Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Skepticism’s Broader Mission

I think many people would agree with me that one of the top ten most interesting panels at TAM9 (http://www.amazingmeeting.com) was the “Diversity In Skepticism” panel. To paraphrase the primary opinion of many of the panelists: “we can do more than vaccines, creationism, and woo.” There was much more to the conversation, and it focused more about adding social injustice issues to the skepticism tent, but the broader point was what I latched onto. We skeptics can still stay true to the movement’s “critical thinking” message and maybe broaden our scope to help more people and, in general, do better.

One of the local topics that we didn’t get to on our podcast last week was an article I found on San Antonio’s KEN5 news station website (http://www.kens5.com/news/Texas-leads-in-the-nation-in-hot-car-child-deaths-125908354.html). It described how Texas has, for the last year and a half at least, been leading the nation in child-in-hot-car deaths. In 2010 thirteen of the forty-nine child deaths from hot car heat stroke were in Texas. As of July 2011, Texas accounts for six of the twenty hot car deaths in the US. That’s a thankfully small number compared to our national population of 310 million, but the way I read the article was that we’re on track to have the same amount of annual hot-car deaths in the U.S. and in Texas. The rational community had a great institutional victory for children’s education in Texas last week (http://ncse.com/news/2011/07/victory-evolution-texas-006802), but is that all we can do? Where are the op-eds in papers and people from skeptic groups testifying at board meetings about this “I’ll just leave my child in the car for a minute” nonsense? We can do better.

Also in the news lately is the media controversy over Raquel Nelson of Marietta, Ga (http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/43878939/ns/today-today_people/t/mom-faces-jail-after-son-died-jaywalking-her/) . She was jaywalking with her three children after getting off a bus and her four year old boy got hit by a car. Most of the news articles and blogs I see are discussing the issue focus on the fact that the driver only got a 6 month hit-and-run conviction whereas the mother got 36 months for second-degree vehicular homicide, reckless conduct, and failure to use a crosswalk. Let’s consider the basic facts of the actual incident: She was trying to cross in the middle of a four lane road…with three children in tow. For a minute set aside the legal system side of the story: why were these children in mortal danger? Mz. Nelson herself said “I know that nobody gets up that day and says, ‘I’m going to kill a 4-year-old.’” The driver was an idiot for driving away from the accident, yes, but the accident wasn’t anything he chose to do. The mother, on the other hand, made the conscious choice to cross in the middle of traffic rather than walk to the “nearest crosswalk from the bus stop [that] was nearly three-tenths of a mile away.” Where are the advocates for critical thinking who could be calling for parents to stop jaywalking and putting their children in danger? We can do better.

The skeptical movement has made a great start in getting the message out to parents that vaccines are important and safe for your children. (http://hugmeimvaccinated.org/ ) This is a perfect message for our movement: science based medicine, consumer protection, and saving children. Vaccines have become a contentious issue, but in conversations I’ve had in meet-ups and at conventions most of us in the skeptical movement can at least understand that most of the average “antivax” parents might be mis-educated, but that they’re still trying to do what they think is the best for their children. The problem is a minority group of people out there that are the ones actively spouting nonsense. We need to fight this fight, but we can do more.

Let’s look at this last point another way: There aren’t any organizations out there kicking skeptics out of “leave your baby in the car” conferences (http://skepchick.org/2011/05/autism-one-conference-skeptics-will-be-prosecuted-to-the-fullest-extent-of-the-law/). There aren’t any celebrities telling us to trust your mommy instincts, that the crosswalk industry is just trying to get our money, and that regardless of the science we should “space out” where and when we cross roads. Compared to the antivaxers I actually think that the people who “just leave the baby in the car for 10 minutes to pop into the store” or “just cross here because the next crosswalk is some blocks down” are, in my opinion, a much less sympathetic crowd to me. (All opinions are my own, not my podcast team’s.) I think that we skeptics can, and should, raise our voices on these basic child-safety issues. It will make just as much of a difference in saving lives and has the added benefit that no one can accuse us of being in the pocket of “big auto” or “the crossing guard mafia.” There is no “us versus them” in this battle. Getting involved in these broader parenting issues would be an easy win.

In Neil deGrasse Tyson’s TAM9 Keynote address {Yes, I’m still going on-and-on-and-on about TAM (http://skepticwire.blogspot.com/2011/07/episode-015-extra-tam-9-overview.html) . Get used to it.}, he recounted the story that in 2006 when a New Jersey teacher was spouting creationist, Noah’s Ark nonsense Tyson tried to remind everyone of the broader issue that “This case is not about the need to separate church and state; it's about the need to separate ignorant, scientifically illiterate people from the ranks of teachers.” Let’s allow our rational spotlight to cover these broader issues too. We can get the “reality based” message out and get people on our side for the harder battles.

I suggest that we all take a break from posting Tim Minchin videos on facebook and post links to the articles about these more general stories. Helps others not see you as a one-trick-skepticism-or-atheism pony. At your next skeptics in the pub start the night by writing letters to the editor calling for critical thinking every time a child dies in such a preventable manner. Sharing these stories will move people and will get them on our side. Diversifying our call for rationality creates a feedback loop that brings in a more diverse group and then adds to the variety of issues that we can tackle. Even as we make our skeptical tent bigger the message of “think before you act” will stay our main message. We can do more, and we can do better.


  1. There is a reason that vaccines are a subject of skeptic activism and ‘mothers not looking both ways before they cross the street’ is not.  On the vaccine side there is bad science to tackle. There is propaganda alleging a massive conspiracy to cover up the risks of vaccines, leading to a mistrust of science itself.

    On the ‘look both ways before you cross the street’ side, where are the studies showing the benefits of not looking both ways before you cross the street that we, as skeptics, are to demolish with our rational dissemination of their various methodological weaknesses?  There are no conspiracy sites telling mothers that the government is hiding the truth about the risks of turning your head this way and that. 

    To say that the Skeptic community can get involved in more things is fine.  When I started reading Skeptic in the mid ‘90s, alternative medicine was hardly on the radar.  It became a skeptic issue because it exists in society due to a lack of understanding of the scientific process and the placebo effect, two things that the skeptic community is ideally suited to enlighten society about.  The issues that the skeptic community is currently engaged in are vast and varied.  Some spend their time investigating the paranormal, some focus on creationism. You will find skeptics dedicated to Science Base Medicine, those who chase monsters, bust religious dogma, debunk UFO sightings, study crop circles, expose psychics, spiritual healers and mediums, and teach about the brain and it’s cognitive functions.  Skeptical scientists of all disciplines promote the sciences and fight for better science education.  I could go on.  Hardly a one trick pony, this skepticism thing.

    Raising your voice for child safety issues is an admirable thing to do, but it’s not skepticism.  There is a lot of pseudoscience out there.  There is a lot of dogma.  There is bad logic and misunderstanding about how the brain works.  There is a lack of scientific understanding.  There is no lack of dangerous practices that supporters either trick people into thinking are science based or convince that science doesn’t matter. There is no lack of hucksters taking advantage of people who don’t know how to think critically. Let’s stick to our mission.

    David Harcourt

  2. I don’t think we’re too far apart on this; it’s shades of gray.

    I approached this post from the opinion that, from a bird’s eye view, the "Skeptic Movement's" goals are encouraging critical thinking and advancing general consumer protection. Whether it's creationism, psychics, bigfoot, or vaccines. We want to save lives and stop people wasting money. I wrote about these two child safety issues because I think they do fall under the critical thinking and life saving goals.

    I just think that not every cause that skeptics fight for requires a snake-oil salesman on the other side. Just because there aren't organizations promoting (in my opinion) bad parenting, doesn't mean that the rational, evidence based community (or part of it) can't make it an issue.

    Another reason I wrote the above post (that I may not have gotten across) was that I think problems like this would help the broader skeptical movement by showing that we're not just cynical contrarians: we care about everyone's well being, not just ghosts and UFOs. Even if someone doesn't know anything about homeopathy, they can get behind us on the "let's save children's lives" cause. It’s a win-win that gets the fence-sitters, the only audience we can realistically reach, on our side when it comes time for the other fights over the more “woo” topics.
    READERS: We'll see if we have time to continue this conversation on this week's podcast (017), but we always have a lot of topics and we can't get to them all.

  3. I don't see any gray here.  The goal of skepticism is not advancing general consumer protection.  That would be Consumer Protection.  I think you've confused the role skepicism can have in consumer protection with consumer protection in general. Skeptics have a role in exposing dubious claims. 
    Steve Novella summed up skepticism nicely on NeuroLogica on Monday. "...application of logic and evidence to all claims, with a healthy appreciation for the myriad mechanisms of self-deception to which humans are vulnerable."  You see what's missing from the 'leaving a child in the car' situation?  No one is making a claim. No one is claiming that it's a good thing to do. Someone has just been careless.  Skepticism cannot be applied where no claim is being made.  Period.
    And your 'let's go out and save the childen and maybe people will like us!' gambit.  It sounds desparate.  We're not here to be liked.  Let's stick to skepticism.  If you want to save the children, there are plenty of organizations out there you can contribute to.

    David Harcourt