Saturday, January 17, 2015

Skepticism . . . could use a hot meal and a shave

Skepticism is in a weird place. As I am sure the reader is aware, the modern skeptical movement founded in the 1970s increased in popularity from around 2005 onward with the rise of blogs, podcasts, and other forms of cheap media publication. I rode this wave, and it was wonderful.  Nevertheless, skepticism remains tiny in comparison to society as a whole.  Things started to go a bit sideways in the last five years as skepticism started to gain some baggage.  There has been in-fighting between various skeptic factions as to what skepticism ought to actually concern itself. Legal wrangling from felony charges to sexual assault allegations including libel litigation from within and without has crept up. Leadership losses through death and shakeups within organizations have left some distraught. While lots of good work is being done by many, the overall atmosphere within skepdom is not good.

With the above in mind that has brought me down, I have a wish list of things that I believe would do skepticism some good.  These are my personal musings.  I am sure others have such musings with similar or perhaps diametrically differing ideas.

Skepticism ought to form some manner of political action committee (PAC). Skeptics often rue some of the laws on the books especially when it comes to the soft hand alternative medicine is given by the FDA and other government regulatory bodies. From time to time someone hits upon the idea of contacting legislators either in writing or in person to bring a particular concern to the legislative forefront. The sad reality is there are an insufficient number of skeptics to really make a dent. If skeptics were a million strong in the U.S. and Congress could be swamped with a 100,000 letters, emails, phone calls on a given topic, sure this might work. We aren’t. Perhaps a PAC guided by somebody who knows Washington and where to place some pressure with various committees and leadership positions on the Hill after a time might make a difference.  An amendment here and a rider there and suddenly homeopathy might not be on the shelves of CVS. This would take money and some leadership.  To effectuate such a PAC would likely have to take the joint efforts of the big three skeptical organizations, or equivalent.  Skeptics would still likely be outgunned and outmanned by the supports of alternative medicine, but at least something might have a fighting chance. 

While on the topic of money, skepdom in the U.S. might find a legal defense fund handy. It is crazy that folks blog hither and dither saying things that may not actionable in court but would be costly nonetheless to defend oneself. Currently, one demand letter or suit filed and a skeptic blogger faces poverty and/or turning tail and taking down the offending piece. This happens surprisingly infrequently, but it does not take a lot of litigation to cause a lot of fear and financial hurt. The Society for Science based Medicine and SGU Productions is being sued and they are having to raise money to defend themselves from scratch. Even a network of attorneys who have some knowledge in the relevant legal field willing to enter pro bono to handle basic initial grunt work would be handy. I know this is far, far more difficult to organize and determine who and what would get the benefit of such backing, but that there is none at all right now is worrisome. Once again this would take the efforts as described above to give some such defense fund some legs, but I suspect when needed it would be a godsend when called upon.

I appreciate all of the efforts of Randi, Shermer, Kurtz and others within the big three and other groups over the years making skepticism an actual ‘thing.’ Whatever skeptics do from here on out will always be done upon the shoulders of these past efforts. I do think given all the turmoil with skepticism of the past few years that a new organization might be nice to have a fresh start.  Not to supplant the past but to build upon it in parallel. What I envision is an online clearinghouse for skeptics on skeptical topics. When I note skeptical topics, I do not mean skepticism intertwined with feminism, or humanism, or atheism, or libertarianism, or progressivism, or even education outreach, art or whatever. These other topics are laudable pursuits, and if some other group wants to take up the skeptical intertwined with X as their own that is fine. If that other group wants to borrow from skeptical knowledge that is fine too, but a clean slate of a skeptic only place might be nice without the baggage garnered over the past decade by other groups.

I do not expect there to be no interaction between skepticism and say religious or other side issues. Someone claims the Earth is but 6,000 years old, I say have at them.  If someone wants to fight to keep church and state separated, then more power to atheist advocates. There might be some skeptical overlap, but not everything tangentially related is skepticism's fight.  

What I imagine is an online hub that is home to some blogs, podcasts, and links to useful information and topics of the day.  Think Doubtful News, Merseyside Skeptics, and Skeptic Ink combined and on steroids.  As a side note, I would be thrilled if part of the goal of such a group would be to encourage skeptics to attend the cultural competitions events. The thing tying everything together would be for a new niche of skeptics pursing skepticism for its own sake, and not to support some tertiary agenda. Yes, there would be some overarching editorial board or some manner to keep thing together.  I am not talking anarchy.  I would expect in ten years somebody could point out how worn out is this group and its collection of baggage and it is time to start something fresh.

I suspect little to none of the above will be done anytime soon. Yet, I do think skepticism is currently in a weird and perhaps down place. The above might assist in getting things done, plus give some long overdue legal protection to the skeptical project, and move things forward.  In a pleasant state of mind as I post this from the Walt Disney World Resort on a quickie holiday, I do hope that something happens to brace up skepdom over the coming year(s).

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