Friday, May 20, 2005

Calling all skeptics!

The Skeptics Circle IX will be posted on Thursday, May 26, and it has come full circle. Its founder, St. Nate, will be hosting it for the first time since he hosted the inaugural edition back in February. Since its humble beginnings (to which I added my humble contribution), the Skeptics' Circle has grown, such that the latest version (hosted at Pharyngula) was the biggest and most varied edition yet. So, if you're a blogger and you're tired of seeing all the credulity echoing back and forth throughout the blogosphere from "intelligent design" advocates, alties, believers in the paranormal, and anyone else pushing pseudoscientific or irrational ideas and you've posted something recently to combat such silliness, send your post to St. Nate.

And if you're really good and skeptical, you might even want to consider hosting an edition of the Skeptics' Circle yourself. Again, just drop St. Nate a line, and he'll work you into the schedule.

Finally, I don't want to tread on the Founder's perogative unduly by making pronouncements about the Skeptics Circle, which is why I will preface this with a disclaimer that the following represents my opinion only and that I only say it because the Skeptics' Circle is my favorite carnival. I was on board from the very beginning and I want it to continue to maintain the high standards it has managed to attain in the past. Unfortunately the last Skeptics' Circle had a couple of questionable entries submitted. PZ characteristically handled the commentary about them more bluntly than I probably would have done had I been hosting, but I have to admit that PZ's point was not unreasonable. Unfortunately, the article happened to have been submitted by a pretty high traffic blogger--more than ten times the traffic that I usually get--who was also an early booster of the Circle, and he was pissed off (here too) about PZ's commentary. It does, however, seem to be a trend that more overtly political or ideological posts and posts based on questionable science or data are being submitted to the Skeptics' Circle. Unfortunately, it's a problem not limited to the Skeptics' Circle. Indeed, yesterday, PZ himself lamented that even his own baby, Tangled Bank, is starting to see posts that are primarily political rants or, worse, based on pseudoscience. Given that background, I just want to say that the Skeptics' Circle was never intended to be a political soapbox. Indeed, recall what St. Nate himself said:
I'll also like to keep this free from political interests. I'm all for factchecking propaganda, but in the blogosphere it's too hard to do that without it being hijacked by one side's agenda. I'd only be interested in proven hoaxes from the media, pseudoscience, quackery, historical revision, phenomenon that seem paranormal but aren't, etc.
Unfortunately, I also foresaw politicization of the Skeptics' Circle as potential problem before the first edition, even if St. Nate did want to try to keep politics out of it. I was also somewhat--shall we say?--skeptical that it would even be possible to keep politics from slowly creeping into the Circle, given that certain areas skeptics routinely deal with (evolution and global warming, for example) are so ideologically, religously, and/or politically charged:
Let me just take the opportunity to enthusiastically back this idea and make a couple of suggestions. St. Nate did not want political or ideological biases to come into it. I'm not sure how that will be possible, unless the topics are restricted to science and pseudoscience, and I'm not sure such a carnival should be so narrowly restricted. On the other hand, leaving things too wide open could potentially put each host of such a carnival in the uncomfortable position position of having to evaluate the arguments themselves, which might be too much work. Also, not all hosts would have the same capabilities in the same areas.

Fortunately, so far I've been pleasantly surprised that the Circle has gone on for four months with very few problems in this regard, from either hosts or contributors. Hopefully, a little fine-tuning and refocusing on the fundamentals of what the Skeptics' Circle was intended to be will help to pre-empt most such problems in the future, something St. Nate has already done by reemphasizing what the Circle is about. My view on the matter is that, because skepticism and some scientific issues cannot be entirely separated from politics, only posts that are clearly primarily political in nature should be excluded (and I think that the Dean Esmay piece that PZ criticized and the piece that provoked Dean's article both probably fall into that category). There are plenty of other blog carnivals for such polemics. Obviously, the line gets blurry when it comes to social sciences and public policy (a situation unlike that for "intelligent design" creationism versus evolution, where the science makes it clear that ID is nothing more than an attempt to introduce religion into science classes). However, each host should do his or her best.

The next time I host the Skeptics' Circle (whenever that happens to be), I will not hesitate to point out submissions that I deem questionable on the basis of the science (or lack thereof) or the reasoning (again, or lack thereof) or that I just plain disagree with. If they are really questionable I won't use them, although I will consult with St. Nate and perhaps one or two others in cases I'm not sure of. (I know that the Amazing Randi reads the Circle from time to time, and I don't want to be embarrassed.) I hope other future hosts will exercise their best judgment and do the same. I realize that it's a fine line between encouraging as wide a variety of posts with unfettered skepticism about any topic and maintaining some standards, but some judgment is necessary. We don't want to discourage contributors, but we don't want to post examples of the very credulity or obvious twisting of data, science, or history to serve political, religious, or other ideological agendas. After all, that, in addition to the permeation of society with urban legends, paranormal beliefs, and pseudoscience, is one of the things that the Skeptics' Circle was originally intended to combat!

1 example(s) of insolence returned:

At 5/20/2005 4:50 PM, Anonymous Magnus Malmborn said...

Two words: Peer review!

Well not exactly, but I think the general idea of having a small group reviewing submissions and deciding together is probably good. Since the circle is supposed to deal with science, I can see no principal objection against using the methods of science in determining wich posts to accept. I realize there are things normal peer review can't adress, like political bias and tone; these things will have to be handled by the host's common sense as Orac and PZ point out. However, having a small steering committee deciding will make decisions stronger, and prevent some occasional glitches.

Better take action when time is, the skeptics circle is too good to be hijacked by nutcases. Keep up the good work!


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