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.
The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) is pleased to announce the recipients of the academic scholarships for 2009 - 2010. Each year, a total of $10,000 is awarded to students who have shown extraordinary ability in using critical thinking in their field of study, who will actively pursue building critical thinking skills into their field, and who research the use of critical thinking in their field.
These qualities are judged by how closely they reflect the goals and values of the James Randi Educational Foundation: bringing critical thinking to the public, exposing pseudoscientific frauds, and promoting real science and rationality.
The 2009 - 2010 academic scholarships awardees are:
Stephen Folmsbee ($5000: Top Prize)
Mr. Folmsbee is an honors student and senior undergraduate at the University of Kansas. He is majoring in Neurobiology and plans to attend medical school. He has an impressive 4.0 GPA and boasts an extensive list of honors and awards. He is an active skeptic, promoting critical thinking and evidence-based medicine via writing a column in his university paper. He is passionate about continuing to advocate skepticism and science to his peers.
James Lippard ($2500)
Mr. Lippard holds an MA in philosophy/cognitive science and has been accepted to the Arizona State University's PhD program in "Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology", where he will research how the Internet spreads information and misinformation, including how people make judgments about trust, reliability, and the reputation of Internet sources. A simple web search on James' name will pop up years of his writings and scholarly efforts in combating pseudoscience and promoting reason. He has a long history of active skepticism, including founding the Phoenix Skeptics and serving as its Executive Director.
Mehnaz Jehan ($1500)
Ms. Jehan will be working on a PhD relating to the field of Educational Leadership at Pennsylvania State University. She intends to use her degree in her continuing effort to improve education for girls and women in her home country of Pakistan. In her own words (excerpted from her application essay) she will use her PhD to "work at a decision making level to provide optimal opportunities in education for women and girls in my region (Northern Pakistan) so that most of the myths related to their roles and education are removed to the maximum."
Jay Tarnoff ($1000)
Mr. Tarnoff holds a BS in Psychology, a BS in Human Development and Family Studies, and a BA in Religious Studies, all from Penn State. In addition he obtained an MEd in School Psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia where he continues his research and work on a PhD in that field. The university has accepted his PhD dissertation proposal entitled "An Investigation into the Role of Confirmation Bias in the Evaluation of Informal Reasoning Fallacies" which relates nicely to the JREF mission component of increasing our understanding of how people mistakenly come to believe weird things.
James Randi, JREF Founder and Chairman of the Board of Directors, is pleased to offer these scholarships to support the recipients’ academic endeavors. “Getting people to think critically can be very difficult, but we’re greatly encouraged by the dedication and vision of these young researchers. We’re very glad to be able to support them in their work, and we expect to see great things from them in the future.”
The academic scholarship awardees are chosen by a committee consisting of scientific researchers and outreach professionals. This is the third contiguous year of scholarship grants, and over the course of the program well over $30,000 has been given to deserving applicants. More information about the scholarships, including applications for the awards, can be found at the JREF Academic Scholarship page.
The JREF was established in 1996 as a registered 501(c)3 organization under the IRS code, and as such, all donations to the Foundation are tax-exempt to the full extent under the law. For further information and media inquiries, contact the JREF: Via phone: +1-954-467-1112 Via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
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.