Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 2003

The Skeptic Web

by Brett Humphreys

The word “scepticism” traditionally has several meanings, one of the oldest being the school of thought associated with Pyrrho of Elis some 2,300 years ago and later chronicled by Sextus Empiricus, holding that real knowledge is unattainable. Another is the more pragmatic scepticism of David Hume and other empiricists. Another, more specific, one is a critical attitude to the truth claims of revealed religions.

The modern skeptic movement, however, has given the word a new meaning which, perhaps because of its US origins, is universally spelt the American way – even British skeptics, it seems, have followed the advice of Henry Fowler, who wrote: “America spells sk-; we might pocket our pride and copy.” The new skepticism is nicely summed up in the name of its main founding organisation, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), which was set up in 1976. Its aims have since been broadly copied in many other countries, thanks in large part to the efforts of Paul Kurtz, CSICOP’s indefatigable chairperson. Modern skeptics generally tend to steer clear of the metaphysical mudflats of theology, preferring to focus on the firmer ground of claims that can be investigated using the methods of science. They are, however, quite prepared to engage with religion where it spills over into pseudo-science.

One of the Web’s best skeptic resources is largely the work of a single individual, Robert Todd Carroll of Sacramento City College. His Skeptic’s Dictionary is a virtual textbook of skepticism, and indeed an edited version is about to be published as a real textbook (John Wiley & Sons, July 2003). The Skeptic’s Dictionary is literally an A to Z of getting on for 500 articles on the beliefs, deceptions and delusions that most concern mainstream skeptics. They range in length from one-liners like the delightfully laconic “A theist is someone who denies that God doesn’t exist" to substantial and serious essays on subjects as diverse as alien abductions, “creation science”, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, plant perception, prayer, and repressed memory therapy. Many are accompanied by readers’ comments and Carroll’s responses to them. An outstanding feature of the Dictionary is its many high-quality links to related material elsewhere on the Web. The Skeptic’s Dictionary is complemented by the Skeptic’s Refuge, which includes book reviews, commentary on media reports both positive and negative, and a selection of 64 suburban myths. For an overview of this rich site, start by visiting the preface and tour pages.

Michael Shermer’s California-based Skeptics Society and its quarterly magazine Skeptic (not to be confused with the similarly named but older Australian and British publications) take a rather more anti-religious stance than many skeptic groups but otherwise cover the same type of issues. An important section of the site is the Archives area, which includes almost 50 articles from Skeptic dating back to the first issue in Spring 1992. In an interview with Shermer, Ray Hyman, a co-founder of modern skepticism, recounts how the movement was triggered by Uri Geller’s early exploits in 1972.

The James Randi Educational Foundation website contains a vast amount of material, including a weekly commentary by Randi himself, another co-founder of modern skepticism and probably the world’s best known skeptic thanks to his television appearances and Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge. Interestingly, the type of claim most commonly submitted for the challenge is apparently dowsing. Needless to say, the prize remains to be won.

Anyone who has read CSICOP’s bi-monthly journal Skeptical Inquirer will be familiar with the quantity and quality of its content. Not only does the CSICOP site provide a selection of over 200 articles from the magazine online in full, but it now also includes a complete searchable index of the content listings of all issues dating back to the start in 1976.

Non-caching websites seem to be on the increase. With the Australian Skeptics, even the images reload afresh every time you revisit a page, which is bad news for dial-up surfers, and all the more surprising because the site is maintained by a self-acknowledged nerd, Greg Keogh, who is well aware of accessibility issues. Indeed his personal website has no such problem. On the credit side, the Australian Skeptics have one of those rare sites with a comprehensive site map, and in terms of content it ranks among the best of the non-American skeptic sites. The naming of the annual “Bent Spoon Award” must surely be another tribute to the Geller effect! Once again there is a fine selection of online articles from the group’s journal, The Skeptic.

The Toronto-based Ontario Skeptics Society for Critical Inquiry (OSSCI) has an interesting collection of optical illusions. Parts of this site may create the illusion that your browser is broken, but don’t panic: this is just an unintended side-effect of an odd use of frames and self-resizing popup windows. In a linked site, OSSCI chairperson Eric McMillan provides a short illustrated introduction to modern skepticism and a selection of skeptical quotations.

The European Council of Skeptical Organisations, the umbrella organisation for European skeptics, has a relatively small site but it gives an interesting historical context to modern skepticism with its account of skeptic activity in Belgium dating back to the 1930s. It also provides details of the forthcoming 11th European Skeptics Congress, which is being held from 5 to 7 September 2003 in London.

The sites of the UK Association for Skeptical Enquiry (ASKE) and The Skeptic, an independent magazine, are minuscule by comparison with their American (and Australian) counterparts, but both manage a handful of articles, including some tips before you see a psychic (or cold reader) from ASKE and a couple of first-hand accounts of a firewalking event from The Skeptic.

It doesn’t take clairvoyance, but it does take more time and space than I have here, to survey the Skeptic Web adequately. Of the few sites I have mentioned, at least three would merit a full single-site review in their own right. In addition, the Skeptic Ring alone currently has 95 member sites, including the splendid Quackwatch. For a fuller list, visit the Skeptics page in the GALHA Directory.

The answer to the little puzzle in the last issue is given on a separate page in case you want to try it first.

For another little puzzle – if you don’t already know it – try the conundrum famously popularised in 1990 by Marilyn vos Savant (Parade, 9 September 1990) as the “Monty Hall Problem” but in fact described over 30 years earlier by Martin Gardner, another leading co-founder of the skeptic movement, in the guise of the “Three Prisoners Paradox” (Scientific American, October 1959). The controversy engendered by the Monty Hall Problem, now the subject of hundreds of web pages, is an illuminating reminder of the capacity of the human mind to be deceived.

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Created : Sunday, 2003-06-08 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2010-04-14
Brett Humphreys :