Dec 01 2008

Skeptical Battlegrounds: Part I – Background

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The skeptical movement, in my opinion, serves a vital role in modern society. We are increasingly dependent upon cutting edge science for our quality of life, and even just to run our complex civilization. And yet, while there seems to be broad respect for science – or at least the fruits of science – in the general public, there is also widespread distrust and overwhelming scientific illiteracy.

We are also in the midst of an endless culture war, a struggle between two aspects of human nature. On the one hand are the proponents of mysticism, superstition, pseudoscience, and anti-science. On the other are the defenders of science and reason.

Some of my skeptical colleagues have objected to the military analogy, but we are engaged in a real struggle, and we are fighting over more than bragging rights. The stakes are real: control of resources, support and recognition of government, the running of institutions, access to the media and to the halls of academia and education.

Right now science is institutionalized and enjoys the benefits of public financing and support. But it is under systematic assault by those who either want a piece of the pie, want to subvert the process of science so that the ends can be made to fit the purposes of their ideology, or who simply have an anti-scientific world view. Hiding amidst their ranks are charlatans and con-artists who are simply trying to exploit the whole situation for a fast buck.

It is both interesting and unfortunate that the mainstream scientific community seems mostly disinterested in the broader culture war. I have seen this at my own institution, among my own colleagues – an ivory tower naiveté. They assume on the one hand that anyone pretending to do science is sincere. But they also feel that any ideas that are too whacky or bizarre are beneath them, and addressing them in any way will taint their academic purity.

They therefore conclude that the best way to deal with pseudoscientific nonsense is to simply ignore it. There is some truth to this – most cranks and charlatans are best left to wallow in their own anonymity. Within academia the cold shoulder of indifference is the harshest criticism – it says that your ideas are so worthless they are not even worth the time it would take to refute them.

But what they miss is that the institutions of science and academia are embedded in society. The beliefs, knowledge, and attitudes of that society matter. They determine how much funding is available for research, what gets funded, how science is applied by the government to meet the problems and challenges of society, and how the next generation is educated.

When a belief, claim, idea or product rises out of anonymity and capture the public’s attention, it can no longer be ignored. It needs to be addressed.

That’s where we come in.

The skeptical community is doing the job that the mainstream scientific community should be doing, but largely isn’t. There are, of course, exceptions – many skeptics are scientists and academics. But we are a distinct community.

We have skills and a knowledge base that many scientists don’t have: knowledge of the many ways in which people fool themselves and others, the many forms of pseudoscience and the denial of science, of the specific claims, fallacies, and history of the various prominent pseudosciences, and the tactics employed by those who attack science.

But I also believe that in order to be successful in the long term the skeptical community must have the mainstream scientific community as an ally. In fact, we would do well to merge, at least to a degree. Skepticism is science, and all scientists should be skeptics. The skeptical community can teach the scientific community how to deal with dangerous pseudoscience. And scientists should embrace and support more fully those who seek to popularize their work and their profession.

Over the next few weeks I am going to address some of the specific large battles that skeptics are fighting. Some we are winning, some we are losing, and perhaps there are lessons we can derive from stepping back to survey the battlefield.

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Although I do not typical do this, because the posts in this series will be longer than usual I will be cross-posting them over at skepticblog.org over the next few Mondays.

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