The Proper Targets of Skepticism

May 2004
by Steven Novella, MD

Why, as activist skeptics, do we do what we do? What claims and beliefs deserve the attention of our cold analysis and sharp criticism? Why should NEJS readers care about a careful dissection of the silly paranormal belief du jour? Shouldn’t we restrict our activities and attention to serious matters of political and social import?

Such questions are critical to our identity as skeptics – as individuals, as an organization, and as a movement. It is no wonder that such questions are ubiquitous in interviews I do regarding the NESS for both television and print news. As the president of the NESS such a question of vision rightly lays at my feet. But all skeptics bare the burden of such questions, and it is no wonder that these questions are among the most common I receive from our members.

Although I feel that there is a healthy ongoing dialogue among skeptics on this topic, a collective soul-searching, if you will, that will hopefully continue to refine our mission, I do have a personal vision I would like to share.

I will start by reviewing what I believe to be the primary goals of the NESS and organized skepticism. Certainly, we desire to influence public opinion with regard to the vital role of science in society, the need for critical thinking and improved education in this area, and the need to protect the institution of science from intrusion by political, social, or religious agendas. We are also an educational organization, and as such we endeavor to educate both skeptics and the public at large about particular paranormal and pseudoscientific beliefs, providing a much needed perspective often ignored by the mainstream media. Finally, we hope to inform lawmaking and public policy with the proper scientific perspective and accurate information.

Our activities have several definable audiences. The first is the public at large – neither hardened skeptics nor true believers. The second target audience is self-defined skeptics, who certainly comprise the bulk of the NEJS readership. Third, we target lawmakers and public officials, those who actually make decisions that affect our society and our lives. And finally, we specifically target educators, who themselves range the spectrum from gullible to skeptical but who are critical to one of our primary missions, to improve the quality of science and critical thinking education.

In the latter two groups, our efforts, and the topics we deal with, are usually highly focused, and do deal with matters of clear and immediate import. In dealing with the public at large and skeptics, however, we deal with the full spectrum of skeptical topics, including those that are admittedly silly and absurd.
My primary defense of dealing with the full range of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims, regardless of their social importance or silliness, derives from our mission to educate skeptics and the public about logic and critical thinking. In fact, for the purpose of teaching critical thinking, the subject matter is almost irrelevant. The mechanisms of self-deception, the structure of a logical argument, and the logical fallacies into which people tend to fall are the same, regardless of the belief in question.

Over the years I have engaged in arguments and discussions with believers of every type, and it has become increasingly clear that believers engage in the same logical fallacies and distortions no matter the subject of their belief. What this means is that dissecting the arguments of any belief system, even the silly ones, provide great value in learning about logical fallacies and the nature of belief itself. The lessons learned can then be applied to matters of weighty social import. I would further argue that there are insights to be gained from studying a large sample of bizarre beliefs, because it allows for certain patterns to emerge – patterns of rationalization and patterns of argument.

For the public at large, the purpose of taking on a silly but pseudoscientific belief is that some (in fact many) people are interested in the topic. Whether or not crop circles are the work of aliens or hoaxers may not seem to contain much importance for society (especially if you think they are the work of hoaxers) but the fact that there is a large public interest in the topic means that it represents an opportunity for us to teach the proper methods of scientific inquiry and critical thinking, lessons that will hopefully be applied to other areas of inquiry.

It is also true that many skeptics anecdotally came to be skeptics because of their experience with one formerly held belief. In seeing the logical errors, the misrepresentation of facts by the mainstream media and believers, and the fruits of careful analysis, the power of the skeptical position was shown to them. It is not much of a leap to then extend these insights to all claims, and then paranormal and pseudoscientific beliefs fall one-by-one.

For skeptics, the purpose is to become a better skeptic. The ability to immediately recognize more and more subtle logical fallacies and explain exactly why they are invalid is an indispensable tool for the skeptic, one that can be honed by challenging any belief. Further, it is important for self-described skeptics to be able to explain, when so challenged, why specific paranormal beliefs are not likely to be true. Otherwise we will find ourselves in situations where we cannot defend our skepticism, or will be made to appear as deniers or zealots. Being able to cite a well-referenced fact is very powerful in debate, making it very valuable for the skeptic to have at least a basic knowledge of the most common paranormal and pseudoscientific topics.

A final defense of our policy to address the full range of paranormal topics is that they are often very entertaining. There is a certain morbid fascination with examining the extremes of human gullibility and logical contortion often involved with such beliefs. Although we are very aware of the fact that our mission is education and not entertainment, we are likely to succeed in our mission if we can do both at the same time.

Having defended the value of critically analyzing any claim or belief, I would like to point out that it is still necessary to apply some standards in selecting which topics to address. We do focus on topics that have some practical importance to people and society. For example, I have made a special interest of examining alternative medicine and health fraud, which certainly has dramatic impact upon the health and lives of many people. We have also given a fair amount of attention to creationism, as this seems to be a rallying point for fundamentalists who wish to attack science in general and replace its role in society with a spiritually based epistemology.

How widespread a belief already is in society is a second important criteria. If a false belief is very common, then that represents a good opportunity to show a large number of people how common factual misinformation and sloppy thinking is. Our column, Don’t You Believe It, was designed to address the most common false beliefs, such as the myth that we only use 10% of our brain, or that scientists have shown bumble bees cannot fly. Many beliefs are held by close to or more than half of our society, such as ESP, a government coverup at Roswell, or the ability to speak with dead relatives. They represent great opportunities for watercooler skepticism.

We also target beliefs that have the potential for exploitation or fraud. We are particularly annoyed with con-artists that trade upon desperation, scientific illiteracy, or general gullibility to fleece the public. For example, Dennis Lee and his line of free-energy machines. It is particularly gratifying to frustrate the grifting of con artists.

On the other side, we try to avoid beliefs which are already floundering in their own obscurity. Any attention, even critical skeptical attention, is better than none at all and we recognize that we can easily do more harm than good by drawing attention to a bizarre belief that probably would have died on the vine if left alone.

The paranormal and pseudoscience is also an area that attracts those who have a less than functional relationship with reality, or who are flagrantly mentally ill. It can be extremely counterproductive to give such people the attention of a society such as the NESS, or to cater in any way to their bizarre beliefs, even if just by taking the time to debunk them.

Regardless of the topic or its particular impact, we try to include in every skeptical article some fundamental lessons in skepticism – putting it into the broader context of logic, mechanisms of self-deception, or proper scientific methodology.