Spreading Skepticism

Wendy M. Grossman

Recently, the science writer John Horgan took skeptics to task in Scientific American and at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism for focusing too much on weak problems at the expense of strong ones. As examples of soft targets he listed ESP, heaven, homeopathy, Bigfoot, and disbelief in vaccines and climate change; among hard ones, multiverses, the Singularity, overtreatment and overtesting for cancer (notably, mammograms), overmedication for mental illness, and the deep-roots theory of war. He contended that tribalism is served by our self-indulgence with “weak” targets.

Horgan was quickly advised how varied skepticism really is. Outside the United States, widespread belief in homeopathy matters much more if governments decide to include it in publicly funded, cash-strapped national health services at the expense of more effective treatments. Here, Bigfoot can only wish for such importance. But, as the late journalist Simon Hoggart said, even seemingly insignificant beliefs create “a distracting background interference with the truth.”

As for mammograms . . .

The first time I heard a scientist question the value of screening mammograms was in Dublin in 1988, when Dr. Petr Skrabanek outlined to me the arguments he made in his 1985 letter to The Lancet. Skrabanek, whom I met a year and a half after founding Britain’s The Skeptic magazine, was my first “skeptic about skepticism.” In 2013, a Cochrane survey noted that the most reliable studies indicate that screening does not overall reduce breast cancer mortality but does cause much unnecessary treatment. It’s not a good target for skeptics in general, however, because most of us are not medical experts capable of mounting trials.

This goes to the heart of what, for me, skepticism is about: things we can test. Probably everyone knows at least one woman who knows that a mammogram saved her life with early detection. We can’t test this any more than we can test whether the heavy weight pressing on someone’s chest in the middle of the night was sleep paralysis, an alien visitor, or a ghost. We can only consider probabilities.

Some people are born to skepticism, some achieve it, and some have it thrust upon them. I think I was born this way. (“Everything I say, there’s always an argument,” my mother used to say.) As a Cornell student from 1971–1975, I watched friends experiment with transcendental meditation (TM) and Erhard Seminars Training (est). I became a professional folksinger and spent the rest of the 1970s encountering adherents of “old knowledge”—witchcraft, palmistry, and other beliefs that would shortly be reframed as “New Age.” Particularly memorably, someone once told me he investigated a reincarnation claim and found the true explanation was genetic memory. Inwardly, I was like, “That’s absurd,” but I didn’t want to have to sleep in my car. In January 1981, I called a friend and said, “Let’s do something new and different for my birthday.” “I can’t,” he said. “I have to go write up this lecture/demonstration.” I said, “So I’ll come to that.”

“That” was James Randi, showing psychic surgery and metal bending, critiquing TM, and so on, and I thought he was . . . amazing. Here was someone who could provide a reasoned basis to all those “Seriously?” moments. That Martin Gardner and Isaac Asimov, whose work I knew from middle school, were Randi’s cofounders made CSICOP an organization worth following.

In late 1986, the then executive director of CSICOP, Mark Plummer, was pushing people to start local groups and suggested I start what became The Skeptic. The first responses were both exhilarating and sad. Exhilarating because people really wanted the magazine—people such as later editors Toby Howard and Chris French. Sad because so many wrote of their personal isolation.

I think Horgan’s complaints would have been more accurate then, when we all seemed to cycle through a relatively narrow range of common beliefs. In 1998, when I began my second stint as editor (I had handed it off to Toby Howard and Steve Donnelly in 1989), Michael Shermer’s work suggested it was essential to broaden our canvas to include scientific controversies such as climate change, science fraud, and education. How many times can you debunk astrology and stay interested?

Internationally, skepticism looks very different than in the United States, where the religious right has built huge controversies about evolution and reproductive rights, which are practically politically dead elsewhere. We “foreigners” can maintain our distance from matters of faith in ways that the U.S. “mother ship” cannot.

In 1991, I turned to specializing in what was then a barely born subject of interest: computers, freedom, and privacy or, as I often say, “the border wars between cyberspace and real life.” As the Internet increasingly became a political football, I began to notice the distinct trend toward policy-based evidence making, particularly in the areas of copyright, cryptography, and surveillance, where dissenting evidence is no more welcome than it is to an astrologer (“I know astrology is true,” an acquaintance said recently. “It’s mathematics.”) The FBI’s recent effort to compel Apple to hack one of its own phones was a great example of technological magical thinking. Dozens of mathematicians cited the laws of mathematics; many politicians refuse to believe there’s no “middle ground.” Over the past five to ten years, what were separate interests have converged, and in London it’s common to see my technical friends speaking at Skeptics in the Pub meets and skeptical friends becoming computers, freedom, and privacy activists.

In my technology writer capacity, the Singularity is an untestable claim. Perhaps artificial intelligence will outstrip human intelligence, continue to improve exponentially, and solve all our intractable problems. Many start-ups (such as the U.K.’s DeepMind, acquired by Google in 2014) hope that’s true. To date, experience has shown that we can’t solve social problems by throwing technology at them. The only available test is to wait and see.

However, the goal of the skeptical movement was never—or not for me—to debunk specific beliefs. Instead, it should be to spread critical thinking on whatever subject is shoved in front of us. For me, the most exciting thing is to look around Britain and see all the skeptical activity—The Skeptic magazine under the editorship of Deborah Hyde, more than 100 Skeptics in the Pub groups, the QED conference, ASKE—and to know the magazine helped make that happen. My greatest wish is that it will survive me.

Wendy M. Grossman

Wendy M. Grossman is an American freelance writer based in London. She is the founder of Britain's The Skeptic magazine, for which she served as editor from 1987-1989 and 1998-2000. For the last 30 years she has covered computers, freedom, and privacy for publications such as the Guardian, Scientific American, and New Scientist. She is a CSI Fellow.