When CSICOP and the Skeptical Inquirer were founded in 1976, the nation was awash in credulous paranormal belief, so much so that our organizing conference was called “The New Irrationalisms.” It is now 2018, and a whole new set of anti-rationalist, antiscience, anti-intellectual concerns confront us. These are of a much broader and deeper danger. The attacks are against the very foundations of any democratic society. They delegitimize knowledge, facts, expertise, and science itself. They sow confusion and distrust.
“We now live in a scary and confusing ‘post-truth’ era of disinformation, ‘fake news,’ ‘counterknowledge,’ ‘weaponized lies,’ conspiracy theories, magical thinking, and irrationalism,” anthropology professor H. Sidky writes in our cover story. Many recent SI articles have examined different aspects of this disturbing trend, but in “The War on Science, Anti-Intellectualism, and ‘Alternative Ways of Knowing’ in 21st Century America” Sidky surveys the whole troubling scene. Like Shawn Otto in his recent book The War on Science, Sidky lays primary blame on “the decades-long systematic academic assault on science and rationalism” carried out by a wide range of academic scholars. These postmodernist scholars were so effective in their persistent attacks that science and rationality have, in the minds of much of the public, been delegitimized. Today’s political leaders and policymakers grew up with these views. Now the idea that truth is whatever one wants it to be—that objective reality is, well, overrated—carries disturbing new power. We see it everywhere, and we must continue to fight it. Sidky’s essay, it seems to me, vibrates in consonance with Kurt Andersen’s recent book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, recommended reading for all. My own commentary, “In Troubled Times, This Is What We Do,” in this issue is my clarion call for action.
In their talks at our CSICon 2017 conference in Las Vegas in late October, our colleagues Steven Novella and Eugenie Scott touched on some of what all this means for scientific skeptics. Novella says we are now in a “post-truth world.” Scott explains the causes of knowledge-resistance and reminds us that the current antiscience movement is not against all science—which she notes remains popular—but only certain ones. In other words, antiscience is selective and nuanced. It’s a slight comfort. Their talks are among those highlighted in our extensive coverage of CSICon in this issue. CSICon shines as a bright beacon for live celebration of science and scientific skepticism and penetrating examinations of claims and issues where the scientific evidence is misunderstood or misrepresented. It is the same mission we have in SI but has the extra value of bringing scientists and skeptics together in person from all over the world to share their experiences and reinvigorate their enthusiasm. (The five-woman “Science Moms” panel did that for me.) Also, no matter how bad things may seem, we must keep reminding ourselves that scientific discovery is still proceeding strongly and that most people find it worthwhile. (What many have rated the top science discovery of 2017, detecting the collision of two rotating neutron stars, happened only two weeks before CSICon but was dramatically described in the opening talk.) We must also remember that communicating about what scientific thinking is, how real discoveries are made, and how to spot and critique questionable claims is a high and noble calling.