We haven’t had a good old-fashioned Skeptic Next Door feature in a while and I just happened to make a new friend who lives just down the road from me that I thought my Skepchick pals might like to meet! She is a skeptic and she is passionate about making a difference in the world.
Allow me to introduce to you the fabulous, Sadie Crabtree!
Oh and Sadie doesn’t just have a cool name, she has a cool job too! She is the brand-spankin’ new director of communications at the JREF.Â For those of you unfamiliar, the JREF is the James Randi Educational Foundation. The JREF is known for its work investigating paranormal claims (the Million Dollar Challenge) and for promoting logic, critical thinking and skepticism in education and in the media. The organization is loved and respected in the skeptical community, not only because it was formed by the amazing, James Randi himself but also because of The Amazing Meetings or what you hear us refer to lovingly as, TAM. TAM is organized by the JREF and began in Las Vegas but has recently expanded to include yearly events in London and Australia as well. TAM is the quintessential conference on skepticism and critical thinking that has proven itself not only a megaphone for blasting out the latest hot-topics in skepticism and for educating the public in the classical skeptical topics but it has helped fill a gap in this ever-growing society of critical thinkers by becoming a very important social gathering for self-identified skeptics and those in search of intellectual enlightenment. Many skeptics, freethinkers and atheists consider it one of the only times each year when they can rub elbows with their favorite scientists, authors, bloggers, podcasters and leaders of this movement and where they feel they can truly speak their mind in an environment of like-minded individuals.
On that note, letâ€™s all welcome a new addition into the skeptosphere, Sadie Crabtree!
How do you define the term skeptic? / Do you consider yourself a skeptic?
When I say Iâ€™m a skeptic, I mean Iâ€™m someone who investigates ideas before Iâ€™m willing to accept them, even if theyâ€™re widely believed by others. Sometimes whatâ€™s considered common knowledge is probably right, like the scientific consensus on global warming. Sometimes itâ€™s probably wrong, like the vast majority of Americans who believe in a supernatural power. You have to consider the evidence for yourself. Of course most people donâ€™t have the resources and time to dig through volumes of original research on something like evolution or homeopathy, but what we can all do is consider some basic questions about any claim, like: is the source of this claim profiting from people believing in this? What previously proven scientific facts would have to be false for this claim to be true?
Iâ€™m really excited about the work weâ€™re doing at the JREF right now, because weâ€™re building on the work James Randi and the Foundation have done to bring this kind of thinking to a mass audience. The Million Dollar Challenge is one of those questions that helps ordinary people sort out the nonsenseâ€”if what this person says is true, why havenâ€™t they applied for the prize? And itâ€™s really stuck in the public consciousness. Weâ€™re expanding on that by working with educators to promote critical thinking in schools, in ways that engage young people when theyâ€™re learning the pattens of thinking theyâ€™ll rely on for the rest of their lives. And weâ€™re looking strategically at how to communicate the value of skepticism to more people more effectively.
What first got you interested in organized skepticism?
I got interested in skepticism because I was interested in science. The really amazing stuff that you can hardly believe is possible. I mean, black holes and special relativity are totally ridiculous. And, seriously, the double-slit experiment? This sense of wonder about how strange and amazing the world is, and wanting to understand and connect with it, I think, is the same feeling that leads other people to want to learn about ghosts and fringe pseudoscience. For a while when I was younger, I was interested in those things too, but as I learned more I understood why those were two very different approaches to the world. One way of thinking fetishizes the unexplained, and stops right there to wallow in the mystery of it all. Science finds things that are awesome and unexplained, rejects the bad explanations, and keeps exploring, until what was unexplained is understood, and there is a whole new frontier of things we donâ€™t understand that we never would have seen if we hadnâ€™t kept going. Black holes are a million times cooler than astrology, and we wouldnâ€™t even know they were there if we didnâ€™t have a way to reject the bad explanations of whatâ€™s up in the sky.
Thatâ€™s part of why I think skeptics should talk more about what weâ€™re for rather than just what weâ€™re against. People want a way to understand the world, because itâ€™s unpredictable and scary, and we want to feel like we have some control over it. We want a story with good guys and bad guys, and to know where we fit in. If skeptics donâ€™t offer people a positive, alternative way to understand the world, whether itâ€™s science, or humanism, or something else, weâ€™re in a position of trying to take away things that make people feel secure, while offering nothing to satisfy those needs.
Skepticism as a movement is known to be predominately made up of middle-aged white males. Do you have any thoughts on how to encourage more women and other ethnicities to get involved in skepticism or how we as a group can reach a broader audience? Have you run into any problems being a woman in this male dominated arena?
There are two separate issues here, recruitment and retention.
First, there are a lot of things wrong with the world besides people believing in things that arenâ€™t real, and people have to choose their battles. Plus, the worse things are for you, the less disposable time and income you have to spare. If youâ€™re inclined to change the world, and your life has been shaped by discrimination that threatens your economic survival, youâ€™re going to be more likely to spend your limited energy on ending racism, sexism, and poverty than on skepticism.
The other issue is, what kind of experience do women and people of color have when they are attracted to skepticism and they visit our conferences, blogs, and local groups?
For example, a lot of lectures Iâ€™ve seen by men on skeptical topics are peppered with sexist references to womenâ€™s physical appearanceâ€”not just about enemies like Sylvia Browne, but in one case a disgusting insult about a great hero of space exploration.
I suspect men make comments like that because they want to connect with the audience. But what it says to women in the audience is that they donâ€™t care about relating to us as human beings and scientific thinkers but judge us mainly on our ornamental value. Itâ€™s ironic that these comments are usually made by men who look like they couldnâ€™t get a date if they paid for it. (Did that offend anyone? Yeah, ladies donâ€™t like it either.)
Thatâ€™s not difficult to change. People should stop saying and writing things that unfairly alienate half their potential audience and have nothing to do with skepticism.
The thing that takes more work to change is the first pointâ€”that people donâ€™t consider what weâ€™re doing to be relevant to their lives. We could start changing that by choosing issues that overlap with other important concerns, and not just issues that mostly interest people who already consider themselves skeptics. Are there issue campaigns being waged by organizations of people of color that skeptics could join in to support from a skeptical or humanist point of view? Are there industries we could target that are using supernatural or pseudoscientific beliefs to make money at the expense of low-income people? We should think beyond our desire to have a more diverse movement and think about what skepticism has to offer the people we want to get involved.
Do you think it is possible to win the JREF’s Million Dollar Challenge?
Definitely. If someone has a psychic ability that works better than pure chance, and they can demonstrate it consistently, they should be able to meet the standards of the challenge. Itâ€™s possible, but incredibly unlikely, that someone has an ability like that. Itâ€™s probably more likely that someone would win the challenge by pure chanceâ€”the odds are astronomical, but itâ€™s not impossible. Someone wins the lottery.
Okay, ALL the Skepchicks read your introduction on the JREF blog and we were all, â€œSQUEEE! ZOMG! Did you see the new girl!?â€ In that interview you were asked to tell something about yourself that no one would ever guess. You said this:
Folks in the labor movement seem to love starting big meetings with icebreakers. The best one is called â€œtwo truths and a lie,â€ where you have to guess which one isnâ€™t true. Here are mine:
1. An anarchist once declared a hunger strike against me.
2. My father was a trade-show magician.
3. My wife and I own more guns than cats, but just barely.
We have a bet over here at Skepchick headquarters as to which question is the lie. I got $50 riding on this. Tell us, which one is not true?
I wonâ€™t give all my secrets away, but I can tell you the lie is only technically false.
You have worked doing campaigns for a number of progressive causes, such as LGBT, feminist and labor nonprofits. Do you think the aims of the skeptical movement overlap with progressive or leftist causes
There are common issues, like consumer advocacy. We have powerful common enemies, like religious fundamentalism. At the same time, there are folks in the skeptical world who follow a form of economic fundamentalism that is just as harmful, and isnâ€™t compatible with the kind of movement that makes things better for ordinary people. So, is there enough overlap for our movements to work together? Not automatically, but I think skeptics are at our best and most persuasive when weâ€™re speaking out in the public interestâ€”because bad beliefs and fraudulent claims hurt peopleâ€”and not just in the interest of a fetishized rationality. I support reason and the scientific method because I think theyâ€™re the best methods we have of understanding the world, and I want to understand the world so we can improve it.
Do you think coming out skeptic or atheist is similar to coming out gay? Can our movement learn from the past successes and failures of the LGBT movements.
I donâ€™t think itâ€™s similar. I can imagine circumstances in which it might feel similar in some ways, but the experiences and issues arenâ€™t transferable.
What do you think of the whole accomodationist/confrontationalist/‘Don’t Be A Dick’ argument in skepticism?
I think itâ€™s a false dichotomy. You donâ€™t win people to your side by being â€œa dick,â€ and you donâ€™t win anything when youâ€™re a pushover. But we donâ€™t need to pick a spot on the dick-pushover continuumâ€”those are just two bad things we shouldnâ€™t be.
The question for me isnâ€™t whether we fight, itâ€™s how we can be more effective, and what words and approaches will help us win, and get more people to join with us. Sometimes words that sound pleasant can be the most devastating, and I think describing language as accommodationist vs. confrontationalist doesnâ€™t take that into account.
What we should be is strategic, and follow some common principles for movement-building.
1. Be welcoming to people who may want to get involved. Make it easy to join. People should be able to test the waters without signing up for the whole package. Itâ€™s okay to disagree with people, but donâ€™t try to banish them from the community for not being skeptical enough.
2. Bring people together with campaigns that are fun, demonstrate your values, win concrete change, and give people a sense of accomplishment. Get new people involved by inviting them to join in specific campaigns and actions that theyâ€™re likely to agree with, instead of only recruiting them to a community with a set of ideas they need to subscribe to in order to belong.
3. Donâ€™t be divisive when it isnâ€™t necessary. Make sure that youâ€™re spending more time uniting skeptical people around what they agree on than youâ€™re spending debating what you donâ€™t agree on. If a group of people has come together to work on a campaign to inform the public about about homeopathy, and theyâ€™re excited and ready to do the work, they donâ€™t have to all agree on religion, or anything else. Those debates should be optional and come after the work is done, rather than becoming something that pushes people out.
A group can have a well-defined point of view without taking positions on tangential issues that are needlessly divisive. Likewise, there are ways to be constructively provocative without being â€œa dick,â€ and we need to distinguish between the two. Around any contested issue, there are some people who are simply hostile and anti-social by nature and use the idea of being â€œprovocativeâ€ as an excuse. But provocation as a tactic shouldnâ€™t be defined by those people.
What is one skeptical topic that you wish there was legitimate evidence for?
Free energy, because it could alleviate a lot of the worldâ€™s problems. Also, finding proof that aliens had visited Earth would be great because it would demonstrate technology capable of traveling those kind of distances. Above all, I wish karma was real, because some people really have it coming.
Special thanks to Sadie for taking the time to talk to us and for letting me chase her around Hollywood with a camera! Feel free to leave her comments below and until next time, this has been Surly Amy with, The Skeptic Next Door! :)