Effective Science Activism and Three Thanks

Kendrick Frazier

We have published several recent articles arguing that to be persuasive in changing the minds of people who believe pseudoscientific claims and appealing misinformation, scientists and skeptics need some better tactics. In a way, Troy Campbell’s cover article, “Team Science,” is the culmination of this informal, continuing counseling course. Campbell, a social psychologist, is a professor of marketing (University of Oregon), and he brings not just a marketer’s understanding of persuasion to skeptics’ attention but that of a former “Imagineer” with Walt Disney as well. Who, after all, is more attuned to using all the tools of imagination and entertainment to draw us happily into their world than the creative people at Disney? Now, Disney’s studios and theme parks have a few more resources to bring to bear on their audiences than do scientific skeptics, but nevertheless some of what they have learned may be transferrable. Campbell, who spoke on this subject at CSICon 2018, offers a lot of practical advice. He agrees it’s unfair that scientists should have to do more than present “the facts,” but it is a fact that, to be effective in today’s world, they do. Also check out his handy sidebar, “Tips for Effective Activism.”

Conspiracy theories are everywhere. But how big a change is that? Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist (University of Miami) and a CSICon 2018 speaker, has been studying them for about a decade now. He and colleague Joseph M. Parent (University of Notre Dame) came up with a novel source of data to study the question: all 120,000 letters to the editor of The New York Times from 1890–2010. They looked for advocacy or refutation of a conspiracy theory and found, to great surprise, that they are not a new phenomenon: they seem to have existed during all eras studied. Conspiracy theories may be especially prevalent now in political discourse, but they have been a part of the American psyche for a long time. Uscinski’s article in this issue gives the details. Their book, American Conspiracy Theories, is quoted extensively in an article in the April 22 New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert.

Investigating a specific popular claim, or related group of them, probably is the prototypical type of Skeptical Inquirer article. But often our authors take a step back and examine a whole field and then present advice for how best to deal with it. That’s true of at least two contributions in this issue by our retinue of esteemed regular columnists. Joe Nickell starts with an unfortunate New Yorker article from March on premonitions that was notable for its lack of skepticism. He ends up providing nine specific guidelines for evaluating claimed premonitions, each with a small case study to illustrate. In her column, Harriet Hall gives a nuanced overview of alternative medicine and its flaws and then shows how proponents of naturopathy, homeopathy, chiropractic, acupuncture, and energy medicine all practice “science envy” in contending their treatments are backed by science, when, of course, they aren’t.

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Thank you to The Guardian newspaper (UK) for updating its style guide and going further than even the Associated Press (AP) in disallowing use of the word skeptic for climate deniers. From the Guardian’s May 17 article on its style guide changes:

Other terms that have been updated, including the use of “wildlife” rather than “biodiversity,” “fish populations” instead of “fish stocks,” and “climate science denier” rather than “climate skeptic.” In September, the BBC accepted it gets coverage of climate change “‘wrong too often”’ and told staff: “You do not need a ‘denier’ to balance the debate.”

            You’ll remember that our Committee for Skeptical Inquiry campaigned to have news organizations change their usage in this regard. A statement signed by sixty CSI fellows and issued December 5, 2014, “Deniers Are Not Skeptics” (SI, March/April 2015 and on our website), got worldwide publicity and helped lead the AP to revise its policy. Physicist and CSI Fellow Mark Boslough, who spearheaded our campaign, considers the new Guardian policy “good news” and hopes it will inspire his fellow skeptics to ask other news organizations to make similar style guide updates.

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Thank you to the creators, cast, and writers of The Big Bang Theory for twelve years of extraordinarily clever and witty television featuring a group of quirky young scientists who uncompromisingly love learning and knowledge and become a family of friends we all can somehow identify with. And for a classy and moving final double episode on May 16 that remained true to their scientific brilliance, acceptance of each’s shortcomings, and appreciation of true friendship. No other comedy series has ever so consistently exalted science (and skepticism) in such a hugely popular format watched and beloved by millions.

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Thank you to the Apollo program astronauts, engineers, scientists, mathematicians, and technicians and to that era’s political leaders, administrators, tens of thousands of aerospace workers, and the American taxpayers who were responsible for the Apollo program, which on July 20 celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 first landing on the moon. Everyone alive that day remembers it—an epic achievement in human history and culture. Although humans haven’t been back to the moon since 1972, our unmanned planetary spacecraft have since explored every planet in the solar system and many of its distant moons and asteroids. They are a continuing testament to the curiosity and intelligence of the humans who created them.

            —Kendrick Frazier

Kendrick Frazier

Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.


We have published several recent articles arguing that to be persuasive in changing the minds of people who believe pseudoscientific claims and appealing misinformation, scientists and skeptics need some better tactics. In a way, Troy Campbell’s cover article, “Team Science,” is the culmination of this informal, continuing counseling course. Campbell, a social psychologist, is a …

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