Organised Skepticism can be a double edged sword, a powerful tool if used correctly, but use it arbitrarily, or without understanding, and it can give you a nasty cut with the backswing. Such belief-based own goals were, for a long time, the preserve of the credulous believers and pseudo-scientific charlatans, people exploiting the easily led and deluded, yet the current rise of ultra-hardcore Skepticism at the fringes of what we do, with it’s seemingly arbitrary blanket judgements about how every believer in the unproven and unfounded is automatically either suffering from some form of undiagnosed mental aberration or knowingly exploiting the uneducated in an effort to turn a fast buck denies a fundamental rule of our collective experience of reality – the fact that our world is rarely black and white, but actually very many shades of grey.
As anyone who has stopped by my blog and read my fortnightly Woo Watch knows, I like to point the finger and laugh just as much as the next Skeptic, take a humorous snipe at those who make a career from believing the impossible or those who should in general know better, and for that very reason I never thought I’d become an advocate for a conscience within the Skeptical movement. But even I draw the line at the sort of black and white thinking that I have witnessed in numerous places recently, especially online, and the horrible thought that Skepticism itself might be falling into the same dogmatic patterns that we accuse others of. I didn’t come here to stand in the light of reason to watch my new island of truth sink into the same closed-minded belief based nonsense that I abhorred back when I was forced to attend a Church of England primary school in my distant youth, and I won’t watch it start down that slippery slope without voicing my concern.
For example, what do you think of when I say Psychic? Can there even be such a thing? Not according to our current understanding the world, no. I know that, you know that, and we all have a good laugh when we see one trying, and inevitably failing, Randi’s million dollar challenge. But not everyone is a Derek Accorah or Sylvia Browne. Some of these people actually believe in what they are doing, and they hold nothing but the desire to help others with what they erroneously perceive as their oh-so-special gifts. They are most likely not suffering from a mental illness, despite the frankly asinine statements I have heard recently, and while it could be argued that they are deluded, the most likely explanation is that they are uneducated and unable to understand exactly what is going on inside their own heads. They are seeking meaning in a world without a definite personal narrative, and just like the less hardcore Conspiracy believers, teen Witches and disinterested but loyal Religious adherents they make the best of the shreds of data that they have, never wondering if it is the right answer because they lack the vocabulary to even ask the question in the first place.
The bottom line is, we are the good guys in all this, helping to steer those who would know no better towards those very answers, as defined by the scientific method and critical thinking, and away from making the sorts of uninformed errors that result in them selling grandma to pay for just one more reading with Mystic Bob or donating the last of their wages to the slick preacher on cable TV. We should champion critical thinking, true, but that’s where the criticality should stop. While some of those out there in Woo Woo land are guilty of knowingly deceiving others, just as many are sadly convinced of their ability to defy the laws of our consensus reality, and through education, not humiliation, will we reach them. We are Skeptics, not cynics, and what use is our movement, our desire for change, if all we do is become that what we despise and see the world through the same black and white perceptual blinkers that leads inevitably to fundamentalism, in the process playing right into the hands of those who would accuse us all of adhering to a religion based upon science while seemingly pretending otherwise?
What do you get when you cross growing American religious fundamentalism and a burning desire for the End of Days with the get rich quick schemes of a group of Church elders blindly following the prophesies of a single, charismatic man into a state of sour confusion when nothing actually happens? How does the average follower in the street deal with their ongoing existence when the longed for end, as anyone with half a rational brain would expect, comes to nothing and leaves those supposed true believers waiting for answers a day wiser and in certain cases a whole lot poorer after selling up and donating their wallets wholesale to the church?
You would think that anyone claiming to be rational and skeptical in their approach to investigation would be unlikely to spread misinformation and, if anything, they would fight misinformation being spread by the less rational people out there.
However the sad reality is that some people who do claim to be rational and skeptical in their approach to their research do promote misinformation and sometimes don’t even realise it. This is a scary truth.
If somebody claims to be credible – or pretends to be if they believe it will made them seem more professional – and they start talking about ideas that seem scientific and factual then people will assume that they know exactly what they are talking about, and that the ideas these people are promoting are true.
It’s bad enough in the paranormal research field when people who don’t have an ounce of common sense or rationalism in them spread misinformation – yet, these people who typically hold some sort of bias due to belief promote such pseudo-theories that are easy to spot. “Orbs are paranormal”, “ouija boards are evil”, “ghosts use our energy” – all of which can be read about on our ‘Fact vs. fiction’ page.