For the entire history of scientific skepticism, folks in our weird and wonderful little field have heard two criticisms offered with metronomic regularity from people who are “skeptical of the skeptics.”1 One is the obvious: “Skeptics are closed-minded!” The other, no less predictable or routine, is my topic today: “Why do you bother with this trivial stuff about pseudoscience and the paranormal? Aren’t there more important things to worry about?”
Yesterday, science writer John Horgan offered the latest example of this second standard criticism in a Scientific American blog post titled “Dear ‘Skeptics,’ Bash Homeopathy and Bigfoot Less, Mammograms and War More” (presented first as a speech last weekend at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, NECSS, in New York City). Positioning his piece as a critique (“I have to bash skepticism”) from an outsider perspective ( “I don’t belong to skeptical societies. I don’t hang out with people who self-identify as capital-S Skeptics”), Horgan “decided to treat the skeptics skeptically.” He offered a prescription: skeptics should stop patting “each other on the back” and stop wasting our time on the “soft targets” of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims:
I’m asking you skeptics to spend less time bashing soft targets like homeopathy and Bigfoot and more time bashing hard targets like multiverses, cancer tests, psychiatric drugs and war, the hardest target of all.
I won’t bother with a detailed rebuttal—Skeptics Guide to the Universe host Steven Novella already wrote that. Briefly, Horgan’s recommendations suffer from two shortcomings. First, skeptics have long covered much of the ground Horgan would like us to discover. As Novella exasperatedly points out, for example,
Here are almost 40 articles from science-based medicine on overdiagnosis in mainstream medicine, including several articles on mammography. The pattern should now be clear—Horgan gives a simplistic summary of an issue, showing that he himself has a superficial understanding of the relevant points, accusing skeptics of not dealing with such issues sufficiently. Meanwhile, there is already an in-depth discussion of the issue in skeptical circles, which is much deeper that Horgan’s treatment.
My interest today is the second shortcoming of Horgan’s critique: scientific skepticism’s core subject matter may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is more interesting and useful than Horgan supposes.
“Bigfoot Skepticism” And All That
Horgan is not alone in disparaging the effort skeptics expend in the study and criticism of paranormal and fringe science claims. Outsider accusations of triviality have been a cliché for decades—even centuries. In 2016 Horgan chose to call out Bigfoot and homeopathy as his go-to examples. In 1842 physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. anticipated just this reaction to his now classic skeptical treatment “Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions“:
The practitioner and the scholar must not, therefore, smile at the amount of time and labor expended in these Lectures upon this shadowy system; which, in the calm and serious judgment of many of the wisest members of the medical profession, is not entitled by anything it has ever said or done to the notoriety of a public rebuke, still less to the honors of critical martyrdom.
I’ve spent much of my career confronting the common argument that skeptics should not perform the service skeptics do best, but instead tackle other subjects we may not be qualified to address. It’s a head scratcher, honestly. “You have specialized expertise in X, but I think X is trivial. Why don’t you specialize in Y, because I think Y is important?” Nobody ever says this to Shakespeare scholars or doctors or plumbers. (“Dear ‘fire fighters,’ fight fires less and solve more murders”?) Seemingly everyone says it to skeptics.
There’s even a term invented to express this disdainful view: traditional scientific skepticism is sometimes dismissed as “Bigfoot skepticism” in order to highlight the argued triviality of paranormal subject matter. (For more on this meme, see for example these pieces by Harriet Hall and Steve Novella.) Horgan accidentally reinvents this same strategy of dismissal, expressing amused surprise that such a goofy topic would even come up:
The references to “Bigfoot” in the headline above and text below were inspired by a conversation I had with conference Emcee Jamy Ian Swiss before I went on stage. He asked what I planned to say, and I told him, and he furiously defended his opposition to belief in Bigfoot. He wasn’t kidding.
Horgan begins with Bigfoot, and ends by asking “Shouldn’t ending war be a moral imperative, like ending slavery or the subjugation of women? How can we not end war?” Well, when you put it like that….
Look, we get it—Bigfoot is a less pressing problem than war. Every topic skeptics study is less pressing than ending warfare. That’s obvious to the point of silliness. Almost everything almost everybody does is less important than that. Certainly skeptical writing like I do or science writing like Horgan does are both pretty small potatoes compared with the quest for world peace.
So should skeptics therefore “bash homeopathy and bigfoot less”? For the sake of argument, let me grant for a moment that Bigfoot is one of the very least important topics skeptics study. It’s a topic close to my heart—I wrote a book on Bigfoot and other cryptids with INSIGHT blogger Donald Prothero—but belief in Bigfoot is for the most part pretty harmless. My work on Bigfoot isn’t going to cure cancer.
Which prompts me to ask, “So what?”
Sagan Makes the Case
Horgan approvingly cites Carl Sagan as one of the anti-war scientists of yesteryear. That’s true. Sagan was an anti-war activist who was arrested protesting U.S. nuclear testing. He cared about big, important things: our changing climate, our place in the cosmos, our future as a species. Nevertheless, as I explained here and here, Sagan also chose to devote a lot of time and energy to the far out subject matter of scientific skepticism. Although downplayed by his biographers, fringe science claims were a major theme of his intellectual career. He wrote articles, chapters, and books on skeptical topics such as flying saucers. He organized an entire American Association for the Advancement of Science symposium on the astronomical speculations of Immanuel Velikovsky—surely the quintessential example of harmless crackpottery. And, he recommended that other informed critics give more attention to fringe claims, not less:
I believe that scientists should spend more time in discussing these issues…. There are many cases where the belief system is so absurd that scientists dismiss it instantly but never commit their arguments to print. I believe this is a mistake.2
Why would Sagan say this? It wasn’t because he had nothing bigger to occupy his time. And Sagan too anticipated his work on these topics to be viewed as trivial, acknowledging, “The attention given to borderline science may seem curious to some readers.”3 Yet work on these topics he did. He was a founder of the modern organized skeptical movement in the 1970s, and an activist critic of fringe claims long before that. The reason was simple. He told us what it was: scientific skepticism serves an “important social function”4 by examining weird claims and telling the public what we find out. Who else is going to do that “trivial” work? Skeptics like Sagan organized to study stuff no one else could be bothered to study. It was a neglected field for research, an unfilled public need. That’s not nuthin’. In Sagan’s opinion, skeptics play “a sometimes lonely but still…heroic role in trying to counter” pseudoscientific misinformation and anti-science in the public sphere.5
The question is not whether there are any topics more important than the topics of skeptics’ specialized, niche expertise. Of course there are. But it’s just a silly way to frame the issue. The real question is whether fringe topics are important enough to justify the attention of a tiny community of enthusiasts, scholars, and critics? Or, as I’ve put it before, “Who ARE you gonna call?” Skeptics examine hundreds of paranormal and fringe science topics. Just by myself, I’ve written well over 40 ten-page Junior Skeptic features examining dozens of those topics. Often (writing for children!) I’ve made significant contributions to the literature on those topics—something I can do only because so much scholarly work remains undone. I have a back-of-the-envelope list of over a hundred more topics I hope to cover in the future. And that’s just topics I think I might be able to do a decent job on. There are countless others. Some have serious implications for people’s well-being or physical health; some are downright harmful; some are merely fascinating case studies for a very deep part of the human condition.
Here’s the thing: virtually the entire population of the planet holds paranormal or pseudoscientific beliefs. Those beliefs help shape the daily lives of billions of people. That’s interesting.
Take Bigfoot alone. A 2012 Angus Reid survey (PDF) found that “three-in-ten Americans (29%) and one- in-five Canadians (21%) think Bigfoot is ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ real.” That’s a fairly typical finding, for Bigfoot or many other paranormal claims. In that survey, 7% of Americans affirmed that they believed Bigfoot was “definitely” real. That works out to 23 million people! And yet, I’m aware of perhaps a dozen people who’ve done serious skeptical work on the topic of Bigfoot. Is a single skeptical critic per one or two million serious believers really too much scholarly attention?
The traditional skeptical subject matter includes hundreds of weird topics, and at best we can offer a handful of expert voices on each one. Many we can’t cover at all. That’s because the skeptical movement is small. We’re a tiny community. We’re frequently distracted by the exact kind of self-examination Horgan wishes we would do—bogged down in debates about the scope, ethics, and strategies of our practice. Most of us are volunteers. The work is difficult, believe it or not. And there’s simply a lot to do. A lot to do, and very few people to do it. That’s why “skeptical burnout” has been a recognized problem for decades.
Does scientific skepticism have problems? Sure. Of course we do. Every field has problems, and a largely amateur proto-field comprised mostly of volunteer enthusiasts is naturally no exception. Horgan even manages to hit on one of them—tribalism. But like several of his points, the problem of tribalism has been extensively discussed for years in the skeptical literature. Sagan wrote about it.6 INSIGHT blogger Mike McRae has written about it. I’ve written about it. (Perhaps ironically, launching ill-informed outsider critiques at any group of people is exactly the kind of thing that encourages the tribal impulse.)
Skepticism has problems. But the mere fact that we exist isn’t one of them. Nor is it a problem that we emphasize topics that other people find uninteresting. That’s our most useful contribution.
In closing, I’d like to share a few words from my lengthy 2013 reflection “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” (PDF):
That work matters. Maybe not as much as other tasks, or other movements—maybe not as much as your task—but it matters enough. There’s still a need for a movement specifically, consistently, unfalteringly dedicated to that endless array of pseudoscientific claims. After all these centuries, the need for that work is still as great as it always has been. And skeptics are willing to do it.
If you’re one of them, if you want to help with that work even some of the time—then welcome, a hundred times welcome. We need all the help we can get. Or, if you feel drawn more to some parallel rationalist movement, social justice cause, academic discipline, or faith group—then please, all the same, encourage scientific skepticism to do its tedious, useful work. The smallness of our cause does nothing to diminish the importance of yours.
- This tedious cliché returns 35,200 Google hits, incidentally.
- Carl Sagan. “Night Walkers and Mystery Mongers: Sense and Nonsense At the Edge of Science.” Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 10., No. 3. Spring, 1986. pp. 224–225 [Excerpted from Broca’s Brain]
- Carl Sagan. Broca’s Brain. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.) p. xii
- Carl Sagan. The Demon-Haunted World. (New York: Random House, 1996.) pp. 298–300
- Carl Sagan. “Wonder and Skepticism.” Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 19, No. 1. January/February 1995. p. 26
- Sagan (1996.) p. 300