The first post written for the Woo Fighters website was written by Barbara Drescher, and it was titled “My Inspiration for Woo Fighters“. What it was is just that, an explanation from start to finish of how she became interested in skepticism. What was described was a very deliberate path of events which led to the current day. Now, alongside with ICBS Everywhere and many panel appearances, she has brought together the Woo Fighters, a collection of approximately half a dozen students interested in skepticism.
A good exercise in life, not just for skepticism but for anything, is to take great interest in people’s motivations. Not just what they’re doing, but why they’re doing it. What’s of particular interest to me is the “why” of why people become involved with skepticism. I’m assuming most of us are trying to spread the tenets of skepticism, and realizing why people get involved in the first place is to the advantage of all of us. I had a friend who began to participate in a lot of cancer research fundraising, and when I asked him why, he told me that his mother had recently gotten cancer. Most people involved in any type of activity have a strong connection to whatever they’re doing, in one way or another.
So I started looking at people who are “doing good” for skepticism. It was interesting to read in Why People Believe Weird Things that popular author Michael Shermer was a fundamentalist Christian long before he arrived at where he is today. A lot of people would see fundamental Christianity as incompatible with skepticism, and it would only seem as if Dr. Shermer did as well. Brian Dunning describes his earlier days on the internet attempting (unsuccessfully) to start intelligent discourse on various message boards. It’s a little harder to dig up the origin stories for people like Phil Plait or Steven Novella, but it seems clear that at some point everyone was pushed in the direction of skepticism, and for it has contributed very much.
So what makes them, and you, different from everyone else? When you see a video on something like The Sprinkler Rainbow Conspiracy, what makes some of us laugh, some of us sweat in terror of Barack Obama, and some of us “head to the blogs” to try to teach people that this isn’t right? Is skepticism a “get ‘em while they’re young” kind of deal, something inherent in our personalities, or what? The good people involved are here “because it happened to me”, now for people to reach this point I need to know exactly what “it” is.
This “skepticism stuff” is largely about teaching people to think critically and intelligently, under the assumption that doing so will improve the length and quality of all of our lives. Skepticism is indeed a process, and why I think it’s great and essential for us to spread it far and wide, maybe we’re aiming too high. Providing competent medical care to children and shaping the mental workings of future generations are all well and good, but you’d really have to be an optimist to think we’re ready to begin at that level.
So let’s start a bit lower. Have you ever read the comments sections provided under news articles posted on websites for news agencies such as CNN and NBC? It’s definitely an experience. They’re often so bad, someone actually wrote a script that transforms particularly bad YouTube comments into Richard Feynmann quotes.
Some of my favorite bizarre things to read are posted by what I can only describe as “fat denialists”. That is, these people are suspicious of science’s “opinion” that being overweight is unhealthy. Realize I’m not saying that everyone has to be skinny to be beautiful, or that to be “hollywood skinny” is even genetically attainable for the hardest of dieters and exercises. I’m talking about people who view scientists professing the unhealthiness of high calorie and sedentary lifestyles as enemies of humanity.
There are two locations I’m drawing the following comments from, the first being an article about caskets made specifically for the overweight, the second being a promotional video for a new ABC Summer program titled “HUGE” (I’m not even making that up).
The mistrust is pretty rampant here:
I would tell people go with the weight that makes you feel good and not let these know-nothing-and-I-have-a-degree-to-prove-it doctors from telling you other wise…
It is SO MUCH MORE IMPORTANT to love yourself for who you are on the INSIDE than who you are on the outside. I plan on being large for the rest of my life just to prove that to people.
There is nothing worng with being HUGE but there is something wrong about not loving yourself enough to take care of yourself
The assumption that average weight individuals must be unhappy, and that being large and “living life to the fullest” are equivalent statements are probably the worst pieces of rhetoric here. I don’t even need to link you to a bunch of journal articles to show you that being overweight is bad for you. In fact, along with smoking it’s the greatest cause of death in the United States. And all the top causes of death in the US share one characteristic: “preventable”.
These fat denialists are a growing community whose continued existence is being actively encouraged. I don’t see how we can promote more advanced forms of personal responsibility in light of the failures of such basic ones.
Everyone has their own beliefs about the world, whether they be about the existence of God, a correct stance on abortion, or what best product to clean a kitchen table. Some of these beliefs are grounded in knowledge and reached through critical thought, while others stem from an extensive list of biases originating from the physical and mental pasts of our brains. As it sometimes happens, beliefs reached via the latter pathway can be untrue, and even have a chance to do damage. One major goal of skeptics, of “Woo Fighters”, is to teach critical thought so much of this needless damage never occurs. But what damage are we causing with our critical thought?
This past Cinco de Mayo I visited Olvera Street, a historical part of Los Angeles. To celebrate this day each year events are held, music is played, food is served, and dozens of temporary shops open in between buildings to take advantage of tourists. If you go into one of these shops, you’re done, because you’ve already seen everything the other shops have to offer. While I was there I took a few pictures of some items I found interesting. The first of note is a book titled 1001 Dreams, which claims that symbols and objects in any person’s dream represent objective meanings. And for the low low price of whatever this book cost, you can use this information to become rich or fall in love or something.
If that’s not your thing, you can purchase magical candles. The one to our left claims to release “dis-ease” with universal healing energies. It’s also tall and purple, so it’s probably more likely to look ugly than cure cancer. Or maybe you would like a candle in money green, one capable of “the money I need, the universe will send, opening the path to wealth without end.” We could use some money right now, maybe we should get some of those. Or you can simply buy one of the pink candles for love. If you decide to buy one of these products, you’re probably not going to unlock the secrets of the universe, become rich, or fall in love. But you’re probably not going to kill anyone either. You’ll just be out a few dollars, and that’s just a matter of opinion. Maybe that dream book has some really cool pictures inside, you don’t know. But what am I missing out on, what are we missing out on by making fun of what these products promise to offer?
Maybe quite a bit. In a recent paper titled Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance, researchers found that the “inconsequential creations of irrational minds” were actually quite consequential. I don’t want to bore you with the details, or maybe I want you to read the article, but the gist of their conclusion was that good-luck superstitions people hold have tangible benefits over a lack thereof on the performance of many tasks. So these “useless products” might actually help. This small fact is no reason to abandon the spread of critical thinking through current and future generations, however, it is important to have a strong understanding of why many people do not think critically, and fall into cognitive traps. These strange beliefs subsist because they are not useless to us at all.
But wait, before you go!
For the last half of June, The Woo Fighters are raising money to attend The Amaz!ng Meeting 8 hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation. Many have already contributed, and any donations towards sending the next generation of skeptics to TAM8 are wildly appreciated. Thanks!
‘I’m so glad Andy Wakefield finally has the chance to tell his story. . . . For hundreds of thousands of parents around the world, myself included, Andy Wakefield is a symbol of strength and conviction that all parents of children with autism can use to fight for truth and the best lives possible for their kids. – Jenny McCarthy
Andrew Wakefield, in a frenzied attempt to remain relevant, has finished work on his new book Callous Disregard: Autism and Vaccines: The Truth Behind a Tragedy. In it he intends to catalog his struggle against the “corruption of science” which presents “a real and present threat to children”.
Most will already be aware of Dr. Wakefield, who in 1998 was associated with a highly unscientific and unethical study published in The Lancet linking usage of the MMR (measles) vaccine to autism. When the study was retracted earlier this year, the editor of The Lancet was quoted as saying “It’s the most appalling catalog and litany of some the most terrible behavior in any research and is therefore very clear that it has to be retracted.” Even though all original authors who could be contacted removed their names from the paper, the damage was and continues to be widespread. Measles, once nearly removed from the population, has seen an almost constant growth since 1996. But it’s not just measles. The scare caused public distrust of all different types of vaccines leading to increased rates of sickness and death for diseases almost eliminated from the general population. The damage done by this one study is immeasurable.
With his new book, Dr. Wakefield and his martyr complex are back to cash in again (for more cashing in, check out his extensive history).
This book provides a terrifying insight into what has been happening behind the scenes as efforts redouble to silence Dr. Wakefield . . . It is a wake-up call to those who think [he] is anything other than a modern day hero fighting for all of our children.
It is essential reading for anyone wanting to know the truth behind the MMR debate and the politics of vaccination policy.
Whether he thinks it’s real or knows it’s in his head, there’s only one truth – no one is speaking out, and Dr. Wakefield is laughing all the way to the bank.
What does science mean to skepticism? A large portion of the individuals involved in spreading information and awareness about skepticism come from academia and possess advanced degrees. Even our organization, The Woo Fighters, defines its members as “defenders of science”. The terms “scientist” and “skeptic” can be used almost interchangeably, with scientists seeking to make conclusions based on evidence as freely as possible from human biases, and skeptics seeking to emulate that same thought process.
The advent of the popularity of online blogging has given skeptic organizations a large amount of flexibility when it comes to teaching the fundamentals of skepticism. From these articles, some individuals from the growing audience of readers are recruited to the scientific school of thought. But what are they really being recruited to, what do they believe they’re a part of, and how does this affect the public’s overall perception of skepticism?
As affirmed by several reputable sources, skepticism is a methodology for gaining knowledge through critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning. And that’s it. The definition of this word can never go beyond that point, and if you try to add any qualifiers you’ve already gone against what you hold most dear. Even if languages are living, breathing things, the process of skepticism is in the method, not the word. If this is supposed to be what skepticism means, what are new skeptics being exposed to?
One important thing to note is that online skeptic communities draw a younger crowd than they did before the popularity of the internet. The Woo Fighters are currently a group of twenty-something students, and I wasn’t even alive before the fall of the Berlin Wall. We’re talking young, young people who may not even be aware of Carl Sagan’s first use of the term “scientific skepticism”, or early groups such as the James Randi Educational Foundation. What we start with is what we believe science to be, and what we learn about skepticism is what we find available on the internet.
So what is the information we start with? Pop science! 3-2-1 Contact was a bit before my time, but Bill Nye the Science Guy was just perfect. It even has “science” in its title, so you know it must be legit. Stephen Hawking and his Brief History of Time is practically the face of what it means to be a brilliant thinker in the eyes of the public (although there are of course others who are idolized in rather amazing ways). As I alluded to before, promoters of skeptic thought tend to be people who highly value the pursuit of knowledge. And this is where we’re coming from as children. A new, younger generation, who may or may not try to define skepticism in the image of what they believe it to be.
And what are we finding? If you type “Science Blogs” into Google, your first hit is going to be P.Z. Myers’ Pharyngula, and while it’s only a personal blog, it’s still one of most admired and linked to blogs by many skeptics. If you search for “Skeptic Blogs”, you’ll find yourself at Skepticblog, a collaboration of many different authors such as Brian Dunning, Phil Plait, Daniel Loxton, and countless others. There are even skeptical blogs written almost entirely by women, such as SheThought and Skepchick. These blogs are all directly related to one another in the material and events they choose to cover. There are of course hundreds of more blogs relating to skepticism not mentioned here. I need only to focus on a small number involved in skeptical “current events” to illustrate my point:
The definition of skepticism is elegantly simple, yet there are so many organizations in conflict. Why are some skeptics angry about P.Z. Myers’ recent leaps of logic? Why does the previous blog even exist? Why did the Skepchick community recently fragment, aren’t they all fighting to promote the same skepticism? Not all, but many skeptic organizations have become exclusive communities, all fighting for their very own version of critical thought, their own version of the singular definition of skepticism.
The young, burgeoning skeptic grew up with an idea of what it meant to be a scientist, learns what it means to be a skeptic, and finds that something isn’t quite right. The skeptic community is in conflict with itself, completely obscuring even the most basic idea of why many came together in the first place. Separate skeptic organizations exist not as mutually beneficial groups (as they should), but as factions. And this is what we see, and this is what we’re taught skepticism to be, and this is what we become. Everyone can’t be right, so who is?
When the idea of “science” is brought up, most people agree that this so-called science is a good thing. In fact, in a somewhat recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 84% of Americans surveyed believed the science in their lives to have a positive influence on society, with only 6% indicating the opposite. 70% said they believed scientists to have a positive influence on society, which is even more than doctors!
While the magical idea of “what science is to me and not to you thank you very much” sounds preferable to your average consumer of science, the reality behind belief in American scientific progress is a bit more bleak. From the same poll, only 17% of those surveyed believed America to among the “best in the world” when it comes to scientific research, with 49% believing America to have the best scientists in the world. It’s a lot easier to deny an intangible idea, isn’t it?
Three separate Gallup Polls taken between 1990 and 2001 measured public beliefs in various paranormal phenomena. Notably, and in spite of the 84% of Americans putting their faith in science, a large portion in all three time periods (50%) said they believed in Extrasensory Perception (ESP) , with only 21% definitively certain about its nonexistence.
How do Americans, who are so sure of science’s contributions to society, have such a poor misunderstanding of such basic concepts? Principal researcher Heather Ridolfo’s recently published paper entitled “Social Influences on Paranormal Belief: Popular Versus Scientific Support” examined differences in perception of ESP based on both public and scientific opinion. What was found is that while people tend to evaluate the validity of claims based on how many other people support said claims (a cognitive bias known as the Bandwagon Effect), the support of the scientific community (or lack thereof) has no impact on evaluating the validity of claims made about ESP.
From this, the researchers concluded that their finding “may reflect decreasing trust in the institution of science”. Whatever the reason, the romantic idea of science and the reality behind science have a long way to go before they meet.