As a skeptic, I am faced with what I will call the “Debunker’s Dilemma.” Because there is such an incredible amount of misinformation, pseudoscience, and straight-up bunk out there, it appears that a skeptic’s stance on many beliefs is constantly “negative.” Not negative in the way of cynicism, but negative in the way that we are consistently reciting the phrase “You know that’s just a myth…” or something similar. Surf any skeptical forum like the skeptic subreddit and you will find many threads lamenting over ignorance with “myth this” and “nonsense that.” Again, this is the dirty work that must be done. However, when this bleeds over into the public sphere we get the (undeserved) “cynic” moniker. This is the dilemma we face: in order to counter nonsense, we are doomed to be ever seen as dismissive critics of people’s beliefs.
In this view, to me it is not a coincidence that people have this conception of us. Because there is orders of magnitude more pseudoscience than science out there, we are always too busy shooting down the junk to do much else. It is imperative that we continue to do this, but if we want people to understand the full range of skepticism we have to also stress the affirmatives. We need to live up to the charge of promoting science and critical thinking. In my observations, this is accomplished primarily within the skeptical community, and any outside exposure that we choose to endorse or create is mainly “debunking.” Don’t misunderstand me, debunking is a worthy cause and someone has to do it, but I want this movement to be positive. We need to be actually thought of as positive by the public, no matter what we may tell ourselves.
This is my call to the skeptical community: we need to get into the habit of promoting good science, critical thinking skills, and good causes in equal amounts with debunking (or at least more than we do now). I am not saying that the skeptical community has never done this, campaigns like “Hug Me I’m Vaccinated” are wonderful promotions of good science and a good cause with a skeptical bent, but I think we can do more. As hard as we try now, we are still faced with the dilemma: to the public a skeptic equals a cynic.
With the same zeal that we handle ESP, homeopathy, and creationists, we can more actively promote a positive skepticism. This aspect of the skeptical movement would probably resemble a general science education program, which many skeptics are trying to branch out into (like Michael Shermer’s new Skepticism 101 program and the JREF’s educational modules), but it is critically lacking in my view. We bemoan the poor state of education in critical thinking, so why not devote at least a few more resources into addressing that problem? My fellow JREF colleague Dr. Steve Novella has just produced a new lecture series aiming to deal with this very issue, but he is in the minority. We have the brainpower and the technical skills to equate in people’s mind science and reason with skepticism. I want a skeptic to be seen as anyone who uses reason to move accurately through the world, and not just someone who doesn’t believe in certain things like Bigfoot or angels.
The skeptical community routinely supports educational organizations like the National Center for Science Education, but perhaps we farm out too much of the responsibility they bear. I am happy to see many skeptic conferences now offering things like museum tours and the like, as it is the love of and interest in science that presumably lead most of us to skepticism. I for one was a science geek all my life and the skeptical movement just happened to fit that upbringing. But I do not see many avenues in the modern skeptical movement that could provide this kind of ground-up education. Compounding the deficiency, the largest skeptical organizations are stretched pretty thin as it is, so it is hard for them to branch out into advocacy.
I know that we are a positive bunch. We love science, we love rationality, and we love the community we are in. I want the public to see us that way. So bring attention to worthy causes, support pro-science organizations (not just the ones we are familiar with) and movements, tweet, blog, or talk about the things we can do to advance skepticism in a positive way. Specifically this could be getting involved with your local school board to give your two cents about the science curriculum. It could be going to a college’s biology colloquium and writing or talking about it with friends. It could be starting a local effort to get your neighborhood vaccinated. Or it could be as simple as taking your kids to a museum instead of the movie theater. Again, these sound less like skeptical goals and more like general science education goals, but to me it is clear that a strong scientific background flows much more easily into skepticism than the other way around (even more obvious if you look at the backgrounds of our best advocates like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye, or Phil Plait).
A well-rounded skeptic knows how to sort the science from the pseudoscience, but also does the opposite of debunking by engendering positive skeptical values that inoculate against nonsense. We do not have to be a reactionary movement that has to scramble when the newest irrationality comes out. We can’t be effective as the pseudoscience TSA. By more vigorously promoting scientific inquiry and critical thinking skills, separate from any notions of debunking, we can go on the offensive.
Kyle Hill is the JREF research fellow specializing in communication research and human information processing. He writes daily at the Science-Based Life blog and you can follow him on Twitter here.