Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Topics in Skepticism

We skeptics all have our individual areas of interest, and expertise.

Then there are those topics that don’t seem to move us…

Our interests and concerns are driven by various personal or professional factors in our lives, e.g., parents of young children might be specifically concerned about the anti-vaccination movement, while medical doctors might be concerned about dodgy alternative medicine claims.

Perhaps you just have a fascination with monsters, or maybe you  thought you saw a ghost when you were a kid.

In your opinion, what are the most “important” topics in skepticism?

What are some of the issues that you are concerned about specifically, and why?

What topics interest you the least?

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44 Comments

  1. I’m specifically concerned about the lack of skepticism when it comes to governments; lots of skeptics are willing to challenge other man-made institutions (religion, corporations) but have an amazing blind faith when it comes to governments. They trust the government to do the right thing when it rarely does. This appears in all sorts of ways and it drives me bananas.

    It is also the main reason that I’m not a “joiner” or a “meeter” with other skeptics/atheists – the political bent of most skeptics/atheists tends to be leftist and I just want to tear my hair out listening to them (just like I would if I found myself in a coven of Christians)

  2. In my opinion the most important topic is getting general scientific skepticism into basic education. Teach kids how to think for themselves, and how to accept evidence of you being wrong. As I write this I think the latter is the most difficult since this is pretty much an ability kids have that gets lost as they learn the equally important skill of confidence in their own ability and knowledge.

    I’m particularly interested in this as I’m a teacher and teach courses where this, at least partly, fits with the national course plan.

    I’m not particularly interested in cryptozoology. It’s one of the least harmful woo interests around, and often so silly it actually helps develop a sense of skepticism in those genuinely curious minds who are fascinated by it in adolescence.

  3. Food myths Don’t try to blame the Beepocalype on GMOs. Don’t try to blame obesity on HFCS. Don’t try to blame colo-rectal cancer on red meat. If you’re uneasy about them, fine, be that way. I can’t make you accept GMOs, HFCS, or red meat, just like you can’t make me accept flying. However, I’ll be more than happy to let you know that my uneasiness of flying is purely irrational, and no amount of evidence can change that. But don’t throw non sequiturs at me and use them as “evidence” of your irrational fears.

    Also, we need more skepticism in politics. Far too often have I seen otherwise good skeptics check their skepticism at the door because someone is saying something they want to hear. These same skeptics promote the same skeptics promote urban myths about the other guys that could be easily checked. The person they want to believe in is the boogey (wo)man you should tell your children about so they will eat their brochili.

    “If you don’t eat your brochili, [INSERT NAME HERE] will become president.

  4. I agree with Michael Critz.

    As a psychology student, I’m concerned about how self-proclaimed skeptics treat each other, the general public, and victims of scams. One of the worst and most common insults I see are from skeptics who say of victims, “If you were stupid enough to fall for it, you deserve it.” Superficially, it does not help our cause. More importantly, it shows both a callousness and a very un-skeptical lack of self-awareness. Can you say “fatal attribution error”? I knew you could!

  5. The use of skepticism in general is my interest. I feel like skepticism is a two sided sword for a reason (for reason?). Take a law metaphor. The defendant is innocent until proven guilty so skepticism is used against the charge. But as a society we have an incentive to see that a criminal is charged with a crime so skepticism is used in part to suspect the defendant and thus distrust any alibis. I feel like some people think both sides can’t be correct but in many aspects of life, both the defense’s use of skepticism and the prosecution’s are required. They both need to be wielded well of course.

    So I like to see where legitimately exercised uses of skepticism compete with each other. That’s my cup o Joe.

  6. @Bjornar: I think I’m with you on this. Teaching critical thinking skills at an early age is probably the most important thing. A large proportion of the ‘fighting’ we do is band-aid-ing/putting out fires. If less people were susceptible to the wiles of irrationality then we would be able to spend less time putting out the fires and devote even more time to educating.

  7. Religion is the biggest one for me. (Teh atheists iz takin’ overs teh skeptic thred agn! Oh noes!)

    I put religion first for a combination of good and not-so-good reasons.

    First, the not-so-good. Free admission: I take a certain amount of smug, mean-spirited intellectual pleasure in shooting down religion. It’s a vice. I’m not entirely happy about it and I try to keep it under wraps. But it’s there. It would be kidding myself to pretend that didn’t play a large motivating role.

    At the same time, there are some good reasons as well. The questions about life that religion attempts to address (What is the good life? Why be good? What does it mean to live? What does it mean to die? How should we deal with the fear of death? What are the appropriate limits on human sexuality? How do we cope with suffering and loss? What is the fundamental nature of reality? What is the relationship between mind and matter? Etc.) are some of the most important, life-defining questions that a person can ask themselves. The answers we give to these questions have the potential to shape billions of lives.

    In my view, religion entirely divorces these questions from having any basis in reality. The answers we give to such questions are too important for that, we shouldn’t just let ourselves make it stuff up.

    And we shouldn’t trust hearsay from self-declared prophets, particularly when their recorded acts of prophecy are indistinguishable from frontal lobe epilepsy. Chances are pretty damn good that they were just making it up too.

    Additionally, when we do look at reality face on with a bit of courage, and allow ourselves to probe beneath the surface of what may at first appear hard or grim about the universe… What we find underneath is far richer, grander, and more fulfilling than any of the fluffy, oh-so-ego-convenient pat answers provided by religion.

    A final concern with religion is that it also entrenches the notion in many believers that its okay to fence off certain areas of personal belief as ‘out-of-bounds’ to rational analysis, which is undermining to skepticism in general.

    Secondary to religion is anything even remotely health-and-safety related, largely for consequentialist reasoning. Any unjustified statements of medical efficacy for a product, no matter how small, has potential to seriously harm the unsuspecting. Even if the product itself is harmless (it may not be), it may prevent or delay a person from pursuing proven medical treatment for a condition – leading to unnecessary prolongation of symptoms or (as I’m sure everyone here is aware of), in many cases death.

    Note that health-and-safety includes stuff like the explosive-dowsing rods that were being discussed all over the JREF website last year.

    After religion and health-and-safety, no other topic under the skepticism banner presses my buttons that badly. Sure, I grind my teeth when confronted the bigfoot stuff, the UFO stuff, and the Mayan Calendar stuff. But it doesn’t get me going the way that religion and health-and-safety stuff does.

  8. I am greatly disturbed by the large numbers of Young Earth Creationists and evolution-deniers in the US.

    I like rocks, and I like thinking about geologic time on grand scales. I hate Young Earth Creationists. I hate them because I spend much of my time dating rocks, and it’s tough work and it’s science and most of the rocks I date are older than 6,000 years. Also, having an old planet is waaaay cooler and more interesting than having a planet that is only 6,000 years old.

  9. In your opinion, what are the most “important” topics in skepticism?
    Advancing science education and advocating a rational deductive process for decision making. (And while I appreciate the call to skepticism when it comes to government I think this is only worthwhile when addressing specific policies, laws and rules that are not based on ideology and personal values.)

    What are some of the issues that you are concerned about specifically, and why?
    Woo, CAM or stupidity that places the vulnerable, like children, seniors or the terminally ill at risk of harm. The why should be obvious.

    What topics interest you the least? Ghosts, monsters and aliens. (Sorry Karen!)

  10. *Most Important*
    Echoing what other commenters have said… getting good general critical thinking skills out there in schools and the general public. Letting people know it’s not just the “big stuff” that is frequently wrong; I think teaching people the “truth” on all the random urban legends is a good gateway toward the bigger questions (vaccines, homeopathy, psychics, etc)

    *Specific Issues*
    I think we as skeptics sometimes forget to be skeptical of our own abilities, and start to think that *we* actually know what we’re talking about (i.e. that we are experts). As Massimo Pigliucci put it.. except for the very very few people in the community who *are* scientists and doctors… the rest of us need to be careful to keep to the consensus and expert opinions. Otherwise, we end up just being one more of the type of University of Google expert that we have to fight against.

    *Lease Interesting*
    Most paranormal stuff (ghosts, UFOs, Big Foot, etc). They can certainly be a gateway into deeper non-skeptical thinking (especially conspiracy theories) but I don’t find the topics themselves interesting enough to fight

  11. @Daniel Schealler: At the danger of increasing a threadjacking to code orange, I’d like to disagree with you on a couple of things. I’d like to point out these are things I have interpretted you to mean, and not necessary accusing you of meaning them.

    When you say “religion”, do you mean all religion, or the effects of religion on public policy. If you mean the latter, then I’m fully in agreement with you. If you mean the former, then I’d have to respectfully disagree.

    If you believe that when you die, you and your grandmother will ride around on rainbow-farting unicorns all day, that’s fine. It doesn’t bother me in the least. However, if you try to tell me that this unicorn wants me to stop wearing pants, because they are an abomination, that’s where you’ve crossed the line from a harmless believe to promoting unfounded woo. That unfounded woo has real-world implications, which can lead to unnecessary pain and suffering in the real world, for what? Supposed benefits in magical unicorn land?

  12. @andyinsdca: You are fooling yourself, you libertarian douche. Seriously. There are plenty of skeptical people who would be more than willing to tear your views apart at places like pharyngula, but I imagine that’s why you stick to your own kind.

    @Daniel Schealler: agreed on all accounts. You summed up my priorities pretty damn well, though I also like to see turds like the above get torn a new one too.

  13. @infinitemonkey: But doesn’t that underlying worldview affect the way one understands and interacts with literally everything in their life? How can one approach anything rationally if they believe in magic men in the sky who control all aspects of the world? Doesn’t it make occam’s razor useless? Doesn’t it undermine the naturalistic, predictable systems that we use to make our decisions?

  14. @infinitemonkey

    I’ll be brief here to keep it out of the thread – if you want to keep going, feel free to flick me an email.

    Your first interpretation was correct.

    I subscribe to the view that beliefs (and ideas) matter of themselves. Of course, they also matter for their consequences. But the belief itself matters all on its own. A false belief with positive consequences is still false, and the falsity of the belief matters more than the consequences. A true belief with negative consequences is still true, and the truth of the belief matters more than the consequences.

    The reason I highlight religion out for such special treatment is because religion attempts to address some of the most important beliefs about reality a person can hold.

    Note that this line of argument wouldn’t justify coercion of belief. An individual’s right to freedom of conscience trumps everything else.

    I use gmail under the standard gmail domain. My gmail username is as my Skepchick’s username, only with a dot between my first and last names (take that spambots!).

  15. @mikerattlesnake
    Many rational people are religious despite the viewpoint’s contradictory nature. People are really good at compartmentalizing contradictory world views. So I don’t think religion is harmful unless such a person has fundamentalist beliefs or other cultural baggage that comes along with it that affect the way other human beings live, which unfortunately it does have often times.

  16. Kinda what some people have said already. It’s all about critical thinking. Everything else follows from that.

    Religion? Where’s the evidence?

    Any other crap in the newspapers or politics, oooooooh, let’s say “war on drugs”. Where’s the evidence?

  17. @mikerattlesnake:

    You are fooling yourself, you libertarian douche.

    I also like to see turds like the above get torn a new one too.

    LOL. Ain’t that a fine howdy-doo that will for sure open up a lot of constructive dialogue.

    As for me, I think a lot of the posters here (@andyinsdca, @Michael Critz, @Bjornar, @rlquinn1980) have made some really good and valid points, and I also think that @andyinsdca’s comment has, somewhat obliquely, touched upon a good point that I think is true. Too many skeptics do appear to be somewhat complacent and overly trusting of government and the corporate world in general, and seem overly concerned with issues that do not really affect all that many people in a seriously detrimental way — ghosts, big-foot, et al.

    I do not know if it’s true, but I have the impression that the large majority of skeptics are middle- to upper-middle class and are somewhat uninterested in socio-political issues (other than religion, that is) that affect, to the detriment of us all, the huge mass of people that are lower-middle class to poor.

    Of course, that is only my perception, and I may very well be wrong about that. But it seems to me to be a fairly rare occurrence to see any skeptic blog bring up political or corporate issues surrounding the “faith” that the public holds in governments and major corporations.

    And while it is true that “BigPharma” does indeed provide us with a lot of good stuff, its methodology and business practices are execrable, and there seems to me to be far too much somewhat knee-jerk support of these massive corporations by the skeptic community in general.

  18. I would like to see the skeptical community remember the words of one of or great leaders, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

    We need to remember that whether we like it or not our actions have consequence, our inactions have consequence, and the way the future will judge us depends not on what we think of ourselves but how we think of the future. As one of the heroes of the baby boom generation wrote, ” I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” That poem was about drugs and terrible addictions but I see it as true in another way, I have watched through the window of history as the idealism of the 1960s turned into the jaded consumerism of 1980s and then into the unabashed greed of the 2000s.

    I see hope in the next generation but I also fear for those younger folks that have so much rage without a target. They wish to help developing worlds but attack the economic engines that could help them; they strive for a greater connectiveness and through that desire find more and more ways to know all without learning anything; and I see a generation heart-sick about the state that we find our planet in so they cling to an ancient text that tells them it will be alright and absolves them of their responsibility.

    I see the pattern emerging and it is not a good one, we will see where we are in 40 years, my hope is that it’s a better world; my fear is that it is more of the same. I’ll quote from another of our great leaders that we in the skeptical movement should heed, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”

    Sorry to get all deep and shit. I believe there is probably life “out there” somewhere but the proof so far is unconvincing, so alien abduction stories bore me. I try to avoid conspiracy theories because they just piss me off, besides there are plenty of true conspiracies that are far more frightening than any David Icke can come up with, look up the Tuskegee syphilis experiments if you want to what real conspiracies look like. Not glamorous, just stomach turning in its uncaring.

  19. Alt med quackery seems to me most important in terms of its real destructive effects on the largest number of people.

    Various forms of religious woo affect the most people, but I think are less immediately destructive except when they foster wars or terrorism, Terrorism generates the most fear though despite its rarity, but I think religiously motivated wars and genocides have killed lots more people.

    But ultimately, I think @Bjornar is absolutely right… Teaching kids to think critically and skeptically is the necessary basis for long-term inoculation against all the destructive forms of unreality.

    However, I disagree with him about cryptozoology. Along with ghosts and UFOs, it is one of the most fun aspects of skepticism, precisely because it is (mostly) harmless.

    As a one-time astronomer, I find astrology the most boring and pointless form of pseudoscience. It has been so thoroughly discredited for so long I just want to pull my head off when people bring it up.

    (Arghh! A couple of days ago, I had an encounter with a bunch of believers. I think I might have made a slight dent in their firmness of belief, though. They started out uncritically accepting everything about astrology. By the end, they sort of agreed amongst themselves that it might not have any scientific validity but it was fun and often on target. The rest of us just rolled our eyes. I tried not to be dickish, just somewhat curmudgeonly, so they didn’t just shut me out and ignore me, but acknowledged a remote possibility I might have been right. I think that’s progress.)

  20. @Daniel Schealler: In retrospect I should have added that religion is certainly an issue for me where it meets my concerns about the vulnerable especially when it comes to religious practices that are abusive to children or preclude a parent providing adequate or necessary medical care for a child. However fighting religion for the sake of eradicating unreasonable belief systems would be a complete waste of time and resources IMHO.

  21. In your opinion, what are the most “important” topics in skepticism?

    The assault on science education around the world is very important. Especially in the United States by fundamentalist Christians. Skeptics should at the forefront of this battle.

    Countering the anti-vaccine movement and CAM movements is also important. Fighting this kind of woo saves lives, and can bring public attention to the the movement.

    What are some of the issues that you are concerned about specifically, and why?

    CAM and the anti-vaccine movement concern me, because they promote anti-science viewpoints and kill people.

    What topics interest you the least? While I write about monsters on my blog, they’re not my favorite subject.

    However, I am glad there are skeptics covering this subject. My first glimpse of skepticism when I was a child was when my parents showed me articles debunking ancient astronauts. When I had doubts about ancient astronauts, that lead the way to doubts about Bigfoot, Loch Ness, and started me on the path to becoming a skeptic.

    Plus its not harmless. Belief in a UFO lead to the deaths of the Heaven’s Gate cult. Countless people have been ripped off from monster related scams. People needlessly fear what isn’t real.

    So I’m glad there are people like Karen who investigate monsters. They can plant the seeds of doubt in future skeptics.

  22. I think most people don’t understand basic statistics or probability at all. (example: any survey in Cosmo.)

    The first step in getting more people to make better decisions is to give them the tools to evaluate claims. Teach them how to research. Get them in the habit. Much of the problem is that people tend to accept claims uncritically, especially if the claims benefit their ideology.

  23. The most important “topic” in skepticism is the encouragement of skepticism in others, whether that encouragement comes through educating fellow adults who are “on the fence” about skepticism, or through trying to answer children’s “why” questions with patience and age-appropriate explanations.

    The issues I’m concerned about are religions and other organizations with charismatic leaders who discourage critical thinking, such as cults, corporations, and the anti-vaccination movement. This is partly because I’m personally (though indirectly) invested in the health and welfare of the next generation in the form of my nephew, but also because the most recent tack of the anti-vaxxers is to tie vaccination with autism, and as a woman on the spectrum I can tell you That Shit Does Not Make Sense.

    Public library staffer here, so free speech, free access to information, and a reasonable expectation of privacy? Also concerns.

    The topics that interest me the least as a skeptic are also the topics that interest me most as entertainment: UFOs, fairy stories/mythology for the sake of entertainment (think Labyrinth, “Supernatural”, or “Hercules: the Legendary Journeys”), cryptozoology, the Lost City of Atlantis… basically anything a child might believe, but most adults don’t.

  24. VACCINES.
    That’s my number one (skepticism) issue. I have other issues that relate to skepticism, but I don’t view them as skepticism issues. I don’t think religious freedom and secularism is a skeptical issue, for example, even though it is important to me and it is relevant to skeptics.
    And, if we’re all alive thanks to not dying of rubella, then we can argue about global warming until we nuke each other. Whatevs.

  25. @andyinsdca:
    It’s a pity that this has held you back. I’m a libertarian-minded sceptic, and in my observation there are probably more libertarians in scepticism than our fraction of the general population would indicate.

    As it happens my pet issue is improving the use of evidence in forming government policy (I’m a government policy analyst BTW), so for me there’s a firm connection between scepticism and government.

    As for the big sceptical topic: I would suggest education, but not merely science education. There are after all, any number of eminent scientists that manage to have startling lapses in critical thinking (Linus Pauling for example).

    To truly teach rationality requires more than just knowledge of science. We should be teaching children the nuts and bolts of how to form a hypothesis, the importance of Occam’s Razor, basic probability theory and similar tools of rationality. If we get this right, irrationality in all areas should decline.

  26. @IBY:

    This is something I have heard before but never really understood. Why do so many other skeptics seem to view the psychological phenomenon of compartmentalizing ones beliefs to be innocuous?

    It seems teaching people that they should not compartmentalize their beliefs, and that such an act will surely interfere with their skepticism.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am well aware that I may compartmentalize things myself, it is a psychological realty that affects everyone to some extent. Therefore, should it not be our goal as skeptics to find and root out any instances of this in our own psyche so that we may be more rational in our thoughts?

    So why should we just excuse it as innocuous behavior in others? Irrational thinking is still irrational no mater the psychological cause for it.

  27. 1.In your opinion, what are the most “important” topics in skepticism?

    As a physician, of course, my major interest is in dangerous applications of alternative medicine. Quite honestly, I couldn’t care less if a patient desires accupuncture or chiropracty ( we are not going to squash these fields ) for back pain, IF that back pain was evaluated by myself and determined to be benign. It’s gonna go away in due time ( or not ) no matter what we try. But if chiropracty, accupuncture , antivaxers, homeopathy, etc is used instead of science based medicine for conditions that could have significant consequences if not treated appropriately, then that to me is a horrific application of pseudoscience. People do die.

    2. What are some of the issues that you are concerned about specifically, and why?

    Religion. Almost anyone in skepticism can agree that extremism, especially regarding religion, is often a dangerous tool used by greedy men and women to move and control a populace regardless of consequence to those outside of that religious circle, both historically and presently . But the schism between aggressive atheism which proactively attacks religion and those who are more live-and-let-live-unless-you-threaten-others-with-dogma-based ideas secular and non secular skeptics alarms me. I can see this , over time, dividing skepticism into two distinct camps. Perhaps it will strengthen both camps. But more than likely it will weaken us, as I think diversity, even amongst like minded people is a good thing.

    What topics interest you the least?

    I like the topics that I do not have a deep connection because it broadens me. I LOVED UFOs and Bigfoot as a kid and who doesn’t love a good ghost story? But IF I was force to choose my least favorite, these would be my topics.

  28. Easy; the concept of faith.

    Underlying all unsupported beliefs lies this idea that belief is good, that to believe supplies meaning to their lives. To be skeptical (to ask for evidence) is to take away that meaning. Faith, belief in things despite the lack of evidence or in light of opposing evidence, is fundamentally opposed to skepticism.

  29. The most important thing for me is to remain skeptical. Ask questions, of my doctor, of my pharmacist, of my friends in the legal and illegal world. Not to blindly accept what people say because they say it loud and often. To remain skeptical of big money industry, like forestry, pharma, commerce and the like, who put money ahead of people.

    The most engaging item for me is what I call ( smiling ) ” The Randi Ultimatum “. The people who pretend to have the powers of prophecy, the paranormal ghost hunting water divining spoon bending tarot reading fraudsters who take people down while trying to elevate themselves. All without the slightest evidence that these powers exist, and the refusal to be tested by genuine method and independent analysis.

    I am also very skeptical of the administering of herbal, homeopathic and so called natural remedies, ( including Reiki, Aroma, Crystal blah blah blah ) and the willingness of the gullible to embrace these treatments, without the above testing, also drives me crazy.

  30. Religion isn’t important. Far more important is the idea of personal responsibility for beliefs. This leads to critical thinking, but the motivating factor is selfishness. Making good life decisions is better for you. Pointing out the downsides of irrational belief is the most valuable service we can provide.

    It’s *your fault* if your lack of math leads to dumb mortgage decisions. It’s *your fault* if you’re overweight. Whose mouth did all the chewing, huh? It’s *your fault* if you’re a drunk.

    Likewise, it’s *your fault* if you adopt alternative medicine. It’s *your fault* if you choose to believe that your prayers will be answered, instead of taking action yourself. It’s *your fault* if you don’t use a condom.

    Sometimes we have choices or beliefs forced on us; in those cases it may not be *your fault*. But if you had the chance to make a choice, and you either didn’t choose, or you chose wrong, it is, very definitely *your fault*. So wise up. Science works. It’s your fault if you don’t use it.

  31. @James Fox:

    (And while I appreciate the call to skepticism when it comes to government I think this is only worthwhile when addressing specific policies, laws and rules that are not based on ideology and personal values.)

    I have to add my interest in seeing more politically charged topics fall under the skeptical radar. I specifically agree with James Fox in that this must be done only on specific policies. It seems like we’re more than happy to investigate the quality of the evidence for global warming (overwhelming) or vaccines causing autism (non-existent), but often not of other politically charged issues.

  32. @John Greg: “LOL. Ain’t that a fine howdy-doo that will for sure open up a lot of constructive dialogue.”

    Did you miss this moron’s first post, or are you under the mistaken impression that only people who use curse words and insults are rude? I could have a political discussion with James K (and I imagine “libertarian leaning” probably means “social libertarian with a nuanced fiscal policy that incorporates evidence based philosophies from all camps” because otherwise I can’t imagine anyone with any sense hiring him), but not some loser who essentially says “you just gotta be skeptical of the government, man, all you closed minded skeptics just haven’t skepticed hard enough to be as enlightened about libertarianism as me!” Sorry, but turdy libertarians are just one of the pseudo-skeptical groups this movement attracts and I have no qualms about dismissing them outright for their barbaric, destructive, cruel, blind philosophy.

  33. It’s really important to me to be informed enough to refute popular misconceptions about public health topics (whether it be CAM, the recent wireless router hysteria, organic foods, etc.) because I feel these impact people’s lives the most, and also because I think people are (generally) more amenable to receiving factual information on these topics. People tend to be pretty unshakeable in their spiritual beliefs, and these generally have less of a direct impact on overall health, so I tend to adopt a live-and-let-live approach to those topics. (Pick your battles, is what I say – if people want to believe there’s a special place in the universe for them, or that their beloveds are communicating with them from the great beyond, no skin off my nose. And frankly, there’s no definitive way of disproving it, really. Where I might consider intervening is if they were being fleeced by “psychics” or other charlatans for that purpose, but maybe not even then.)

    Also, as a stay-at-home mom, I’m particularly interested bringing science to bear on reproductive issues, child development, and education.

  34. In my opinion the most important topic in skepticism is the belief in Gods and the resulting religions. Religions teach and promote flawed methods of problem solving. Often people are handicapped by these teachings from birth by their parents and the culture in which they are raised. It is this handicap which overflows into other subjects of their lives. The fallacies taught by religion that are required for a mind to believe in religious dogma then get used as a toolkit to believe in astrology, Bigfoot, etc…

    I don’t object to people getting warm fuzzies from their particular belief. It’s not the belief in the belief system that is a hindrance, it is the system of fallacies required to believe the belief system which causes problems.

    And maybe some very well adjusted and intelligent believers can compartmentalize their belief in ancient dogma so distinctly that you (and maybe even they) can’t tell they pity non-believers for not having morals (and other such judgments).

    But it still seems to me that religion is the greatest destroyer of the tools of reason.

  35. Among the topics that interest me the least are some which are most associated with skepticism in the public mind: UFOs, bigfoot and other monsters, ESP per se, and in general the stupid, harmless, irrational beliefs of my neighbors, friends, and family. More important to me is who is promoting those beliefs and what do they have to gain from it. Public psychics, exorcists, and mediums are bad actors, as well as the entertainment industry in general. I am an accommodationist when it comes to religion in general, but some religious beliefs and practices should be publicly questioned and others must be fought. But skepticism should never equal new atheism because such militant antireligion will turn the public off. As a skeptic I am most concerned with beliefs and practices that do the most harm, like fundamentalist Christians’ meddling with public education, antivaccinationism (although that pig may be almost dead), “integrative” medicine, and shows like Oprah which uncritically promote quackery. I believe that skepticism should be applied to all fields of study–not just science, but history and literary criticism–which are vulnerable to antirational attack. I also believe that we should focus more on the positive beliefs of skepticism, such as critical thinking. Skepticism is not a geeks’ club, not an elitists’ club, not an iconoclasts’ club. At its heart is a great and noble idea: that the empirical, scientific method is a path to knowledge and a way to distinguish truth from falsehood. There must be a way to inspire people with that message.

  36. Religion, and its link to authoritarianism and groupthink, is an important topic for me, and I am happy to see it addressed frequently on skeptic sites.
    My major peeve is the obsession with vaccinations and CAM. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t like the idea of people suffering because they avoided an evidence-based treatment because of an unjustified belief. My personal problem with the focus on CAM and anti-vaxers is the way it is contrasted with mainstream medicine, as if everything published in a peer-reviewed journal or suggested by an MD is evidence-based. I think skeptics should focus their efforts where it will do the most good: I agree that it is tragic that about ten children have died of whooping cough, and the anti-vaccine crowd should be countered. But consider the 31 children who died after being prescribed Risperdal between 1993 and 2008: this is an anti-psychotic that is not indicated for use in children, but which was actively advertised to doctors. The skeptic community does not seem interested in addressing issues like this, for fear of being labeled ‘Big Pharma Conspiracy Nuts’ or Google Experts, but I think we should consider the evidence: if the anti-vaccine movement can be blamed for 10 deaths from whooping coughs, then the medical establishment should be brought to task for the thousands of deaths from off-label prescriptions, aggressively promoted new drugs, drugs prescribed to untested populations, and selective publishing. Studies have shown that of the drug trials begun by pharmaceutical researchers, less than half will ultimately be published; you don’t need to know a lot about statistics to realize that many of the treatments that get labeled ‘evidence-based’ after being published in respectable journals are simply the result of selective publishing (the same phenomenon that resulted in several studies showing the efficacy of accupuncture, or the possibility of ESP, being published in respectable journals).
    So I would like skeptics to pay attention to where skepticism is needed most; it may be satisfying to shoot down Power Balance and the anti-vax crowd, but it would save a lot more lives if we could ensure that mainstream medicine is actually based on evidence.

  37. @mikerattlesnake:

    My views about fiscal policy are a little difficult to sum up in a blog post, but I think it’s fair to say that I think there’s a whole lot more to sound fiscal policy than cutting taxes, though I’m a fan of cutting taxes under the right conditions.

    But I’m hardly unique among libertarians for thinking that way. Based on your reaction to andyinsdca, I’m going to assume that you have a pretty specific image in your mind when you think of libertarians: a gun-toting, borderline sociopath who cares for nothing but themselves and speak entirely in Ayn Rand quotes.

    While I’m sure there really are people like that out there, they are not the sum total of libertarianism (hell, I don’t even like Rand). Now maybe andyinsdca is one of those simplistic libertarians, and maybe he isn’t but you couldn’t tell that from his post alone. All he said was that 1) sceptics should be sceptical of government and 2) he feels uncomfortable spending a lot of time in groups of mostly-liberal sceptics.

    I agree with him on point 1, sceptics should be sceptical of government, on the understanding that scepticism is not the same thing as categorical denial. Politicians of all ideological persuasions have a tendency to overestimate how much good government can do. Here are three examples of this tendency that should resonate with a liberal: The Iraq War, The War on Drugs, The current US approach to airline security.

    I should emphasise that to say government’s power to do good is overstated is not to say the government does no good. I want a somewhat smaller government, not no government.

    As to point 2, I can see andyinsdca’s point. When he mentioned he was a libertarian, you jumped on him. I happen to think there is merit in liberal and libertarian ways of thinking, but to learn from each other we have to be able to talk with each other. Might I respectfully suggest that the next time someone tells you they’re a libertarian, that you wait until you get a better picture of the nature of their beliefs (we’re a remarkably diverse lot, no really) before being dismissive. I think we’d all be better off for it.

  38. @James K:
    I used to consider my self to be libertarian and at that time I would have been a moderate libertarian (socially liberal, fiscally moderate, and selective regulation).

    I have since realized from reading and observing that the rich who wish to pay no taxes (really who WANTS to) really are wishing for the middle-class to disappear so that they have no competition for power and that those same rich SHOULD pay more in taxes because they receive more from society (a lot more); they use more resources, services, and capital, both directly and indirectly, than those who make less. There is a tradeoff and I realize that you will cause just as many problems with overtaxing the rich but I think, at least to a certain extent, that Marx was right when he said all capital flowed from the worker. I think he was wrong in its implications but he was right that the rich need to “pay for the privilege” of using that capital least we revert back to feudalism.

    But I’m probably wrong about some or all of that.

  39. @James K: Sorry, but I’ve spent enough time on the internet to spot the signs of a doofus libertarian. And what’s with your cherry-picking?

    “Here are three examples of this tendency that should resonate with a liberal: The Iraq War, The War on Drugs, The current US approach to airline security.”

    Oh really? No shit. Find me an actually liberal (not “democrat”) person who thinks those are good uses of the government. Strange that you would pick those three (“strange” used facetiously because libertarians always conveniently forget to bring up the unpleasant implications of their philosophy while being all “look at me I hate war and love drugs!”) and not any of the actual contentious issues with libertarianism. The thing is, there are things government does which evidence tells us have a very positive effect on society. It is not naive, for instance, to note that government seems to do a better job at running health care, the police, firefighters, and industry regulation (among other things) than a private industry would.

    I believe in evidence-based policy. Period. The strawman liberal created by libertarians, suckling at the teat of big government blindly believing that government is always good, is absurd and bears no likeness to reality. Most liberal folks are civil libertarians who believe in less aggressive foreign intervention, but we also believe in evidence-based economic policy, which libertarians do not. Address that, not the straw men if you would like to have an honest discussion.

  40. @mikerattlesnake:
    Of course I picked those examples deliberately. My point is not “libertarians are better than liberals because we believe x”. But rather “scepticism of government can be a good thing, here are some examples we can agree on”. Now of course there’s such a thing as too much scepticism of government (after all, that’s what most conspiracy theorists suffer from), I am often frustrated by some of my fellow libertarians who fail to address real issues. Such as:

    1) Pollution is a situation where one person’s actions hut other people. Basic libertarian thinking has always said this was a legitimate space for government involvement and it annoys me that too many libertarians ignore this.

    2) The same goes for a lot (though not all) consumer regulation. If you sell something that’s unfit for it’s ostensible purpose that is a form of deception which is, once again, a case where government intervention is justifiable.

    3) Taxes. Now I’d like taxes to be lower too, but as Milton Friedman pointed out the real level of taxation is government spending. Cutting taxes when you’re running a deficit isn’t cutting taxes, it’s just deferring them. While the marginal taxes rates at the top and bottom of the income distribution are too high for comfort, there are ways to fix that without imposing a high tax burden on the very poor (equity issue aside, taxing poor people highly is futile, they’ll just work out ways of avoiding the tax)

    I may have issues with current policies in all of these areas, but my proposed solution isn’t simply “less government”. For one thing government intervention isn’t a dimmer switch where you just turn it up or down (I’m not attributing this view to you, I’m just saying a lot of public debate seems to act as if this were the case). Each government intervention is a separate case, and I’d rather argue specifics than engage in grand ideological debate.

    As for your list of things government runs better, I won’t argue on police (in fact only anarchists would argue that one), fire and industry regulation (there are some ways the private sector could do more in this space, but mere self-regulation isn’t sufficient).

    As for health, well it depends on what you mean by run. If you mean direct control, then I disagree and I’ll cite the difference between the British and French healthcare systems (the British government controls their healthcare system more, but France gets better results) to aid my point. But if run simply means there’s a policy role for government, then I agree, which only leaves the question of what policies the government should employ.

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