Guest Bloggers

Skepchick Guest Article #3 – Karen Stollznow

This month, I’m happy to announce an article from guest writer Dr Karen Stollznow, with whom I recently had the pleasure of drinking in a Las Vegas bar overlooked by pole dancers. I’ve enjoyed Karen’s writing on skeptical and paranormal topics for a few years, and am delighted she’s agreed to contribute to Skepchick. Without further ado, here’s

Something Old, Something New, Something Skeptical and Something Blue
Karen Stollznow

Knowing me too well, when I was invited to contribute as a guest writer, I was asked to refrain from using the c-word, and warned that there’s an embargo on porn. Although this is severely limiting, I’ll try to tackle something skeptical…

Are you sick of skepticism? Are you bored of Bigfoot, and fed up with Feng Shui? Are you exasperated by refuting the same old claims about dowsing, homeopathy, faith healing and palm reading? Perhaps you’re more titillated by the new wave skepticism that is sellable, sexy, and trucks in politics and ethics…

Excuse the anecdotal evidence, but a reader recently told me that it’s an “old chestnut” to provide natural explanations for haunted houses. Investigating psychics is “old school skepticism”, and “everyone knows” how crop circles are made. Unidentified Flying Objects are now identifiable, we’ve successfully exploded spontaneous human combustion, and God is Dead…but have we really killed him?

Has there been a critical mass of critical thinking? Was there a silent, sudden skeptical tipping point? Did I miss the Hundredth Monkey Effect of instant communal skepticism?

These are exactly the kind of immune-system boostingly vague and dismissive claims of which skeptics should be skeptical. Furthermore, the ‘chestnut’ view suggests that these beliefs no longer exist, which is certainly not the case. Haunted houses continue to haunt us. Psychics are predictable to skeptics, but prophets to others. Throw on your TV, flick through your newspapers and magazines, and check out the ads on the web. Ghost hunters, parapsychologists, clairvoyants, psychic detectives and mediums are more popular today than they’ve ever been.

Just because we’re telling (and re-telling) the possible explanations for these phenomena isn’t to say that we’re telling the people who need to know, or that people are actually listening.

Skepticism shouldn’t only be about educating (and amusing) skeptics. Of course, we don’t want to preach to the choir, but skepticism is also (especially?) for non-skeptics. We shouldn’t stop tackling important issues because we jaded skeptics have tired of them, or because we think we have a sufficient understanding of them. This is like me saying to my students, “Chomsky’s so passé. I’m not gonna discuss his theories anymore.” Some concepts are fundamental to a field.

Education and re-assessment are critical. Treating familiar topics shouldn’t be seen as reinventing the wheel… simply because belief in these topics persists. Personally, it’s through articles about ghosts and psychics that I have had the most constructive contact with our ‘target group’. Isn’t this the objective?

It might be mundane to explain UFOs as wind balloons, gurus as greed, and firewalking as physics rather than mind over matter. It might be common knowledge among us that cold reading can explain most psychic ‘powers’, and that the ghostly television flickering is a short circuit. It might be too obvious to state that Elvis really is dead. These might be old chestnuts to old skeptics, but these are news to new believers, and new skeptics. As long as these supposedly ‘core’ issues of skepticism exist, they should remain of interest and concern to skeptics.

But is there really some sort of accurate typology of skepticism? I’m not convinced that broad classification labels like old skepticism, new skepticism, classical skepticism, and modern skepticism are useful (other than for specific fields, such as philosophy). I don’t think some themes constitute ‘traditional’ or ‘old-fashioned’ skepticism. I don’t think there is ‘negative’ or ‘positive’ skepticism; skepticism that debunks, as opposed to skepticism that involves inquiry and investigation. There’s no tidy dichotomy or precise categorization of types of skepticism. There’s no reverse racism, white racism, or new racism, there’s just racism. Likewise, there’s just skepticism.

Some might perceive the paranormal as the ‘bread and butter’ of skepticism, but any practice, belief or attitude that fails to apply critical thinking requires skepticism, and the application of critical thinking to that is skepticism.

It’s healthy for us to be skeptically promiscuous though, and tackle a diverse array of topics. But we don’t want to become too specialist, too narrow, or too high falutin’, and end up alienating our audience, and target audience. We shouldn’t be concerned about the quantity of articles, interviews and investigations about any one topic, but concerned with the quality.

Contrary to those who claim that skeptical groups should ultimately aim to disband, we’ll probably never be short of skeptical fodder. There is always a suspicious new practice, theory, belief, scheme, invention, or product that all demand logic, critical thinking and evidence. What we don’t want to do is stop thinking about the existing topics. From fairies to animal rights extremists, I’m skeptical about it all.

There’s room in the bed of skepticism for everyone.

(N.B. the “something blue” was the tacit reference to the word c*nt. Oh, and this one too.)

Karen StollznowDr Karen Stollznow is an Academic, Author and Associate Editor of Australia’s the Skeptic magazine, and webmistress of Bad Language and the blog The Skepbitch.

She is an insatiable writer for the Skeptic, the Skeptical Inquirer, and Australasian Science (as a Naked Skeptic columnist), and writes books, scripts, “boring” academic tomes, and is the US Correspondent for The TANK Vodcast. She has spent many years investigating the paranormal and pseudoscientific, specialising in language-based phenomena, such as glossolalia (speaking in tongues), automatic writing, graphology, alien and monster languages and writing systems, EVPs, weird theories and bad thinking about language.

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  1. There’s room in the bed of skepticism for everyone.

    Just don’t put your cold feet on me. And no Dutch ovens, under any circumstances.

    Seriously, just wanted to say, great item, Karen. Keep up the good work.

  2. Coming out of the conservative Christian tradition as I am, I still read with that filter to some extent. I was startled to see how many of the ideas in this article have parallels to what I grew up hearing from (admittedly some of the more open-minded) pastors and teachers.

    Like any school of thought, skepticism as an organized viewpoint has been around long enough to have subcategories that come into being simply because the people who call themselves skeptics are not all exactly the same. Not so different from denominations, although probably a little less organized (and definitely less likely to start leaning on you for money).

    And like the religious community, skeptics do indeed run the risk of taking the safer, easier way of telling each other their new and exciting thoughts, their more advanced ideas, rather than spending time explaining the basics to the people who really need to hear them — the seekers, the questioners, the ones who are looking at their worldview and thinking, “You know, this doesn’t work so well for me any more.”

    Unlike the religious community, however, the skeptical community has in its favor the very nearly intrinsic ability to change. Being willing to change one’s thoughts based on the evidence is at the heart of skepticism, and I think this is what makes it even possible for the different varieties of skeptics to communicate, overlap, and maintain a positive impact on the world around them. Infighting really doesn’t impress anybody, and that’s one good lesson to learn from the church, even if the church hasn’t quite figured it out yet.

    A big bed is always a good idea. ;)

  3. I’ve been toying with similar themes for a science curriculum that’s been rattling around my head, and I’ve come to something of a similar conclusion: Bigfoot and Ghost Hunters are low-hanging fruit that occasionally make one reek of being a spoilsport, but they seem to be productive and entertaining approaches on the “big game”- a life lived through asking hard questions, especially of oneself. Hardly a day goes by where I don’t run into a person who is buying a useless three-day cleanse diet to fit into a dress they senselessly think is average in size, or is fretting their (obviously compatible) partner’s astrological chart, or buying into the McCain gas tax holiday or not scratching their head over the Obama health care plan, or isn’t going to vote because the Rapture is coming, or goes to the doctor for minor childhood viral infections or doesn’t go for meningitis, or gambles, or…

    The whole enterprise of skeptical thinking is, I would argue, an attempt to steadily, calmly, and with a grin, replace our opinions with truths, and live accordingly. If going headhunting for obvious kooks functions as a workout for beginners, then by all means, let the fun continue. But if all we’re doing is cutting down the most harmless of our friends beliefs, it may be time for plan B. Personally, I’ll all for taking dates homeopathy womping. But then, I’m just crazy enough to pull it off. ;-)

  4. That was just after Rebecca’s guidelines about keeping the site fairly SFW/young people friendly. However, since then, we’ve pushed a few boundaries I think. Well, I talked about porn and Karen used the C word with an asterisk anyway, so it’s win-win :D

  5. “Has there been a critical mass of critical thinking? Was there a silent, sudden skeptical tipping point? Did I miss the Hundredth Monkey Effect of instant communal skepticism?”

    Frankly, I read this article once and it left me stunned. I had to read it again.

    Is it possible that there are mature skeptics that are so jaded to be unaware of the incredible job we have ahead of us? Is it possible that they do not feel the weight of the unnecessary suffering on this planet that exists thanks to the incredible famine of critical thinking skills?

    Trust me; there has been NO “tipping point.” Because of where I live (a rural part of southern New Jersey) and where I work (one of the largest banks in the U.S.) I interact with people who have little or no education as well as with people who have been afforded what most would consider to be the finest education available. Level of education doesn’t seem to make a difference. There are the little fundamentalist churches on every other corner preaching and teaching silliness and collecting money from the uneducated poor, money that they don’t have to give. Then I find myself in a boardroom where an Ivy League-educated senior executive is recommending his chiropractor to the managers in the room. I realize that what I am reporting is anecdotal information, but as far as I can tell, we have a great deal of work to do.

    I am a former fundamentalist minister who was able to escape that mind virus thanks to a funny little man with a beard who wrote a book called “The Healers.” Because of his work and dedication, I was freed from thirty-five years of illusion. I think that some skeptics, who have never really committed to a pseudoscientific or a paranormal belief, can’t really know what it’s like to have their minds freed. To be blind and then allowed to see. Let me tell you, it hurts like hell, is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and the best thing that will ever happen to me. One of the highpoints in my life was having the chance to personally thank James Randy for what his work has meant in my life.

    At TAM 6.0 there was a session called “The Limits of Skepticism.” Frankly, I was disappointed in the content and discussion. I realize that the scientific method has its limits, but what are our options after rationality? Reason, logic and evidence. Don’t all of these tools have application in every area of our lives? I hope so, because I don’t know about you, but I don’t have any thing else in my pocket.

    Let me put this in terms that any geek would understand. (I’m sure I’m not the first to use this analogy.) The Matrix of irrationality has this world in its grip and we skeptics have been given the red pill. What will we do now?

    Thanks, Dr. Stollznow, this piece should be required reading for all skeptics.

  6. Resfirma, you’re absolutely right. There’s still a lot of fighting left to do, and the fact that we keep fighting the same battles isn’t a sign that we’re winning by any stretch of the imagination.

  7. Rystefn,

    Excellent point about still fighting the same battles.

    I’ve always thought we faced a sisyphusian task. I was just surprised by Dr. Stollznow’s article. I would think that anyone who’s been involved for any significant length of time would see what we’re up against.

    I’m about two chapters into Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason.” It’s not a happy book… things might be worse than I thought.

  8. I think certain phenomena and/or their explanations might be “old chestnuts” in the sense that they’ve been around for so long that it’s a surprise not everyone has heard of the truth behind the matter yet. Never the less, most (if not all) woo has a sort of cyclical tendency. Sometimes it skips a generation, but everything seems to pop back up eventually.

  9. I kind of see the “old chestnuts” as a (slightly) easier entry in to rationality when you’re trying to reach out to a believer. It’s a lot easier to explain the natural origins of Phenomena that have already been thoroughly investigated. But like Resfirma, I’d be very surprised if anyone thought that we shouldn’t bother examining new versions of those claims. Unless they were just giving up from frustration or boredom.

    Also, South Jersey pride. That is all.

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