Random AsidesSkepticism

The Skeptic Next Door: Shannon Burns

One of my oldest friends in the world, Shannon Burns, is a recent introduction to the Skeptical-with-a-Capital-S world and I thought it would be interesting to get her perspective as a relative newcomer.

Shannon is my best friend from college so I am clearly and unapologetically biased, but I am thrilled to share this smart, cool, skeptical woman with you all! Also, she totally sucks up to me in this interview and I didn’t have to pay her or anything! Old friends FTW! :)

What got you interested in Skepticism?

It’s all Maria’s fault.  No, really.  I recently calculated that I have known her for about half my life.  She and I were best friends in college and were pretty inseparable until she was lured several hundred miles away by sunnier skies and her now husband.  But we have remained friends throughout the years.  One of her emails about two years ago ended with “check out this blog – I write for them semi-regularly as Masala Skeptic”.  Of course, this was followed by a link to Skepchick.  At the time I was on leave from work because I was going through cancer treatment.  So, while I had plenty of time to read the blog, I was not in the right frame of mind to really make any sense of what I was seeing there.  I bookmarked the URL and thought maybe I would get back to it someday.

Many many months later, after life was starting to return to something resembling normalcy, I went back to Skepchick’s site and started to figure out what it was all about.  Not long after, I got an email from Maria saying that she was planning a trip to Pittsburgh (where I live).  While she was in town, she was going to meet up with the local skeptics group.  I went to the event with her, and had a fun time hanging out with the skeptics, drinking Buzzed Aldrins, and making quite a ruckus (never put wheeled chairs in a bar).  The rest is history.
Before the trip, her husband asked Maria how Drinking Skepchickally was going to go over with me, and she replied that I had always kind of been a skeptic.  She was right.  I was.  I just didn’t know it.  It had often been a source of frustration that I thought differently than many of the people around me.  I didn’t know that this way I tended to look at the world had a name.  I also didn’t know that there were plenty of other people like me and that they had formed a community for themselves.
What are the areas of skeptical ‘activism’ that interest you most?

Fighting alternative medicine.  I had always been suspicious of the claims that these people make, but I had generally just shrugged them off.  I thought most people didn’t really believe in them, but I hadn’t done a lot of research and hadn’t really given a lot of thought to the harm they caused.

Then when I got cancer, the stuff came crawling out of the woodwork.  One of the people most caught up in this was my step-mother.  She is a very nice person, and I love her, but she will believe anything she sees on TV or reads in a book.  She was always ready with some miracle cure or another, and there was no reasoning with her.  Even with my mental defenses lowered because of the chemotherapy, this was not something I was going to fall for.  On days when I was home in between treatments, I would research some of the “cures” she was raving about.  I would email her information I found concerning the people behind these products and how some had been fined for making false claims.  It made no difference; she was not dissuaded.  I now realize that she is not just a lone, gullible woman trying to help her step-daughter any way she can.  There are many others taken in by this industry, and real harm is often the result.
You’re very new to the Skeptical Community. What are the challenges you see with being part of it?

I probably still wouldn’t know about the community at all if not for Maria.  I know there are a lot of grassroots efforts going on and the word is spreading, but I think the first hurdle to overcome in being a part of the community is finding it.  The next step for some (as it was for me) is to figure out what skepticism actually is.  It seems obvious in hindsight, but it took me a bit of poking around.  I started reading Skepchick and would follow links to other sites that were mentioned.  I would spend some time looking at those sites, create a few bookmarks, and then come back to them later.  It took a few iterations through that cycle before I understood that what I had been introduced to was something bigger than a just a few people writing blogs and creating informational sites.  And it took that initial digging to get a good sense for the underpinnings of this community.

I currently feel like I am playing catch-up.  I have learned about some really great entertainers, authors, bloggers, podcasters, educators and all-around awesome people from the skeptical community.  But it seems that there are not enough hours in the day to read all the books I have added to my wish list, listen to the all the podcasts I have subscribed to, and clear out my skeptical RSS feeds.
I also feel like I need to work on my marketing skills.  I have problems trying to explain skepticism to people.  If I start talking about critical thinking and questioning pseudoscience and claims of the paranormal, it seems that I might as well be speaking in another language (judging by the looks I get in return).
What are your favorite blogs/podcasts/books about skepticism?

My favorite blog is Skepchick.  I am biased of course, but it’s true.  I also listen to the Skepchick podcasts, and have been enjoying the Curiosity Aroused segments.  Topping my non-biased list of podcasts are subscriptions to Skepticality, For Good Reason, Point of Inquiry, and Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe.

I am currently reading Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World, and I have several other skeptical titles on my ever-growing wish list.  But I haven’t read many books solely focused on skepticism yet.  Most of the books I have read that are in the skeptical section of my personal bookshelf are really atheist-centric books (like The God Delusion, The End of Faith, and God Is Not Great).  I knew I was an atheist before I knew I was a skeptic, but I now consider being an atheist just one aspect of my skepticism.  I know not everyone comes to that conclusion when applying critical thinking to the topic of religion, but it makes a lot of sense to me to think of it that way.
If you could educate everyone about one thing with regards to alternative medicine, what would it be?

I would educate people about the concepts behind homeopathy.  Before I became a part of the skeptical community, I really only had some sort of vague sense that homeopathic medicine was something less than real medicine.  I knew it wasn’t regulated in the same way as regular medicine, and I knew a lot of remedies played into people’s misguided thinking that things labeled “natural” are somehow better.

I had never knowingly used a homeopathic remedy, but looking back it’s hard to be sure.  When you go to the pharmacy, I think there is too little distinction made between over-the-counter medicine and homeopathic remedies.  They are often on the shelves right next to each other and the packaging usually looks similar.  Both claim to treat symptoms and to be recommended by doctors.  I’m not sure people always realize which is which.   The word homeopathic is most likely only seen once on the box or label and is often in small print.  If people bother to look at the ingredients, I doubt they know what any of the homeopathic information listed means.  I don’t think it is always a conscious decision to choose homeopathy because they think it will work better.  Some people do hold this belief, but I think many people simply don’t know that they are really buying sugar pills or a bottle of water.
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Wondering how Shannon’s journey will turn out? She’ll be to TAM8 so if you’re there too, come by and say hello. And follow her on Twitter!

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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6 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed this post.

    What Shannon said about spreading the word really resonated with me, because I realized I had stumbled into the skeptical community and Skepticism completely by accident. I was a fan of Penn & Teller, listened to Penn’s radio show while it was on, and through that found the SGU.

    I suppose if you have certain interests, maybe finding the community is inevitable, but I think maybe a lot of people have a vague bit of a skeptical eye, or think they do, and realizing that there’s an actual Skeptical community and it’s resources for debunking woo would help bring that into focus.

    Not everyone maybe would say they’re a Skeptic, but it would help them to be more skeptical. Sort of like Snopes on steroids to sharpen the critical thinking.

  2. As a movement? Easy. The SGU.

    As far as how I think? I remember way back when , as a kid, when they spoke about the creation in seven days, thinking they can’t mean that literally ( I’m sure I didn’t actually think that in so many words ). In other words, the seeds of needing proof were there early. My career path in medicine took it another step further into science. And finally, the SGU, and many other podcasts, have given me the SPECIFIC tools to understand what skepticism is about. The more I learn about us, the more I realize we all come in shades of grey. I like that.

  3. I see Shannon’s been wearing the A necklace by Amy. Well, me too. When people ask about it (it’s not my initial either) I say, it’s the scarlet letter. Then they look shocked and say, “are you having trouble in your marriage?” And then I tell them, Atheist. I dunno if I am spreading the word, but I hope so.

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