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Some of My Work in Skeptical History (Updated)

Sep. 30, 2014 by | Comments (2)

A version of this post was originally published at Skepticblog on August 19, 2013, where I intended to update it from time to time. However, the Skeptics Society has since retired Skepticblog, so the original post—which remains available—is no longer suitable for updates.

As I have a couple of newer items to add, and expect to have others to add in the future, I thought it might be useful to publish a lightly updated version here at INSIGHT.

Advocating for the importance of skeptical scholarship is a bit of a theme for me—the scholarship practiced by skeptics, and also scholarship about skepticism. In particular, I’ve devoted quite a bit of attention to the exploration of the history of (“scientific”) skepticism. Historical reflection has become a larger ongoing concern that unifies much of my work.

With that in mind, I thought it might be useful to collect, list, and link to some of my work relating to the history of skepticism. I hope to update this post with new links as time goes by.

You’ll forgive me if my criteria for including or excluding this or that content under the heading of “skeptical history” is a bit loosey-goosey. The history of skepticism and the history of fringe science and paranormal claims are closely interrelated. I write about both (my book with Don Prothero, Abominable Science! belongs to the latter category) but for our purposes here I am specifically interested in the internal history of skeptics and skepticism—the history of critical investigation of paranormal claims. I’ve selected a few examples of my work that seem to speak to that topic:

Selected Examples of My Skeptical History Stuff

“Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” (PDF) The first section of this two-chapter piece dives swiftly through two millennia of skeptical history. The second chapter describes the foundational ideals and ethos of the modern, organized movement of (“scientific”) skepticism. This is my most substantial and most intensely researched contribution to the discussion of skeptical history.

“Modern Skepticism’s Unique Mandate.” This excerpt from part two of “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” notes some of the other parallel movements and practices that already existed when the modern skeptical movement was conceived—and discusses the useful work those other movements left undone.

“A Rare and Beautiful Thing.” My mainstage speech at The Amazing Meeting 2014 conference in Las Vegas exploring skeptical history is available in text or video. Discusses skeptical figures including Lucian of Samosata, Joseph Rinn, Mary Sullivan, and Rose Mackenberg.

“Should Scientific Skeptics Care About History?” A slightly adapted version of my introduction to the “Preserving Skeptical History” workshop at The Amazing Meeting 2013 conference in Las Vegas. Argues that “Much of what we call ‘scientific skepticism’ is the study of the history of the paranormal.”

“Video: TAM 2013 Skeptical History Workshop.” Introductory comments and link to video of the “Preserving Skeptical History” workshop at The Amazing Meeting 2013 conference. Features presentations by myself, INSIGHT’s Tim Farley, Robert Sheaffer, Susan Gerbic, and Ray Hyman.

“The Forgetfulness of Skepticism.” Short reflection on skepticism’s neglect of our own history.

“History and Hyman’s Maxim (Part One).” A reflection upon on one of skepticism’s most valuable sayings: “Do not try to explain something until you are sure there is something to be explained.” Includes meta-discussion of challenges in the preservation of skeptical history.

“Things Skeptics Knew a Century Ago About How Thinking Goes Wrong.” Discussion of modern-seeming insights from historical skeptics including Joseph Jastrow, David Phelps Abbott, and William Benjamin Carpenter.

“Learning From Martin Gardner.” A reflection upon the death of Martin Gardner—a father of modern scientific skepticism—at age 95. (Make sure to check out the comment thread, where I am schooled on some important history myself.)

“Skepticism’s Oldest Debate: A Prehistory Of ‘DBAD’ (1838–2010).” A quick historical tour of some of skepticism’s many calls for more compassionate, more nuanced, more accessible outreach.

“Wonderful Phenomena Demand Wonderful Evidence.” A detailed exploration of the roots of the common skeptical slogan, “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.”

“The Remarkable Mr. Rinn.” An introduction to Joseph Rinn, a leading media skeptic at the dawn of the twentieth century.

“That Time Houdini Threatened To Shoot All the Psychics.” Discussion of a whimsical but ethically questionable activist stunt by Joseph Rinn and Harry Houdini.

“You Have Been Poked By God.” Discussion of a seemingly paranormal incident experienced by Isaac Asimov in 1990, in which he was prompted to take action based on a psychic premonition.

“Echoing the Past.” Riffing on a Paul Kurtz quote to consider the depth and cycles of skeptical history. (I’ve written a number of such general conceptual pieces; I’ll refrain from listing them all here.)

“Bishop Pontoppidan Versus The Tree Geese.” Considering the strange claim that geese hatch out of rotten wood, as investigated by the Right Revered Erich Pontoppidan (Bishop of Bergen in Norway from 1747 to 1754).

“Same Darkness, Same Light.” Brief discussion of Father Carlos M. de Heredia—a practicing Jesuit priest, magician, and media skeptic active during the early twentieth century.

“From the Skeptical Literature: Thomas Ady on the Role of Mental Illness in Witchcraft Confessions (1655).” Quotes and discusses English physician Thomas Ady, whose book debunking witch-hunting, A Candle in the Dark, became the namesake for Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

“The Rough Fist of Reason!” The full text of an out-of-copyright detective story from 1916, which features a hard-boiled debunker as its protagonist. With an introduction discussing the context of this work and the importance of studying and understanding skeptical history.

“Gotcha! Thinking About Skeptical ‘Stings.’” Discussion of the role of investigation through deception throughout skeptical history.

“A Rope of Sand.” Discussion of the rather cynical views of 19th century astronomer, science popularizer, and skeptic Richard Anthony Proctor (1837–1888).

Junior Skeptic Stories Which Explore Skeptical History

Junior Skeptic #32: “Great American Skeptics” (PDF). Free sample issue of Junior Skeptic explores skeptical work by Ben Franklin, Harry Houdini, Mark Twain, and Johnny Carson.

Junior Skeptic #34: “40 Years of Scooby-Doo!.” 40th anniversary celebration of one of the purest and most successful skeptical TV shows of all time. View table of contents or order issue here.

Junior Skeptic #45: “Dark Secrets of the Oracle-Monger.” Second-century Roman debunker Lucian of Samosata goes head to head with a prominent fraudulent medium of his period. View table of contents or order issue here.

Junior Skeptic #46: “Ghostbuster Girls!” In-depth discussion of the careers of early twentieth century skeptical investigators Mary Sullivan (of the New York Police Department) and Rose Mackenberg (Houdini’s top undercover sleuth). View table of contents or order issue here.

Junior Skeptic #50: “Carl Sagan.” Explores the third major pillar of Sagan’s intellectual life—scientific skepticism—and his involvement with skeptical activism before and during the creation of the first fully modern US skeptical organizations. View table of contents or order issue here.

“Carl Sagan and the Dangers of Skepticism.” An excerpt from Junior Skeptic #50.

“Sagan Versus the Flying Saucers.” An excerpt from Junior Skeptic #50

Junior Skeptic #52: “Photographing Phantoms, Part Two.” This second part of of a two-part story on spirit photography discusses outstanding skeptical work by thoroughgoing skeptics (such as William S. Marriott) and critically-minded figures on the pro-paranormal side (such as Eleanor Sidgwick and Walter Franklin Prince). View table of contents or order issue here.

Selected Essential Sources for Further Research Into Skeptical History

The skeptical literature is too vast for any list of relevant sources to be anywhere near complete. I won’t even attempt such a list here, but will mention a few key sources that I often find especially useful in my own work:

The suite of “Skeptic History” projects created by INSIGHT blogger Tim Farley. These include an app available from the US iTunes store for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, and the @SkepticHistory Twitter feed.

Skeptic magazine has published a number of key documents for any skeptical historian, including extensive interviews with founders of the modern skeptical movement such as Ray Hyman and Martin Gardner. A highlight of Skeptic‘s contribution to this literature is the 1784 Rapport Des Commissaires chargés par le Roi, de l’Examen du Magnétisme animal, published in English for the first time in Vol. 4, No. 3 in 1996, and available online in eSkeptic.

Sixty Years of Psychical Research (1950), by Joseph Rinn. Though rarely consulted today, this remains among the deepest and most important sources of the skeptical literature on paranormal investigation from about 1890–1950. This is a key volume for any skeptical library, but it is unfortunately fairly difficult to find. (Used copies seem to run about 60 bucks.)

A Magician Among the Spirits (1924) by Harry Houdini. Happily, this one is available in affordable reprint editions, and some PDF versions have also been made available online.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, (1996) by Carl Sagan. In print and readily available in multiple formats, The Demon-Haunted World is the single best introduction to scientific skepticism. Notably for our purposes here, Sagan was interested in the history of skepticism. For example, this book drew part of its title from a 1655 skeptical work by Thomas Ady. (See also Broca’s Brain, which drew upon the work of Lucian of Samosata and other influences.)

Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

2 responses to “Some of My Work in Skeptical History (Updated)”

  1. Johnny says:

    What is your take on the issue of pseudohistory and pseudohistorical (or just made up) claims?

    History is different from the natural sciences yet is firmly within the empirical realm. For some reason pseudohistorical claims are very rarely addressed by skeptics, and when they are it’s virtually always Holocaust denial that’s addressed.

    As a skeptic and lifelong history geek, it saddens me that this hole is mostly left empty (and it seems many leading skeptics are indifferent to it). If I had the proper credentials of a historian and more time on my hand, it’s a hole I’d try to help fill myself.

    • Daniel Loxton says:

      I address that question to some extent in one of the pieces above, “Should Scientific Skeptics Care About History?” in which I argue,

      Much of what we call “scientific skepticism” is the study of the history of the paranormal. Scientific skepticism operates within an empirical framework, and it is closely tied to the ethos of science. But most of what we actually do as skeptical investigators is not science. Instead, much of what we do is to ask (and sometimes to answer) this question:

      What really happened?

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