Conversion stories—from people who held unsubstantiated beliefs but changed their minds—are a powerful tool for skeptics. It makes sense that a former believer in a pseudoscience who publicly renounces that belief can be more persuasive to many people than the rest of us who may have been harping about it for years. The unique power of conversion stories has even been tested recently in a scientific paper that we wrote about this past year (Scott Lilienfeld’s “Skepticism and the Persuasive Power of Conversion Stories,” May/June 2019).
In this issue, we present one of the most powerful conversion stories in the skeptic community in recent years. Britt Hermes begins her candid personal story with these words, “Six years ago, I was a quack.” She was a naturopath and thought she was as much of a doctor as real physicians. Then she noticed she and others were prescribing an unapproved drug. She saw that some patients were being put at risk or even harmed. She quit and quickly became an outspoken campaigner against naturopathy. She tells that story in human terms here.
Courage is probably a too little appreciated aspect of scientific skepticism. (We think it is key; notice “courage” is listed prominently among “our values,” at the bottom of this page.) Britt Hermes has courage. She suffered an intense legal action against her. She prevailed. She won. She continues her outspoken effort to protect the public from quackery. In 2018, she was awarded the John Maddox Prize for courage in promoting science and evidence on matters of public interest. She spoke at CSICon 2019, and we are proud to present her story in this issue.
Michael Mann likewise has courage. The noted climate scientist has been incessantly attacked for years by those who wish the evidence he helped accumulate about our warming planet weren’t true. In this issue, he offers a commentary about the “new climate war,” the latest “softer” tactics opponents of climate science are using (making individuals feel guilty), and how we might win the climate war. He laments the left’s “doomism,” which paralyzes action. Other contributors consider climate issues from different perspectives. In a feature article, noted climate scientist Tom M.L. Wigley assesses the accuracy of climate models, including his, going back thirty years. And in our news and comment section, we report on a new study assessing the accuracy of climate models going back fifty years. Both Wigley and the new study find them to have been pretty darn good. In Wigley’s words, climate scientists’ predictions have been “remarkably accurate.” In his column on science communication, Matthew C. Nisbet writes thoughtfully about his attempt to be a “mindful” climate writer, to calmly assess evidence without being continually buffeted between extreme elements. In the meantime, wildfires have raged over an overheated Australia (p. 7), and in mid-January, two U.S. agencies (NOAA and NASA) reported that the decade that just ended was the hottest measured on earth since records began and perhaps the hottest in the past 11,500 years since before the dawn of civilization. Each decade since the 1980s has been hotter than the previous decade. Notice a trend here? Scientists see no end to it.
Our coverage of CSICon 2019 on science and skepticism in Las Vegas takes up a fair part of this issue. It was large and lively. The courage I mentioned before was evident. There’s even one more conversion story. I hope you’ll peruse our short descriptions of some talks. For more about each presentation, check Skeptical Inquirer’s Facebook page (or the Center for Inquiry’s website), where videos of individual talks are being posted.