Thursday, February 28, 2013

Why there is a Skeptical Movement, Tent Walls

The Skeptic's primer

Why there is a Skeptical Movement” is a PDF pamphlet recently authored by Daniel Loxton of Skeptic magazine.  The document is 79 pages long with the last 16 pages dedicated to end notes.  The ‘meat’ of the book is a "mere" 62 packed pages of a broad overview of the history of skepticism, and background of how the modern skeptical movement arose in the disco era of the mid-1970’s.  The form of Loxton’s work puts one in the mind of “Common Sense” or the “Communist Manifesto”-not in its content, but as a primer or guidepost for interested parties.  This is not a tome ala “Reclaiming History” by Vincent Bugliosi, which is a good thing, and the compactness of this work contributes to the material being much more accessible and likely to actually be read by the intended audience.

Founding Father, scientist,
ladies man, printer, proto-skeptic
The audience appears to be skeptics who have been drawn into scientific skepticism in the last ten years or so.  I am one such skeptic.  The first part of the pamphlet gives a history of skepticism and the precursors of Skepticism (that is with a capital “S”) dating all the way back to the second century of the common era.  What I found striking is that the questions tackled by skeptics dating back centuries have not changed.  Skeptical investigations and works were done debunking medical frauds, ghosts, witches, psychics, and cryptids.  Most of which were amazingly familiar claims as I read about everyday on Doubtful News or the mainstream media.  Yes, even one of the Founding Fathers of the United States was doing skeptic type work.  Skeptics stand in the shoes of some historical giants. 

Loxton spends a portion of his work describing how the modern skeptical movement came to be in the mid-1970’s to fill a gap that mainstream science chose not to or was unable to tackle and the lay media and people did not have the skills to investigate paranormal or pseudo-scientific claims.  Loxton outlines how and why the ‘classic’ bounders of skepticism tackling only empirical claims came to be. 

The final portion of the piece describes the limitations and pitfalls that Skeptics can run into if a skeptic discusses scientific or philosophical topics beyond one’s expertise.  What can a Skeptic do and how can one be of use and assistance if one is not a working scientist, or have the illusionist background of a James Randi or Harry Houdini.  Loxton makes the case that what Skeptics do is not to get a win, or defeat questionable claims of the cultural competition, but keep on keeping on.  Like a fireman, the task never ends; without being active, things might be even worse.

I enjoyed this work a great deal.  I found the history of skepticism and early proto-skepticism fascinating.  Admittedly, I am sympathetic to Loxton’s argument for classic bounds and limits of scientific skepticism.  I can easily see an actual book three times in length being expanded out of this work, and I would love to read such a work.  However, as a manifesto of what ought to constitute scientific skepticism this could very well be a primary work for future skeptics to read. 

Inadvertent tent breaching 

Reading Loxton’s work began me thinking on the subject, which I have pondered from time to time.  The idea of one person having related but separated interests that one keeps apparent by wearing a ‘different hat’ at different times.  Loxton refers to keeping the skeptical tent separated from other tents in the rationalist camp.  This way the walls of the various rationalist tents do not get breached.  The skeptics stick to skeptical activities.  The atheists do atheist activities.  The humanists do humanist things.  While a person might belong to one or more groups, the groups stay separated.   To an extent, I agree with the idea that a person can be at a skeptical conference and wear the skeptic hat, but then attend an atheist conference or feminist conference and wear a separate hat at each keeping.  Yet, at a certain point, this starts to break down. Not for the individual, but for the groups.  

model of the various tents
in the rationalist circus town
A foot soldier skeptic can attend a skeptical conference and then a month later give money to an atheist organization and I reasonably believe the walls between two are still firmly in place.  However, once a person attends a certain level of prominence, the individual person might be able to keep separate hats on their head, but the person’s presence in itself can breach the tent walls between groups.  It starts becoming less about the individual and more about doing a disservice to the organization they take an interest in. 

If Terry is prominent in the rationalist community and speaks at Mega-Skeptic Con and then in a few months speaks at Mega-Atheist Con to outsiders and perhaps even a few of those within the various rationalist movements, the presence of Terry in itself blurs the line between the two groups.  Terry can be exquisitely careful to not blur the lines between the groups during the two talks, and even in banter with fellow conference members.  However, the well known and popular Terry being a skeptic and an atheist itself blurs the lines.  People know Terry as that skeptical atheist, and not Terry an atheist who happens to be a skeptic.  At some point, what hat Terry is wearing at any given time is irrelevant to the presence of the same person (regardless of headgear) at both tents.  Terry's mere presence could be perceived as breaching the walls between the various groups. 

I am not sure there is an easy solution to this breaching the walls between rationalist tents.  However, I do think when one reaches a certain level of notoriety the individual has to consider if they are in part harming the organizations they are intending to support by exercising prominent support for two or more groups. 

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