Skeptic History: Past and Present

Two of the most inspiring presentations I saw at TAM2013 were done by Daniel Loxton and Susan Gerbic. Daniel did his presentation on skeptic history and Susan was part of a crowdsourcing workshop. Both of these presentations have had me thinking for weeks on skeptic history and the skeptic present. Things have been bouncing around in my head for a while.

First, in Daniels presentation, I was struck by how much skeptic history there is and how much is forgotten. It is also striking how so may skeptics, well, “skeptics” are outwardly scornful of the past. The attitude that because the skeptic history was dominated by white men of advanced age, it’s worthless or tainted, is disappointing. I don’t say that because I’m a white male of middle age. I say this because we can’t change the past, and no one can deny the problems of the past. The answer, though, is to add to and build off the lessons of the past.

Daniel also showed how much skeptic history, and this might surprise you, is not contained on blogs. That’s right. There is information, perspective, scholarship, and lessons to be learned in these things called books. Often these books are available in modern e-book format, but a lot of times you actually have to go to a library, a building that contains lots of books. I did a recent scan of some of the more controversial “skeptic” blogs, focusing on those that I feel are hostile to the past. I noticed that few if any books are ever reviewed, much less referenced. I’m guessing that for a lot of people, exposure to skepticism only runs blog deep.

Susan Gerbic is a hurricane of skeptic energy. You cannot hear her speak and not get jazzed up to do something. She runs the Guerrilla Skepticism group who goes on Wikipedia and gets the skepticism going on high traffic pages. It’s a fantastic project. It’s one I wish to help with once I clear out some time and get my writing skills up to snuff.

I consider what Susan is doing as writing down the skeptic history as it happens. Living figures have their biographies updated. People like Sylvia Browne have their pages updated with facts that her fans would never add. Because Wikipedia keeps track of edits, we also now have a living history of the work that goes into keeping articles in shape. The history is right there! She’s making it happen now on the biggest educational resource on the internet.

I wrote a recent post about bringing back the blog, and I want to reiterate how important it is for skeptics to not keep all their ideas in discussions in silos. Let’s email each other, and keep it forever. Let’s maintain our own blogs so our ideas are searchable, cacheable, and public. Let’s not limit all our interactions to tweets that fall down the memory hole. In twenty years ago, let’s hope that Danial Loxton isn’t doing a skeptic history presentation at TAM2033 talking about what’s been lost in the last twenty years.

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