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How Can Skepticism Do Better?

I am delighted to contribute an essay to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and its wonderful magazine, Skeptical Inquirer (SI), both of which I have been honored to be affiliated with for the past fifteen years. CSI and SI have ample reason to be proud of their myriad accomplishments. They have helped to make skepticism a household word in many quarters and brought tens of thousands of individuals—laypersons, students, and academicians, among many others—into the fold of the skeptical movement. Moreover, they have served as invaluable resources for scholars, teachers, and laypersons. In my field of psychology, CSI and SI have inspired thousands of college and high-school instructors to incorporate scientific thinking into their curricula. I am one of them, and I very much doubt that I would have developed my successful “Science and Pseudoscience in Psychology” undergraduate seminar at Emory University (see Lilienfeld et al. 2001) were it not for the tireless efforts and encouragement of CSI and SI.

To be true to its mission, though, skepticism must be skeptical of its own endeavors (Novella 2015; see also Horgan 2016 for a well-intentioned but less than successful effort in this regard). Hence, in this essay I look to the future and pose the question of what the skeptical movement could be doing better to advance its laudable goals.

Before doing so, I should be up front about my biases. I am a psychologist by training, and I tend to think about pseudoscientific and otherwise questionable beliefs though a distinctly psychological lens. By that I mean that I strive not merely to debunk erroneous beliefs but to understand why otherwise reasonable people often fall prey to them (see also Shermer 2002). As fascinated as I have been in evaluating the evidence—or lack thereof—underpinning pseudoscientific and otherwise questionable claims, my deeper interest has long been in why seemingly rational individuals, including prominent scientists, are so often seduced by these claims.

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