The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

A Brief Introduction

The Society

The Skeptics Society is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) scientific and educational organization founded in 1992. We apply scientific thinking to investigate claims of all kinds, particularly those deemed controversial. From culture to technology and cutting-edge scientific discoveries, no topics are off limits.

*If you automatically associate the term “skeptic” with moon landing deniers or flat earthers (as many people do), it’s important to understand that this doesn’t accurately reflect our approach. We are skeptical of such groups, and investigate their claims.

The Founders

Dr. Michael Shermer is the author of New York Times bestsellers Why People Believe Weird Things, The Believing Brain, Heavens on Earth, and Conspiracy. He’s the host of The Michael Shermer Show.

Michael is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Science, Nature, and other publications. His two TED talks, seen by millions, were voted in the top 100 of all time.

Follow Michael on Substack, X, and Facebook.

Invite Michael to speak.

Pat Linse was an award-winning illustrator who spent many years working in Hollywood, specializing in film industry art.

She was one of the founders of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, serving as the publication’s Art Director. Pat passed away unexpectedly in 2021.

Learn more about Pat and her legacy in the video below, or by reading our tribute to her in Skeptic magazine.

The Contributors

Our contributors are top experts in their fields: leading scientists, scholars, investigative journalists, historians, professors, and teachers.

Why We Founded the Society

Our work is analytical and evidence-based (in fact, we go a step further and call our approach reality-based). We do not engage in activism or partisanship.

Unlike many similar-sized outlets, the Skeptics Society is not fueled by multimillionaire donors; rather, we are a membership-based organization reliant on generous contributions from supporters like you.

With trust in large mainstream media conglomerates at an unprecedented low, and the noticeable shift of once-neutral publications toward political activism, we proudly affirm that Skeptic is different. We remain committed to the values of free inquiry and critical thinking.

About Skepticism

Skepticism is a method, not a position. When we say we are “skeptical,” we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe.

Skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, which involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena.

A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions.

Some claims, such as water dowsing, ESP, and creationism, have been tested (and failed the tests) often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are not valid.

Other claims, such as hypnosis, the origins of language, and black holes, have been tested but results are inconclusive so we must continue formulating and testing hypotheses and theories until we can reach a provisional conclusion.

The key to skepticism is to continuously and vigorously apply the methods of science to navigate the treacherous straits between “know nothing” skepticism and “anything goes” credulity.

History of the Movement

The modern skeptical movement dates back to Martin Gardner’s 1952 classic, In the Name of Science. Gardner’s copious essays and books over the past four decades debunking all manner of bizarre claims, coupled to James “the Amazing” Randi’s countless psychic challenges and media appearances throughout the 1970s and 1980s, pushed the skeptical movement to the forefront of public consciousness. In the 1990s, one of the biggest proponents of skepticism was Carl Sagan. In the 2000s, 2010s, and 2020s, the leading figures of the movement included the likes of philosopher Daniel Dennett, biologist Richard Dawkins, magicians Penn & Teller, and Skeptic editor-in-chief Michael Shermer.

How to Analyze Claims

Here’s an example of how a rational skeptic might analyze a claim.

Is there some sort of collective consciousness into which we can tap to decrease crime, eliminate wars, and generally unite as a single species? The Hundredth-Monkey phenomenon is commonly cited as empirical proof of this astonishing claim.

In the 1950s, so the story goes, Japanese scientists gave monkeys on Koshima Island potatoes. One day one of the monkeys learned to wash the potatoes and then taught the skill to others. When about 100 monkeys had learned the skill — the so-called critical mass — suddenly all the monkeys automatically knew it, even those on other islands hundreds of miles away.

The belief is widespread in New Age circles: Lyall Watson’s Lifetide (1979) and Ken Keyes’s The Hundredth Monkey (1982), for example, have been through multiple printings and sold millions copies; and Elda Hartley made a film called “The Hundredth Monkey.”

As an exercise in skepticism, we should start by asking if these events really happened as reported. They did not.

In 1952, primatologists began providing Japanese macaques with sweet potatoes to keep them from raiding local farms. One of them did learn to wash dirt off the potatoes in a stream or the ocean, and other monkeys learned to model the behavior (modeling is a normal part of primate behavior — “monkey see, monkey do” predates the New Age).

Now let’s examine Watson’s claim more carefully. He admits that “one has to gather the rest of the story from personal anecdotes and bits of folklore among primate researchers, because most of them are still not quite sure what happened. So I am forced to improvise the details.” Watson then speculates that “an unspecified number of monkeys on Koshima were washing sweet potatoes in the sea,” hardly the level of precision required to justify so far-reaching a conclusion. He then makes this astonishing statement:

Let us say, for argument’s sake, that the number was 99 and that at 11:00 a.m. on a Tuesday, one further convert was added to the fold in the usual way. But the addition of the hundredth monkey apparently carried the number across some sort of threshold, pushing it through a kind of critical mass.

At this point, says Watson, the habit “seems to have jumped natural barriers and to have appeared spontaneously on other islands.”

One need go no further. Scientists do not “improvise” details or make wild guesses from “anecdotes” and “bits of folklore.” But there is more. In fact, some real scientists did record exactly what happened.

The troop began with 20 monkeys in 1952 and reached 59 by 1962, and every monkey on the island was carefully observed. By March of 1958 exactly 17 of 30 monkeys; and by 1962 exactly 36 of 49 monkeys had modeled the washing behavior.

The “sudden” acquisition of the behavior actually took four years, and the “100 monkeys” were actually only 17 in 1958 and 36 in 1962.

And while there are some reports of similar behavior on other islands, the observations were made between 1953 and 1967. It was not sudden, nor was it connected in any way to Koshima.

The monkeys on other islands could have discovered this simple skill themselves; or researchers or inhabitants of the islands might have taught them; or monkeys from Koshima might have been taken there.

In any case, there is nowhere near the evidence necessary to support this extraordinary claim.

There is not even any real phenomenon to explain!

Are We an Atheist Organization?

Membership or involvement in any capacity with the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine is not exclusionary. We could not care less what anyone’s religious beliefs are.

In fact, at least two of our more prominent supporters—the comedian and songwriter Steve Allen and the mathematician and essayist Martin Gardner—were believers in God. Other members of our board may believe in God as well. We do not know. We have never asked.

The primary mission of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine is the investigation of science and pseudoscience controversies, and the promotion of critical thinking. We investigate claims that are testable or examinable.

If someone says she believes in God based on faith, then we do not have much to say about it. If someone says he believes in God and he can prove it through rational arguments or empirical evidence, then, like Harry Truman, we say “show me.” …

If in the process of learning how to think scientifically and critically, someone comes to the conclusion that there is no God, so be it—but it is not our goal to convert believers into nonbelievers.

When Science Goes Wrong

It is important that we recognize the fallibility of science and the scientific method. But within this fallibility lies its greatest strength: self-correction.

Whether mistakes are made honestly or dishonestly, whether a fraud is unknowingly or knowingly perpetrated, in time it will be flushed out of the system through the lack of external verification. The cold fusion fiasco is a classic example of the system’s swift consequences for error and hasty publication.

Despite built in mechanisms science is still subject to a number of problems and fallacies that even the most careful scientist and rational skeptic are aware can be troublesome. We can, however, find inspiration in those who have overcome them to make monumental contributions to our understanding of the world.

Charles Darwin is a sterling example of a scientist who struck the right balance between total acceptance of and devotion to the status quo, and an open willingness to explore and accept new ideas. This delicate balance forms the basis of the whole concept of paradigm shifts in the history of science.

Carl Sagan summed up this essential tension as follows:

It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas.

If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.)

On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones.

If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.

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