The Scope of Skepticism: Interviews, Essays and Observations from the Token Skeptic Podcast, by Kylie Sturgess. Podblack Books, 2012. 151pp. About $NZ18, or NZ$6.40 for Kindle. Visit tokenskeptic.org and click on ‘Merchandise’ for links. Reviewed by Martin Bridgstock.
In the foreword to this book, Michael McRae uses the image of a mirror ball. Mirror balls have an important property: when a light shines on them, they reflect illumination into all kinds of dark corners. This is what Aussie skeptic Kylie Sturgess has accomplished in her first book.
For many years Kylie has been interviewing people involved with skepticism. This book is a distillation of some of her most interesting work. The first surprise came when I had a look at the people Kylie interviewed. I simply didn’t recognise over half the names. Who, for instance, is Bruce M Hood or Petra Boynton? And why is Tim Minchin, the wild comedian, included?
The short answer is that, after reading each interview, my conclusion was “Yes, I can see why this is important for skepticism. And I’m glad I know about it.” For example Bruce M Hood is a psychologist who became concerned about the way that a British firm was producing ‘bomb-detectors’. These devices were being bought to detect terrorist bombs in places like Iraq. Hood became concerned about their lack of documented effectiveness and found himself in a nasty confrontation with the device’s makers. It became clear the ‘detectors’ were based on paranormal principles (see Newsfront, NZ Skeptic 97), and action was taken to stop them being sold. Good skeptical work by Professor Hood.
Petra Boynton is a sexologist. She’s a perfectly genuine academic who studies aspects of sexual health. Boynton became concerned at a ‘charity’ which claimed to be raising money to reverse the effects of female genital mutilation in some African countries. However, Boynton found a suspicious lack of reported activity. Money was going in, and nothing much was happening. Eventually it turned out that the Raelian cult was behind it all.
The inclusion of comedian Tim Minchin may come as a surprise. His wild, heavily made-up image on stage might lead anyone to think he is a devotee of woo. In fact, he’s a skeptic who was encouraged by some of Randi’s work, and builds both atheism and skepticism into his performances.
The theme of the book, as I read it, is that skepticism is expanding, and becoming involved in all kinds of unexpected issues. We need to know what is happening, and to support it where we can.
Overall, The Scope of Skepticism is well worth reading, and good value for the purchase price. I’d defy any skeptic to read the interviews and not learn many useful things from the people in the spotlight. We need to know about the frontiers of skepticism, and Kylie has brought back some fascinating reports.
Martin Bridgstock is a senior lecturer in the School of Biomolecular and Physical Sciences at Griffith University, Brisbane.