Top 10 Skeptics Who Kicked Ass in 2008

As when I was compiling the top 10 jackasses of 2008, I had a really tough time choosing who did the most for skepticism this year. So, I threw the question to my Twitter followers. This is called “crowdsourcing,” which is like journalism for lazy people. The sad thing is that not a single person nominated a single woman, with the exception of Elyse giving the nod to the very deserving A.Real.Girl. kickassbadge_pluralFor this list, I’ve exempted the always-awesome Skepchicks since I’m a little biased and so they’d overwhelm the list (I’ve also exempted my cohosts of The Skeptics’ Guide, who are also awesome and deserve non-biased accolades). So, I’ve added a few women I thought deserved special mention. There are many more, like Dr. Kiki Sanford, Amanda Marcotte, and Lori Lipman Brown. I hope when I ask again next year, they come to your collective brains as easily as the men.

Other runners-up who were nominated via Twitter and Facebook: Brian Dunning for doing Skeptoid and The Skeptologists, Sense About Science for their wonderful report on Celebs and Pseudoscience, Mark Crislip of Quackcast, Barack Obama of the 2008 US Presidential Elections for a thus-far mostly-promising commitment to science, and Jan Meshon of FreethoughtAction.

Here are the results of the Top 10, along with some comments from Twitter (and Facebook, connected to my Twitter account).

10. Amanda Peet

Amanda Peet
I can hear you bitching already. “But she’s just an actress!” “She has no scientific training!” “Where’s her blog?” Well, guess what? That’s what makes her awesome. Like it or not, actors have the attention of the world on absolutely any subject they’d like to discuss, which is why a coconut-skull like Jenny McCarthy can convince so many otherwise rational people to put their (and other parents’) children at risk by not having them vaccinated. Amanda Peet actually had the ovaries to step up and declare that she had her daughter vaccinated, that the science supports the safety of vaccinations, and that further, as an actress she has no special knowledge or authority that should convince anyone to listen to her opinions. How often does anyone admit something like that?

Just as ignorant celebs can make the world worse, well-informed and equally-outspoken celebs can make the world better. Let’s hope for more people like Amanda Peet in 2009.

9. Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre of Bad Science had a banner year, most notably taking down Matthias Rath, #6 on our Top 10 Jackasses of 2008. If you’ll recall, Rath is the bastard who sold vitamins to cure AIDS patients in Africa, and who then sued Ben and The Guardian for pointing the fact out. Neither Ben nor The Guardian backed down, and they won their case. In addition, Ben did a lot of other stuff this year, too, keeping a watchful eye on UK scam artists and pushers of bad science. He’s tenacious, vigilant, funny, and pretty damned cute, which doesn’t hurt.

*UPDATE* I can’t believe I forgot to mention that Ben also had an ass-kicking, best-selling book debut this year, appropriately titled Bad Science. Go buy it, and enjoy seeing the media’s treatment of science and medicine completely eviscerated.

8. Thunderf00t

Vault101Dweller: […] Thunderf00t for lack of a better term owning VFX in that DMCA debacle.

I documented Thunderf00t‘s epic takedown of VenomFangX here, so go read that if you need to catch up. As wonderful as that epic win was, it was merely the icing on the delicious cake of scientific knowledge that Thunderf00t has been baking for a long time now (I’m going to drop that metaphor now, thanks). His Why Do People Laugh at Creationists series, going since 2007, is a concise, easy-to-understand, and entertaining explanation that will arm anyone with the knowledge they need to address the most common creationist claims. Go to his page, where he’s collected them all in a playlist that lets you play multiple hours of pwnage.

7. Orac


wackyvorlon: Orac has my vote. He’s been on the front lines fighting the anti-vaccinationists for years now.

Orac’s been fighting pseudoscience online since well before I knew what a blog was. As a self-proclaimed egotistical surgeon/scientist (the self-proclaimed was for the adjective, not the nouns), he uses logic, reason, and good old fashioned science to dissect the claims of anti-vaccinationists like Jenny McCarthy (#3 on our list of Jackasses) and creationists like Michael Egnor. Orac has inspired countless other bloggers to tackle medical quackery, plus he supports all other areas of skepticism by running the bi-monthly Skeptics’ Circle.

No one has ever seen Orac (not even his wife), but apparently he’s some kind of . . . bottle of glue? Named EneMan? I’m not sure. Apparently that’s his mascot.

6. Susan Jacoby

Susan Jacoby
If you read The Age of American Unreason, like me, you probably spent the following few weeks cowering under your bed, weeping quietly for humanity. Susan Jacoby‘s scholarly, expansive tome plunges through history, sorting out the bullshit from the truth, and showing how over time we’ve come to abandon logic, reason, and intellectual rigor in favor of the irrational and brainless. If you want to know why our Top 10 Jackasses were able to con so many people, look no further.

I actually disagreed with her on some points – particularly, her bashing of the Internet – but was always impressed with her ability to back up her assertions and make me think about my own assumptions. While the book isn’t the most optimistic thing I read this year, I still found it to be inspiring. By exhaustively detailing the things that were right in the past and the causes of why things have gone wrong, we can focus more on correcting ourselves to make way for a better, less credulous future.

5. Simon Singh

Reed Esau (via Facebook): Simon Singh, for not taking the easy way out.

I believe Reed was referring to Simon Singh‘s ongoing legal battle with a group of angry chiropractors (British Chiropractic Association) who are suing him over his less-than-complimentary essays on their “complementary” services. This may all sound familiar to regular readers, because I wrote about it back in August. The suit is still going on today, as Simon and The Guardian (who may deserve an award of their own for also sticking up for Ben Goldacre, above) force the BCA to produce evidence proving that what Simon wrote was untrue. That evidence has yet to be found, strongly suggesting that Simon was correct: chiropractors are promising miracle cures for diseases they cannot actually cure. (By the way, join the Facebook group to support Simon here!)

In addition to the lawsuit, this is the year Simon came out with the excellent book Trick or Treatment, in which he and Edzard Ernst lay waste to countless alternative medicine quack treatments. You should buy it, and you should buy another one for the person in your life who says, “Well there must be something to it, since the Chinese have been using it for 6 billion years.”

4. Sanal Edamaruku

Amanda Rose (via Facebook): Oh I vote for Sanal Edamaruku too.

Sanal is the Indian rationalist who was threatened with death by a “powerful” tantrik’s death chants. On live TV, Sanal laughed as the Tantrik danced around him while calling upon the gods to strike him dead, for two full hours. He captured the attention of millions who lived in fear of such superstitions, and unflinchingly proved to them that it was all nonsense.

The incredible popularity of the stunt brought Sanal’s groups the Indian Rationalist Association and Rationalist International into the limelight, showing the entire world that English-speaking countries don’t have the monopoly on skeptical heroes.

2. (TIE) Phil Plait

Cabose: Phil Plait. Reason: Death from the Skies. I think he wins now.

eafarris: Gotta be @badastronomer. Witness and

trianglman: @badastronomer ‘s Death from the Skies kicks a lot of ass (at least the first part that I’ve read so far)

JHVanOphem: My vote is for @badastronomer His endless energy led him to the JREF Presidency and the future looks bright indeed.

Of course, friend-of-Skepchick Phil Plait has to make the list! The newly chosen president of the James Randi Education Foundation, author of Death From the Skies, and longtime skeptic had an amazing year. He’s now reaching more people than ever with his inspiring awe for science and his canny ability to call out bullshit when he sees it. Plus, he’s a complete and total nerd who gushes about Doctor Who, Star Trek, Heroes, and other lovably dorky topics. And did I mention he posed in the Skepdude calendar? Is it any wonder we all love him? He got tons of votes in the Twitter poll – in fact, just about exactly as many as . . .

2. (TIE) PZ Myers

CoffeeJedi: PZ Meyers for Crackergate.

teambanzai: I’m going with PZ Myers. Reason being how he handled the Exposed mess.

Michael Rosch (via Facebook): . . . the winner I think is PZ, because he was expelled from Expelled, broke into the Expelled tele-conference to plug, Crackergate (the story that wouldn’t die), and now w/ him getting credit for thwarting the alliance btw. the Cincinnati Zoo & the Creation Museum.

He’s controversial, political, unapologetic, skeptical, and hilarious – he’s our own PZ Myers of the popular blog Pharyngula. As his Twitter nominations suggest, he won this spot on the list by kicking the asses of two of our top 10 jackasses: Ben Stein and Bill Donohue. For Ben, PZ caused an uproar when he was expelled from Expelled, and then burst into a faux-press conference, almost literally stealing the show. Recently, also as mentioned by Michael on Facebook, PZ even managed to sink a deal between the Cincinnati Zoo and the Creation Museum, earning him even more ire from the crazies. I’ve yet to see him back down from any challenge, and I fully expect him to continue kicking ass well into 2009.

And look at how he snuggles that squid. Awwwww.

1. Marcus Seda’s Brother

Marcus Seda (via Facebook): My brother the science teacher. He shows movies like “the Core” and “the Day After Tomorrow” to point out the bad science theirin. He also uses the Onion to show how not everything you read is true.

All of you but Marcus (and possibly his brother) are probably wondering, “WTF?” I assure you, this isn’t a Time-Person-of-the-Year-like cop-out, since I’m not naming YOU the number one skeptic. Instead, I’m giving the honor to the teachers and parents who are reaching kids and instilling in them a love of science and the ability to tell fantasy from reality. I wanted to populate this list with people who had really accomplished something this year – something tangible – and hey, who have accomplished more than those people with the direct connection to our future society’s ability to reason?

So please, help me out here. In the comments, I’d like for you to nominate a teacher, parent, or other skeptic who has directly affected someone’s life for the better this year. As I asked the Twitter crowd: please show your work.


PS: Thanks to Tkingdoll & DC Turner for the pretty badges for our winners to have! >>

Skeptic Who Kicked Ass 2008

Skeptic Who Kicked Ass 2008

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. What a great list, there were a few where I had to say “oh yeah!” Gives me hope that there’s a chance for this planet with so many fighting ignorance.

  2. So please, help me out here. In the comments, I’d like for you to nominate a teacher, parent, or other skeptic who has directly affected someone’s life for the better this year.

    You have, Rebecca. And so have all the other Skepchicks and Skeptical Rogues. You’ve made my life better. Is that too much sucking up? Is there such a thing?

  3. Trick or Treatment is the best book I read this year. I now cannot shut up about it and keep recommending it any time something even vaguely CAM-related comes up in conversation.

    And that picture of Phil will never stop being funny.

  4. I’m really happy to see Amanda Peet on the list. I was blown away when I saw her first tv add. When it started I thought for sure it would be another stupid celebrity saying don’t vaccinate your kids, it isn’t cool. But she is fighting the good fight and I can’t say enough good about that.

  5. I nominate Danica McKellar (Whinny from the Wonder Years) she writes books called “Math Doesn’t Suck” aimed at young women/girls. She is a freaking math genius and an underwear model. Sounds like something from a marvel comic book but she is real.

  6. I always do my best to teach my son about the truth out there. Sure, he’s 3. But he knows what a planet is, what the sun and moon are and that the Earth rovolves around the Sun. Sure, it’s simple stuff, but c’mon, he’s 3.

  7. @Steve DeGroof: She isn’t what I think of when I think of math genius. (ie, she doen’t look like Albert Einstein) and she writes math books for girls. It is just too damn cool to actually be real.

  8. @Blake Stacey: Talked with Phil briefly at a Boulder Bookstore signing and apparently Stephen Moffat of Doctor Who goodness has a copy.

    Now that’s what I call inspiration.

  9. Dunno, BBC has gotten pretty tight lipped lately. Half of me keeps wondering if the guy from the Christmas Special wasn’t a highly expensive test for a candidate.

  10. Not a single woman was nominated? WHAT? Just about the first person I thought of was Amanda Peet, and I’m glad she’s on your list.

    As for the tie, well, that’s probably the most politically expedient outcome there. :)

    And Amanda, by “funny” I assume you mean “awe-inspiring”. Probably just a typo on your part.

  11. You don’t know about EneMan? Fleet manufactures disposable enemas, and EneMan was a marketing gimmick they came up with to sell more enemas.

    And.. Dammit! Edzard Ernst! I forgot Edzard Ernst!

  12. We parents would like to thank…

    Great list Rebecca and I can only hope that Amanda Peet becomes aware of the honor and is encouraged to continue speaking out. I think I’ll order Jacoby’s book in hopes of brightening up my otherwise cynical anticipation of the new year.

  13. Good call with Goldacre. I spent a lot of time with him at TAM 6 and I would like to cast my vote for him as “world’s smoothest bastard”.

  14. Haha, that picture of Phil is adorable. Great list!

    Re Dr. Who: OMG OMG OMG, david Tennnant is Soooooooooo dreamy they just cant replade him or i’ll DIE hie eys are perfect and he is perfect in every way and id even let him do horrrible things to me becase he’s so HOT

  15. To be clear, “world’s smoothest bastard” is a term of endearment.

    And by “smoothest” I mean “charming” not “having a low coefficient of friction”. I don’t know him THAT well.

  16. Ben Goldacre was a party to the invention of the Golden Cocky, which was meant as an award for things just like this. It’s a shame it never came to fruition… huh huh huh :)

  17. Is there anyway to delete that picture of Phil from my head? Please?
    Glad to see thunderf00t made it. I was debating between him and extantdodo, but then I relized that extantdodo didn’t really do much except get DMCA’d a lot.

  18. Phil Plait and his,,,really large telescope,,,tackle the unwashed woo-woos of the world,,,with a little help from his commenters.
    What is really amazing is that his blog ranks so high on the interboob,,,and his Twitter ranking is 199 out of 774,000,,,Awesome!

  19. I’ll also put in for Danica McKellar, though she included a “math horoscope” in “Math Doesn’t Suck.” Other than that, a great book.

  20. This is my month on Skepchick. First Stop Jenny gets plugged last week within the Top 10 Jackasses entry and now I’m quoted chronicling PZ Myers’ awesome year. And Sanal Edamaruku owes me big-time for being the first to mention him for this list even though I didn’t remember his name at the time)

    Surprises on this list: No Paul Offit, Orac listed as Orac rather than by his not very secret identity, and the happy inclusion of Thunderf00t for his total owning of VFX and Why People Laugh at Creationists series.

  21. @Masala Skeptic: True that, Honeydew was such a waste of grant money.

    Also, I’m pretty sure India is an English-speaking country. I mean, not everyone speaks English obviously and it’s not the language of any native groups, but you could say the same thing about Canada.

  22. Eneman a ‘bottle of glue’?

    I thought his function was to remove…um…messy blockages rather than create them.

  23. @Jessika: Great Idea on “Why Does The Sun Shine?” Here’s a bunch more that children love to sing along to, and will learn a thing or two from:
    Ape Man by the Kinks
    The Carbon Cycle by Hard N’ Phirm
    See The Constellation, Why Does The Sun Shine?, Mammal all by They Might Be Giants
    Skin by Brave Combo
    The Ingrediants Song, The Universe Song both by Animaniacs
    When I Was A Dinosaur, We Are The Dinosaurs both by Trout Fishing In America

    Of course there are “Here Come the ABC’s” and “Here Come the 1-2-3’s” both by TMBG. I’m sure others here will add to the list.

  24. @IBY: Don’t feel bad, I thought it was a microbe.

    As for Orac, if you read Science Based Medicine and Respectful Insolence, he repeats himself. There are sections of posts that are verbatim between the two blogs.

  25. Excellent choices.

    I much prefer Phil’s less confrontational approach to some of the others, but the battle must be fought on many fronts, as the dummies pop out of the woodwork by the second, it seems. And they’re only outnumbered by the suckers that buy into the la-la baloney.

    Good reading. Thank you.

  26. @Zambiglione: The language issue in India is pretty complex. English is not one of the constitutionally recognized languages in India – there are 18 of those and they are ‘national’ languages. Every state has a set of ‘official’ recognized languages, which are used for government and legal work. Hindi is standard across every state as an official language, as is English. But federally, the constitution doesn’t recognize English as yet.

    See, complicated :)

  27. @Rebecca: “The sad thing is that not a single person nominated a single woman”.

    I think that a bit unfair.
    I nominated Sense About Science as it’s run by four very capable women [and one man]: Tracy Brown is their Managing Director, Ellen Raphael is the Director, Leonor Sierra is their Scientific Liaison and Alice Tuff is the Development Officer. Also, five of the thirteen on the Board of Trustees are women.
    That’s ten skepchicks altogether, and they only made runners up!?

  28. @Sid: Well to be fair, I did say “a single woman . . .”, not a group of them. (Kidding.) Point taken!

    They made runner-up because I was focusing on individuals. It had nothing to do with how many x-chromosomes were involved.

  29. @Zambiglione: And in addition to Masala’s point about languages in India, Sanal is president of Rationalist International, which is clearly linked to in the post. R.I. spreads across dozens of nations with various languages.

    Someone brought up the same concern over on the SGU blog, which baffles me because I thought the post was quite clear.

  30. @ Rebecca

    Re #1: Parents and teachers:

    Thanks for bringing this up, Rebecca. This is one area where *everyone* needs to help out.

    There are opportunities galore to help out in schools. I give an ‘astronomy talk’ to 5th graders at two local schools (because 5th grade is when they teach astronomy) every year. I know of several other amateurs actively involved in outreach like this. Science, math, history, whatever. Start making phone calls to the schools… the teachers would *love* an extra half hour where someone else is doing the work.

  31. Well, he wasn’t a science teacher- or a teacher at all, but I had a good friend a long time ago who loved the shit out of math, and if it weren’t for her (and my still latent crush on her… don’t tell my fiance) I would have probably remained a credulous bastard.

    RIP Ms. Miller, you were always my favorite.

    (sorry to get sentimental…)

  32. I would give top marks to “Wayward,” an anonymous person who started up “A Search for Survivors” in 2008:

    Wayward, like the people she reaches out to, is a survivor of the most brutal pseudoscience that exists in the USA today — “Attachment Therapy/Parenting” (aka Holding Therapy, Compression Therapy, Rage Reduction, Rebirthing, etc.) Pseudoscientific beliefs actually rationalize the use of actual torture. Numerous foster and adoptive children have been starved, caged, and killed by AT/P related practices. Yet these practices are required and funded by government agencies all over the country.

    Wayward has been able to keep clips of this “therapy” online where others have failed:

    Wayward’s blogsite is harassed by the “therapists,” and as they amply demonstrated, anyone who tortures children, is not easy on critics.

    Wayward did much in one year to expose this dreadful practice to the public. It took real guts and determination on her part, to say nothing about the comfort and understanding she has given other survivors.

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