The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) is continuing to move video content from their “The Amazing Meeting 2013” conference onto YouTube. I was very excited that year to put together a workshop on a topic roughly one thousand times more fascinating than it sounds: “Preserving Skeptical History.” I was joined by INSIGHT’s own Tim Farley, Robert Sheaffer (leading UFO skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer columnist since 1977), and Susan Gerbic (of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project). We also enjoyed, as a special honor, the participation of psychologist Ray Hyman—leading parapsychology-critic and co-founder of the modern skeptical movement.
As organizer, I took the liberty of introducing the workshop with some remarks about the value of historical approaches within skepticism, the text of which I published at Skepticblog under the title “Should Scientific Skeptics Care About History?” I then segued into a practical discussion of historical sleuthing, including such topics as finding rare sources on no budget and the unwelcome news that microfilm is still a thing. This portion may be of interest to teachers, students, and grassroots skeptics.
Tim then presented original research tracking the history and growth of skeptical conferences. Susan talked about Wikipedia, the grassroots skeptics’ best opportunity to contribute to the preservation of the history of skepticism and paranormal claims. Robert discussed the context of popular paranormal belief in which skeptics organized in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Finally, Ray dazzled us with extemporaneous insights, amusing anecdotes, and some unflinching critical reflections regarding the birth of the organized skeptical movement. Never one to avoid a difficult observation, Ray ended on this troubling “bottom line” note:
We have been in business for at least 37 years. … I do not know of any evidence at all that would meet scientific criteria to show that we’ve had any kind of impact. … My plea is…that we try to do something—at least try and do something—to begin to find ways of measuring what we’re doing, and by scientific methods. The very attempt to do that means we’re going have to spell out what we’re trying to do, what kind of goals we want to have. … I hope that before another 37 years is up, we really do something towards defining our goals and finding ways of measuring how well we’re doing.
I hope you find the workshop interesting, challenging, and useful!