptic Zone podcast) - I helped him collect qual last Dragon*Con of 'activist skeptics' whilst he was there.

There's some articles that I've dug up here: - more specifically the history of female involvement in skepticism.

Jon said...

George Hansen also wrote extensively on CSICOP and Martin Gardner in a way you may (or may not) find relevant: check out "The Trickster and the Paranormal."

His work has footnotes and an index.