As self-identified skeptics, what's the value in learning to tease the logical fallacies out of a bad argument? What's the value of compensating for our cognitive biases or recognizing our own motivated reasoning? Or learning how to criticize in a manner that doesn't sacrifice civility for substance? Or how to evaluate the quality of evidence? Or how to compose a sound argument that can persuade rather than alienate?
Contemporary skepticism has long prized the mastery of these "tools of skeptical thinking" not only for how they can help each of us to become more thoughtful and articulate critical thinkers, but also as a prerequisite to the activism of reducing the harm of nonsense.
As an example, Carl Sagan's notable "baloney detection kit" enumerated these core tools employed by scientists and hinted at the value of their broad application outside of science: "Like all tools, the baloney detection kit can be misused, applied out of context, or even employed as a rote alternative to thinking. But applied judiciously, it can make all the difference in the world--not least in evaluating our own arguments before we present them to others." (The Demon-Haunted World, p.216, Random House 1995)
So if the tools of skepticism can be misused, then perhaps they aren't so different from the tools of ordinary life, where the lack of training in the safe and proper use of a hammer will as likely result in the smashing of one's thumb as the successful driving of a nail?
But how exactly does a budding skeptic acquire and eventually master these skills--to use the baloney detection kit as Sagan intended above?
Next month at TAM, speakers like Steve Novella and Carol Tavris may extol the value of one of these tools and dive into the details on its proper use. Those budding skeptics attending might avail themselves the opportunity to learn from the hard-won knowledge and experience of Novella or Tavris. Even us journeymen skeptics may learn a few new tricks.
But attending a lecture or panel is for most of us a passive experience, much as listening to a podcast or reading a book or blog article. We tend not to retain much of what we hear and leave much behind. So the content of a lecture may start us down the road of acquiring these skills, but will it get us very far?
What does it take to level up--to become skilled wielders of the tools of skepticism? How do we avoid smashing our thumbs?
"Give people the tools to think, help them to become better thinkers"
-- Ray Hyman, in a 2010 interview by D.J. Grothe
Our organizations have offered hands-on training to improve our knowledge and skills in this domain. The JREF offers several regional workshops each year. Since 1989 CSICOP's Skeptic's Toolbox has offered intensive, multi-day training in a campus setting in Oregon.
However the reach of these efforts is necessarily constrained by the limited staff and resources of these organizations. While contributing our money and time can help sustain (and possibly grow) these efforts, I'd offer that this is an area ripe for innovation in which we rank-and-file skeptics can assume greater ownership, challenge assumptions and change our expectations of what it means to be a skeptic.
That's a bold statement, admittedly. What does it mean to innovate in this area? I think it starts with understanding the limitations of existing efforts and then exploring alternatives that have a shot at helping each of us to become better and more articulate skeptics.
We might speak highly of the rich paths to skill development as those offered by our organizations, but I fear that the structured model is a dead end for the vast majority of us skeptics, and not merely because of the aforementioned constraints. Even for those of us who desire to attend, we are deterred by the barriers of geography and language, limited vacation days and our household budget. But what if Toolbox-like events could be held in more places, we might ask? Perhaps, but mounting events in the traditional, curated model is often a complex undertaking involving financial risk. What if only a fraction of the planned registrations actually materialize after the airline tickets have been purchased, the catering contract signed and the venue reserved? Who assumes that risk?
Do there exist alternatives in offering this hands-on training to skeptics? The list of pertinent questions can become mind numbing. What might we want from such an alternative? Does it have to be a formal event? If so, who determines the program? Does it require financing or sponsorship? Does it need professional staff? Experienced organizers? How is the event promoted? How often will it happen, and where? In what ways do we want it broadly accessible?
But for me there exists one question more disruptive than all the rest combined: Is the teacher-student model strictly necessary, or could this training be peer-driven?
As it happens, one such event-oriented innovation is already upon us. On a recent Saturday afternoon in Fort Collins, Colorado one such experiment of international scope has reached a minor milestone.
We call the experiment 'SkeptiCamp', an innovative model in do-it-yourself conferencing that has its origins in the technical community with the wildly successful Barcamp. It adapts Barcamp to the domain of contemporary skepticism.
Better that we call Barcamp an 'unconferencing' model, as it turns inside out our expectations of why we might have conferences and how we participate in them. Where we might attend one of our traditional events and passively consume the lectures and panels of notable skeptics, with SkeptiCamp it's instead each one (or many) of us doing the careful research on a topic to present to our peers, with hands being raised for questions during the talk itself. (Quality control being necessarily collaborative at open events to limit the damage of misinformation.)
For prospective organizers the Barcamp model is similarly unconventional in helping amateurs as ourselves compensate for our lack of experience in bringing events together. By keeping things simple and relying on collaboration among organizers, we ensure that an inordinate burden does not rest upon the few. Keeping the events free to attend (or at nominal cost in certain big cities) ensures that they are accessible to all. Keeping the events open and uncurated sidesteps the tension of competing goals among participants and organizers.
Fort Collins' SkeptiCamp marked their second such event. It was also the 50th open skeptic event since we began this experiment back in the summer of 2007.
We've seen events from Kentucky to Madrid, on three continents and five countries with talks numbered in the hundreds and participants in the thousands. With the first Spanish language events in the past year, it's no longer limited to English-speaking skeptics.
Last year (2011) we saw 16 events in big cities to small college campuses. Approximately 270 of us stepped up to offer a short talk to our peers--that's nearly 17 talks per event on average. Total attendance was something over a thousand--that's 62.5 participants per event on average.
The model looks to be sustainable, with 83% of the cities that had events in 2010 repeating with an event in 2011.
This year (2012) we expect continued growth as events recur with expansion into new cities and more skeptics gain a taste of what open events can offer.
In closing, labels are cheap. My merely calling myself a skeptic doesn't mean that I've acquired or value the skills of this domain, or much less that I'm even aware that such skills exist.
The open conference model of SkeptiCamp stands available as one such tool at our disposal to provide an opportunity for each of us to develop, refine and perhaps even master these skills. It's a model with reach. If Barcamp is any measure, SkeptiCamp has the potential to push into any corner of the world where an informal group of skeptics is present.
You can support SkeptiCamp, but there is no central organization in which to send money. You support this initiative by studying the Barcamp model and organizing an event. Or better yet by giving a talk at one, or at the very least attending and interacting with your fellow participants.
But seriously, do a talk.
Reed Esau co-organized the inaugural SkeptiCamp event with Rich Ludwig and Crystal Yates-White back in 2007 after attending TAM for the first time. For more info on SkeptiCamp, visit http://skepticamp.org