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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Why the skeptical community is important.

Hey folks, I know it's been a while, but I'm back, at least for now. There's been a subject that I've heard come up occasionally in various conversations that I've been trying to put words to for a while. The topic basically breaks down to "Why do we even need a skeptical community?" It's been brought up in blog posts, podcasts, and even in casual conversation, so I thought I'd give my opinion on the matter.

 On episodes 3 and 4 of "The Blue Ball Skeptics" for example, Damion and Chas spoke to Matt and Sharon Madison, a couple that have been involved in skepticism for quite a while (before the founding of  the JREF or CFI). They seem to feel that there isn't really a need for a skeptical community, and during the course of their interview, they state the reasons they feel that way. (To hear the entire interview click this link). 

One of their main concerns deals with a "Cult of Personality" forming around a few key members in the movement (Randi, Shermer, Harris, etc), and dividing the community into various camps for or against various people. I actually agree with them on this fact. We've seen this happen with Rebecca Watson, Michael Shermer, and various other "Skeptical Leaders", for lack of a better term. They become popular in not only the skeptical communities, but also noticed by the various religious and pseudoscience groups, and even main stream media. These people have some very vocal opponents, so any indiscretion is quickly jumped on. By the same token, you have the proponents of these personalities that will verbally rip you to shreds if they think you've written anything disparaging about their favorite skeptic. All I'm going to say on this matter is that skeptics are only human, and we screw up from time to time. I'm not excusing any alleged behaviors, nor am I placing any blame. I do not know any of the major players in our community personally, nor do I have all the information to make an informed opinion one way or the other. I'm simply saying don't elevate someone above reproach, nor reprimand another for speaking their mind, without making sure you know all the details first. Even our heroes should be approached with a skeptical mindset. 

Another issue that they have is the term "skeptical movement", which they state, and I also agree, sounds like a politically driven group. However, I don't have a problem with skeptics being involved in policy making. We have as much right as any other group of people to have a say in the rules under which we live. Religious organizations, alternative medicine, and other such special interest groups have some very powerful lobbyists working for them to push their agendas to the politicians, so why shouldn't we? At least we have research, critical and rational thought, and science backing our claims, versus their wishful thinking and 2000 year old books. Unfortunately, we don't have the same level of financial backing that they do.

Back to the main point of my post, "Why do we need a skeptical community?" I know that people that are much better writers than I am have written on this topic, but I feel the need to add my 2 cents on the matter. I feel that we need a skeptical community, and a skeptical movement, to help show people that they aren't alone. Growing up in the middle of Oklahoma, where you can see a homeopath next door to a psychic, and both go to the same church across the street, you tend to feel very lonely, and slightly frightened if you would rather trust science than have faith. When  looking for others that share your views, you sometimes have to be very careful how you phrase things, especially if you live in a rural area. A skeptical community helps people find others that share common interests and ideas, without the constant fear of being isolated from society. Sometimes you just need to talk to someone that's been through, or is going through, the same things you are. A skeptical community or movement can also show a unified front when dealing with some of the bull that is currently being proposed in the various states legislatures. Normally, there may be a few random people writing to senators or congresspeople to complain about a certain bill, These are usually sent a pacifying form letter and promptly forgotten. However, if there is a group of people that write in expressing similar concerns, politicians will usually take notice. Awareness of the issue may be all that's accomplished, but it's a start, and this is much more easily achieved as part of a group than as a solitary person. 

Another reason for a skeptical community is the sharing of information. Yes, the internet, journals, and books are great sources, but sometimes just being able to talk to someone that knows information that you don't is the best way to learn it. This allows for the quick and instant exchange of ideas and information that message boards, blog posts, magazine articles, or Youtube videos just can't duplicate.

The community doesn't have to have a strict hierarchy, it can just be a loose association of people with a few common interests that sometimes get together to talk about various topics while enjoying a variety of beverages. A loose organizational structure can possibly prevent, or at least slow down, the development of the "Cult of Personality" that seems to have risen in the larger, more organized groups.

I personally feel that the skeptical community is a valuable part of society, and as time goes on, it will become more important and more influential. It also has a bit of an advantage over many other types of communities in that we aren't as driven for fame or recognition as other groups. If we were, more skeptical bloggers would be using their real names and flashier headline grabbing posts. Yes, fame and/or recognition is great, but from what I've seen, most skeptics do what they do out of a genuine love of humanity.

Until next time, be good, be skeptical, and be sure to finish your brussel sprouts.

The Skeptical Okie