The concerns of scientific skeptics cover an astonishingly wide range of issues, with an equal variety of emphases and approaches. The articles in this issue typify that.
Jeanne Goldberg’s cover article, “The Politicization of Scientific Issues,” is as timely as today’s headlines, but she approaches the subject with deep philosophical and historical context. In her first essay for SI, she takes us back to Lucretius, who insightfully championed a naturalistic, scientific worldview; to Galileo’s disgust at critics not looking through his telescope to see for themselves the wonders of the solar system; to our Enlightenment-era “citizen-scientist” Founding Fathers, who treasured both philosophy and science; to subsequent nineteenth-century trends of religiosity and anti-authoritarianism in America’s westward expansion; to America’s continuing strands of anti-intellectualism that Richard Hofstadter described more than half a century ago; to today’s War on Science (not just a telling phrase but the title of Shawn Otto’s voluminous and insightful 2016 book on the topic).
Stephen Barrett, MD, famed for his Quackwatch website, examines “The Fakery of Electrodermal Screening,” one of many bogus devices and techniques alternative practitioners promote with little to no regard for scientific evidence or, apparently, ethical scruples. In “The Fallacy Fork: Why It’s Time to Get Rid of Fallacy Theory,” philosopher Maarten Boudry engages in some inward-looking self-criticism of one of the key tools skeptics use: pointing out the logical fallacies the credulous employ. Calling out such fallacies may seem useful to skeptics, but Boudry argues provocatively that they aren’t what they’re cracked up to be and they are counterproductive in skeptical analysis. Skeptics might at first disagree, but his argument demands reflection. And in “Bigfoot as Myth: Seven Phases of Mythmaking,” our longtime senior research fellow, Joe Nickell, does another type of skeptical treatment: a broad synthesis of fifty years (since the famous “Bigsuit” photo) of the evolution of the Bigfoot myth, from its earliest origins through a series of transformations. But, he concludes, it all still adds up to one thing: imaginary creature.
Our regular columnists, as always, likewise cover broad territory, including Nickell’s storied ghosts of Australia; James Randi’s pungent put-down of polygraph tests; Massimo Polidoro’s examination of the murderous Monster of Florence; Matthew Nisbet’s thoughtful consideration of better ways to advance evolution teaching in college without turning off religious students; Stuart Vyse’s look at the fascinating psychology professor Daryl Bem and one of the most serious statistical flaws of some past research papers in psychology and parapsychology; and Benjamin Radford’s reply to a poor fellow who thinks he is seeing and videotaping plasma orbs.
As I have said before, scientific skeptics do it all, from investigating a host of what we might at first think are trivial claims (which if not countered can lead to much worse misinformation) to thoughtful examination of changing (and troubling) social, cultural, and political trends in attitudes toward science, thinking, and, indeed, knowledge itself.