Skepticism

We Are All In This Together

Elizabeth, over at Surpluscats has an interesting post about feeling like an outsider in the skeptical community. It got me thinking.

I am not very tall. When I was a little girl, I was very small and very shy. When the time came for me to board the bus for my first day of school, my father stopped me and said, “No matter how big the other kids are, don’t let any of them push you around or tell you what to do. Think for yourself.” It was probably some of the best advice anyone has ever given me.

Unfortunately, on that particular day I took the advice too much to heart and did not listen to which bus I was supposed to board for the ride home. I ended up on the other side of town, nearly giving my poor mother a heart attack when the school bus stopped after that critical first day and I did not get off. Fortunately, the driver of the bus I did get on was kind enough to go out of his way, and after he dropped the other children off, he drove far off his route to take me home as well. In the end everything worked out okay and I learned some valuable lessons.

The lessons I learned on that day encompassed more that just that wonderful first message of skepticism from my dear old Dad. One lesson I learned was that it is important to learn to filter information. Definitely do not allow yourself to be manipulated but be careful as not to be so closed off that you miss the important messages as well.

I also learned (thanks to the bus driver) that for the most part, people are kind and most importantly, we are all on this ride together.

Skeptics have a wonderful community filled with intelligent people from a variety of backgrounds with fantastic and unique outlooks on the world. At the same time, I realize that the skeptical community as a whole can often seem closed off and even inapproachable to people without scientific backgrounds. Skeptics are confused with cynics and elitists and are called closed minded, which is so very far from the truth.

It is important to clear up some misconceptions and to swing open the door to people who perhaps have never heard of the skeptical movement or feel alienated and to encourage them to get on board regardless of educational background or career. It is important that we send the message that skepticism is not a club for the high-brow mentality; it is a way of understanding the world that is helpful for everyone.

I want to get more people on the skepti-bus.

In the weeks and months that follow, I will be working on some fun, creative projects that are geared towards opening people’s minds to the wonderful world of skepticism and to sharing our message with a broader audience and I would truly appreciate your feedback. I would particularly love it if you shared your stories below as to how you first became a skeptic and what it is that you love about skepticism so that I might incorporate those mind opening experiences into future projects. I’d love to hear what gets you excited and why you are a skeptic so that I can work towards transferring that feeling to the people who simply do not understand us… yet.

Be Skeptical Ceramic Pendant by Surly Amy

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics. She is the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+. Tip Jar is here.

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76 Comments

  1. I can really relate to the linked article on not fitting in. Sometimes it seems like there are things wholly unrelated to skepticism that still matter for being more or less part of the club. Vegetarian = bad, libertarian = good, and so on.

    For what it’s worth, Skepchick is easily the most welcoming and friendly of all the blogs I’ve encountered, and I haven’t felt that sense of alienation from it at all yet. You all are awesome.

  2. I think this is an excellent post and something I’ve honestly felt was missing from skepticism for a while. Elizabeth and I both started DS in Pittsburgh and neither of us are scientists. I posted the following comment on Elizabeth’s blog:

    “You know, I feel this way too sometimes. It’s interesting that we both have been running Drinking Skeptically for so long and neither of us have a science background. I often feel like I can only talk to people at DS for so long until they “figure me out” – realize that I’m not a biologist or a programmer – and then I won’t be interesting anymore.

    Thing is, I went to TAM6 and I met some creative folks. They were certainly far and few between, but they were there. I still did get a few looks from folks when I told them I was a “writer” (FSM forbid I admit to being a POET, which I am). I think this relates to how we can bring science and this community to the general public. Not everyone is a scientist, nor should everyone be one. But if we want to broaden this community, we have to be more inclusive and offer more at events like TAM that will keep folks outside of the sciences coming back for more.”

    I know that in Central PA they have meetups for people who are skeptics/humanists and also in the arts/humanities field. Perhaps more things like that are in order.

    Also, I just want to say that the skeptical community has been way supportive of my art and literary magazine that I started last year. I think there is room for overlap and that the “arts” and the “sciences” aren’t really that seperate.

  3. @laurae:

    I agree. I feel like art and science overlap and have through much of history. I myself find an endless supply of inspiration from science and skepticism. A symbiotic relationship as those wacky scientists would say. ;)

  4. I tried to leave a comment on the linked blog post, but it didn’t go through so I’ll say something here instead.

    I’m in the same boat as far as fitting in. My background is entirely liberal arts based (BA in English, MA in Film Studies). I took almost no science courses in high school or college, so any information I’ve got there is self-taught. And despite being the semi-official Vice President of Doin’ Stuff (or VPODS) for the Boston Skeptics, I still often feel as if I don’t really belong.

    Like Elizabeth, I sometimes wonder if I’d even enjoy TAM. For one thing, I’m not big on crowds. I don’t drink or find drinking all that interesting. I don’t think I share the same ideas about politics with most people in the movement. I’ve gotten tired of discussing the same few arguments (evolution v. creationism, science based v. alternative medicine), and I’ve long since lost the urge to argue or yell about these things.

    That said, there’s still a home for me in the skeptical movement. Though it may, at times, seem otherwise, there are a LOT of non-science-types involved. I mean, the majority of Skepchick’s writers come from fields other than science, as do many of the people I find at various meet-ups. And it’s not as if the sciency ones are necessarily DOING more for “the cause” or whatever.

    It’s very important to organize and attend these events and get people talking or listening to new ideas. It’s important to write, publicize, and satirize what’s going on out there. There are ways to contribute that go beyond what message boards and event recaps show. Just because you don’t see the recognition doesn’t mean you’re not doing some good :)

  5. I’m not a scientist. Though I do come from a scientific background. My computer science degree is in the applied sciences category, even though I barely remember any of it, having been working in tech support these last few years.

    Still, I am a science enthusiast. And while I might not necessarily understand all of it, and I might not be able to remember all of it when I find myself in a debate for some reason, I make the effort.

    I think the first problem with skepticism is that it’s alienating to newcomers. Those of us who haven’t done the math, have at least followed along with the discussion, so we know how the story ends.

    Science teachers, and university professors, know their subject material very well. And one of the reasons for that is because they repeat themselves. A lot. Every September they start a new class, and start all over again, usually with very little variation on the same material. Students, by contrast, are getting all the information hard and fast, and are likely to forget most of it after the final exam.

    One of the things I’ve been noticing lately is that skeptics get tired of repeating themselves, and skip ahead to the punchline, because the existing audience is already in on the joke. But we need to repeat ourselves. Because newcomers jumping into the middle of the conversation aren’t likely to look back through blog archives to figure out what you’re talking about.

    Just like everyone else, we’ve got stuff to do. Right now, I’ve got a few spare minutes, but in a few weeks, I won’t. We don’t have time to go looking for information that, quite frankly, should be on the front page.

    That’s one of the problems with the blog format, I suppose; discussions get old, and drift off the front page. The existing audience is in the know, but newcomers are at a loss.

    And yes, I know about the categories drop-box, and the archive links, and the blog-roll, but I’m a lazy ass. And if I’m a lazy ass, imagine the average layperson in the same situation.

    I value a basic scientific understanding. I think everyone should have some basic knowledge; just the raw data, how it works, why it works, without necessarily getting into the nitty-gritty. With a solid basis of scientific understanding, skepticism will grow naturally.

    One possible way, off the top of my head, of promoting skepticism, rationalism, and critical thinking is to form a solid foundation in science. Instead of rambling about how homeopathy is stupid all the time, and poking fun at how silly it is to think that water has a memory, do a demonstration on chemistry, and molecular bonding, talk about mixtures and solutions in new and interesting ways. Build a educated audience. And from there, gradually grow a interested audience, and then explain why homeopathy is stupid.

    I know, that’s already going on here and there, but I think there ought to be more emphasis on the raw existing data. Educate the public, instead of ridiculing and preaching to them.

  6. @banyan:

    I think the whole “libertarian=good” thing is a canard. I know there are a few big-name capital-L Libertarians, but there seem to be way more skeptics who are utterly contemptuous of libertarians. I mean, seriously, try even saying the word over at Pharyngula!

    I think it would be significantly harder to fit in as a small-c conservative or someone of another not-as-liberal stripe. Frankly, I wish people on all sides would keep politics out of it since I’ve never yet met a person (myself included) who can talk politics without straying from rationality.

    I think it’s always wrongheaded to just say “Libertarians are dumb” or “Conservatives are dumb” or even “Democrats are dumb” because all you are doing is slamming the door on the face of someone with whom you might agree on many things and who might be able to do some good.

    But that’s my two cents. I might be wrong :-P

  7. I liked this post and agree that making skepticism more approachable is a good goal. On the other hand I think many people believe in woo because they derive more comfort from their belief than they would in understanding why that belief is unjustified. I find great joy in understanding, but not everyone does. Such people will always find skeptics uncomfortable to be around.

  8. Thanks for discussing this Amy!

    I’m at work so I keep getting interrupted mid-comment. I will definitely be back. (Just wanted to not be totally absent from the conversation!)

  9. I definitely don’t come from a science background. I have a BFA and haven’t taken math since junior year of high school (I tested out of the collage requirements). I don’t really feel out of place in the skeptical movement in general. I feel more out of place in the feminist discussions on this blog than any of the skeptical ones. I’m a fairly girly girl. I like things that are pink. I like fashion. I wasn’t at all offended by the recent “Prady eyes” discussion. I consider myself a feminist. I think women should have equal opportunity to do what they love as men have. But I think feminists in general become overly sensitive to the point everything becomes about men oppressing women. Even a girly product is somehow offensive…. I won’t digress into that topic here.

    I didn’t come to skepticism through science but through philosophy. My brother and his friends majored in philosophy and we’ve had many lengthy fireside chats about logic and reason. That got me interested in the way the mind works which, along with some personal events, eventually lead me here.

    I’d like to see skeptics tackle more issues. I think if you look there are many many areas that are in desperate need of a little critical thinking. I mentioned breed specific legislation to Elyse in a previous thread. I’m sure there are other topics as well. I see skepticism not as a set of debunked claims but as a way to approach any issue.

  10. I like to express ideas. I have an opinion on everything (even if that opinion is nuetral). I often joke with my friends that I have an opinion, and if you don’t have one, I’ll be more than happy to share mine, because sharing is fun. This is all part of the “little kid” mentality that employ. I often phrase things as a little kid would. I often make statement like not wanting to play with him, or going to take my toys and go home, or being tired of this game, and don’t want to play it any more, etc.

    Well, enough of that tangent, and time to come full circle-I do feel like an outsider also. I feel like I look at the world differently from my peers. I’ve been told that I overthink things, regularly. I think its because I SHOULD be a scientist. I wanted to be one, but dikked around with college, and lost my opportunity. Now I’m wanting to go back.

    I think skepticism is lonely, and always will be, because that’s the nature of the beast. We leave no cow unpoked. To play this game, you have to be willing to “unthink” everything you know. Every I know has some stuff that they KNOW is bull, like bigfoot, or UFO’s, but when it comes to the seperation of church and state, they become defensive.

    I try to apply logic to my everyday life. I often talk politics, and for the most part, I’m nuetral on controversial subjects, because there’s an equally good (or bad) argument on both sides. There’s no clincher. When I try to prod people for their arguments, they either ignore it, or get hostile. I guess they see it as an attack, but, really, I want some good reason to make up my mind.

  11. I also relate to the linked post and this one.

    I don’t have a science background. I find some posts in the skeptic/atheist communities interesting but many more are more along the lines of implying (or outright saying) that anyone who doesn’t “get it” is an idiot. I’m not an idiot, I’m just not well read on molecular biology or quantum physics or various other sciences.

    But not having that background does make me hesitant to take part in the discussion. Even if it’s just to say “Can you please explain to me why that doesn’t make sense because to a person without the right scientific background, it looks like it does.”.

    So, question #1, how did we become skeptics?

    From watching the tv show Ghosthunters. I had no idea there was a skeptic community. My daughter started watching Ghosthunters and then we both got into the show (I still think it’s good entertainment! Even more so when you don’t believe and find yourself laughing a lot). One day I googled and found a site of skeptics talking about the show. That led me to another site and another. At first I enjoyed the talk of ghosts and psychics, but then I moved on to the skepticism of health claims. Whoo! That was quite eye opening and I’m still thinking through a lot.

    Question #2 – what do we like about the skeptic movement.

    Well, I do enjoy the fluff. The ghosts and psychics and stuff like that. Maybe I shouldn’t call it fluff. I think that debunking and debating things like ghosts can really be an opener to thinking about other, more serious issues. Like I said, it’s what brought me to the skeptic community in the first place, I’ve no doubt it’s done so for others.

    I also enjoy the meatier posts but only when they are explained to the layperson without implying that said layperson is stupid for not getting it right off the bat. I wish there were more posts about heavy subjects that actually took the time to explain things instead of preaching to the choir and having a good laugh. They’re out there! I just want more.

    Ah, let me just copy what Peregrine wrote above me. “Educate the public, instead of ridiculing and preaching to them.”

    Yeah. That.

  12. I find this discussion really interesting. I guess I’m a science loving, logical thinker who has never been exposed to a “skeptics community.” (I’m more focused on communicating science through art.) I may be a good test-case for you, Amy. But… I am vegetarian.

  13. Amy:

    I happened to be at the very first meeting of what would later be called the Independent Investigations Group here in LA. It was an assortment of regular folks who wanted to investigate claims of the paranormal.

    With one exception, none of us were scientists, but we all agreed that we could learn and use the scientific method when we would go out and investigate these claims. One guy was a Maytag repairman, but he was as eager as anyone to go out and take a look around.

    I had been reading Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic Magazine for years, and loved what Joe Nickel, Michael Shermer, Philip J. Klass, Paul Kurtz, etc seemed to be doing. It wasn’t until the IIG that I found out that ANYONE could be a skeptic and contribute to the body of work started by these luminaries.

    We have been around for almost 10 years now, and have looked into all manner of claims, from telepaths and dowsers, to channelers and haunted houses. It takes no special training, just a willingness to keep an open mind and to ask the right questions.

    I love what we have accomplished and have made some great friends in the process. You and Johnny are simply the newest ones!

  14. Awesome post Amy! We really need to recruit more than just science based people to our side. Science is important, but we need to learn to attract people that do not work in science based careers. I am excited to read about what you have in mind concerning this issue! It was also nice meeting you and Johnny at TAM 7!

  15. @zaphod900:
    I do love IIG and I have only been a member for a few months now! It is an excellent example of how if you WANT to be involved in a skeptics group you can be. All you have to do is show up with a willingness to learn and to participate.

    @infinitemonkey:
    I agree that we may remain a minority because let’s face it, being skeptical is more work than simply accepting what is handed to you but I think we can work towards a better reputation for the group as a whole. Also… if you want to be a scientist…GO FOR IT. Its never too late to do what you want. Just make a decision and find a way to make it happen. :)

    @molecularmuse:
    I love vegetables.

    Thanks to everyone who is posting. Please know that I appreciate the stories and the discussion. I think it is all very important and will help me to plan future projects.

  16. @Expatria:

    You’ve basically summarized why my second TAM will most likely be my last. Having had my fill at TAM6, I wouldn’t even have gone to TAM7 if I hadn’t heard that Rebecca was getting married there.

    Like Elizabeth, I sometimes wonder if I’d even enjoy TAM. For one thing, I’m not big on crowds. I don’t drink or find drinking all that interesting.

    Nobody at the skeptics’ table seemed to mind when I just had a soda, which is nice. (For those who don’t run in our Boston Skeptics crowd, be it noted that unlike Expatria, I do drink on occasion, but in Vegas the beers are crap and the cocktails are overpriced — I had one drink at TAM6 and none during TAM7. My alcohol intake most weeks probably rounds down to zero.) The truly off-putting factor in the environment was the omnipresent second-hand smoke. And the crowds. And the unvarying food. . . .

    I don’t think I share the same ideas about politics with most people in the movement. I’ve gotten tired of discussing the same few arguments (evolution v. creationism, science based v. alternative medicine), and I’ve long since lost the urge to argue or yell about these things.

    Which is another reason why I’m writing a maths book.

  17. I’ve always been befuddled by the way we draw lines between art and science. It didn’t used to be that way – historically, a truly educated person was knowledgeable about both.

    My own local skeptic circle includes quite a few artsy people, including myself. I hope we can attract more to the community at large.

  18. I reckon I’m a bit confused by the idea that the skeptical movement is hostile or intimidating to “non-scientists.”

    After all, three of the brightest stars in the skeptical firmament, and three of the biggest draws at TAM, are non-scientists. James Randi and Penn are magicians, and Adam Savage is, or has been, well, a ton of things, including an actor, animator and graphic designer. He went to acting school! There’s nothing more “liberal arts” than that.

    For some reason, there’s an image out there, even among some skeptics, of the skeptical movement as a sort of monolithic, group-mind culture. But everything I’ve seen in my 20 years as a skeptic has shown me that’s not even remotely the case.

    Personally, I’m a liberal arts guy, majored in communication, worked professionally as a journalist and graphic designer, never studied science formally beyond the basics. I’ve never felt like an outcast or an outsider in the skeptical community. And I KNOW from being an outcast. Just trust me on that one.

    Still, if anyone feels they’re being excluded, then clearly the rest of us aren’t doing our jobs to make them feel included. So, while I’m personally unsure what to do to change those feelings, I think this discussion is important. Because we are all in this together, or at least we should be.

  19. Y’all are intimidating as all hell.
    I don’t go to TAM cause frankly, I’m not smart enough to hang out with the big brains.
    I don’t go to most social events Skeptical or not, because I don’t drink – but add the word Skeptic and I’m definitely not going cause I hate feeling so stupid. And I do not call myself a Skeptic because I think I’m a rather bad example of one.

    Still, speaking as one of the outsiders, it’s fun to know stuff that other people don’t. If you want to get people on the skept-bus, that might be the angle you want to play.

  20. I was raised by my grandmother, a 4’9″ lady who wore gloves when she drove to keep her hands from getting suntanned. Her cocktail parties were pure Mad Men.

    Behind this tiny, delicate, lady-like exterior, she was a Darwin-thumping atheist and the most logical person I have ever met. One who marched against the draft for WWII, worked to bring non-fiction into libraries and spoke her mind with gleeful disregard for propriety.

    At one party, my Catholic great aunt said “Barbara, I don’t understand how you can live without God in your life.” Grandmother patted her on the knee in a friendly fashion and said “That’s because you’re an idiot, dear.” And they both laughed because it was an ongoing discussion within their group.

    So it is difficult for me to see skepticism as a current trend. Rather it seems to have leapt a generation and is now coming back into popularity as an interesting topic.

    If one was at a social gathering with many strangers and started a conversation about ghost debunking, moon-landing conspiracies, or any of the more pop-skeptic topics, the results would be immediate and gratifying.

    With a little luck, you might even get an idiot there to feed you the straight lines.

    Or you could use this:
    http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2009/07/creationist-girl-scout-honored

  21. Just for the record… I had the best time EVER at TAM7. People I had never met and only heard on podcasts came up to ME and said hello, some of them I can now even call my friends. Joe Nickell did a magic trick for me and my husband at the bar just because we walked up to him. (Joe doesn’t drink btw) I got a freakin’ pep talk from Steven Novella and technically, I am a complete NOBODY. All I did was show up. I thought it was one of the most inspiring inclusive events I have ever attended. Sure there is second hand smoke in the casino (but not in the conference rooms where TAM actually takes place) and yes, the food wasn’t gourmet but I went because I love skeptics and I wanted to learn and to be involved. It was even more than I thought it would be. You can guarantee I will be there next year and I encourage everyone who loves skepticism to go as well. It was awesome.

  22. I come from a science background, initially pharmaceutical/analytical chemistry and chemoinformatics [chemistry statistics] research, laterly IND stability studies and phase 0/1 first-in-human clinical trials, I also occasionally attempt to pass on what I know with mixed results.

    I came to skeptism by way of anti-homeopathy.

    Obviously working for “Big Pharma” I’m part of the international zionist conspriacy to artifically create “illnesses” through our “medicines” for which only we have the expensive “cure” that doesn’t really work. MMHahahaha

    @Jen: It never used to be that way because until about 1800 you could get almost all scientific knowledge on one bookshelf and in 1600 all the world’s scientific knowledge could have been squeezed into one large book (and most of that would have been then ~2000 year old works of Euclid), oh and only a tiny ellite of people had any kind of education. :-)

    @Blake Stacey: Can I be the first person to put down a marker for your book?

  23. I’m always interested to hear about how people came to become skeptical. Probably mostly because I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t skeptical and I’m fascinated to understand how people make the transition from a non-skeptical to a skeptical world view. I do feel that I missed out on the journey part and so live it vicariously through the stories of others.

  24. @Danarra: You shouldn’t be intimidated! Dive straight in! When I first started playing chess I was truely awful and almost gave up until a local pro explained that the only way to improve would be to play better players. Which in my case was good advice as virtually everybody I knew played better chess than me.

    Also the most important thing about both science and skeptism is;

    Ignorance begetts certainy; Knowledge, Doubt.

    So you might think all the “big brains” know it all but they don’t and don’t forget the fallacy Argument ad Verecundiam. Skeptics have no respect for their “leaders”!

  25. Had to google Argument ad Verecundiam to find out it was Argument from Authority. My latin’s a tad rusty…or non-existent…
    Now I have a new phrase to torture my co-workers with. MWUAHAHAHAHA!!!!

  26. @Expatria: I don’t think I share the same ideas about politics with most people in the movement.

    ——

    I don’t either. And I am confused as to why not, and why it seems like so many people think that politics and skepticism don’t meet.

    After all, a law is a truth claim, right? The claim is usually that there is some problem, and that some law is a reasonable response to that problem. As skeptics shouldn’t we be able to determine through analysis of evidence that a problem does/does not exist, or that some law is/is not a reasonable response?

    If we shut out politics from the skeptical discussion, we’re not being relevant to many people who care about politics. And if we shut them out because the disagreements get too vitriolic, someone isn’t being skeptical about their political positions!

  27. @banyan:

    Sometimes it seems like there are things wholly unrelated to skepticism that still matter for being more or less part of the club.

    Yes, exactly (although I certainly don’t think being libertarian is a good thing). It’s exactly like any other group, no matter how much some of us like to pretend we’re superior. I haven’t encountered it much at this blog, but some skeptics are outright hostile to people who don’t agree with them on non-skeptical issues.

  28. @sethmanapio:

    Well, eventually you’d run into the “is/ought” distinction (in high-geekology terms, not everyone is trying to maximize the same utility function). But yes, thinking critically in an evidence-based way about politics might lead to more general agreement as well as more productive disagreements.

    @Amy:

    TAM happened in the conference rooms? This is news to me — I thought that’s where people went to sleep. I mean, they provided Michael Shermer and his PowerPoint-shaped nightlight!

  29. @sethmanapio I agree that I wish skeptics would discuss more politics, but I do think politics is generally out of the realm of science. As Steve Novella says- they’re value judgments. One person’s reasonable response makes another want to secede.

    My mind is somewhat split because on one hand, it is nice to find a community that will, for once, leave politics out of the discussion. But I also think that the more people base their political views on reality, the better we all are, and by avoiding the topic, skeptics might not be influencing people or teaching them how to think about topics like health care especially, which is very influenced by scientific facts and which should be reformed based on facts. Oh!, going on a tangent about Obama’s health care reform thingy- the argument as I’ve heard it is whether we should reform it or not. Of course we should. It could always be better. But it doesn’t seem like very many people are talking about HOW to reform it. And as the people receiving the health care, I wish we weren’t leaving it up to Congress, somehow.

    Politics also has such a way of making people forget what’s important and argue about stupid things.

  30. For the record, as a scientist, I have buckets of respect and admiration for writers and artists and musicians. I can rarely find words or a way to express myself, much less make a living to do that.

    And just in general, a scientist is probably last on my list of someone I’d like to have a philosophical discussion with, much rather with someone more likely to have some different perspectives.

    Ok. Let’s group hug now.

  31. No one should be intimidated by the skeptical movement because they lack knowledge of a particular field, and anyone doing the intimidating should not be calling themselves a skeptic. Skepticism is about how discovery and exploration of reality is much more interesting, desirable, and ultimately fulfilling than accepting stubborn, pre-scientific, ‘sacred cow’ explanations. That is something anyone can appreciate.

    Furthermore, the experts in a particular field need novices. I think Neil deGrasse Tyson said something along the lines of : “if someone isn’t excited about your explanation, you need to find a better way of explaining.” Practicing sharing a discovery helps those skeptics with expertise in making their discoveries relevant and exciting to everyone, which is never a bad thing. Think of all your favorite teachers – they were probably your favorite because they got you excited about a subject and communicated it well, not just because they were knowledgeable. We all have something to contribute, but especially those with questions – that is what keeps us going. After all, that is what the whole movement is about.

    The excitement of discovery is also a basic part of the human condition, which needs expression through the arts and humanities. Take a look at the commenter on the original post that has a pretty good list of non-science trained people important to the skeptical movement. I know a lot of skeptics that came to be through science fiction rather than science.

  32. @VoxMachina:
    Very well said thanks for that, and yes, the reference to Neil deGrasse Tyson was very close if not exact. I believe he was talking about his and other science communicator’s responsibility in explaining science to the public. It’s not the public’s fault that they don’t understand science, it’s our fault for not explaining it in a way they can understand.

  33. @Amy:

    I’m on my lunch break so I can’t exactly respond to the thread.. but I will throw this in: You’re in the running against Elyse for my favorite Skepchick. I’ll be willing to judge a dance off or a wrestling match (as long as it’s in Jell-O).

  34. @tmarie:

    How about we just hug it out? Amy’s too amazing not to gladly let her dethrone me.

    Anyway, skepticism isn’t science, but it there is a tendency towards science and science-love amongst us. Me? I’m not science; I’m not art; I’m not even smart (seriously, I failed/dropped out of music school). I’m just someone who wants better things for the world and wants truth.

    I’m also someone who is, by nature, quite gullible and naive. Skepticism is my weapon for keeping money in my pocket and not dying from an OD on plants to cure my [whatever it is I’m sure I have today]. It’s how I keep my child from dying of whooping cough. Not only that, but it keeps me from wasting efforts on impossible dreams, and helps me to sort out what I can and absolutely can’t do – I can play the lotto if I wish, but I have to understand that I’m really throwing away that dollar. I cannot build a machine or a pair of ear rings that will make people live forever… and I can’t become a 7′ man to play in the NBA. I can start a radio show. I can start a local outreach program. I can admit that I can be wrong. I can use my resources to do the best that I can, and keep my expectations reasonable.

    Sure, we need the Dr. Steves of the world to disseminate the science and medicine for us… but we also need the Captain Disilluions and the Kari Byrons and the Rebecca Watsons and the Surly Amys… and even the “who the hell am I?s”

  35. @tmarie:
    Thanks! I’m all for the dance off….do ya hear me Elyse? I’m puttin’ on my tap dancing shoes! *Tap Tap*(I just served you in a nerd dance off, ha!)

    @Gabrielbrawley:
    True. I have said it before and I will say it again, we need skeptical bakers, because skeptical cookies are delicious. In other words, whatever you have to offer is great. There is ALWAYS something wonderful you can do to contribute to the skeptical movement no matter what your background or your specialty or interests may be.

  36. @annikabillion: As Steve Novella says- they’re value judgments. One person’s reasonable response makes another want to secede.

    ———

    Novella says a lot of things I disagree with.

    Basically, he’s only about 10% correct. Whether or not society should insure that all citizens have a certain level of health care is partly a value judgement. But it is mostly an OUTCOME based question: that is, doing so or not doing so has outcomes, and we should be able to discuss those outcomes in a skeptical framework rather than just asserting that we “believe” in universal health care or not.

  37. I was always somewhat skeptical. I went from areligious to agnostic in the fifth grade when I read the first half of the old testament and couldn’t imagine this “God” being worthy of worship or reasonably be thought to exist. Once I was disturbed by some of the claims in a book by Dänichen (mainly that plant had feelings), but didn’t know where to look for counter-evidence. But other than that I rarely needed to defend my world-view against my environment, so I just muddled along.

    Then one day I went looking for evidence to counter the claims in an article on the miracles in Lourdes on h2g2* and one of the hits was the newsletter on JREF, and voila the resources and tools I needed were there for the taking.

    *h2g2 – The hitchhiker’s guide to the universe 2 was a project started by Douglas Adams. A user written, community edited fount of all knowledge years before wikipedia. Sadly it’s not all that vibrant any more. But you can still go and read all the articles, of which many are a blend of funny and informative. Like the main entry on Norway written by yours truly.

  38. @Amy: “True. I have said it before and I will say it again, we need skeptical bakers, because skeptical cookies are delicious.”

    Cookies I can make. Where should we send them?

    I’ll even add 1/1000th of an atom of human sweat so no one will get fat eating them.

  39. Ok, finally not at work!

    It’s not so much that I feel intimidated or that I don’t feel smart enough. What makes me feel like I perhaps don’t fit in is that I’m often uncomfortable with the sentiments made by some folks in online skeptical outlets. (Even sometimes the comments here at Skepchick.)

    One of the discussions that has resurfaced since TAM7 is how to encourage more women to get involved while at the same time there were lots of conversations going that made this woman want to stay far, far away. (And I’m not really an outsider, so I can’t help but think about how someone new would feel.)

    Examples? In general threads that touch on rape, gender, or racism. There seems to be this mental block for some people where they cannot fathom others’ feelings, and that when they’ve personally decided that something is no longer an issue that everyone else should “be rational” and get over it. Being dismissive seems counter to critical thinking (and to skeptical outreach) as does assuming you already know everything there is to know about a social or cultural subject you’ve only delved into academically. (Sam’s AI is very timely!)

    So it’s not just that I feel like arts/humanities are being undervalued (and to an extent, I think they are not taken as seriously) but I have encountered attitudes like “because I Get Science I get all the easy stuff you people do” as well as “my big giant brain could not possibly be wrong about how you should feel.”

    Ohoh crap –I’ve not addressed all of the really great thoughts on this thread but that’s all I can manage until after Torchwood.

  40. @Eliza: There seems to be this mental block for some people where they cannot fathom others’ feelings, and that when they’ve personally decided that something is no longer an issue that everyone else should “be rational” and get over it.

    ———–

    Hey, that’s one of my pet peeves too! That sort of false rationality where we’re supposed to pretend that we are some different kind of ape that responds to things in what one person considers the “correct” way, rather than the way we observably do. For what’s its worth, I don’t think that the wholesale denial of human emotions and their role in our lives is particularly skeptical.

  41. @Eliza:
    While it is true that there has been a lot of discussion since TAM7 about feminism and gender roles due to a few comments made at the event. I just want to stress that those comments in no way encompassed the entire feeling of TAM. Maybe I’m a little thick skinned about it but it didn’t even bother me. I thought to myself, “Oh, ouch, how unfortunate, those guys are gonna get a heap of shit for those bad jokes”, (and they did) and it needed to be discussed. I’m in no way justifying their comments, I’m just saying there was a LOT more to TAM. The event as a whole seemed very inclusive and welcoming in my opinion. I do agree that a lot of conversations can be turn offs, but we are skeptics and we have a ton of other interesting topics we can discuss too. (please don’t give up on TAM just yet… it was really fantastic.)

    Did you hear about the live Million Dollar Challenge? All those hundreds of skeptics in one room, each one quiet as a mouse during the test. It was amazing indeed.

  42. @Eliza: Hmm, that’s a little bit of a harder issue. Since I’m not sure exactly what turned you off I’ll have to take a shot in the dark. Is it a question of asking “what is a good way to skeptically address emotionally charged topics?” Or are you turned off by the offensive jokes told at TAM? As Amy pointed out, everyone has a different level of tolerance for those things and you can’t be faulted for that. However, I would hate to see an active skeptic lessen their involvement over a bad joke. I would say that skeptics are not immune to the flaws of humanity at large, and not to take a few bad jokes as an indicator of the whole. As it’s already been pointed out on this thread everyone has something to contribute to the skeptical movement.

  43. @Amy & @VoxMachina: I absolutely agree with you. It’s unfortunate that my post comes across as anti-TAM, when it really should’ve begun “Lately I am in need of a reminder of why I want to be part of the skeptical community,” and then gone on to talk about how questions about getting more women involved in things like TAM made me think about why I’ve been not participating in discussions and avoiding events I’d normally be keen on, and delving deeper still, whether or not I “fit in”/feel comfortable with the skeptic label. And then I should have really emphasized that I’m not going to let a few jerkstores spoil the stripmall.

    Honestly I am positive I would enjoy TAM. I love our local CFI events and I have a blast cohosting Pittsburgh’s Drinking Skeptically with Laura. It would be a lot of fun hanging out with my online friends. I meant no offense to TAM/JREF — it just happened to be the most recent event and the one I’m most likely to attend. And I think actually going to something big like TAM is making a statement that skepticism is important to you. So that’s what I was questioning –how much of myself am I willing to put into this? Does that make sense?

  44. @Eliza:
    Yes, it makes total sense. It is completely up to you to decide how much you want to put of yourself into the skeptical community. I just want to let you know that intelligent, thoughtful people such as yourself are always needed and welcome. Hope to see you soon.

  45. @laurae:

    I think there is room for overlap and that the “arts” and the “sciences” aren’t really that seperate.

    As a biology student currently planning on entering the sciences, I constantly am saying to myself how much I’d love it if there was more overlap between science and art. There’s practically no artwork, designers, jewelry (practically :P we need more Amy’s!), younameit that is in any way scientific, and boy would I love that stuff! Carl Sagan’s writing is the closest thing I’ve found to science art, and that’s just text on a page!

    Or maybe those wonderful hubble pictures…

    @sethmanapio:
    I basically agree with you that there are a lot of political decisions that are based on evidence that would be great material for skeptics. Critical thinking certainly DOES apply to a lot of laws, or ethical questions, though it does not address the ethics themselves (does torture provide good information? whether you support it or not you can still look at the evidence)

    And, on the topic of fitting it and social gatherings, I don’t know why there’s this huge emphasis on alcohol at skeptical events. I still want to see a debate on the health effects of alcohol, and why it seems to be the skeptic’s activity of choice for social get-togethers.

  46. @sethmanapio:

    I don’t think there’s much place for scpeticism in politics because politics is essentially pointless status games most of the time. But there is a place for scpeticism in policy, which is what I think you’re actually talking about.

    It seems to me that there are two places where scepticism and policy can come together. The first place is when someone policy preferences are irrational. Now you have to be careful with this one because the rules by which you can judge preferences irrational are pretty technical, but they basically come down to incoherent or contradictory preferences. In those cases you can fairly criticise someone’s values.

    The other side of things is when you’re taking preferences as given and are debating the policies that are best by the lights of those values. This is what policy debates between professional policy wonks look like when the cameras are off.

    To take an example: foreign aid. On one side you have Jeffery Sachs who says wealthy countries should give more aid to poor ones. On the other side you have William Easterly who argues that government to government aid is actually makes the recipient country worse off. This is a purely factual debate where all the normal sceptical tools work perfectly well.

  47. @James K: But there is a place for scpeticism in policy, which is what I think you’re actually talking about.

    ——–

    Point.

    So what does it mean to say, as Steven Novella recently did, that we should “leave our political hats at the door”? Does it mean that we should accept being so wrapped up in status games that we can’t discuss sensitive policy issues without going stupid? Or are we supposed to accept it as a given that most skeptics are incapable of critically examining their core values?

    Or, even more weird, does it mean that we should avoid policy discussion?

  48. @Bookitty:
    “Grandmother patted her on the knee in a friendly fashion and said “That’s because you’re an idiot, dear.” And they both laughed because it was an ongoing discussion within their group”

    I like that story. But aside from a good laugh, it’s also good for pointing out the difference between an inside joke between two loving family members (or friends) versus some faceless person on the internet telling another faceless person they are an idiot. I have an obnoxious sense of humor myself, but I try to keep it for people who know me, and usually face to face. My Dad is always getting himself in trouble because on email it’s hard to tell he’s just being sarcastic (I get it, but I’m often getting emails from my sister along the lines of “how dare he say that!” – while I’m laughing at the joke).

    On policy vs politics – the distinction is important, but the two do get intertwined in people’s minds. It’s hard to have a conversation – even a rational, calm, fact based one – without someone getting up in arms and writing someone off as “just a liberal” or “just a conservative” or whatever. I think conversations on policy certainly should be discussed by skeptics. But for it to go well, they’ll have to try extra hard to be polite. Just my opinion of course.

  49. @Blake Stacey: Well, I’m glad you came because it was good to meet you!

    Amy and Eliza, I’m so glad you got this conversation going. As a hard and soft science nerd who loves the arts, I think there is tremendous value in making sure that everyone feels welcome to join in the skeptical fun, no matter what where their interests lie. We need each other so we can be exposed to different ways of viewing the world and different areas that are in need of a little help from critical thinking.

  50. @Amy:

    To be honest, you certainly aren’t a complete nobody to anyone that reads this blog. In fact, my impression is that you already were a bit of a celebrity (as it pertains to Skepchick.com). You were already pretty well known for your artwork, so you are a famous artist – not a nobody. I only point that out because someone who isn’t on that level of standing popularity may very well be intimidated by some of the other more “famous” members here. I, for one, would be scared to show up just because I think Marilove would kick my ass. She’s pretty intimidating.

  51. @sporefrog:

    I think that most people fall somewhere in between in terms of interest or talent with regard to “arts” vs. “sciences” – I like to think I’m pretty good with words, so I decided to go into writing and education. But during and after college I found out I am pretty good with technology and could easily have seen myself going into computer science, had I been encouraged or mentored.

    I am also surprised by the number of people commenting, wondering if there are secretly a lot of lurkers out there reading Skepchick and other science blogs but are afraid to comment. You should consider doing a reader poll with regards to people’s backgrounds/education. Perhaps there are more poets reading Skepchick than I thought!

    @Elyse:

    I’m also someone who is, by nature, quite gullible and naive. Skepticism is my weapon for keeping money in my pocket and not dying…

    DOOOOOD! This is what I say ALL THE TIME! I’m SO gullible. Like, tell me there are footprints on the ceiling and I look up. Skepticism is my first line of defense to avoid getting swept up into some weird cult. Those guys dancing with tamborines… so mesmerizing….

  52. As an art school drop out and (horrors) still religous (but quite liberal church) it is sometimes hard to fit in with the skeptic crowd, but it’s well worth the effort. I came because I felt no one cared that psychics were basically doing a LOT of harm. It’s a horrible story when I tell it, and the only relief I got from my anger (“why doesn’t anyone CARE!”) was a copy of “Flim Flam”. And soon enough Mr.Randi showed me someone did care. His “The Faith Healers” actually healed me of my anger and gave me a new life as a skeptic. Someone DOES care about these people. Someone IS doing something. And I’m welcome to join. I felt good with Randi as he wasn’t a Phd or a scientist. In fact, he knew those scientists could be fooled. I could identify with him. He was kind and gladly emailed someone he’d never met before. Later when we met, we became friends. I still treasure his opening the door to me to skepticism.

    I’m not sure a scientist would have the inclination to go out of their way as Randi did when I emailed him. But in the end, it changed my life. Just to know I’m not alone, and even though I’m not a scientist and maybe crack on US magazine every now and again, my being a skeptic is important. It’s not HARD to be a skeptic either! I was “oh I don’t know all that science stuff” and people were “well it’s not that hard…” I even asked someone “What’s Schrodingers cat?” and they didn’t LAUGH at me or say “you don’t KNOW what Schrodingers cat is!”

    I make a point of reading books about astronomy and physics and such. I may have to go to the library and look through 4 or 5 to find one written for my level of education (ok Tyson rocks for writing for the rest of us) but its worth the effort and I curse my high school for stearing me away from any higher science of math classes because I was “artsy”.

  53. @OneHandClapping:
    I completely understand what you mean by feeling intimidated and I sure didn’t realize that anyone knew who I was.

    I was scared of the idea of TAM at first. A few people may have heard of my artwork, but let me tell you I was freaked out, and so was my husband, Johnny. I thought I wouldn’t be able to keep up in the conversation and that everyone would think I was a just silly artist, so a few months before TAM Johnny and I went to a Drinking Skeptically event here in LA. and in response to @sporefrog: I think I understand why a lot of skeptic events focus around drinking. For one thing it is a legal social activity that reduces the anxiety many feel when around strangers. Health implications aside, a bar is usually a dimly lit environment with access to the most popular social lubrication we have, booze. Throughout the years many great conversations have happened in a bar setting and I am not going to argue if drinking is good or bad but for me having a drink that night gave me something to do and something to fiddle with so my anxiety of that first dive into the public realm of skepticism didn’t show too much, and guys come on, you don’t have to drink at a bar. They have soda, and bottom line, bars are convenient places to gather. Bars can accommodate large groups of people and they encourage boisterous conversations. The point here is; I felt like a nobody when I was getting ready to leave that night but as soon as I got to the event, I realized I was in a room filled with all different types of people who ultimately were a lot like me, and the conversations were great! We all had similar interests regardless of job titles. I got all the jokes about homeopathy (it’s just water, bwa ha ha) and I felt welcome into the community.

    Ultimately we are all just regular people who want to help each other and help other people avoid being scammed. Skeptics are like superheroes in that respect, fighting for good against the odds and we are a minority and so we need each other (regardless of education or job title or credentials). Going to a small Drinking Skeptically event helped me realize that, and it made the idea of going to big event like TAM a lot less scary. Johnny and I both made some great new friends along the way. All you have to do really is show up, be yourself and say hello.

  54. @Eliza: From what I can tell from your posts, it appears you organize a lot of skeptical meetups, so maybe the consistent presence of skepticism has you a little burnt out. Try stepping into the non-skeptical world and maybe you’ll see what attracted you to skepticism in the first place. Attend a megachurch/psychics fair/anti-vax rally/whatever and if the stupid doesn’t completely burn you, you’ll probably be looking forward to your next Drinking Skeptically.

    @Amy: I’ll drink to that!

  55. I’m a day late as usual, but I’ll flap my jaw anyway :)

    I do sometimes feel like an outsider – I don’t consider myself naive, but I am a Pollyana who wants to assume the best of everyone until they prove themselves otherwise. And sometimes skeptics come across with a “I don’t believe you” attitude immediately.

    Plus I do belong to a Wiccan coven, at least until I finish sorting out my feelings about religion. I don’t think I can ever “go back” to believing in gods again, but as a metaphor, I still like my witchy stuff and the ways of celebrating life that Wiccans do! But I know it comes across as woo-woo.

    I also don’t think calling theists gullible or stupid gets you any further than the Christians who crashed the Wiccan sites I used to frequent got when they told us we were going to hell.

    So yeah, I feel uncomfortable sometimes.

    But then I look in the mirror and say “What are you going to do about it?” The only solution is to stick around and maybe stick my neck out and say “Us touchy feely types have our uses too!” and come up with my own kindler, gentler brand of skeptic.

    PS: Amy, I didn’t know that you were a TAM virgin too – I thought you were an old hand at it! I wish I’d gotten a chance to actually meet you in a non-customer/merchant way (though I do love my necklace!)

  56. @sethmanapio:

    I think the reason some sceptics are leery of political debate is that politics tends to trip a couple of common failure modes in the human brain. I think this post sums it up nicely. So maybe that’s what Steve was thinking.

    However I disagree with Steve here. Reason has too much to offer policy formation for us to abandon it as sceptics. But we do need to be careful, and an important part of that I think is to try ad discuss specific policy proposals rather than the merits of particular parties or candidates.

  57. I live in Oklahoma. This is not a good thing for me personally on many levels (which is not to diss on the state in general – I know many people that love living here and will never leave; I’m just not one of them), one of the biggest of which is that especially in the rural areas, the intolerant religious types FAR outnumber skeptics (my high school students, in particular, are INCREDIBLY intolerant of liberals, gays, skeptics, and similar people who aren’t EXACTLY like them). In short, it’s very lonely for me here. Therefore, I spend a LOT of time online, chatting with friends and connecting to the “real world” outside of Middle of Nowhere America.

    I’m new to the skeptical movement, although I’ve been skeptical since college (I was pretty big into several types of woo in high school, I’m sad to report) – we didn’t have all that many skeptics even on campus, but I hit the lottery with a prof or two and have been asking annoying (to woo-heads) questions ever since.

    I have felt very welcome among “my people” – George Hrab has replied to all my fangirl e-mails (although I’m still waiting to hear from Phil Plait and PZ Myers re: a question I sent about antivaxxers), and Skepchick Amy was very generous in making some necklaces for me. I’ve got TAM 8’s dates highlighted on my calendar, and the budget is in place so that I can afford to go.

    Going to TAM is a big step for me, because I’ve got a dislike of crowds and some social anxiety, and I’m really hoping that the warm welcome I have received so far in the Blogsphere will be reproduced in person – I believe it will be, which is why I’m buying that plane ticket and reserving that hotel room as soon as I can. Skeptics are SO much nicer than religious people, and I have no fears (except for the usual insecurities) that I will be welcomed with open arms and get to meet and make friends with lots of really cool people at TAM.

    I do get lost sometimes in the blog posts and comment threads that I love to read – it’s like being at a party where everyone else knows each other and has their own slang that I don’t understand all the time – but I’m willing to be proactive enough to just stick myself out there (virtually) and say, “I WILL be a part of this somehow!” I’m just lonely enough and just passionate about the skeptical cause to do this, but not everyone would be, and we need to remember that. Once I’m more involved, I really want to do some sort of informal outreach, trying to tell skeptics that we’re not scary and we aren’t as vitriolic as we sometimes seem in comments and on blogs (that just by itself could scare away the faint of heart). We’ve been vilified so much by the religious whack-jobs and the woo-heads that most people judge us without ever meeting us, especially in places like Tulsa (no skeptics group, although meetup.com has FORTY-FIVE people interested – I’d start it myself if I had time) where we have the potential to be a powerful force for good, but there’s no organization.

    Okay, I’ve rambled enough for one evening – thanks for letting me!

  58. @CelticGoddess1326:
    Welcome to the world of Skeptics! I look forward to meeting you at TAM8. Do be sure to say hello! I think it is a wonderful idea to try to get a group going in your area. It may be slow going at first but I bet you will find many other skeptics (who may not even know what a skeptic is) hiding in the shadows just as hopeful, intelligent and as kind as you are. :)

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