Why skeptics should embrace political advocacy — and how they can do it

January 16, 2012

In my nearly three years working in the skeptic community, I have learned many important things. I’ve been taught how science works, and how to spot pseudoscience. I’ve discovered how we fool ourselves into believing we’ve seen ghosts, aliens, and other scary monsters that likely don’t exist. And I’ve found out how psychics, mediums and others prey upon other humans for monetary gain. I’ve also realized that skeptics, like most human beings, love their community. Conferences, pub meetings, blogs, and podcasts: these represent comfortable places where most members are relatively sane and rational, and inquiry into almost any subject is welcomed.

Yet, often ignored or forgotten in the fray of social discussion on science denialism and hucksterism, and community building, is that skepticism also deserves a voice in public policy debates. Secularists have recognized this, and founded organizations like Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and the Secular Coalition in order to pair with more socially focused groups. So far, skeptics have not.

In my view, skepticism, like secular thinking, should not be limited to the social. It should also be engaged in the political. This essay will attempt to outline why I believe this, and propose both issues and methods that would help skeptics get more involved in the political process.

There are several reasons why many skeptics are not as engaged in political advocacy as much as I think they ought to be. Here are three of the most common:

1. Politics concerns values, which are not amenable to empirical inquiry or rational discussion.

2. Politics demands political party affiliation.

3. Politics is irrational and messy. The system is broken.

As a result of these objections — and, to be sure, skimpy funding — there are few dedicated skeptical lobby groups, or skeptic organizations that lobby on traditionally skeptic issues.
And, without an organized skeptical-political movement, there are few skeptics who get involved in the political process.

I think the three objections above are mistaken, and that they have negative consequences. Here are my brief rebuttals:

1. Skepticism might mostly be about applying science to problems concerning, say, pseudoscience and health, but science itself does rely upon values. These values include, at the least: methodological naturalism, evidence and testability, and logical coherence.

Furthermore, while values might not be amenable to empirical study, they are and should be subject to another thing skeptics value: rational examination. This is not to say reason is all-powerful. But reason can help us evaluate our values and help us assess whether we have properly thought them out. It is also not to say that skepticism should critically examine all values. Rather, my point is that skeptics should not avoid debates just because in some way they include talk of values.

2. Admittedly, much of politics is battles between political parties and factions, such as Republicans, Democrats, Greens, and independents. Yet one need not fit into, or adopt, any of the aforementioned parties to be engaged in the political process.

Indeed, I believe skepticism is by definition non-partisan, and therefore it is unnecessary to consider which political party to lean toward. This is because skepticism is a method, not a position. As such, I think skeptics will be most successful politically if they can manage to focus on applying the method to specific political problems within the domain of skepticism, several of which I will propose below.

3. Politics is certainly often irrational and messy, but it is not necessarily irrational and messy. There are always chances to inject a sliver of rationality into an irrational system. The question is whether you think this is worthwhile.

Moreover, while our political system might appear to be broken, one of the few ways to actually effect change — and perhaps even fix the system — is to work within it. I value conversations on how to make change outside of the current system, or to create a better one. But while having that conversation, we should realize change is being made within the current system. We can either let it happen without resistance, or we can put our chips on the table and work to defend our worldview.

Two questions now remain: which political issues should skeptics concern themselves with? And how should they get involved?

A couple of issues immediately come to mind: evolution in public schools and climate change. Leaving these important but well-worn issues aside for a moment, I propose there are at least three other topics that skeptics could readily concern themselves with:

— Defunding and/or dismantling the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Since 1992, NCCAM (previously the Office of Alternative Medicine) has been awarded $2 billion for research, and currently has an annual budget of $134 million. Yet nearly twenty years of study have shown that most alternative medicine “cures” work no better than placebos. As David Gorski writes on Science-Based Medicine, NCCAM should be defunded or abolished, and any valuable parts should be folded into the National Institutes for Health (NIH).

— Health coverage for alternative medicine practices that have been proven ineffective. Again, most well-known alternative medicine practices have been shown to be unsuccessful as medical cures. Yet lawmakers continue to push for their coverage under health care plans. From Derek Araujo last year:

“Congressional allies of the so-called ‘complementary and alternative medicine’ industry successfully introduced language in health care reform legislation requiring insurers to cover any state-licensed health care providers — including, of course, complementary and alternative medicine practitioners. Language prohibiting ‘discrimination’ against any state-licensed practitioners survived in the Affordable Care Act President Obama signed into law on March 23, 2010.”

— Government-mandated vaccines and religious exemptions. In all 50 U.S. states, children are required to be properly immunized before attending school. However, in addition to medical exemptions offered in each state, 48 states allow for religious exemptions, while 20 states allow for personal belief exemptions for daycare and school (source). Unfortunately, this has recently become a more popular trend, leading to greater danger of a serious outbreaks.

These three issues all: stem from historically skeptical subjects; concern some talk of values, but mostly are about science; do not demand party affiliation; and might actually be winnable.

How can skeptics go about getting involved in these issues?

The first step is to merely pay attention and get informed. Take a second and click over to any number of web sites and blogs that carry position papers, reports, and news analysis. Some suggestions: the Center for Inquiry’s (CFI) Office of Public Policy, National Center for Science Education (NCSE), the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the National Council Against Health Fraud, Science-Based Medicine, QuackWatch, and even SkepChick.

The second, and perhaps more important step, is to actually make your voice heard. Even without dedicated skeptic lobby organizations, armed with information, you can and should write and call your lawmakers. Sign up to receive action alerts from organizations such as CFI-OPP, NCSE, and USC, and you’ll soon start receiving emails that will allow you to easily message your representatives on issues relating to science and skepticism. It takes only a couple of minutes for you to fill out an action alert and send it along to a lawmaker, who is — contra to what many think — almost certainly paying attention (perhaps not to the unique content in each message, but certainly to the number of messages they receive). Or, if you feel so compelled, write a letter to your representative (though be aware that due to restrictive security measures, there’s a good chance your letter will be delayed several months, or might never even reach its intended audience). Or pick up a phone and let your representative know you care about a certain issue and are paying attention to his or her actions.

More broadly, attend local hearings and public forums and voice your opinion. Share action alerts and other links to Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and whatever other social networks you use. Write letters to the editor. Comment on blog posts and online news articles. Do whatever you can to spread the message.

You might think that all of this is relatively inconsequential, but that is not true. Politicians essentially care about two things: money and votes. We might not have the money, but we do represent votes. The more that elected officials hear from us — whether by action alert, letter, phone call, or other means — the more they will have to consider our points of view. And the more that others see that you are engaged, the more likely they will be to get involved and engaged as well. Which means that politicians might have to consider our viewpoints sooner than they thought.

Perhaps more importantly, writing a letter, placing a phone call, sharing a link, or penning a letter to the editor takes very little of your time, and there is no guarantee your fellow skeptics will take up the cause. If you don’t do it, no one else might do it either. And that would be a shame, because a moment of your time could make a difference.

——

Note: this essay is adapted from a talk I gave at SkeptiCamp NYC on Saturday, Dec. 3. I will let you know if video surfaces.

Further note: I think the word “skeptic” could be replaced with many other labels. We could all probably be more engaged in the political process anyway. But this talk was tailored specifically for SkeptiCamp, so there you have it.

Comments:

#1 - Blamer .. on Monday January 16, 2012 at 1:08am

“several reasons why many skeptics are not as engaged in political advocacy… three of the most common:”

I assume this is what you’re hearing from folks at skeptical meet ups…?

I’m tempted to guess at 3 more, from the point-of-view of an armchair skeptic:
1. skepticism is a FUN passtime, politics is serious
2. changing laws/minds is HARD and time-consuming
3. activists must butt heads with BUTTHEADS

To get me off the sidelines (become more active than pushing links around the twittersphere and attending the occasional presentation) perhaps popular skeptical websites can start adopting a method for their readers to “take local action” on specific political issues of the day. That is, +1 an effective political petition, spam out pre-written email addressed to my local elected official, etc.

#2 Michael De Dora on Tuesday January 17, 2012 at 12:55pm

@Blamer,

Yes, I should have stated that I’ve heard those objections at a range of local skeptics events: skeptics in the pub, discussion groups, lectures, panels, conferences, etc.

Also, I very much like your idea for a “take action” button on popular skeptic web sites. Hopefully some skeptic bloggers see your post.

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