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A Skeptic's Call to Action
By Ethan Winer
This article appeared in the Fall 2000 issue of The New England Journal of Skepticism.
I've been a skeptic for most of my adult life, but it was only a few years ago that I discovered and subscribed to the various magazines, and joined NESS. I consider my recent ties to the skeptic community very valuable, and I have certainly learned a lot about skepticism and critical thinking. But as much as I enjoy the articles I read in Skeptical Enquirer, Free Inquiry, and The New England Journal of Skepticism, it seems to me that they are frequently off the mark. Allow me to explain.
Many of these articles begin with a preposterous premise like Do aliens really control the minds of world leaders? or Virgin Mary sighted in Fort Lauderdale: fact or fiction? Okay, I exaggerate, but some of these headlines read more like they belong in a supermarket tabloid rather than an intellectual magazine: We read the article only to learn - surprise - there's a perfectly logical explanation after all. One by one each "myth of the month" is dissected in excruciating detail, only to arrive at the obvious conclusion.
I understand that it is important to explore every irrational claim fully, no matter how silly it may seem on the surface. Only through careful scientific investigation can we know for certain if something really is true or not. To do any less would make us as guilty as those who promote magnets and chelation therapy as viable medical treatments, even if they honestly believe it. But too many of the articles I read are painfully obvious to me, and probably to the entire skeptic community too.
One shining exception is Steven Novella's excellent article Logical Fallacies in the Summer 1999 NEJS explaining the methods and rules of logic. This is exactly the type of article I want to see published. Indeed, what I hunger for in these magazines, and what I don't usually find, is better ammunition to help me discuss pseudoscience with friends who are not as skeptical as I am. I don't need to be convinced that people cannot bend a spoon with their minds alone, or that ghosts are not really behind the creaking sounds in an aging London townhouse. But I know too many otherwise intelligent folks who do believe such nonsense, and I'd like to become better equipped to discuss this with them intelligently.
There was a perfect example of smart people believing stupid things a while ago when skeptic Joe Nickell appeared on the TV show Politically Incorrect. When the topic turned to science, Bill Maher asked "What has science ever done for us?" Joe Nickell, incredulous at the ignorance of such a question, answered quickly, "How about a cure for smallpox?" This is precisely the audience we need to reach: People who should know better, and have the capacity and curiosity to learn, but that the skeptical press has not yet targeted.
I want to learn how to explain to others the principles of logic and skepticism. I'd like to read more articles explaining why people believe irrational notions even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Only with a better understanding of the human belief system can I become a more effective champion of the scientific method and attempt to educate those who would dismiss science as just another belief that's no more rational than their own.
When an article appeared recently in my local newspaper about the location of a proposed cell phone tower, a dozen people wrote letters about the evils of electromagnet energy and how dangerous these towers are. Only one letter writer explained that no legitimate study has ever shown a link between cell phone towers (or power lines) and cancer. In this age of so-called enlightenment, far too many folks are decidedly unenlightened. It seems that half the ads on late-night TV are for psychic hotlines and Tarot card readings.
Frankly, I'm not so concerned about TV shows like The X-Files - a regular target of the skeptical press - because these shows are clearly fiction. People who watch The X-Files and believe what they see is really true are probably hopeless, and any advice I might offer would likely be in vain. But what does bother me is when Oprah provides her vast podium to an endless stream of gurus and spiritual healers, letting them spout their pseudoscience unchallenged to millions upon millions of gullible viewers.
Worse still is when the major TV networks present stories about prayer healings and other miracles on the 11:00 o'clock news. I'm old enough to remember when news shows reported the news and limited themselves to facts, and the occasional editorial which was presented clearly as being opinion. Today ratings are everything - they are more important than competence, integrity, and even telling the truth.
It is more than a little irritating when educational TV networks like The Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel present outrageous pseudoscience as fact, or as being plausible, anyway. You can watch legitimate science like The Human Sexes, and then an hour later see a show about millenium prophecies that may yet come true. How are viewers - especially younger ones - to know what to believe and what is merely unlikely speculation? When you call yourself "The Learning Channel" I feel you have an implied obligation to stick to the facts.
Clearly, there is an urgent need to promote healthy skepticism and encourage rational thinking. Far more is at stake than simply convincing people that they should not believe in aliens and angels, or waste their money on palm readers and alternative medicine charlatans. Understanding the world we live in is in our own best interest: If we know how disease thrives and spreads, we can develop effective cures. If we learn more about agriculture, we can reduce starvation. And if we understand psychology, we can strive to be a happier and more tolerant society.
This is why I believe skeptics need to do more than write for each other, which merely keeps these thoughts and ideas within "our own little club." What is really needed - besides suggestions for helping turn the tide of irrationality - is for skeptical articles to appear in the mainstream press. Skeptical thinking needs to be made more attractive to the general public. Every mainstream article I ever read about Madalyn Murray O'Hair implied that she was a kook. Not counting my wife, none of my friends has ever heard of Paul Kurtz or Martin Gardner. Until articles that promote the value of skepticism appear in The New York Times, The Reader's Digest, and Newsweek, our views are doomed to remain ours alone.
My local newspaper, the Danbury News-Times, frequently runs articles about miracles and prayer healing; it prints paid prayers to the Blessed Virgin (with instructions for praying and a promise that what you pray for will come true!); and it carries a daily astrology column. In an effort to offer some balance I wrote an op-ed article that it printed July 30, 2000. My goal was to discuss the larger issue of critical thinking, not just to promote skepticism, but perhaps my meager effort can serve as an inspiration for other articles or letters to the editor that you write.
Public opinion changes slowly, but it does change. If you or I can make even one person stop and consider the illogic in something he or she has always just accepted, perhaps that person will in turn influence someone else. I know I reached a lot of folks with my article because of letters sent both to the newspaper and to me directly. So accept my call to action as a challenge. Write articles or letters to your own newspapers. Submit a My Turn to Newsweek. Do whatever you can to help promote common sense and improved critical thinking.
Ethan Winer is an audio engineer, computer programmer, and avid musician who lives in New Milford, CT.
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