TCS Daily

The Two Skepticisms

By Kenneth Silber - February 4, 2002 12:00 AM

Who are "the skeptics" in America today - the defenders of science and rationality, the scrutinizers and debunkers of dubious and unwarranted claims?

The above question, stated in deliberately broad terms, could generate diverse answers. A variety of intellectuals, organizations and publications fit the bill. That might sound like a good thing, if one is sympathetic (as I am) to a science-based skepticism. But there's a problem. The skeptics tend to fall into two groupings that don't often talk to one another, aren't sure if they like each other, and fail to see how much they have in common.

On one hand are avatars of what might be called "junk-science skepticism," which targets overblown or unfounded environmental or health scares. Such skepticism, dealing with matters ranging from global warming and mass extinction to asbestos and chlorine, is an important element of conservative and libertarian publications and think tanks. It is the main focus of specialized operations such as columnist Steven Milloy's and physicist S. Fred Singer's Science and Environmental Policy Project.

On the other hand (and ever watchful for sleight of hand) are exponents of what I'll call "pseudoscience skepticism," which examines alleged phenomena in areas including parapsychology, astrology, cryptozoology and alternative medicine. Such skepticism is propounded by groups such as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), the Skeptics Society, and the James Randi Educational Foundation. It is a feature, to varying degrees, of broadly focused science magazines.

The junk-science skeptics and the pseudoscience skeptics share many intellectual tools and attitudes. Both groups insist on the importance of evidence in making and assessing claims. Both are adept at sniffing out biased data sets, unreliable anecdotes, sloppy thinking and outright fraud. Both seek to defend good science by exposing bad science.

Therefore, one might think there would be a sense that the two groups are engaged in a common cause. One might expect to find some of the same people and institutions engaged in both efforts, or at least expressing some interest or sympathy for the doings of the other branch of the skeptics' movement. One might assume there's simply a healthy division of labor, with different types of skeptics focusing on different types of claims.

But actually, the two skepticisms show little sign of cooperation or communication, and sometimes work at cross purposes. CSICOP and the Skeptics Society, and their respective publications Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic, rarely deflate environmental or health scares. Conservative magazines show little interest in criticizing bogus science that's not related to environmental or health scares. If conservative or libertarian think tanks address alternative medicine, it's usually to argue why it should not be subject to stricter regulation. If science magazines discuss global-warming skeptics, it's likely to be with a cool lack of enthusiasm.

It is not my suggestion that the groups involved in skepticism should paper over their ideological differences, or that they should abandon all specialization in what they do. But the current fragmentation does not serve skepticism well. It lessens the intellectual resources that skeptics can bring to bear on particular issues. And it opens skeptics up to charges of double standards: Why are you skeptical about this thing that I like but not about that thing that you like?

Surely, there is room for greater collaboration between the two skepticisms. Why not a conference on "Skepticism and Health" that would scrutinize claims made for herbal dietary supplements as well as alarms sounded by the activist "food police"? Why not a symposium on "Physics and Energy" that would assess the science of a diverse range of energy proposals, everything from cold fusion to wind-power to asteroid mining?

Why not a single skeptics' movement embracing a healthy diversity, rather than two movements that know or care little about what the other is doing?

Kenneth Silber is a writer based in New York City.

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