Much discussion of the meaning of “skeptic” and those who call themselves such has been afoot of late. I am a practicing skeptic—meaning that when I do an investigation I make no assumptions. In that vein, I am an avid reader of such magazines as Scientific American, Air & Space, Psychology Today, Popular Science, History, Archaelogy, Prehistoric Times, Family Tree, Skeptical Inquirer, and a host of others. I recently picked up Volume 15, Number 1 of Skeptic Magazine, which is put out by skeptic.com and the Skeptics Society. What follows are my opinions of the magazine in general and this edition specifically.
The subtitle of the magazine is at first encouraging; it reads “Extraodinary Claims, Revolutionary Ideas & the Promotion of Science. What could be better for those of us who spend much of our energy on just those topics!? The cover story is titled “The Greatest Story Ever Garbled” and refers to part one of the Internet film Zeitgeist. I always read the cover stories first and this particular article, written by Tim Callahan, did not disappoint. Mr Callahan is a contributing editor for the magazine and spends several pages discussing the flaws of the film as it relates to what I call “the possibility of Christ”. Callahan’s discussion of the cross and its possible astrological connection is nothing less than, pardon the pun, stellar. I learned a great deal about the origins of several religions, and about several versions of Christianity. These were handled with respect and I appreciated that. At no time did Mr Callahan insult Christians. That was refreshing in a critical discussion regarding any organized religion. He was not complimentary about Peter Joseph’s film, but his displeasure was voiced regarding mostly the lack of solid research that should have been done before the film was made. To say that I was so far pleased with this magazine would have been an understatement.
Then I went to the beginning of the magazine and was immediately compelled to whip out my pen and make margin notes. That is what brought me to doing this opinion piece. For those of you who know me, that is never a good sign. My margin notes rarely consist of things like “Right on!” or “You go!”
The first thing that struck me about Skeptic is the enormous amount of self promotion. All media requires advertising—it wasn’t the volume of advertising that bothered me. It was that the bulk of the advertising is intent on selling the reader more things written by those associated by Skeptic Magazine. There are books, dvds, lectures on tape, virtually all things SM related. And that SM means Skeptic Magazine, not necessarily Sadomasochism. There are eleven pages (full pages) of things to buy for and from SM. That does not even include those ads on the sides and bottoms of article pages. The “score” for this magazine now sits at 1-1: One for a wow article and one for too much self aggrandizement.
In the front of the magazine is a page about what The Skeptics Society does and how to be a member. Most of what they claim to do is terrific, or a least ok. Lectures, conferences, events, speakers bureaus, website, telephone referral service for those looking for skeptics all sound like worthwhile endeavors. They also claim to conduct scientific research. We could be colleagues! Maybe I should join! But on the next page is an article called “What is a Skeptic?” It starts well…they discount the widely held view that they are grumpy curmudgeons who seek to debunk. I have completely embraced a quote from this page–”skepticism is a method, not a position”. In the margin, I have written my first “Right On!” I am quickly deflated, however, by a line just beyond that that says they have an attitude of “that’s nice, prove it” when it comes to “fantastic claims”. I find this disheartening. To immediately ask for “proof” of ANY claim, whether fantastic or not, is really off-putting. Do these skeptics exist only for some sort of proof? It does make me think though. Why DO skeptics exist? If skepticism is indeed a method instead of a position, why is there a society and why is there a magazine? The real question then becomes, for me, “does this magazine promote skeptic methodology?”
In my opinion, the short answer is “no”. An article by the “amazing” James Randi seeks to completely debunk the idea that the ability to walk on hot coals is phenomenal. While his comments are technically correct—he explains the way it works, the way spirituality affects some who “fire walk”, and discusses his own experience with skin to heat, he seems to discount that it is in fact, phenomenal. He seems to believe it is quite normal and natural for someone, under the same circumstances, to walk across hot coals without experiencing pain or tissue damage. While scientifically the ability to do this is not, in fact, phenomenal, the HUMAN ability and willingness is certainly such. I’m left feeling that for Randi, anything that can be scientifically explained is not extraordinary–that humanity must be disregarded in order for a skeptical view. The very next article discusses the recent Morristown, NJ UFO hoax and concludes that, for the authors at least and by association for the magazine, if one UFO event can be hoaxed well enough to fool professional investigators then the validity of every other UFO case/investigation must be questioned. Not only is that, in my opinion, unfair, but the reality is that every UFO report investigated by professional researchers has already has its validity questioned. That is, quite simply, what we do when we investigate to begin with. Having one hoax get by a few professionals (and no, Morristown did not get the “real” stamp from all of us) should never give cause to invalidate all other investigations.
Moving on we find a disjointed article on the concept of “Orgone”, the idea that an energy exists that when manipulated can alter the effects of electricity, disease, and many other things. Mr. Kaiser does present his scientific experiments that certainly seem to show that “orgone” is a ridiculous idea. He is unable to duplicate claims made by others and challenges the reader to try it as well, knowing full well (he says) that the reader’s outcome would be the same-when done as he did it. Well frankly that is a no brainer. If his way didn’t work it makes sense that repeating it his way isn’t going to work. What Mr Kaiser does not consider, however, is that somewhere, somehow, someone may be able to show that this idea of an unseen energy can in fact alter what it some claim it alters. Wouldn’t a skeptic have done the experiment and simply said, “well it didn’t work for me” and left it at that? Would a true skeptic have proclaimed it’s never going to work for anyone? Don’t even get me started on Scott Calvin and his article entitled “Crazy Ideas 101” wherein he says basically that no educated person could possibly believe in the Loch Ness Monster. Technically, the article is about teaching critical thinking. Unfortunately Mr Calvin, like his colleague James Randi, conveniently forgets that science as we know it and critical thinking as practiced do not necessarily exclude the possibility of such seemingly unprovable events.
Don’t misunderstand, there were several really good ideas and written pieces in this magazine. Certainly it has value, and certainly I would recommend it as worthwhile reading. If there is such a word as “skepticity” I’m not sure this magazine has much of it. I would think that a skeptic would not be one one who makes claims and some in this magazine certainly make them. I would even call some of the claims extraordinary. It also discusses some revolutionary ideas, even if few of them come from the authors. There is also the promotion of science, as they view the concept of science. I can’t agree that there is much skeptical method so much as methods and ideology intent on some sort of proof, usually of the debunking kind.
The bottom line, literally, is that when it comes to Skeptic Magazine, I’m sitting on the fence.
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