My Response to Sharon Hill’s Call for Help

Sharon HillThe following is a response to Sharon Hill, noted Skeptic and voice of reason in the community of paranormal research, Forteana, and fringe science.  She is my friend, and my colleague, and she has asked for any and all opinions regarding the future of organised Skepticism.

It’s been said of atheists that organising them is like herding cats.  I’m hesitant to conflate atheism with skepticism – as many others have done – but it can’t be denied that there are certain personality traits the two groups share.  Independent thought, reason, a penchant for evidence and the scientific method, etcetera.

Of course, there are other personality traits that they share, ones that aren’t so laudable.  Elitism, condescension, cronyism, groupthink, and an adversarial attitude.

The Skeptical community, as measured by the behaviour of its most visible members, is big on in-group back-slapping, and very small on conversation with out-group elements.  I recognise that this view of the community isn’t representative of the whole of the group, but it does set a tone.

I, personally – speaking as one who sits in opposition to both sides of the usual debate – would like to see much more open communication, as opposed to tongue wagging monologue and self-aggrandizing.  I would like to see more people making a pointed effort to understand and to retreat to the original purpose of the community: Education.

There has been a long tradition among skeptical thinkers to belittle the beliefs and ideas of those who don’t sit at the table, but that tradition is contrasted by minds like that of Bertrand Russell, who, with his great intellect, sliced through the proverbial bullshit without simultaneously cutting down his opponent.

Publicity stunts and manufactured drama, in the style of reality television is unbecoming of such an intellectual endeavour, but we so often see that both of those things are fundamental to the operation of Skeptic organisations.  It’s more than just personalities and egos getting in the way.  It’s childish pseudo-political maneuvering, immature management, and a promotion of unrelated ideologies.  It’s like a modern adaptation of the old boys club, in so far as they do occasionally allow women into the clubhouse.  Not that they treat them very well once they’re inside.

An aspect of the cultures that emerge from the Skeptic movement, on either side of it, that seems to be ignored by those within Skeptic organisations, is the psychology of belief.  It’s commendable for people to understand and see through pseudoscience, to expose hoaxes, and to educate one’s self on the natural sciences and the way the world truly works.  So why don’t those in skeptic circles make the same effort to understand why believers believe what they do, beyond simply wagging a finger in their face, proclaiming that they’re stupid for not getting the facts straight and then looking to their comrades for a good laugh at someone else’s expense?

It seems to be because a large number of people who identify themselves as capital-S Skeptics, aren’t there to learn or educate, they’re in it to make themselves feel smarter.  Which is hardly something anyone else should congratulate.

There may be a time and a place for such antics, like perhaps in response to harmful marketing claims in alternative health circles, but shouldn’t the whole enterprise be based on a sincere desire to educate those who are being duped, rather than belittle the ones who currently have their attention?  I’ll point out that insulting a person or organisation that holds someone’s respect, will not in turn win respect for the one slinging the insults.

Skepticism, as a field of community activism, is fraught with pitfalls, and needs to be navigated carefully and deliberately.  If the Skeptic’s attention is constantly focused on a mirror, they can hardly see the landmine they’re about to step on.


4 thoughts on “My Response to Sharon Hill’s Call for Help

  1. Well, I’m only a lower-case-s skeptic, but my thoughts are that most skeptics (that I’ve come across) do really want to educate people, but our problem is that no matter what we do, we come off as being condescending, snarky a-holes. I’m really new to blogging, (seriously, this is my first day trying it out), but I’ve been plotting out my ideas for a blog for some time now. The biggest thing holding me back was the lingering question, “will I even make a difference?” Nearly every time I point out misinformation, bad sources, logical fallacies, etc I get jumped on for being negative, attacking, or too opinionated. And the more you try to correct false information, the deeper seeded the beliefs become. I have become very interested in why/ how evidence backfires, and I think that skeptics, as a group, need to focus on new ways to deliver our message, whether it’s debunking paranormal myths, religious dogma, or health scams-as is my thing. Not saying I know the answers, but I do know that when your message isn’t reaching your audience, the natural response is to preach to the choir, just to be heard. Also, the last thing we need is to create an ‘other’ within our own group. Sharon’s concerns are valid, if skeptics continue an us vs them attitude about fellow skeptics, our mission is doomed. That’s just the way I see it.


    • Skeptics definitely have a messaging problem. They need to remember that these incidents involve real people. I’ve been contacted by people who claim to have paranormal experiences that are scared out of their mind. They don’t know how to stop their experiences, they don’t know what the cause is, and they are concerned that if they share their experiences openly people will view them as crazy crack-pots. And skeptics hold some of the blame for that stigma. People like Joe Nickell claiming eyewitnesses who experience abduction encounters are “prone to fantasy” is taken as an insult to most people. And that’s one of the nicer comments. I’ve seen much less charitable descriptions of believers and eyewitnesses.

      The phenomena are real. People are experiencing real things through some mechanism, they may or may not be paranormal, but eyewitnesses are having real experiences. If skeptics can acknowledge that the experience is real and offer their alternative (non-paranormal) explanation that will help with the palatability of skeptical explanations. Put yourself in the shoes of the eyewitness. Are you going to go to someone who labels believers as fantasy prone liars that can’t decide for themselves what is real, or do you go to someone who is interested in your experiences and offers support and options for resolution?

      Another thing that would help the skeptical movement is get off the blog and get into the field! It is hard to take criticism of field investigations seriously from people who lack formal education and experience in field work or analysis. Instead of simply making a counter-claim, demonstrate it! Conduct an experiment or do the leg-work to show how the counter-claim can be an applicable explanation. Anyone can sit behind a computer saying well that ghost could be this or this… a good skeptic can prove it, beyond a reasonable doubt.

      There will always be die-hards that cannot be persuaded with any amount of logic, but this does not represent the majority of eyewitnesses and the public. They can be swayed if you give them a good reason to change their opinion.


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