Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A talk of the old days and an idea for the future.

This week's Skeptics' Guide to the Universe was recorded at TAM 13.  I listened with interest on how the newest Rogue, Cara Santa Maria, fared during her first day 'on the job.'  I plan to listen to a few more episodes and then draw some initial conclusions.

the skeptical sun could still be rising 
Of greater interest was the interview of senior skeptics and the founding fathers of modern skepticism, James Randi and Ray Hyman.  The particular portion of the interview that struck a chord with me was Hyman and Randi discussing the beginnings of their skeptical collaboration along with Paul Kurtz and Martin Gardner.   This initial organization that eventually became CSICOP included not just these gentlemen, but also Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov among others.  The old days were not perfect as for example there was tension between the academics and non-academics.  From Randi and Hyman's recollection at the start, they toiled on the focus and the mission of the new organization while Kurtz just wanted to get matters organized and implemented.  Randi and Hyman wished to hash out should their new group's focus be on education, basic information, or just downright proselytizing.  Unfortunately, fairly early on tension grew between Randi and the others on how to handle Uri Gellar's threats of litigation resulting in Randi's departure.  Randi wished to keep after Gellar head on, while Hyman (and others) wished to avoid direct confrontation.

Although I have had a rather dour recent post on the current state and future possible state of skepticism, it is good to keep in mind and gain some perspective that things within skepdom have never been perfect. 

The above brought to mind a recent social media exchange raising the question on how one would start a new skeptical organization.  Something in the United States to parallel the small but effective British Good Thinking Society.  In my mind, and reading between the lines, the goal is to form a skeptical entity without it falling prey to various political controversies that swirl around the internet.  This is something that while I am not expert at all, I have given some thought.  If I were bold, brash, and more connected to attempt such a thing, the Society would be my blueprint.  

My thoughts regarding starting a group pertain to the U.S. and not in other places that appear to have more intra-skeptical cordiality are as follows. First, and importantly, the group would be tiny.  The core group would be three people to perhaps five at the maximum in the beginning and for sometime.  From time to time, outside expertise or assistance would obviously be sought, but without any expectation of further commitment from these experts than the task at hand. 

The core group would consist of three types of members.  The first is the grunt.  The person tasked with keeping the website up to snuff, tracking money, scheduling, etc.  All the mundane stuff that is necessary that occurs in the background, but is a bummer to actually do. The second person is the researcher.  The person with the time and ability to research a topic or figure out who to discuss and get the scoop from ghost hunting to U.F.O.s to alternative medicine and the meaning of the zodiac.  The final person is the talent.  The face of the group who has presence and is P.R. savvy.  A person who can appear on a podcast or speak to a room full of people without being boring or worse, sticking their foot in their mouth.  

The above noted work sphere likely would not be unbending.  The grunt very well might do some research, and the talent better know what they are talking about with the public and have some serious skeptical chops too.  The researcher might do public outreach by writing blog posts, but whose job is still mainly keep the talent honest.  However, clearly assigned roles I think in the long term would tend to keep friction down.  At least that would be my hope.  

The core group would have to hash out their goals and what tone the entity ought to take.  How polished or laid back do they wish to appear.  I would hope for the first year the goals would be simple and achievable.  There is little likelihood of banishing homeopathy from Pennsylvania or getting dowsing stopped in Texas.  A more attainable task of attending a series of spiritualist shows and reporting on the experience is likely to actually get done, and engender a sense of accomplishment.  Practicing a bit by giving a few talks and attending some of the cultural competition conferences and exercising a bit of gumshoe might gain credibility with time in respect and influence.   Also, I think whomever started would have to commit to stick with it for at least a couple of years to give things time to shake out.  Maybe with time of practicing professionalism and thoughtfulness and then slowly grow the group and add a fifth or sixth person would be sustainable.  At least in the beginning and for the expected future, not a day job.  

I think the above could work.  Maybe five separate groups could try and only one might succeed in the end.  That is fine.  Finding people to fit the above suggested roles in the group is probably not all that easy and then hope they have the chemistry to make it work is another hurdle.  I think in this age of social media with its overlay of distracting drama, a reliable group just picking away at nonsense could get something done.  Not as a replacement for The Skeptics Society or CSI, or to fill the role of the retired James Randi, but useful nevertheless in fighting nonsense.  Others might wish to begin a new nonprofit with a board of directors and steering committees and fairly committed fundraising.  Perhaps that would work too.  I could be dead wrong in my ideas.  I have my doubts.  It might be worth a shot.   

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