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Why Skepticism?

Sasquatch, Broken Windows, and Public Policy

Why do we have skeptic organizations? Let’s look at the evidence.

As a philosopher, I ask a lot of “why” questions, such as the notorious one often associated with philosophers: Why are we here? No, seriously. Why are we here? Why are we here? Why do self-described skeptics get together and exchange ideas, listen to speakers, plan skeptic-related activities, and so forth? In other words: Why skepticism?

That question may be a little broad to start, so for now, let me make it more concrete: Why skeptic organizations? It’s one thing for people with similar interests to get together on occasion— that’s inevitable—but why do we have formal skeptic organizations? What do they accomplish? There are a number of skeptic organizations throughout the world. In the United States, there are several regional and local organizations and a couple of national organizations such as the Center for Inquiry (CFI) and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI). What purpose do they serve? Well, in the case of the CFI/CSI, one thing they do is publish SKEPTICAL INQUIRER magazine. It’s a very good, informative magazine, but of course a cynic might ask: Isn’t the magazine just another example of skeptics talking to other skeptics? Is SKEPTICAL INQUIRER anything more than a forum for conversation among skeptics and a useful way to raise money for the organization so the organization can pay people to publish the magazine, which raises money for the organization to pay people to publish the magazine . . . and so on?

That’s the cynic’s view, of course— and I’m no cynic. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER does not exist just to raise money to perpetuate itself; it serves an important educational function. But before I discuss some of the important purposes served by skeptic organizations and the skeptic movement, let me pause to explain why I am asking these questions. Originally when I planned this piece, I was going to focus almost exclusively on the public policy initiatives of CSI and CFI—especially in the area of alternative medicine. I’m still going to talk about those, because I think they are important and I think they illustrate one critical part of the mission of skeptic organizations. But I changed my focus somewhat because of something that happened a few months ago. At another skeptic conference, namely the NECSS conference (the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism), John Horgan, a science journalist, delivered a blistering attack on the skeptic movement (Horgan 2016). In particular, Horgan accused skeptics of spending their time attacking so-called soft targets such as homeopathy and Bigfoot, while ignoring harder targets, such as the use of drugs to treat mental illness—which he thinks are largely ineffective and possibly harmful—and war, which he argues we should not regard as inevitable, and is certainly not deep rooted in human nature.

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The Selfish Gene revisited RICHARD DAWKINS JAMES RANDI Interview CSICon Las Vegas 2016 A Special Section God's Own Medicine PAUL A. OFFIT and more...
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