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lecture reminder…

The Weather Makers
How Humans are Changing the Climate
& What it Means for Life on Earth

with Dr. Tim Flannery

Sunday, April 9th, 2 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall, Caltech

Dr. Flannery outlines the history of climate change, how it will unfold over the next century, and what we can do to prevent a cataclysmic future, including what every one of us can do right now to reduce deadly CO2 emissions by as much as 70%.

READ more about this lecture >


In this week’s eSkeptic, Jim Dominic, Administrator of The Skeptics Society Forum shares with us his notes on running a skeptic discussion board.

Jim Dominic works as a graphic designer in Cleveland, Ohio, and has been posting on skeptic forums and newsgroups since 1994. He currently volunteers as an administrator at The Skeptics Society Forum, using the nickname “Maestro.”


Notes on Running
a Skeptic Discussion Board

by Jim Dominic

It seems simple enough: register a domain name, find a hosting server, install the software, set up the boards, fine tune the rules, announce that your forum has “gone live,” and reap immense satisfaction while intelligent people from various backgrounds and countries fill the place with brilliant discussion of critical issues of skeptical interest.

It isn’t quite that simple.

Like any website, your forum is subject to the laws of the land. For example, is your forum COPPA compliant? Must it be? What about copyright laws? What about libel?

If your forum isn’t COPPA compliant, it probably should be, even if your forum is not intended for children under the age of 13 (we’re still looking at the COPPA issue at The Skeptics Society Forum). Copyright must be taken seriously; authors, artists, and photographers certainly do. Although forum software allows the posting of images, an image in a post probably doesn’t qualify as “fair use.” The same applies to posting the text of published work, including news articles. Even things as ubiquitous as “smilies” and icons often require permission. Libel laws differ from country to country, but you really can’t allow people to use your forum to smear the reputations of others. It isn’t fair to the people who get smeared, and it looks very bad for the organization hosting the forum. You’ll also risk legal problems.

Discussions can become intense; emotions can and do rise, especially when people feel passionate about conclusions they’ve drawn or about what they believe. Skeptics are as passionate as anyone else. It seems to be a given for many online forums that people can be a bit confrontational, and tempers flare from time to time. Running a forum is itself an exercise in critical thinking. No set of rules is perfect. Because we are human and make mistakes, we actively strive to challenge our own opinions and decisions. If we don’t challenge ourselves, the people who participate in the forum will. It is a mutual exercise in skepticism, with each group serving as the other’s rational conscience. At least, that’s the ideal we try to achieve.

Is a skeptic discussion board really worth all that bother? Yes, it is.

Discussion boards are great places to hone critical thinking skills. The challenge of being confronted with opinions contrary to our own helps us to see concepts and issues from a different point of view. We skeptics like to challenge the status quo, but having our own views challenged is a healthy practice.

Participating in a skeptic discussion forum guarantees that your own cherished opinions will be challenged. Topics on The Skeptics Society Forum range from the innocuous, such as which books belong in a skeptic’s library, to the controversial, such as efforts to redefine science in favor of the supernatural, or skeptical discussions of politics. At The Skeptics Society Forum, we’ve even had spirited discussion about Galileo’s Theory of the Tides. Here’s a sampling of other topics:

The relative status of skepticism and science:
The Problem of Skepticism
The standards of evidence and the merits of anecdotes:
Sea Serpents in San Francisco Bay!
The validity of chiropractic:
What‘s wrong with chiropractors?
Does time exist?
Does Time Really Exist?
The history of the flat earth:
Flat Earth Myth
Evolution:
in our Origins

Robust give-and-take of opinions and analysis serves the important goal of communication. Helping to foster a common understanding among people is one of our goals. Discussion forums help to educate, and not just from a skeptical point of view. In these discussions, we learn how other people view reality, how they feel about topics that interest us, and how to express our own ideas so that others can understand us. Different forums have different cultures. The Skeptics Society Forum has its own intellectual flavor.

Discussion forums develop their own “community.” A group of people who routinely discuss things with each other inevitably develop some close-knit friendships. Other forums have developed particularly strong online communities that have extended into activities such as the James Randi Educational Foundation’s “The Amazing Meeting” and other functions. The Skeptics Society Forum is still relatively new, and our particular community is still evolving. We’re currently in the Limerick Epoch with not just one but two limerick topics, and an official Limerick Contest. Some of our members show an affinity for more complicated brainteasers such as our upcoming Chess Tournament. A forum is what people make of it. The underlying framework of software, graphics, and lofty goals is nothing without the people who join the forum and share what they have to say. We deeply appreciate what our forum members have taken valuable time to share, and we look forward to continuing to learn from them. There’s something new and interesting on the board every day, and that makes all the effort more than worthwhile.

So if you get a chance, drop by www.skepticforum.com for some stimulating conversation.

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