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
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.)
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.