Monthly Archives: September 2015

What is “practical skepticsm”? Sharon Hill and others explain

“They really want answers, and they deserve answers,” says Sharon Hill, operator of the questionable claim aggregator Doubtful News. You might think the “they” she’s referring to is the kind of skeptics who visit her site for the more critical view on hot news stories, but it’s actually the people who tend to genuinely accept those tall tales as real.

Doubtful News provides scientifically-based rebuttals to the usual targets of modern skepticism, like creationism and anti-vaccine hysteria, but it also includes a healthy dose of “Bigfoot skepticism.”

sharonSharon Hill, from Wikimedia Commons

“I got a lot of shit for that,” says Hill of her decision to continue hammering on monsters and ghosts, topics many of today’s skeptics consider too silly to bother with. Hill still sees value in addressing those issues.

“There are so many people who invest so much time, money and effort into searching for Bigfoot, looking for ghosts and chasing UFOs,” Hill says. “There has to be a counter voice for that.”

Getting the right information into people’s hands is the kind of “practical skepticism” that Hill highlighted while leading a panel discussion at the 13th annual Amaz!ng Meeting, sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation, this July. Joining her were British physicist Simon Singh, famous for fighting a lawsuit that eventually led to reform in the U.K.’s libel laws, and Susan Gerbic, best known for her Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) campaign.

Singh, who now heads up the hands-on Good Thinking Society,  spoke of his legal victory over the British Chiropractic Association, as well as his first effort to “do something about bad science,” in which he exposed the lack of concern exhibited when alternative medicine practitioners suggested homeopathic remedies to prevent malaria.

singhSimon Singh gives the TAM crowd the low-down. Photo by Brian Engler.

Singh also described his simplest action that led to better public education:  complaining. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) ran a television series on alternative medicine in 2006 that demonstrated the frightening practice of using acupuncture as an anesthetic during surgery. Many scientists who participated in the program thought the final product misrepresented what had actually happened, so Singh filed a formal complaint with the BBC. They didn’t buckle immediately, but several news articles and appeals later, the BBC finally admitted that some scenes “could have misled the audience.”

“It goes to show how one complaint can make a difference,” Singh said.

“We are out to change the world,” Susan Gerbic told the crowd. But rather than fighting City Hall, Gerbic prefers to get the best information in front of the greater public by making sure it’s on the world’s seventh most-viewed website, Wikipedia.

“We have to have it in a place to get beyond the choir,” Gerbic said.

One of the main goals of Gerbic’s Guerrilla Skepticism is to beautify, in a sense, the Wikipedia pages of prominent skeptics and skeptical conferences. That means building the pages into more than just stubs, making sure they’re well-written (in many different languages) and even including the best photographs possible.

gerbicSusan Gerbic is Big Pharma Shilling (in case you couldn’t read the shirt). Photo by Brian Engler

Anyone can volunteer for GSoW, and those are the kinds of tasks the newest members will be trained to tackle. After getting their feet wet, volunteers might move on to editing the pages of actual fringe topics to make sure the information presented is accurate, well-cited and neutral. It’s not enough to just clean up the skeptics’ pages.

“We also need to make sure the crap is off all the other ones,” Gerbic said.

“Most of what I spend my time on is aimed at the general audience,” Hill said, explaining that Doubtful News is meant to confront strange ideas in the mass media directly. Those stories could be bad interpretations of studies or ones that use “sciencey” sounding language to prop up spurious claims. Sadly, the Internet is not always kind to the skeptical perspective.

“Search engines end up kind of the becoming the mirrors of society,” Hill said, and pro-paranormal stories are almost always at the top of search engine results. Still, some presence is better than no presence.

“All I can do is put out that extra skeptical view and hope somebody reads it,” Hill said.

And if that doesn’t work, take it to the streets. Hill even goes that extra step and interacts with paranormal groups in person, with mixed results.

“They don’t usually like me around,” Hill says.

In addition to Doubtful News, Sharon Hill started the website Practical Skepticism this year to more directly address these kinds of issues.