(Update: I added a new link to the CBC Marketplace episode that’s in high quality and not split into parts! Thanks Mavaddat!)
2011 turned out to be quite the year for skepticism. Last week on the show we came up with a top ten list counting down the big stories that influenced skeptical water cooler discussion and made our pub nights run late into the evening with lively debate.
I wanted to try to put together, if I could, a piece of some of the important wins and losses, pivotal events and even try to pigeon-hole some of the important on-going discussion in the skeptical community into such an article. Here is my attempt. Let me know what you think.
Proceeding from 10 to 1 (number 1 being the number 1 story for skeptics and skepticism)
10: Steve Novella on Dr. Oz
Why? Dr. Oz, for those that don’t know, was a frequent guest on the Oprah Winfrey program. While appearing, Oz would often promote some medical or health related issue. However he soon started promoting pseudoscience and spiritual woo-woo more in line with Oprah’s brand of magical thinking. He rubber stamped homeopathy, faith healing, acupuncture, and many other forms of dubious health products. He was eventually given his own show, backed by Oprah’s media empire, where on a daily basis he deals out medical nonsense. He’s been written about by science based medical proponents like Steve Novella and others. It was quite a surprise when Steven Novella, host of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe was invited on to talk about alternative medicine. Novella handled himself very well and provided a (limited) but important bastion of skepticism in a den of woo.
You can read about his appearance on the show here. At that link you can also watch all three clips from his segment on the show.
9. Death of Hitchens
I wrote a blog piece on Hitchens which summed up my feelings on the man, Don and Jenna also talked about him last week. To say he was provocateur is an understatement. Hitchens was apologetically upfront with his views. He was a masterful debater and journalist. He will be remembered for his writing, and among skeptical circles, his scathing condemnation of religion. He’s legacy will also be marred with controversy for his position of support for the Iraq war and his occasional misogynistic comments.
8. American Cancer society rejects/refuses to recognizes donation of $500,000 courtesy of Foundation Beyond Belief
This story hasn’t got the attention I felt it should have. It’s actually quite remarkable in how audacious it is. The Foundation Beyond Belief wanted to sponsor groups for the ACS Relay for Life. Todd Stiefel a philanthropist and free-thought activist wanted to provide a $250,000 matching offer for atheists groups around the world to raise money for the relay for life. For those that don’t know, a matching offer is basically saying “I’ll double what anyone donates up to…” So it’s perfectly feasible they could have raised 500K. However the ACS stonewalled them. They made contradictory statements about why they turned down the offer. They made vaguely hostile remarks about the organizations and put restrictions on who could donate (restrictions that seemed only to apply to atheists organizations) I recommend listeners check out the Friendly Atheist and Greta Christina’s blog for more information on this story.
7. WiFi Hysteria
This appears to be the trendy hysteria for non-scientists parents with nothing better to do except fret about in 2011. The name is pretty self explanatory. Some people believe that wi-fi, the wireless signals for Internet and such, are harmful and cause cancer and are generally the scourge of society. This story has been followed closely by bloggers at Skeptic North and have tracked its development in Canada. Despite the dubious history and background of the “wifi is dangerous” proponents, they’ve been granted national stages to preach their hysteria and have been held to no accountability to mainstream media in this country. Their pseudo-science has found its way into school board meetings, town hall meetings and even court rooms.
6. TAM 9 controversies – what should skeptics talk about?
This is a constant on-going debate every year. At some point in the year, every year it seem. The debate over atheism and skepticism comes up and folks on both sides of the debate accuse the other of “doing it wrong” This year, the TAM 9 (the Amazing Meeting) panel on what skeptics should talk about focused not only on issues of tone (the whole be a dick/don’t be a dick) but also what should we focus our outreach on. The conversation actually went beyond the atheism vs skepticism dirge and finally started to bring other topics into the fold. What about feminism, race, sociology, crime and poverty? What about the social sciences? The debate continued after TAM with popular bloggers like PZ Myers and Barbara Drescher arguing online.
For something of a timeline on the online debate:
July 22nd The Surprising Twists of TAM9’s Diversity Panel by Daniel Loxton
August 4th Atheism is an essential part of skepticism by PZ Myers
August 6th Take Back Skepticism, Part I: The Elephant in the Room, Take Back Skepticism, Part II: The Overkill Window, and Take Back Skepticism, Part III: The Dunning-Kruger Effect by Barbara Drescher
August 8th Skeptical dogmatism by PZ Myers
There could be more…
5. Diversity in the skeptical movement
Related to another skeptical news item about elevators and the diversity panel at TAM9. How do skeptics address the gender, age, income, race -gap seen in our skeptical communities? This on-going debate has presented many questions and few answers. What makes this debate so long running and so important is that it not only touches on the less than pleasant aspects of organized skepticism (like the notion that most groups are run by middle age, middle class, white men) but also how skeptical organizations bring in new people. One of the reasons that some skeptics are suggesting we broaden our list of topics is that new topics might bring in new people and help foster a more skeptical society.
4. The Catholic Church’s problems
For skeptics, we didn’t need to be convinced that the Catholic church was a corrupt organization, but after this year’s list of shocking revelations on just how corrupt it is, we are starting to see non-skeptics realize just how corrupt it is. This year, more allegations of child sexual abuse have come to light (too many to list) massive protests in different countries over visits by the Pope have occurred (notably in Spain) and the most recent and horrifying allegations are the decades of baby theft by the Catholic church in Spain. This year has really shown the world just what sort of organization the Catholic church is.
3. CBC Marketplace does homeopathy
Perhaps my personal skeptical highlight this year, the consumer protection show CBC Marketplace feature Vancouver skeptics, including yours truly, overdosing on homeopathy in an effort to show that there’s nothing in it. What followed was an amazing episode where CBC Marketplace confronted homeopathic manufacturer Boiron, had homeopathy analyzed in medical laboratories, and basically blew the lid off this story. The episode became the most popular and watched episode in the history of CBC Marketplace and caused a massive headache for the proponents of homeopathy in Canada. They did everything they could to get revenge on Marketplace, including complaining to the CBC ombudsman who later ruled that no wrong-doing was done by the producers of Marketplace. As for the skeptics, they were accused of being nazi-communists and a right wing hate group. The host of Marketplace, Erica Johnson was also a guest on Radio Freethinker, you can hear her interview here.
If you haven’t seen the episode yet, its online
2. CFI Canada’s problems
Of major concern for Canadian skeptics has been the shocking implosion of CFI Canada. We’ve chronicled much of the problems for this organization in the past few weeks, so I won’t re-summarize it. But with the local Reasonable Women’s group being removed from CFI Vancouver to the removal of Justin Trottier from the leadership of CFI and the strange and secretive going-on’s on the board of directors (ultimately resulting in 3 board members resigning) it looked like CFI Canada was on the verge of collapsing. Fortunately things seem to have quieted down a bit and it appears that cooler heads are prevailing. Hopefully this means that CFI will get back to what it does best, however this fiasco has cast serious doubt on the structure of CFI Canada and potentially alienated a number of donors and supporters. Time will tell how this plays out.
I actually made some effort to not talk about Elevator-gate on the show. Not because I thought it wasn’t important, I think it’s very important, but I was skeptical that those of us on the show could really add anything of substance to the debate. After all, with the exception of Jenna, we are all white dudes and if Elevator-gate taught us anything, sometimes the white dudes need to just shut up and listen for a bit.
Meanwhile, Elevator-gate, for those of you who don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, can be summed up here in a post by Rebecca Watson.
The short story is that while at a conference in Ireland, Watson gave a talk on not pushing women away from skepticism by doing sexist things and making women uncomfortable. Later that night, a man asked her to his room at 3am in an elevator. She declined and innocently asked men not to do that in a youtube video.
A fire storm of controversy erupted for her “audacity.”
It became even more intense when other skeptics started telling Watson she was being too sensitive and soon there was a war of words going on between Watson and others. Then Richard Dawkins decided to weigh in.
Like I said, read the posts about it and try to figure it out.
Why would I suggest that Elevator-gate is the number one news maker for skeptics and skepticism? Not only was it the biggest controversy of the year for our community, but it pretty much highlighted every other issue dealing with inclusion, tone and subject for which skeptics have been debating for decades.
Watson blew the lid off of organized skepticism’s dirty little secret: we are not rational people. And further, we non-rational people have a major problem with latent and subversive sexism and a systemic issue of excluding people, topics and more importantly – a knee jerk allergic reaction to internal criticism.
Watson, in my opinion, has not only been at the center of some major skeptical controversies, she earns the title of skeptic of the year.
Rebecca Watson. Photo by Brian Engler
One of the things I’ve noticed from members of our community is that skeptics like to and are willing to confront dogmatism and pseudo-science in the world, but are hesitant to turn that skeptic eye inward. We have a tendency to blame the messenger, punish the person who dares to speak up and rock the boat.
There’s quite a difference between seeking to cause conflict and disruption (we have a fair number of people like that in our community) and those seeking to improve our movement and running into stubborn opposition. What I’m saying is that it’s fairly easy to tell the people who want to make things better apart from the people who either want organized skepticism to remain the same or who simply want to be on the front page of the news.
Watson clearly falls into the “wanting to make things better” category. She rocked the boat and forced people to ask uncomfortable questions about themselves. She did us all a great service.