What's the value of skepticism? That's an easy question. There may be a lot of valid answers, but skepticism helps us discern truth from fiction. That can be the truth of which health-claims to trust, whether to be afraid of aliens violating us in the night, or whether to play that street card game. But what is the value of Skepticism? The movement, the self-identification, the world-view, the community?
I've met so many people who tell me a similar "origin story." It's a variant on this theme:
I used to believe in [mystery-X] and I read all about it and watched television shows about it. When a conference was near me I would go. But over time I began to realize that the claims of [mystery-X] were vague, and that there wasn't any hard evidence. And I began to doubt [mystery-X] and eventually I concluded that there was nothing there. And then I thought, hey - what about [mystery-Y]? - and again and again they failed to show me the evidence. Then one day I heard about Skepticism through a podcast and realized that these Skeptics were just like me.
That story is my story too. But before I found out about "capital-S" Skepticism, I had spent ten years doing my own investigations and research. Just for me. Just to answer that pressing question, "Is that real?" So when I found out there was a vibrant web community of Skeptics I got quite excited. I never felt welcome on most of the UFO, Ghost, Psychic and Cryptozoology sites I visited - and mostly was a reader, not a joiner.
As Swift readers will know, I get very strange letters and e-mail. No, "very strange" doesn't describe them. Here's an example, from a mercifully un-named correspondent who started to apply for the JREF million-dollar prize, but first insisted on talking to me to explain his delusion conviction. That's the last thing I want to get involved in, believe me! When I explained that I only wanted his application, he sent me this e-mail:
Know this. Sound and mind are very very powerful frequencies as far as I am aware they do not have boundraries [sic] like distance that affect them.
If you would like to have a chat I invite you to email me back or call me. I am still developing my powers and must advance with caution because of what effect they may have and how bad I would feel if I accidentally killed someone.
As many of you know, I recently spoke at Dragon*Con, which was an absolute blast. Dragon*Con's crowd is a bit different than what you'd encounter at TAM or any of the other skeptics conferences in that the people there aren't necessarily skeptics. This leads to questions like... "Where can I learn more about skepticism?" That's a larger topic than this article will allow, but I CAN tell you what should be in your mailbox.
There are several excellent publications out there. I consider these "must read" material.
Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel at Dragon*Con's Skeptrack called ‘How to Combat Woo'. I was honored to be invited to speak with Phil Plait, Jeff Wagg, D. J. Grothe from the Center of Inquiry, and Maria Walters, a founding member of the Atlanta Skeptics and blogger on Skepchick.org. Phil has written about this here and about a new Grassroots Skeptics site here, which I'm excited about. The theme for my part of the panel was "Rome Wasn't Built in a Day."
I enjoy attending TAM and Dragon*Con, and was fortunate to attend several of the JREF-sponsored cruises. In addition to have my skeptical batteries recharged, I enjoyed the community, and miss it when I go home. I live in the Houston area, and had been meeting informally with locals who I met at these conferences or through the JREF forum. In discussing the lack of a skeptical group with fellow Houstonians Sam Ogden (also a blogger on Skepchick), friend Eric Prim and friend Elaine Gilman, who started the Denver Skeptics meetup group, now known as the Mile High Skeptics, we formed the Houston Skeptics site on Meetup.com. I often talk to people who say ‘there is no skeptics group in my area', but as you will see, it's a relatively simple matter to start a group.
We encounter many interesting people in the course of our daily dealings with the JREF $1,000,000 Challenge applicants. Many folks are sincere and believe they truly have a paranormal or supernatural ability that they can demonstrate to us. Of these, some are simply mistaken. Dowsing, the most common claim, can easily fool average people into believing in the paranormal, and though we can completely explain what's happening, they find it hard to let go of that "special" feeling.