As I’ve told several of my friends and acquaintances, I am not happy with the status quo in what is termed the “skeptical community” and have removed myself from group activities. My beef has been with the lack of effectiveness of promoting a skeptical worldview. The reason for this ineffectiveness has multiple factors. I’ll leave that longer discussion for some other time (or never, since I might as well talk to a wall for all the good it does). But here, in a nutshell, is what is going on in my head right now on the topic:
The fundamental shortcoming of the various organizations and the collective network is that it is missing a thoughtful mission with coherent goals.
I’d suggest such a mission would be simply to promote skeptical evaluation of questionable claims for the benefit of society.
This mission has nothing to do with secularism, humanism or atheism at all and it’s not simply cheerleading for science and reason. If anyone thinks that progress has been made by skeptical organizations to make society better, show me the metrics. I would be so happy to see them. I don’t see any now but a country overrun by misinformation, lies, and nonsense claims and plenty of people (and kids) who totally believe them. But to meet a mission, you need goals.
Goals to meet the above-stated mission would include the following:
- Seek to insert a measured skeptical voice into media opportunities.
- Provide instruction to teachers to expand lessons in critical thinking
- Produce interesting critical content for all ages via addressing of popular topics.
- Identify and pursue “small victories” for the greater good.
In the past 10 years, I’ve not seen these goals met to any appreciable degree. There have been many attempts. Most have been too weak and ineffective, or totally flawed. The main push appears to have gone to other events or agendas.
There is hope! This amazing work speaks to three out of the four goals above. Researcher Andy Oxman has been working at developing curricula aimed at school-aged kids to get them learning critical thinking skills. It turns out, progress often comes more easily than expected when kids are in an environment free from the Internet and their parents’ influence about what they should think about stuff.
One of Oxman’s studies showed that kids as young as 10 could be effectively trained to critically assess health claims. A podcast aimed at parents also was successful at increasing correct understanding of these issues. This is SO promising. I was so excited to read about these results! Please check it out.
THIS is the kind of stuff that skeptical orgs should be doing! Not only do we need present and effective media spokespeople that people trust and admire, but we desperately need to be providing content for kids that they like and can relate to. And, we need to provide guidance to teachers and parents who are raising these future citizens of the world.
Stanford University professor John Ioannidis was impressed by the results of this research:
It’s an interesting observation, and it’s at a minimum reassuring. Yes, these kids can learn [critical thinking].
Ioannidis has also become convinced that the best hope for bullshit prevention lies in early childhood education, since waiting to teach people the standards of evidence-based thinking late in life doesn’t always work. “We need to start early on, to make people understand that basing decisions on fair tests, on science, on evidence is important,” he says.
Exactly! Oxman even provided metrics to show how these processes appear to work!
So here’s my message [again] to organizations saying they wish to promote science and reason: Get WITH it. Reassess your programs and focus on something that may actually have an effect. As for me, I’ve been thinking so much about focusing on kids, I’ve spoken to a few people about my dream projects. Maybe it’s time for me to turn with a commitment towards this direction.
One more thing: If there are existing or new orgs that wish to adopt this forward-facing, positive effort to advance critical thinking and practical, everyday skepticism, I’ll be the first in line to become a member and help however I can.