Outside of Junior Skeptic (my primary ongoing project) a surprising amount of my professional output—most of my blogging, stage appearances, op-eds (PDF), and interviews—is given over to the oddly controversial argument that my field should exist.
It’s my opinion that “scientific” skepticism should be acknowledged as a distinct field of study with a unique mandate: the critical, science-informed, scholarly examination of paranormal, pseudoscientific, and other fringe claims. Consequently, I’ve rejected (PDF) periodic suggestions that skepticism should shift its focus from fringe topics toward arguably “more important” matters, or that skepticism ought to be subsumed as a side-project within some other sphere (such as “science,” humanism, or atheism).
Colleagues such as Steve Novella, Sharon Hill, Barbara Drescher, and Jamy Ian Swiss (video) often find themselves drawn to such discussions. I tend to agree with these and other traditionalist skeptics about the most suitable scope for scientific skepticism: “testable” (that is, investigable) claims. In addition, I’ve argued that it’s desirable for skeptics to emphasize a specialized core subject matter within that “testable claims” scope: pseudoscience and the paranormal. Not an exclusive concern with fringe claims, mind—that’s more restrictive than I or anyone wants to see—just an ongoing (and historically well-established) emphasis upon claims of that type.
My cheerleading for scientific skepticism’s traditional core focus upon the fringe is founded on several points:
- The organized skeptical movement was explicitly created in the 1970s to do the niche work of probing and critiquing investigable fringe claims;1
- That niche remains specialized, important, and woefully under-served;
- Skeptics are generally good at dealing with fringe topics, but sometimes bad at topics outside that niche;
- The more general secondary work pursued by skeptics, such as the promotion of critical thinking and science (including for example my own book Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be) is also done by other, better established, more professional fields.
To these I might add,
- Many kinds of worthy work that lie completely outside of skepticism’s traditional scope of practice are likewise already pursued by existing movements dedicated to that work.
Let’s set aside for today that last category of outside topics that skeptics have traditionally left to others, such as metaphysical debates about religion or partisan debates about political values. (I’ve discussed these elsewhere often, such as here, here, and here.) One might agree on a testable claims scope without seeing why scientific skepticism should bother itself overmuch with tedious fringe nonsense. If cooler legitimate science topics are just as much within the testable claims scope that I champion, why not get out of the business of weird things? Don’t we have better things to do?
It’s my opinion that the fringe is exactly where our energies are most valuable, because it is here that our contributions are most noteworthy and rare. Consider the promotion of science and critical thinking. Skeptics do this; we’ve always done this; we’ll surely continue to do this. But so do a lot of other people. I mean, really—a lot. Are there any educational outreach projects more widely celebrated today than STEM advocacy? Any virtues more widely applauded than critical thinking? Anyone left who does not “F*cking Love Science”?2 There are TV networks for science. There are entire professional disciplines whose sole focus is educating and communicating about science.
The uniquely useful contribution of scientific skepticism is not in joining our small voice to that already crowded choir, but in to putting these concepts to work on an otherwise neglected problem: the detailed critical study of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. This, again, was the unmet need that organized skepticism was specifically conceived to address.
Now, it’s important to underline once again that critical examination of fringe claims (“debunking”) has never been our only contribution. It has long been our defining central contribution, but it’s not the only thing we do. It almost would not be possible to limit our efforts exclusively to debunking. Skeptics have always advocated for critical thinking and scientific literacy, for example, not merely because they are abstractly useful but because the paranormal and pseudoscience cannot be understood without them. (It’s also arguably the case that science and critical thinking cannot be fully understood without consideration of how thinking goes wrong, as in paranormal and pseudoscientific belief.)
With those points in mind, I’d like to discuss some arguments for the value of scientific skepticism’s traditional focus on fringe topics. These are all arguments I’ve made in the past and still support, but I’ll suggest that some appeal to me more than others:
Argument from Harm
For decades—indeed, for millennia!—skeptics have argued that unanswered paranormal claims can cause psychological, physical, or social harm. Second century Roman debunker Lucian of Samosata, for example, asserted that people who paid psychic con-man Alexander of Abonoteichus for a magical verse of protection from plague were more likely to be struck down by the disease—perhaps because they “neglected precautions because of their confidence in the line and lived too carelessly,” Lucian speculated.
Many other skeptics since have forcefully made the argument from harm (see Tim Farley’s website What’s the Harm? for a notable current example) so I won’t dwell on it here. It simply is true that people sometimes get hurt when false claims burn out of control. One need only to consider pseudoscientific defenses of tobacco safety or opposition to vaccines or climate science to see the potential for harm to millions. Or, at the personal scale, consider the intimate, individual anguish of those whose desperate trust is preyed upon by quacks or psychic scammers.
Despite the dangers of pseudoscience, I’ve urged skeptics to resist justifying our work exclusively on harm-reduction grounds. To begin with, claims of harm are themselves claims, and not always easy to quantify or justify. “My own inclination is to admit that I do not know how to measure the amount of harm that comes from belief in the paranormal,” warned pioneering skeptical psychologist Ray Hyman a quarter century ago.3 Harmfulness is also not the only criterion for judging the importance of a claim. What of claims whose “harm” is largely abstract? It breaks no one’s leg to be taught nonsense about a Great Flood or a 6,000-year old Earth; and yet, such demonstrable untruths seems nonetheless objectionable.
Utilitarian triage has a way of dismissing problems—and devaluing solutions—that in themselves surely deserve attention from someone. After all, the founding impetus behind scientific skepticism was exactly the failure of such calculations: pseudoscientific rubbish was broadly considered beneath the attention of scientists and scholars who had better things to study. Skeptics stepped up because no one else could be bothered.
Argument from Pedagogy
Another common argument asserts that skeptical analysis of seductive paranormal claims can be useful for teaching science and critical thinking. Far out mysteries provide colorful “hooks” and opportunities to show how thinking goes wrong. This is part of the concept behind my own Junior Skeptic stories: I present an interesting, often somewhat goofy mystery, and then I take my young readers along while I attempt to get to the bottom of it. This Scooby-Doo-like process introduces critical concepts and habits of thought which are applicable far beyond the cases at hand.
I know that I’ve personally learned a great deal about science and thinking by reading skeptical critiques of nonsense. Nevertheless, I’m cautious about justifying scientific skepticism in terms of educational spin-off benefits. It’s not that those benefits aren’t real.4 It’s just that I don’t want the value of my entire field of study to be reduced to an afterthought, a grudging admission that “at least it’s educational.” That’s like justifying NASA’s exploration of the cosmos on the basis of memory foam mattresses. The study of a near-universal human experience—paranormal and pseudoscientific belief—is worth more than that.
Argument from Interestingness
The argument I’ve tended to offer instead, somewhat defiantly, is that weird things are interesting.5 In themselves. For themselves. The study of these topics does not need to be justified, any more than we need to justify vertebrate paleontology or folkloristics or Shakespeare scholarship.
Pseudoscience, scams, frauds, fringe scholarship, and paranormal beliefs—they’re all simply, irreducibly, utterly interesting. And deeply human. Wild and woolly ideas are a part of our story as species. They help shape our civilization, frame our public debates, influence the day-to-day lives of our loved ones. Surely that’s worth knowing more about?
The pursuit of knowledge, like art, is in itself a thing of value. When the thing we study plays a role in the lives of most of humanity, that value must be multiplied by billions.
Argument from Ghostbusters
I’d like to close today with the question in my title: when there’s something weird, who are you gonna call? Sometimes reality seems to be lifted directly out of Ghostbusters: people in crisis literally do seek help for their haunted lives, turning to exorcists, ghost-hunters, and—sometimes—skeptics. (The issues in such cases are ethically weighty, with potential for harm and people’s well-being hanging in the balance—a point which has frequently been discussed by skeptics. See for example articles by Karen Stollznow, Hayley Stevens, and Benjamin Radford.)
But the question, “who you gonna call?” is much, much wider than ghosts. It’s not just scared families who find themselves haunted and in need of help. Our entire global civilization is shadowed by paranormal phantasms. We live, each one of us, every day, in Sagan’s demon-haunted world. Doctors must wrestle with patients over pseudoscientific treatments; governments must face down climate denial and other anti-scientific policy pressures; reporters must decide how to cover extraordinary claims; cops must fight crimes at the intersection of religious freedoms and occult fraud; regulators must battle bogus cure-alls; teachers must stand firm against creationist ideology; individuals must make decisions for ourselves and our families.
In such a world, who do we turn to for responsible, fact-based, science-informed information about fringe claims? Organized scientific skepticism was created specifically as an answer. Here, we said; ask us. We’re here to help. We’ll get to the bottom of this for you, and let you know what we find out.
This, I believe, is a noble, worthy mandate. It’s a justification for scientific skepticism that might also be called “the argument from public service.” That service (“a sort of Consumer Reports of the mind,” in the words of the late Canadian skeptic Barry Beyerstein6) is worth celebrating. It is, I have argued, beautiful. Not sexy, but useful—and distinctly so.
When skeptics today promote science and critical thinking, we borrow work from other, larger, older disciplines. When the larger culture debunks or explains the paranormal, it borrows insights from us. Skeptics are quoted by journalists, cited by scholars, echoed online. We’re called to testify in court on topics from Intelligent Design to false memory syndrome. There’s a reason for all that: on the weird niche topics of our weird niche expertise, we’re the best experts available.7
And experts, no matter how odd or imperfect, are worth having around when you need them.
- This founding concept was underlined once agin by Paul Kurtz in a 2001 reflection on the founding of the first successful, lasting US skeptics group:
It is well known that I am the culprit responsible for the founding of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Why did I do so? Because I was dismayed in 1976 by the rising tide of belief in the paranormal and the lack of adequate scientific examinations of these claims. … I was distressed that my students confused astrology with astronomy, accepted pyramid power, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, Kirlian photography, and psychic surgery without the benefit of a scientific critique.
—Paul Kurtz. “A Quarter Century of Skeptical Inquiry: My Personal Involvement.” Skeptical Inquirer Vol. 25, No. 4. July/August, 2001. p. 42
- I mean that rhetorically. Despite criticism, the “I F*cking Love Science” Page is undeniably popular, with more Facebook fans than Game of Thrones—roughly as many as Nike.
- Ray Hyman. The Elusive Quarry: A Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research. (Prometheus Books: New York, 1989.) pp. 446–447.
- I think it clearly is true, or at least often can be true, that skepticism can teach people stuff. But I’m an artist, not an educator or science communicator. Qualified readers may well note at this point that these things are complicated. I’m happy to grant that point.
- I’m always reminded here of a NSFW quip made famous by Richard Dawkins (video) which he attributed to an editor of New Scientist Magazine.
- Barry Beyerstein. “From Fate to Skeptical Inquirer.” Skeptical Odysseys, Paul Kurtz ed. (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2001.) p.
- This point was wisely underlined in the journal Science in 1955 by George R. Price, referring to the already long-established skeptical genre which would later give rise to “organized” scientific skepticism:
There is a literature on the supernatural, just as there is a literature of chemistry and physics, and the scientist who ignores this literature and depends on his pure reasoning powers in evaluating reports of psychic phenomena is at a disadvantage. A little acquaintance with the careful studies of men like Podmore and Houdini will give one a broader point of view and a clearer understanding by which to evaluate modern parapsychology.
—George R. Price. “Science and the Supernatural.” Science, Vol. 122, No. 3165. August 1955. pp. 359–367. Harry Houdini was a thoroughgoing scientific skeptic—a pioneer of the field—while Frank Podmore may perhaps be claimed with justification by both the modern skeptical and the parapsychological literatures. In any event, Podmore was a skeptical critic and scholar of psychic claims.