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Video: TAM 2013 Panel on the Scope and Mission of Scientific Skepticism

Sep. 26, 2014 by | Comments (6)
Panel discussion on stage

Steven Novella, Daniel Loxton, Barbara Drescher, and Jamy Ian Swiss sitting on the “Skeptical Scope and Mission” panel discussion at The Amazing Meeting 2013 conference (July 11–14, 2013) in Las Vegas.

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has begun to move video content from their Amazing Meeting 2013 conference onto YouTube.

I was honored that year to join in a panel discussion with magician Jamy Ian Swiss, Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe host Steven Novella, and INSIGHT’s own Barbara Drescher, with Doubtful News creator Sharon Hill serving as moderator. The topic—the question of the “scope” of scientific skepticism—was an old one. But the conversation that emerged on stage may (in my opinion) be one of the most serious, positive, and forward-looking discussions this topic has received in years.

I was tremendously gladdened by that. I’ve often written about the focus, utility, and moral value of scientific skepticism. See for example my 2007 op-ed “Where Do We Go From Here?” (PDF), 2013 historical exploration “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” (PDF), or my 2014 speech “A Rare and Beautiful Thing” (read the text or watch the video).

It’s important to me. Important personally.

I’ll admit something a bit silly here: I often begin my days with a running gag, telling my wife and young children, “Well, I’m off to fight some crime!” (My wife sometimes replies, “Have fun storming the castle!”) What I’m actually going to do is walk 15 feet down the hall and type something, or possibly draw a picture. Yet in my innermost heart, I’m not joking. Not entirely.

For better or worse, the reality is that I’m a kind of True Believer. I believe passionately, obsessively, deep in my marrow that the work of scientific skepticism is worth doing—and worth doing well. I want my children to know that I hope to make the world a bit better with the work that I do. I wake up in the morning thinking about how to do that work more effectively. I fall asleep thinking about the challenges ahead. And I dream, as we discuss in the video, of what the discipline of scientific skepticism could one day grow to become.

Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at Skeptic.com 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.

6 responses to “Video: TAM 2013 Panel on the Scope and Mission of Scientific Skepticism”

  1. Max says:

    I’d like to see research about whom to trust and whom not to trust, who gets things right and who doesn’t, how often the scientific consensus is right, and how an individual can determine what the scientific consensus is on an issue and who was right in the past.
    Something like “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” by Ioannidis.

    Like, what’s the difference between Monsanto denying that Agent Orange caused serious long-term health effects and denying that GMOs pose health risks? Or the difference between the government’s official story of Iraq’s WMDs and the official story of the 9/11 attacks?

  2. Johnny says:

    “And, when we ask a practitioner of science whether she uses “scientist” as a personal identity or as vocational label, does the answer change the nature of the work she does? Or, is the use of the label a matter of personal preference? It seems to me that what matters is that she goes to work and applies the methods, embodies the ethos, and increases the knowledge of her field.”

    Of course. As a matter of fact, I’d imagine Paul Kurtz identified much more with secular humanism than with scientific skepticism, yet he was one of the founders of the modern skeptical movement. The purpose was simply to illustrate a (percieved) difference between you and Novella.

    Otherwise, thanks for the clarification.

    • badrescher says:

      It’s worth noting that there is also often a distinction made between “skeptics” and “Skeptics”. The big S is usually used to refer to those who engage in activism or education of some sort, be they professional investigators or writers or just people who attend “Skeptics in the Pub”.

      For anyone interested in more on the topic, I compiled a list of links to posts, publications, and videos on the topic and continue to update it with posts like this one. You can find it here: http://icbseverywhere.com/blog/2013/02/on-skepticism-its-definitions-and-scope/

      • Johnny says:

        It seems like big-S Skeptics are more or less synonymous with scientific skepticism by your definition. What then are the small-s skeptics? I have never encountered this distinction before.

        I usually refer to The Demon-Haunted World as a primer of (scientific) skeptical philosophy (which I’m hardly alone in doing!). Do you think that is incorrect?

  3. Daniel Loxton says:

    I’ve discussed the conceptual underpinnings of skepticism with Steve on various occasions, and of course followed his work. While I hesitate to speak for him, my sense is that our views are close to identical—we’re just emphasizing different facets of the same jewel. In the panel above, for example, he emphasized methodology while I emphasized subject matter. These may sound like contrasts, but actually they’re intertwined complements.

    A close analogy would be mainstream science as a whole (or if you prefer, any science in particular). Is “science” (or astrophysics or microbiology) a methodology, or an ethos, or is it a hard-won body of knowledge about the natural world? The truth is that it’s all of those things. And, when we ask a practitioner of science whether she uses “scientist” as a personal identity or as a vocational label, does the answer change the nature of the work she does? Or, is the use of the label a matter of personal preference? It seems to me that what matters is that she goes to work and applies the methods, embodies the ethos, and increases the knowledge of her field.

  4. Johnny says:

    It is possible that I’m missing some nuances here, so please correct me if I’m wrong.

    I think there is a clear difference between how Loxton and Novella approach scientific skepticism (I know too little about the other two to comment on them).

    Loxton views skepticism as a field of research more than anything else. Investigate stuff and then tell the public what (if anything) has been found. Loxton explicitly says he is not trying to sell anyone a worldview.

    To Novella, skepticism is a worldview (yes, he used that word on his blog to describe it) centered around science and critical thinking. He has written and talked about how identifying with the process, i.e skepticism (which Loxton by his own admission doesn’t) instead of any particular conclusion helps avoid getting too biased into any particular (ideological) conclusion. How it makes one less emotionally bound to particualr conclusions.

    To Loxton, those who are skeptics are (at least primarily) those who carry out investigations into paranormal and pseudoscience topics. To Novella, a skeptic is anyone who shares the skeptical worldview.

    Again, it is of course possible that I’m wrong, but having read quite a lot of what Loxton and Novella have written on this subject, these are my lasting impressions. They appear to ahve rather distinct ways of viewing what scientific skepticism is or should be. If I’m wrong, then please correct me.

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