Not buying what we're selling
On the latest Virtual Skeptics Sharon Hill raised the question of the number of active skeptics out and about. I am not sure if she meant in the world, in the English speaking world, or the just the United States. Her estimate was approximately 20,000. I tend to this might be a bit low depending on one's definition of Skeptic, and how it is calculated. However, I agree this is in the ballpark range based upon listenership to various podcasts, magazine subscriptions, and similar bits of evidence. Whether 20,000 or 50,000 this strikes me as depressingly low. Doing some very rough calculations and considering only the parts of the world where English is the primary language that even bumping the number of skeptics to up to 50,000 means that about 1/10th of a percent of the population are skeptics. This isn't really even a minority. This is a rounding error.
|Come Join Us. Maybe we should|
Granted skeptics are mice that roar at times. The work of the Australian Skeptics combating mystic power bands and anti-vaccination nonsense as well as British Skeptics work against homeopathy are examples. Yet, skeptics are still few and spread thin. The Internet over the past 20 and especially past 8 years has grown the numbers, but perhaps not as much as is thought. It may be that skeptics can just communicate more efficiently, and it give the perception of a numbers bump. Whatever the impact of the Internet skeptics numbers are still paltry in the bigger scheme of things.
Why? Look at Time Farley's list of skeptical podcasts and Doubtful News media guide and there resources galore for the public to tap. There are some mainstream media skeptical friendly shows such as Mythbusters and the long running Penn & Teller's Bullshit. Yet, skepticism just cannot obtain that elusive traction despite our internet connected grass roots skeptical blossoming of the past eight or so years.
To imagine the type of traction that skepticism would require to grows to 5% of the population would be dreaming. However, getting to just 500,000 skeptics seems like a pipe dream and would this would still be under 1% of the population. I can't help but wonder why is Skepticism failing to take root in a meaningful way? What are we doing wrong, or at least not correct that suddenly viewing the world rationally using scientific skepticism desirable.
Alas, I do not have an answer or answers. Perhaps the message is too tide to a very peculiar personality type. I suspect there lots of folks who generally agree with the skeptical world view, but can't image why bother dealing with the pseudoscientific, alt med, paranormal bullshit at all. (Here, I think of my dad). Maybe, skeptics just need a break such as when a pop culture celebrity appears on Letterman wearing an SGU t-shirt and discusses their love of the JREF. This could springboard skepdom into the public conscience. To an extent all the infighting among skeptics one finds when one does a online search might turn people off. It just might be skeptics are freaks, and normal people just don't want to see the world in a rational scientific light. Whatever the cause skepticism just has not gained any impressive traction despite numerous online outlets.
Be it 20,000, 50,000, or 100,000 skeptics the numbers compared to the population as a whole drive me near despair. What we are doing with our minuscule numbers is impressive, but these small numbers have consequences. Skeptics do not make up enough to matter as a voting block. As was discussed on this episode of Virtual Skeptics the skeptical population is too small to support very many individuals to do Skepticism for a living. Most skeptics are doing their activism on the side after dealing with their day job. Although I suspect if the skeptical population could grow to 500,000 or so this might be enough of an audience for more to make a living at being a skeptic and supporting larger efforts. Currently, there is no depth to support a major media campaign or support a true think tank or lobbying effort.
The above being noted it was an enjoyable if goofy episode of Virtual Skeptics. The episode focused on an African mystery of people believing that their penis vanished or shrank due to witchcraft or black magic or whatnot. The results with the panel were juvenile, but good natured. Although good luck explaining this one to the kids in the backseat of the Honda if you're listening in the car.
Marsh wears a freshly pressed shirt?
|This guy wears a freshly|
Marsh points out that much of this line of argument is based upon seeing the opposition in the worst light rather than first being as charitable to their viewpoint and then engaging in a discourse. Randi and Storr made mistakes in logic not because they are bad people, but just happen to be people. Marsh shared that he did not believe Storr was out to get him, but that Storr took away from the interview what the material that supported a preconceived. Marsh shared that anyone can do this if they are not ever vigilant. Unfortunately, nobody is ever vigilant.
Apparently, being charitable in interpreting an opponents arguments this is called steel manning as contrasted with better known term straw manning and arguing against a bogus weakened version of the others remarks. The term seems a bit clumsy to me, but it might grow on me. Just for Marsh's bit of the episode, this week's SWaK was well worth the listen. If you are lucky enough to attend Q.E.D. give Mike, Marsh, and Collin a hearty slap ont he back and perhaps buy them a drink, or gift card to a dry cleaner.
|No skeptics on this|
*I have not read this book. I am not even sure if it is available in the U.S. However, it has been kicking up some controversy.