The Triumph of Skepticism?

There are few things more annoying than Christians in the USA who claim to be a tiny persecuted minority; but it’s an idea that goes back a long way, to the Apostolic age, when persecution was real and rife. There are three things that annoy me about “we are victims” claims by American Christians – firstly, they tend to originate from sects who hold almost everyone else, even their fellow Christians, to not be “True Christians” ( I let God decide who is on His side myself); secondly Christianity is still overwhelmingly dominant in the USA, and can be oppressive to non-Christians; and thirdly there are still Christians in many other parts of the world dying in significant numbers, being imprisoned or tortured, for their faith.   The so called “culture wars” of the USA pale in comparison. I’m not saying Christians are not persecuted in the U.S. note — some may well be — but the Christian majority there has done it fair degree of shin kicking and hate-mongering over the years, deplored by the vast body of believers as it may be.

The UK is VERY different from the USA in this respect — a mere handful of my friends hold any religious faith, and Christians are actually probably a minority, not that you could tell by the census data. At least the type who go to church on a Sunday are — three out of my immediate circle meet that description, and I think in that respect I may be unusual — I may know more practising Christians than most of the readers of my blog here in the UK. Still this post is actually about the “UK Skeptic Movement”, not about religion, and therefore I won’t dwell on it too long. The one thing I will say to my US fellow believers who yearn for a return to religious education and school prayer — look at the USA, where these things do not exist, and the UK, where they are still mandated by law? Which is the more secular country? By far the UK: we may know more about religion, but we are far less likely to practice one?

So what has all this got to do with Skepticism (yes I know that is the American spelling, but it’s what most sceptical groups here use) in the UK? I actually think British Skeptics may end up like American Christians, complaining of a persecution that does not exist, and with messianic and apocalyptic motifs in their thinking and writing, unless they realise a very simple fact. They won many years ago — the battle for the public’s mind is over, done and dusted.

Now let me be clear – that does not mean that scepticism is pointless, or not urgently needed. The battle in the medical world for evidence based practice, the need to fight the false marketing claims that permeate our culture, attack media hysteria, and  continue the brilliant sceptical research in parapsychology, anomalous experience etc is pressing and real — I still think Skeptics in the Pub etc do a great deal of good, in exposing people to new and useful information — but gals and guys, you are not the persecuted minority. We do not face an imminent dark age of woo and superstition. We face a declining health system, economic misery and appalling poverty, educational standards and public health problems, but we are fighting to get them fixed. Crystal power, reincarnation, and people frittering away their life savings on quack cures is not about to cause the end of all we know. Because most people in the UK are fundamentally sceptical, cynical, and questioning nowadays, or so I believe.

Yes we all know people who embrace some outrageous woo – sadly it goes hand in hand with the end of institutionalised religion. What we have to remember though is that the battle has been hard fought, but rationality and scepticism have often won. I’m not a fan of much of what passes for Skepticism these days — too often I find myself wondering about what seems to be ideologically driven denialism, rather than actual research or fair critique — but I have seen both sceptics and believers in various things frothing with anger at each other. Hey dudes, we all have our biases, and our idea of prior probability, and often we get angry when deeply held beliefs are challenged and stop listening. That’s true of human beings – it’s a human thing.  But Skeptics are supposed to question and doubt, and I think sceptics are just as prone to in-fighting and argument as any other group, so the believers need not fear some monolithic ideology of ridicule developing to crush them – there will always be intelligent sceptics in the “Skeptic  Movement” who will question allegedly sceptical research as much as they question “woo”. It’s why I put “Skeptic Movement” in quotes – because really it’s just a  bunch of people who share some interests, and who talk to each other, and have a kind of loose tribal loyalty that falls apart as soon as you put them in a room together. It’s a social phenomenon, not a cult. There are no rules, doctrines or dogmas, just a  lot of Doubting Thomases who enjoy critical thinking, and sadly all too often mocking those whose ideas they don’t understand and whose research they have not read. But on the whole they are decent, kind, and intelligent folks – much like most of our age group in the UK?

Now most of you will be shaking your heads by now – my believing friends wondering if I have lost the plot, given how fiercely I argue my corner for various beliefs against the “Skeptic Movement”: my sceptical friends thinking I have lost the plot, because the battle against woo remains white hot. Well stop and think — when did you last see major woo on TV, on any of the terrestrial channels? In my case it was some nonsense talked about the non-existence of a Davidic Kingdom on a Biblical archaeology show — sure it may not have been much of a kingdom, but it existed as even minimalist like Finkelstein admit — we have some archaeological evidence for it. I’m sure I have seen tons of crap about new wonder beauty treatments on the adverts, but on the whole, you have to go to cable to get real woo these days, to the ghosthunting and paranormal shows that even dedicated ghosthunters and psi-researchers like me, and let’s face it even the Little Woggle Spiritualist Ghost Group or whatever, think are utter nonsense, though occasionally entertaining!

OK, so why do I claim the sceptics have won the fight for public consciousness? Let me quote myself from comments on a previous post “However market forced DO influence what is produced, and Wiseman signed a five figure book deal at Frankfurt. Good for him! However I fail to see how we can argue that sceptical books outsell paranormal ones now. Let’s take two excellent sceptical books — Paranormality and Bad Science — both Amazon Top 10 bestsellers. Currently it is at 206. the wonderful Bad Science, two years after its release is at 281. The best selling psychic woo book is at 1,206! The first actual parapsychological book I find, on NDE, is at 43,319, and though much woo can be found before, and the first hard core academic parapsi book is Irwin & Watt’s Parapsychology (despite heavy plugging by me) which comes in at #13,472. I think this tells us something about the influence and market for sceptical books in the UK, as opposed to the market for woo and academic parapsychology??? The fight for sceptics to be heard has long since ended, and I would say among readers is done and dusted?”

So let’s try an experiment. Let’s look at books by Goldacre, Wiseman, Dawkins, Randi and Shermer – sure all heavy hitting public intellectuals — and then look at books by the household names of the paranormal — Derek Acorah, Colin Fry, Most Haunted, TAPS (the American ghost group who have their own popular TV show) and Lord help us Sylvia Browne. Who will rank highest in this top ten? I’ll take the first book listed by each, and use today’s sales rankings.

Richard Wiseman, Paranormality, (2011), #202

Ben Goldacre, Bad Science, (2009), #285

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (2007), #481

Colin Fry, By Your Side, (2010), #8,955

Sylvia Browne, Life on the Other Side, (2004) #29,835

John Edward, Infinite Quest, (2010) #67,128

Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things, (2007)  #78,740

TAPS, Seeking Spirits, (2009) #94,292

Derek Acorah, The Psychic World of …, (2005), #146,886

Most Haunted , Official Guide, (2005), #213,332

James Randi, Flim Flam, (1994), #261,312

Look at the sales rankings. Now the problem is the way publishers work books sell in volume initially, then tail off. I can’t do a  proper analysis of total units sold, as Amazon do not give away that data — but we can try dividing the sales ranks by number of years since published? Still the picture is clear – bear in mind the huge gap between the highest ranked book sales and the lower ones — scepticism sells in the UK market??

I’ll write more on this I am sure, but I’ll throw it open to discussion now…

cj x

About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
This entry was posted in atheism, Debunking myths, Paranormal, Religion, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Triumph of Skepticism?

  1. DaveD says:

    Hi Chris.
    As you know, because I keep harping on about it, most of the people I meet on a daily basis are Christians. None of them have a problem with me being an atheist, and I don’t have a problem with their religiosity. To the extent that we judge each other, we do so on the basis of our actions.
    There is , however, a disturbing trend towards American style fundamentalism. Creationism is being established in some schools. There’s a school near me that follows the American Christian Evangelist curriculum, and I had the misfortune to meet some children from that school the Christmas before last. They were creepy! (Think Midwich Cuckoos!)
    I agree with most of what you’ve written here, but we must be on our guard – both atheists and religious moderates – against encroaching fundamentalism. I doubt the battle will ever be won (but I’m drunk, and possibly suffering the depressive effects of alcohol, and thus being overly pessimistic!)

  2. A good deal of them argument here seems to depend on a pre-definition of all that is not bog-standard spirituality as ‘woo’. I can’t quite understand why people do that. It’s a peculiar idea. I suppose that’s why the arguments of religious ‘skeptics’ often baffle me.

    the Christian majority there has done it fair degree of shin kicking and hate-mongering over the years, deplored by the vast body of believers as it may be.

    Nice Louis Theroux show about some true weirdos on tonight I perceive! Have you read Ramsey MacMullen? (My review here. Persecution against pagans post-Constantine beats anything apostolic, seems to me. But then the motive was economic.

    Taking into account the fact that in the late 1600’s less than 1/3 of colonist adults were church members, and by the time of the Revolutionary War this had dropped to about 15%, ( Fuller 2001), I’d say the situation is pretty much the same as it’s ever been. That is I don’t feel particularly worried in any direction on the score of rationality vs. ‘woo’, and I’ve never had any faith in institutional religion to help in either direction. Tart’s Evidence-based spirituality is much more interesting…

    As for fundamentalism, given the fact that we’re bound to fail in our fight to “get our services fixed”, it may be a problem, since it’s fed by anger — but I’d think anti-democratic demagoguery
    plays much better with the current crowd, many of whom seem to think it’s May ’68 all over again.

  3. Wonkey says:

    Ok, Ok, I have nothing to add.

    Just wanted to stop by and say hello. It’s been a while since our RDF forum days. Hope all is well.


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