Skepticism

Afternoon Inquisition, 11.7

This week’s Afternoon Inquisition was inspiried by Tim Farley at What’s the Harm.  Tim writes at the Skeptools blog and last week, he wrote this post called the Long Tail of Skeptical Websites.  In it, he discusses the small explosion of skeptical blogs and websites that we’ve seen in recent months and questions whether a general purpose skeptical blog is as effective as a focus on a particular skeptical issue:

Right now, we are duplicating much effort. We are spending a great deal of time focusing on the 20% of topics, and the other 80% are hardly getting any attention at all. We need more skeptics to focus on that long tail, those lesser known topics. We need web sites that will fill in the long tail of skepticism.

Is Tim right?  And if he is, what’s on the list of the 80% that skeptics who are looking for projects to focus on?  If he isn’t, how can a newbie skeptic make a general purpose skeptical website stand out amongst the crowd?

P.S.  Tim has a good starter list in his post already – of course, I’m looking for things outside that ;-)

Masala Skeptic

Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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34 Comments

  1. I think that multi-level marketing (Amway, Noni Juice distributors, etc.) could use more attention from the skeptical community. There are already sites out there that make attempts at setting people straight, but not much attention from skeptics.

  2. Thank you for posting this – it’s exactly what I’m looking for! I’ve been thinking for several months that I’d like to “get involved” and “make a contribution” to the skeptical movement. But I quickly get discouraged. A brief glance at my feedreader shows that there’s already a plethora of skeptic blogs covering a wide variety of issues. What I could I possibly add to the mix that isn’t already being covered on 47 other blogs and written with far greater wit and eloquence than I could ever muster?

    I haven’t had a chance to read Tim’s article beyond the first few paragraphs but I certainly agree with the premise. Partly because there’s so much woo out there to address that bringing some focus to the debate would be highly beneficial. And partly for selfish reasons as I may see a way to form my own niche. :-)

    Now I just to find that niche…

  3. Ummn… I don’t fully follow.

    I mean, the whole idea of a Long Tail is that it forms itself. It will happen naturally as more people contribute more material. It’s not something you actively attempt to address.

    …I mean, unless you’re in marketing.

    Are we in marketing?

  4. @JRice: Yes, it forms itself. I’m just asking for what are some of the potential things that could be part of it because there are always people looking to get involved and looking for things to focus on. I’m just curious as to what you all think would be good components to the tail – or where people are already filling in the tail today…

  5. I think Tim’s post assumes websites for skeptics are created merely to address those topics where it is sort of “natural” to focus skepticism (e.g. psychics, religion, alt. med., etc.), and to combat proponents of that kind of claptrap. It assumes a movement.

    And if you assume a movement, then Tim has a valid question. One which, given the restraints of a movement, I would answer by saying the general purpose website is more effective.

    On the other hand, I don’t really agree with his assumption.

    Now I don’t want to speak for Rebecca, but I would hope that Skepchick, for example, is a general purpose skeptical blog that addresses a wide range of topics, because it is an important enough tack to follow. However, I hope more that the focus is on critical thinking and the scientific method, and relating those powerful tools to the general public.

    In other words, to me, it’s more important to promote the skills that would allow anyone to do the battle than it is to fight the battle itself.

    And if that is what a website for skepticism is, the 20 or 80 or 100 percent of topics are merely examples of where to apply the skills, and Tim’s question simply wouldn’t apply.

  6. @marilove: I was thinking about the same thing! I found one website for Arizona Skeptics but after a couple of failed attempts to contact them, I can only assume they’re defunct. I had been thinking about getting something going here in Flagstaff – where are you guys located?

  7. @Sam Ogden: I agree with you.

    I am constantly trying to better myself in the area of critical thinking… that desire and a blog post sent to me by Anthroslug months ago is what made me check out this blog in the first place. (so blame him)

    Are there tons of issues for skeptics to tackle? Yes. But the way of thinking skeptically is a skill that needs to be encouraged… I think encourage enough people to simply look at the world a little more carefully and the topics will find themselves.

    I hope that makes sense.

  8. @CosmicThespian: I am in Central Phoenix, and I think TSM is somewhere in this vacinity — Mesa or something? I’m not 100% sure but that’s close.

    However, Flagstaff kicks ass, so like, we could do a Phoenix Metro/Flagstaff thing haha, and indeed I’d ideally like to include all of Arizona, including Tucson, which, along with Flagstaff, can be a pretty progressive thinking area.

    I love Arizona and we have some potential here, I think. Also, in light of Prop 102 passing here, among other things, I think we NEED it.

  9. @Sam Ogden: Why can’t we do both, though. I agree that every skeptical site should demonstrate skepticism and promote critical thinking in a general way. However, the focussed sites, such as StopSylvia.com and others, demonstrate the same skills while doing a service around a specific form of woo. I think we need both and specialization means we have more coverage and detailed information to combat specific issues.

  10. For me it’s easier to do the “general” thing because if I’m too specific, people won’t read my blog (or maybe they don’t anyway) unless they’re interested in that topic. And then what topic? Out of the vast many, there are none that I’m interested in specifically that haven’t already been addressed.

  11. @Masala Skeptic:

    Why can’t we do both, though.

    We can. That’s why I said:

    I would hope that Skepchick, for example, is a general purpose skeptical blog that addresses a wide range of topics, because it is an important enough tack to follow.

    And you’re right about StopSylvia. But I think RSL is an exception in the world of high profile skeptics, and that’s why I love the guy so much. I mean, the contrast between his approach and say Randi’s is night and day.

    RSL doesn’t openly draw any conclusions. He simply lays out the facts for consideration in such a manner that any thinking person would come to the correct conclusion.

    But that in itself is a talent. And I just happen to think it is a talent more beneficial to our goals than Randi-esque adversarial or Shermer-esque overly academic approaches.

    A few of our readers have asked me to do a full post on this subject, and I need to get around to doing it at some point. And I have some ideas in the works about how Skepchick can do more in the way of promoting critical thinking sort of in the RSL fashion.

  12. I think the answer of “both” is of course valid. I said that in the comments on the original article. I just wanted to point out that there is a huge opportunity out in the tail, if skeptics want to go after it.

  13. I just gotta say this: Something about Farley’s position smacks of arrogance. It’s like he’s saying “I’ve got my general skeptic blog. You less important skeptics should go and do something different.”

    Of course, that’s just my take on it. Your mileage may vary.

  14. Ironically sometimes I feel like Whats The Harm is “too general” itself, in that it covers so many topics (even though it is very specific in the type of information it contains). If I had it to do again I might have left the religious topics for someone else to cover and kept just to the pseudoscience.

  15. Another view might be “the more skeptical info of any kind, the better”. The more exposure to critical thinking, debunking, and rational explanations the more resources that people can stumble upon and read. Through those general resources they might find links to other more specific resources. What ends up is a network of information and a sense that we skeptics are not fringe and easily-ignored.

  16. @marilove: Hey, maybe the caffeine has something to do with the insomnia? :) … Thanks for thinking of me … Right now, there is a 50% probability that I will flying the coup of Arizona to join another skeptical coupling within the state of Florida. I will keep you posted.

  17. I think that when it comes to blogging, the blogger is just as important as the blog. People read blogs as much for the personality and style of the blogger as for the information they contain.

    You can have a tightly focused blog and a lot of good information to share, but if your writing is dry and unengaging, I’m not going to read it.

    Imagine a general-purpose skeptical blog, but instead of being the work of some middle-aged, neckbearded weirdo full of bile and misanthropy,* it was written by a group of vivacious, smart ‘n’ sexy young women? That would be a skeptic blog I would read. And I do.

    People tend to think of skeptics as Old Man Cranky McPantybunch, so any skeptic who falls outside that stereotype is to going to gather an audience. And again, look at Phil Plait — his success owes less to his long exposure and tireless self-promotion than it does to the fact that he’s a genuinely friendly and enthusiastic person.

    So my advice to any aspiring skeptical blogger would be to not ask yourself, “What will I blog about?,” but to ask yourself, “What kind of voice do I have to offer to the skeptical conversation?”

    * And now you know why I don’t blog.

  18. @Howard:

    Imagine a general-purpose skeptical blog, but instead of being the work of some middle-aged, neckbearded weirdo full of bile and misanthropy,* it was written by a group of vivacious, smart ‘n’ sexy young women?

    Have you clicked on Kimbo’s name?
    She is but one woman, but I love her blog.

    :P

  19. @marilove: Flagstaff definitely has a lot going for it and has a strong tradition of supporting science (thanks to Lowell Observatory and USGS). But there’s also, sadly, a lot of woo (I can’t count the number of psychics and alt. med. “healers” around downtown). There was also a depressing number of ‘Yes on 102’ signs all around.

    So glad to hear there are other skeptics in AZ; sadly it seems no one schedules skeptic events down this way. If you’re seriously interested in getting some sort of group going, click through to my web page and send me an email. This state needs some skeptical love.

  20. Okay, I think we’ve totally avoided answering the question. I know I have. ; )

    What’s on the tail?

    Thinking… thinking… Ummn… I know I can think if something

    Well, let’s see. What are my interests? Role-playing. I suppose one could tackle the pressing issues of magical thinking that some dice are “cursed”. …But let’s face it, some are.

    Games. I suppose there are plenty of cases of where games present pseudo-science as fact. That could be blogged about.

    Being Green. Well, here’s an interesting area of potential. I suppose the world of green energy, tree-hugging and sustainability has plenty of bunk to… uhh… prefix with voiced alveolar stops. But it would be very hard to do without coming across as being against the entire movement. But maybe someday.

    Art. Well, there’s plenty of magical thinking in art, I guess, but I think you would be better served making some kick-ass art and calling yourself a skeptic than by trying to tell all the kick-ass artists who believe it’s magical where they are abandoning critical thought.

    Music. Same as art. …Though I suppose what Randi has done in this field is something else you could do: conduct real-world tests to debunk the “quality gap” that isn’t really there. …Of course, that stuff is expensive, so… probably not until you win a lottery or two.

    Programming. …No, you would be wasting your time trying to prove that emacs is anywhere near as good as vim, so don’t waste your breath.

    Martial Arts. …Okay, there is potential here, too. There are a plenty of claims made by higher-ups of being able to achieve inhuman feats. …Of course, if you prove them wrong, they are likely to kick your ass anyway. …But I’ll bet you could do some good just examining the actual physics and biology of martial arts… or just plain talking about the stupid crap that some of these people say. For example, Aikido claims that their founder could dodge bullets and run so fast you couldn’t see him. I love Aikido… but that’s bullshit.

    Zen. …Actually, that’s a project I am working on right now on my blog (just started, though). So, there you go.

    Cognitive Bias. …Errr… I suppose you could make a really interesting blog that just cited examples of this in everyday life. Heck, I’d subscribe to it!

    Biodiversity. Not a whole lot of magical thinking in this field… so, probably not.

    Sexuality. Boy, I could think of plenty of experiments you could conduct for this one… yeah… lots of things… Hmmmn…

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be in my bunk.

  21. @marilove: I’m also in Arizona (Tempe), and I know I don’t comment as often as others here, but basically if you’re an SGU/Skepchick fan, we’d probably get along really well.

    I’ve tried probably the same search that ComicThespian did, full of links to groups that don’t seem to exist anymore.

    On one old episode of SGU, Steve said he thought AZ was the center of Woo in the West. I can’t blame him, really, given some of the nuttiness (Sedona) around, but it would be nice to find a good group of skeptics here to offer him some opposing evidence.

    I also love Flagstaff, but prefer when it’s warm enough to do some bike rides, mountain or road.

    JRice — speaking of the SGU, did you hear a couple of older episodes where they did talk about some martial arts claims? I remember the whole conversation being pretty hilarious. I took (and taught) Taekwondo for a few years and luckily the only crazy things I heard were meant as jokes. At instructor’s camp, we kept asking each other when we’d learn to walk through walls, run across water, etc.

  22. Economics. While the discipline has deliberately promoted itself as a science and developed a mathematical regime to appear scientific, its methods are not generally evidence-based. Students are educated entirely within a sphere of mathematical models and equilibrium concepts that are internally consistent and complex in their own right, but may not reflect real-world mechanisms or experience.

    Most skeptics I know have a fascination for things scientific, whether they are trained scientists or not. They may/not have found science education compelling in their school days, but have realized that science is a real-life unfolding drama that we can marvel over every day, and we have our own awesome scientists willing to pump new information out to us. But how many people took high-school economics or a course in college and found it basically informative but not compelling? I can suggest a reason for that: In too many ways the standard economics education just doesn’t connect with real life. But economics is the process of life. It’s ecology on a grander scale. It’s a complex system that contains its observers and everything we/they observe. It’s a little like consciousness trying to figure out consciousness, trying to decide if it really has free will.

    I think there is a lot of skepticism that can and should be applied to economics. Look at the gulf between typical liberal and conservative economic approaches to running a country. Is one demonstrably right and the other demonstrably wrong? Or are we just believing different things, on a sort of religious basis? Isn’t it clear that nobody really knows, and that the widely different “schools of thought” are as mutually exclusive as many popular religious beliefs?

    And talk about “What’s the Harm?” As Heilbroner famously wrote in his beautiful introduction to The Worldly Philosophers, we have organized entire countries and gone to war over differing economic approaches inspired by a historical stream of economic thinkers who never commanded armies or handled weapons. When you put it in the historical context you can see that we’ve always struggled to figure out what’s really going on and how best to be. It ain’t exactly rocket science. If only it were that simple!

    A few signs of activity: There was a short discussion of economics in a recent Point of Inquiry episode, Todd Riniolo (“When Good Thinking Goes Bad”) pointing to the religious nature of economic beliefs. Also, a recent SkepticBlog post by Shermer started a very interesting discussion of Shermer’s libertarian “beliefs,” and whether he is failing to apply his usual skeptical approach to them. It’s an area ripe for self-examination.

  23. Sweet: the discussion once again touches on libertarianism. This’ll be fun : )

    Economics, to my mind, skirts too close to morality and policy-making to encourage the same level of scientific thinking as, say, astrophysics. We *want* to think about it objectively, but it’s too entwined with psychology and sociolgy to extact the “safe” stuff. We need a better handle on those two fields, first. We know embarrassingly little about how our own damn minds operate. Irksome.

  24. @Ken Hahn: Ken, same offer that I made to marilove extends to you. Feel free to click on my name through to my web page and send me an email if you’re interested in trying to organize some events in the area. I’m also an infrequent commenter, but so happy to see there are a few other sane minds nearby.

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