The Skeptics began in simpler times. Some of us recall when the burning issues of Skeptical enquiry were whether Uri Geller bent spoons, whether Russians were using telepaths to communicate with submarines and whether Lyall Watson had stumbled on a Philosopher’s Stone called Supernature. He certainly seemed to be turning something into gold.
In those days we were often criticised for being a bunch of kill-joys who seemed to want to lock granny up for reading the tea leaves. “What’s the harm?” they used to say. Our critics failed to understand that we weren’t too fussed about Granny reading the tea-leaves or Granddad’s secret number system for betting on the horses. We were much more concerned about the readiness to waive normal standards of evidence and rational thought when remarkable claims were being made.
Otherwise-rigorous interviewers such as Brian Edwards and Gordon Dryden would seem to close down their inquiring minds as soon as their latest psychic guest walked into the broadcasting studio. And soon even Brian began to realise that some of these people were rogues and charlatans determined to relieve people of their money — even if it meant taking advantage of people in acute distress. Mr Edwards finally mounted one of the great debunkings of all times when with Don Zealando he unmasked the secrets of the Filipino psychic surgeons and hence closed down a major money-spinner for Air New Zealand.
But generally people thought it was the spoon bending and such fancies that offended us — whereas for the genuine Skeptic is was always the lack of evidence, the corruption of evidence or straight out false claims and fraud. We were trying to counter pseudo-science.
And it was not long before this meant that the Skeptics were taking a stand against pseudoscience in medicine. And then we began to take on pseudoscience in mental health, especially as we saw counsellors and therapists proliferate and break up families and send people to gaol using therapies based on nonsense theories.
Finally many of began to realise that we were standing up to a widespread onslaught on the whole notion that rationality and the scientific method had any particular validity at all. New Zealanders were being told we should respect all beliefs and values because we should pass no judgement.
And as we began to take on these larger issues others who had stood in the wings came to join us. On the other hand, many decided they liked us even less.
The Uri Gellers were an easy target. We now find that advocacy movements claim such a high moral ground that they believe that faking the evidence or redefining the language is legitimate if it promotes their worthy cause. Once again the ends are claimed to justify the means. The age of “urban myths” is now upon us. The environmental movement, the neo-Luddite movement, the alternative medicine movement, and a host of special interest lobbies now clamber to secure their particular group rights, rather than their rights as individuals. They have all have been prepared to “fudge the figures” in order to help their particular cause. Most recently we have seen Greenpeace forced into apologising to Shell over the Brent Spar debacle.
So this year there was something inevitable about the decision to award the Bent Spoon to the Justice Department for its report Hitting Home. This award has not been without controversy. This too was inevitable, not only because of the emotions which surround the topic of domestic violence, but also because for many it took us as far away from our origins as we may ever want to go.
We have decided to make Education the theme for next year’s conference. Whether we come to regret this or not will depend on how successful we are in confining the debate to the assault on science and rationality rather than providing a forum for every parent concerned over why Johnny can or cannot read. But what is the limit to the Skeptical agenda? Do we have anything to say about housing policy? Only if someone has cooked the statistical books. (Remember New York’s 300,000 homeless — a “wild stab” invented during a radio show.) Do we have anything to say about sport? Only if someone says that more women are murdered during the Rugby World Cup than during any other time of year. Do we have anything to say about economics? Only if someone claims that the ghost of Maynard Keynes has been communicating directly with Winston Peters. And only if — almost everything else in economics lies in religious territory as opposed to superstition.
Certainly we should not push out the boundaries for its own sake; we have plenty to occupy us in more comfortable territory. But nor should we — or indeed could we — return to the days when the most pressing issue was whether your pilot was humming happily to the harmonics of 351.
Our members expect us to be in tune with the times. And as these are more disputatious times we will probably never again be able to assume the comfortable unanimity of the past. But no Skeptic has ever shied away from robust debate. We have demonstrated in conferences and AGMs that because we are philosophically attached to reason and the traditions of the Enlightenment we can enjoy differences of opinion without resorting to personal vilification and — dare I say it — abuse.