The B.S. police: Inside the skeptic movement

JREF’s goal, according to its website, is to “expose paranormal and pseudoscientific frauds in the media, and hold media organizations accountable for promoting dangerous nonsense.” The Skeptics Society, publisher of Skeptic magazine, describes its mission as an effort “to engage leading experts in investigating the paranormal, fringe science, pseudoscience, and extraordinary claims of all kinds, promote critical thinking, and serve as an educational tool for those seeking a sound scientific viewpoint.”

But aren’t these merely descriptions of plain old science? Saunders says there is an important distinction. “We especially go after these claims that are against the laws of physics, while generally science is the study of nature,” he explains. In other words, science tends to ignore ghosts, goblins, levitating yogis, and mind-reading mediums claiming an ability to commune with the dead. “We’re not doing science. We’re advocating for it,” Swiss explains. “We’re advocating for using science as a way to view the world and solve the problems of the world.”…

At TAM, the old school seemed to be winning the internal fight. Most of the people I met argued that religious believers should be welcome in the movement, as long as they didn’t push ideas like creationism. “I know many religious skeptics, but we stay away from religion—except if someone has a bleeding idol statue,” says Dale Roy, a former science teacher from New Hampshire and founder, with her husband, Travis, of the Granite State Skeptics. Saunders takes a similar position: “In Australian Skeptics, we don’t care if you have a religious outlook.”

Moreover, if not all skeptics must be atheists, it’s also true that not all atheists are skeptics. It was frequently pointed out to me at TAM that comedian Bill Maher, a strident atheist, is dubious about vaccines. Swiss recalls that when he objected to his children reciting the pledge of allegiance in school—with its religious stipulation that ours was a “nation under God”—his wife, also a nonbeliever, created an Atheist Parent Meetup. “One of the parents showed up to the meeting and the first thing she asked one of the other parents was, ‘What’s your sign?’”