Tim Farley – What’s the Harm?

June 11, 2010

Tim Farley is a computer software engineer, skeptic, and creator of the popular website What’s the Harm? His site answers this salient question with over 670,000 stories of people who have indeed been harmed, damaged, injured, or even killed by pseudoscience and the paranormal

What’s the Harm’s catchphrase is: “368,379 people killed, 306,096 injured and over $2,815,931,000 in economic damages.” However, these statistics are calculated from randomly-caught, modern cases documented in English-speaking countries. Many stories are left untold. How much bigger could the problem be?

In this interview with Karen Stollznow, Tim reveals the real-life dangers, and the hidden dangers, of these beliefs and practices. He treats the lack of regulatory bodies for these industries, and what recourse can be taken when harm is done. Tim talks about the question “What’s the Harm?” as used in defense of pseudoscience and the paranormal, and why this is wielded as a “checkmate” argument. He discusses the power of anecdotal evidence, and whether people are influenced by cautionary tales, or more persuaded by their own personal experiences.

Tim is a prominent activist and a frequent speaker at events including Skeptics in the Pub, Skepticamp, and the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Amazing Meetings. An expert in computer security and reverse engineering, he is at the forefront of the Skepticism 2.0 movement. He talks about finding your own “niche” as an online activist, how you don’t need to be a magician or have a PhD to be a skeptic, and how we all have our own expertise to bring to the skeptical movement.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, June 11th, 2010. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Karen Stollznow point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. My guest this week is Tim Farley, a computer software engineer, skeptic and creator of the popular Web site. What’s the harm? Tim is a prominent activist within the skepticism movement and a frequent speaker at events, including skeptics in the pub scripter camp and the James Randi Educational Foundation’s amazing meetings. But he is best known for his Web site. What’s the Harm? Counters misinformation with critical thinking and catalog’s cautionary tales about pseudoscientific and paranormal beliefs and practices. His site answers the often asked question What’s the harm with over 670000 powerful, true stories of people who’ve indeed been harmed, damaged, injured or even killed by pseudoscience or the paranormal? This is an important project that has been acclaimed by Michael Shermer, Penn Jillette and James Randi and serves as a valuable resource for us all. 

Tim, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Thanks for having me. So first stop, I’d like to ask you, what inspired you to create your Web site? What’s the harm? Is there a personal story there or personal experience that you had? 

Not really. Not a personal story, but it was a kind of a skeptic story of I had basically been a kind of a closet skeptic or, you know, I wasn’t very active. 

I didn’t have a blog or anything like that. And I went to the amazing meeting in 2007, and I was struck by some of the interesting kind of grass roots projects and different things that people were doing in terms of blogging and social media and other computer related projects. And at the end of it all, I it occurred to me that, you know, I could do something like that. I just need a good idea. So in the months after it, I kind of cast about and started doing some research on things. And somehow I just came up with this idea of doing a list of victims. It seemed like a lot of times we talk about the harm or the potential harm of irrational thinking in a very intellectual terms. 

And we forget that there is a real human cost. And when you read newspaper or magazine articles about these things, typically people look for victims and tell their story. But typically there’s one victim per magazine article and then these safe things pass into the history and people forget about these stories. So I thought it would be useful to kind of collect them all in one place. And once I started digging, I realized there were quite a lot more of these stories than I had even anticipated. So it sort of snowballed from there. 

What’s the harm? Is a really common arguments in defense of pseudoscience in the paranormal. You’ll always hear people saying or asking what’s the harm in taking vitamins or what’s the harm in visiting a psychic? So believers seem to see this as their checkmate in a sense. Right. So why why is this question so persuasive in the eyes of believers? 

Well, I mean, again, when you get into those intellectual arguments, you talk about things like the fact that homoeopathy has no scientific basis whatsoever. And that is a classic argument. It’s like, well, by your own argument, I’m merely taking a bottle of water. So what possible harm could I be doing to myself? It’s my money and I want to spend it the way I want to spend it. And by pulling out some of these stories and then showing how people have made really bad decisions in terms of relying on homoeopathy instead of actual medicine and gotten themselves hurt or killed as a result, we can give a counter example to that. 

Your site demonstrates that there is indeed harm in pseudoscience in the paranormal. You’ve archived stories about the Real-Life, dangers and consequences of alternative medicine, the occult and conspiracy theories and cults schemes and much more. 

What are some of the most dangerous beliefs and practices that you’ve encountered? 

I think the alternative medicine stuff, naturopathy, homoeopathy, acupuncture, those sorts of things. The most common and most dangerous cases I seem to find are people relying on that in place of actual medicine. And the other one that really stands out and really can make you very angry when you read some of these stories are the faith healing stories where people rely on the power of prayer instead of taking kids to the doctor? And there’s just so many stories where kids, I mean, literally could have been taken to the emergency room, been there for an hour or gotten an antibiotic and gone home and never. 

Thought a second thing about it, and the child ends up dead because mom and dad were believers in faith healing and they decided to pray over the child instead of instead of doing what what a sensible parent would have done. 

I’d have to agree that that’s one of our biggest concerns and skepticism in general, alternative medicine. The site also lists some very unusual beliefs and practices, including for their pianism, which our listeners may know of is the claim that proponents go for long periods without eating food, instead living on love and light. So what are some of the stranger cases that you’ve examined? 

Yes. There have been a couple of weird cases. 

One was a case where I think it boiled down to someone who earlies one of the two people involved clearly had some sort of mental illness, but they were believers in UFOs and somehow they had got it in their head that they were going to go out into the wilderness and the UFO was going to come down and meet them. But they made the poor decision of doing this trip out into the wilderness and in the dead of winter in the far northern part of the United States. And it was extremely cold and they weren’t prepared for the weather conditions. And someone ended up freezing to death, actually, in a car out in the woods of, I think, Minnesota. Wow. 

So that was an unusual case. The one that I always tell people when they they ask me about cases is a case where a 26 year old man in Malaysia was stabbed to death over an argument about Phung Shway, who is an interesting case where these two families live directly across the street from each other. And they were both big believers in Fung Shway, but not to big fans of each other. And apparently in Freshway, there’s a thing where you can put a mirror on the outside of your house to reflect away bad luck. And both one of them had decided to do it, but they had made the decision. They had placed their mirror in such a way that it was in in theory, reflecting the bad luck directly at the other family. That caused some anger. And so the other family put up a bad luck mirror or whatever it’s called. And so then that escalated into a fight and literally became a brawl in the street between their two houses. 

And this this 26 year old kid ended up getting stabbed to death in the middle of this brawl over Fung Shway practices. 

Yeah, I’d say Fung Choise indirectly to blame in that particular story. 

Yeah. Well many of the cases I have on what’s the harm are kind of indirect. And I’d like to explain to people that I kind of use something similar to the legal principle of proximate cause, that if they are rational, believe, put someone in a situation where the harm happened. I still think it’s relevant, even if, yes, it wasn’t really the direct cause, it was their direct cause was someone stabbing him with a knife. But that whole situation would not have come about if the Fung shway belief and in particular the bad luck mayors had not been put up. 

Absolutely. It’s still relevant to the story overall. So some of the dangers are obvious and we can readily acknowledge the dangers of breatharianism staffing all you candling. But would you say that overall some of these examples are the extreme cases? And I’m wondering, what are some of the more hidden dangers that might be behind these beliefs and practices? 

Well, there’s a lot of cases that I kind of avoid in terms of just simple things, like saying that someone has wasted a lot of their money or a lot of time in their life. I mean, clearly, people can waste their entire lives on belief systems that have no basis in reality. And, you know, on some level, you have to, you know, defer to the person’s personal choice and say, well, you know, if that person chooses to spend their time believing crazy stuff, as long as they haven’t hurt themselves or others, then I guess that’s their choice. So I kind of shy away from those types of cases and try to focus in on things where people have ended up in the hospital or ended up dead. That sort of thing where the harm is a little bit more clear and not the intended result of what they believed. 

You do cover a lot of topics on your site. There are no regulatory bodies for pseudoscientific and paranormal beliefs and practices in general. Do you think that the popularity of your website highlights a need for such regulatory bodies? 

Yeah, perhaps that’s one thing that I really think that maybe skeptics could do some interesting things with. There’s some really interesting stuff going on in the UK right now where where there are regulatory bodies and commissions that you can complain to in terms of advertising claims that are made and and whatnot. And skeptic. They’ve really stepped to the plate and are are taking advantage of that capability that they have over there to file complaints and say, hey, you know, I think this chiropractor is making a claim that’s against the rules. And I want you to to analyze it. 

Isn’t that mostly in the area of alternative medicine? That’s what I’ve been hearing. 

Yeah, that’s that’s mostly alternative medicine. But, yeah, you’re right, there aren’t much in the way of regulations in terms of psychic’s. 

One of the things that I’ve been kind of interested in exploring, and I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know what the details are in the U.S. about this, but there are state and local regulations that do apply to in certain areas to things like tarot readers and psychics. And it would be interesting to see if there are avenues that maybe skeptics could do some activism along that line in terms of like, for instance, if such and such a state says that it’s a requirement that psychics say that this is for entertainment purposes only. Well, then go to the psychic and make sure that they really have this is for entertainment purposes only posted in a prominent place. And if they don’t complain to the state, you know, trading commission or whatever the you know, the body is that is in charge of that regulation. And I’m willing to bet that there are a fair number of, you know, minor regulations like that around the United States, that we could actually make some trouble for some of these paranormals states by holding their feet to the fire. 

Yeah, I think an ally for us would be consumer affairs organizations if you have a little sample like Miss Cleo. It’s usually when people are hit in the back pocket, they hit financially somehow, but they’ll react and they’ll try to seek some sort of compensation or or legal action against these people. So I think that that’s a really important avenue for us to investigate. 

Right. I agree. 

But so it is mind boggling to think of where to begin when it comes to regulating all of these groups and organizations. Where do you begin? 

Yeah. And on some level, is there really is a you know, in the United States is really a free speech issue. You know, if someone wants to claim that they’re psychic, then, you know, isn’t that their right? And obviously, there’s some merit to that. And, you know, the old thing that, you know, you hear so many times is that you have to tolerate the bad speech and the crazy speech in order to really say that you have free speech in your country. So I think on some level, we have to tolerate the psychics and the tarot readers and the paranormal ists and the ghost hunters. 

Maybe once they start affecting people, then I think that if there are other parties involved and they need to have some sort of recourse, certainly I think there is definitely some consumer regulations that could be brought to bear. 

And what. What what needs to be done in the skeptic realm is I think we need, you know, someone who has some legal skills, a lawyer who’s also a skeptic or something like that, to start a blog or a Web site. That’s a resource on this. And actually research, you know, what are the rules in the various states? What local cities have regulations on this? Are there ways that you can, you know, maybe in, say, Michigan, there is a way to complain about a ghost hunting group or, you know, or whatever and collect all that in one place so that skeptics can get some ideas about what’s possible and what’s not near. 

That’s a fantastic idea. I think it’s very, very needed. So moving on, skeptics often denounce the claims of believers as mere anecdotal evidence. So what do you say to those who argue that your site is a compendium of anecdotal evidence? 

Actually, that was my initial fear when I started compiling the site. 

When I first put together kind of the first cut of the first like 200 cases or whatever it was that I had found. I posted it on the James Randi Educational Foundation’s online forum just to sort of kick the idea around and see what would happen. And I was definitely afraid that all the skeptics were going to jump on me and say, oh, that’s just a bunch of anecdotal evidence. We don’t need that Web site. But I think the point of it is one of the things that I’m careful to say on the site is that my site does not prove anything one way or the other. These are just stories, but they are important stories because people respond to stories and they respond to, you know, the actual things that have happened to other people. Many people respond to them much more easily than they do to statistics and numbers and scientific papers and that kind of stuff. A lot of people have a hard time wrapping their mind around double blind, placebo controlled epidemiological studies. But when you talk about, you know, here’s a kid who died because of this crazy belief that hits them right where it’s home. And that’s exactly why the paranormal believers and the all made believers. That’s why. They use anecdotes because they know how powerful they are. So I you know, I think we have to be careful because we are skeptics and we do go where the evidence is. We have to be careful and make sure we make it clear that we’re not. These stories don’t prove anything. But I think it’s important to use stories to get our point across and say, hey, look, you know, here’s a real person who actually died because of this belief that you think is so great. 

Well, I think it’s important because we’re using the methods of believers to approach these people. Well, I think it’s really fighting fire with fire, in a sense. 

Yeah. I mean, you know, it’s been said many times that you can’t convince somebody to stop having a belief with logic when they didn’t arrive at that belief with logic in the first place. So I think we have to use things like emotional appeals and marketing techniques and in some cases comedy and music and, you know, anything we can use to try to get our message out there, because while there are logical people who will listen to the scientific arguments, there are some people that just don’t respond to those arguments as well as they might to say a video or a good story or a song or something. 

So we need to use all those techniques because everything is all of these cases are documented. Then in that sense, we’re not talking about testimonials. These aren’t anecdotal evidence. This is really documented and backed up. 

Yeah, that’s right. In many cases, these are cases that were in scientific studies. In fact, I have a page where I isolate those out. So if you just want to see the scientific studies, I’ve got those all organized on one page. And in some cases, there are extensive court records detailing the details of some of these cases. And certainly at least one news story on each one. 

Brilliant. And so I’m wondering how this site is used by the public. Do you find that your site is used more as a resource for skeptics to direct believers to? Or is it used more by believers who might Google terms like homeopathy and stumble across your site? 

Yeah, I think well, I judging from the email I get, the believers definitely stumble on it from time to time. I think mainly right now it’s more of a skeptic reference. That’s my impression that how it gets used so that a skeptic who maybe is involved in an argument or, you know, needs an example to use in a debate, they can come to my site and find something to use and find the supporting material. And skeptic bloggers and also journalists and people writing books who need examples to use in their writing can find that the fact, you know, the basic facts of each case on my site would be wonderful if your site was coming up as one of the most popular searches for for all of the various terms, all of these keyword terms. 

I guess that’s eventually what you’d like to achieve. 

Yeah, and I’ve I’ve done pretty well. I do come up fairly high, particularly if you use the word harm in your query. 

If you type the words what’s the harm? Or if you type harm. And one of the belief systems that I have listed could be type harm and homoeopathy or harm and or acupuncture. I’m usually the first result in that. So if at least if someone is thinking about the idea that there may be some harm in homeopathy, they will find the site very quickly. 

The catch phrase that you use provides some startling statistics. You state that there are over 360000 people who’ve been killed, over 300000 who’ve been injured, and some 2.8 billion dollars in economic damages. But the cases are gathered manually by a small group of volunteers. I’ve heard you say previously, and these are examples, the ones that you catch. So these probably represent a small portion of the real statistics. How much bigger could the problem be? 

My impression is that it’s quite large. There have been news stories that I’ve wanted to put on the site. But because newspapers are astonishingly poor indexing their stuff online, it’s really hard to find the original article unless you have access to, say, pay databases and that sort of thing. But the impression I also get is that many of these cases don’t ever really get documented in any way because, again, it boils down to where’s the money? Most of the news stories that I end up citing are the result of lawsuits or criminal actions. And if a lawsuit or a criminal action doesn’t happen as a result of a case, usually it doesn’t end up in a newspaper. And then there’s no way for me to find it. So, for instance, the typical case of somebody like, you know, your aunt or a relative of yours or somebody decides to use homoeopathy instead of chemotherapy to treat their cancer and they end up dying and the family all know. That’s what happened. But, of course, that’s not going to show up in the obituary. There’s not going to be a news story that says so-and-so died because they believed in homoeopathy. It’s just going to be sort of a family secret. And I think that these types of things are happening all the time. 

And you’ve also restricted the cases to English speaking countries mostly. 

Yeah, well, that’s that’s just a practical thing, because I don’t have the ability to research in that. I do have a few cases that have been submitted to me that appeared only in foreign language press. 

I have one where I had to get a volunteer to help me translate to news articles from Slovenian, where one of the very first people to ever be struck off as a physician in Slovenia was the result of prescribing homeopathic remedies for malaria. Case where the patient ended up dying of malaria because his doctor prescribed homeopathic remedies instead of the appropriate medicines. 

Very dangerous. And I was thinking about cases such as the spate of witchcraft in Papua New Guinea, cases of voodoo in Haiti and this in China. So do you think the situation could be much worse in non Westernized countries? 

Yeah, I really do think that’s true in a country where the press is controlled by the government. I think a lot of these cases are just not going to show up in the press or they’re not. They might show up in the local press, but they’re certainly not going to make it out of that country. So I do have some cases from China that that sometimes make it out. But, yeah, I think there’s a lot more of that that’s there that we just don’t hear about a lot of stories that haven’t been told and will never be told. 

One of my favorite stories on the site was a story about some basically a skeptic in China who ended up making a lot of money off of being a skeptic. It was a building that the owner, the people who live there, thought was haunted. And so no one wanted to live there. And it went on the market and the price kept going down and down and down because no one wanted to buy a haunted building. And these two real estate investors, basically two young guys who had some money to spend, didn’t believe in ghosts. So they came and they said, well, we’ll buy that building. And as soon as they bought it, they set about doing some investigations. And what they discovered was that all the reports of ghosts were banging noises in the walls. And they investigated. And all the banging noises were coming from approximately where the plumbing was in the walls. And what they discovered was this, that someone, while preparing fish several years before, had accidentally spilled alive several NIV catfish into the sewer of the building. So there were alive catfish swimming around in the sewer pipes in the wall of the building, and they were banging the pipes. And people thought they were ghosts. And these guys bought the building, opened up the septic tank, got the fish out of it, renovated the building and ended up making a lot of money out of being skeptic’s. 

Well, that’s a very novel story for skeptics to make money out of skepticism. 

Yeah. Oh, that’s incredible. 

So here’s my own anecdotal story. My mother used to make her own colloidal silver. Oh, wow. And so to convince her to stop doing so, I sent her lots of skeptical links and even pictures of people with Algeria, that condition that turns the skin gray. But she didn’t stop using the product until she saw herself, that it didn’t work by her own experiences. So I’m wondering, how successful is your site in deterring people from the paranormal and from pseudo science? Do you think the people are more driven by personal experiences than by other people’s anecdotal stories? 

Yes, it’s hard to say. I don’t have a good way of measuring that, certainly. I haven’t gotten a lot of feedback. 

The site’s only been around for, I guess, about two years now. So I don’t get a ton of feedback from folks who come back and say, oh, your site was the one that convinced me. 

So I can’t really say. I think you’re right. I think a lot of people are swayed more by personal experience than they are anything a skeptic can offer up. 

One of the things that I try to focus on as a skeptic is, you know, I am very aware of the fact that once people get pulled into these belief systems, it’s very hard to pull them out because a lot of, you know, cognitive biases and things like that serve to just reinforce their beliefs. So one of the things that I focused on and to a certain degree and what’s the harm? And in some of the other projects that I’ve been working on, on the Web is to try to reach people who are neither believers nor skeptics to reach those people that might be possibly thinking about going to a homeopath but don’t really know about, you know, whether it’s a good idea or not. 

And I think if we can reach some of those people, I think skeptics could do a. Not to try to essentially cut off the supply of new customers to paranormals, an alternative medicine and things like that. If we can get good information to people who haven’t been pulled into the belief systems yet and show them how these things are wrong and how they can cause harm and how they’re not based in science and stop them before they go, I think that’s more of a winning. It feels like to me that that’s more of a winning strategy. 

How can we reach that section of society? 

Well, one of the things I’ve been working on now is kind of my one of my several skunkworks projects that I’ve been working on is it’s something that I was fairly successful on that we’ve talked about a minute ago, is trying to get good placement in Google for what’s the harm. And I was pretty successful just six months after. What’s the arm went up. It had fairly good placement and it’s been getting better and better as people linked to it. And I think that that same sort of technique could be used to try to reach these people that I’m talking about. Neither the believers nor the nor the skeptics. I think Michael Shermer refers to them as fence sitters, because in this day and age, most of those people, if you know, if someone decides, hey, I heard about somebody at work talking about homoeopathy, maybe I should go see a homeopath or what are they going to do? Well, they’re going to they’re going to open up their Web browser and type something like if they live in New York, New York homeopaths. Right. And see what kind of listening to come up. Well, that’s the sort of thing that you can actually target on Google if you know what you’re doing and know how to structure your content. And I think that local skeptics groups could potentially do a tremendous service by targeting those types of searches. No, don’t try to be the number one hit for homoeopathy, because I’ll tell you right now, that’s impossible. There’s thousands of homoeopathy Web sites out there ahead of you in line. And it’s gonna be hard to be the number one hit for homoeopathy. 

But if you want to be the number one hit for Joliet, Illinois, hold a path that’s doable. That’s something that you could do with very little money, just arranging content properly, putting in it, getting it into the Google index. So the idea is for local skeptics groups to try to target those searches and put some good skeptical content on those pages so that when people go out looking for homeopaths to go see, they will no doubt find those sites. 

But they’ll also find your skeptical site that says something like, here’s why you should not go to a homeopath and Julie in Illinois or, you know, Chicago or, you know, San Francisco, whatever your town is. 

That’s a brilliant, practical way, I think, to to deal with that. And the stories that you list are cautionary tales. Do you think that there’s some elements? There are full readers of that won’t happen to me. I’m smarter than not. That’s not going to to happen to me. 

Yeah, I think that happens again. That’s one of those cognitive biases that skeptics talk so much about, that people tend to, you know, find ways to, you know, through cognitive dissonance to say this is not going to apply to me, you know, or find an excuse. And again, I think someone who’s at that point is kind of in that believer’s zone and it may be hard to convince them ever. I hope that at least if you with something like what’s the harm or any kind of skeptical content, at least maybe you could plant a seed with that person so that, you know, you might not be able to convince them today that maybe if they see your Web site this week and they see another Web site, you know, six weeks from now and they see a TV show next year, that over time those things will start to build up and hopefully the logical part of their brain will start to outweigh the cognitive dissonance and the confirmation bias and all the other things that brought them to where they were. 

Mm hmm. And I noticed, too, that your site is a famous people list where you provide cases of various celebrities that have been caused harm. So you’ve got stories from Jim Henson, Andy Kaufman, Bob Marley, Peter Sellers. Do you think that people are influenced more by these celebrity stories or by stories of the average person? 

Right. Well, I think it has its place. I think, you know, sometimes when you read some of the pages on my site, a lot of the stories are fairly obscure things that people have never heard of before. And it is somehow I felt like it was easy for someone to say, well, this is an obscure person who lived in, you know, Belgium 20 years ago. That doesn’t apply to me very much. But to say that someone like Peter Sellers or Bob Marley, who clearly were, you know, famous and had access to a lot of resources, certainly Peter Sellers could afford to go. To any doctor that he needed to go to, but he actually chose when he had a heart condition to go to psychic surgeons instead of an actual surgeon. And it ended up putting him in a position where he ended up having a fatal heart attack later because he hadn’t had the bypass surgery that his heart doctor had told him he desperately needed. And I think that can be compelling. It’s like, well, here’s someone who it’s not a question of he couldn’t afford the heart surgery. It was a question of who got caught up in this strange belief that this person could psychically cure his heart problem. 

And have you got any other upcoming developments for the site other than the ones I talked about? 

I’ve been working on doing a site redesign lately to try to bring it up to spec in terms of things like iPhone and other smart phones, so that, for instance, if someone was in a situation where they’re out and about and they find a believer and they’re arguing and the what’s the harm question comes up, they could very easily the site can be viewed on an iPhone. Now, it’s just not quite optimal. So I’d like to optimize that better. So, for instance, someone could bring up a case that was particularly relevant, maybe even by geography, so that it was a local case to them in their own country on their iPhone. Very quickly, and I’ve also been working on some other projects. I have the skeptic history thing that I’ve been working on and just sort of doing the general skeptical outreach on Twitter and Facebook and that sort of thing. 

You do a fantastic job with that. You’re really a very important activist in the skeptical movement. And what’s the harm is a very vital grassroots project. 

Well, I like to think so. And I appreciate you saying that. My sort of my goal when I started out on this was, you know, what can I bring to it? 

And I’m not a magician like James Randi or someone else like that. And I’m not a PHC psychologist, so I can’t bring say what Richard Wiseman or somebody like that brings to it. So what can I bring to the table? And what I can bring to the table is knowledge of computer type, you know, Internet resources and Web site development and that sort of thing. So I’ve tried to take my skepticism in that direction. How can I use the skills that I’ve learned at work to advance skepticism? So I’ve been doing things like the Web site and Twitter and Facebook and that sort of thing, and trying to look for these other things, like the search engine optimization local angle that I talked about earlier, that skeptics can use these tools. 

And what’s amazing about them is that in many cases, all of this stuff is free or very, very cheap to do. You know, historically, skeptics, in order to reach a lot of people, would have had to put out a newsletter, put out a magazine, you know, have meetings, you know, run fliers. And these are all things that cost a lot of money. Now, you can do things with Meetup and Facebook online and literally you can have a local skeptics group up and running at zero cost in a moment’s notice. And you’re starting to see that with skeptics in the pub popping up in new cities all the time and local skeptics groups popping up all over the place. 

I think you’ve illustrated a very important point, that you don’t need to have a page, do you, or to be a magician or an astrophysicist to be a skeptic. And you’ve really been at the helm in many ways of Skepticism 2.0 movement. 

Yeah, well, that’s what I’ve been trying to do. I hope I’ve been successful a little bit and we’ll try to push it forward some more as we go. 

And so overall, how can listeners become involved or help with your project? What’s the harm? 

Well, you know, I always like I said, I get a lot of submissions, so I’m always looking for submissions, particularly if you see news sources that are outside the beaten path. 

Like if you’re if you read newspapers from other countries that maybe don’t make it into the, you know, the U.S. or the British press, those types of stories, any kind of story that involves, you know, a real person really getting hurt as a result of their own beliefs that are not based in reality, that’s potential fodder for the site. 

So I’m always looking for submissions for that and just always looking for folks to, you know, kind of pitch in and join the Skepticism 2.0 thing. However they see fit, you know, whether it’s on Twitter or by starting their own local group or having a skeptic camp, any of those things are legitimate ways to participate. One of the things that I push a lot for folks is to specialize. We’ve been seeing a lot of enthusiasm where folks are jumping in with both feet on skepticism. 

And but a lot of folks do that by basically doing more of the same. So they see a skeptical blog that they like and they say, well, I could do that. And they basically do. Yet another skeptical blog that covers the same news stories that all the other skeptical blogs do. And for instance, we have a lot of skeptical podcasts right now to the point where I kind of feel bad because I can’t keep up with all of them. I’d like to keep up with them because so many of my friends are involved in producing various ones of them. But it’s hard. So what I encourage people to do is to find a niche. I found a nation. What’s the harm? Which is, you know, stories of people who became victims of irrational beliefs. And that’s a knish. And I think there are other great nations out there where people can do a single topic. 

Blogs, for instance, where you become the expert on, say, legal issues in the United States, like we mentioned earlier, or or gone Amy or Crystal healing or chem trails or any of a number of topics that are not adequately covered on the skeptic blogs. 

And maybe those aren’t, you know, the big ticket stories that that make CNN. But I think there’s always a need for there to be a resource on those stories so that when somebody comes along and says, hey, what’s the skeptical take on our economy? Well, you know, it’s bunk. I don’t have a good link if someone were to ask me that question. I don’t have a good Web site that has, you know, the full details of why it’s bunk. That comes from a skeptical realm because no one’s bothered to do that. 

Oh, yeah. I think everyone has their own expertize that they can, Linda. Skepticism whether they know it or not. And I think definitely specializing or having some sort of niche interest area is going to be useful overall to the entire movement. Having said that to you, I think that there’s always room for good podcasts and good blogs. And even if it is the same sort of thing. 

Oh, absolutely. You know, I’m definitely not discouraging anyone from doing something. Give it a try. Who knows? You might become better than the ones that are out there, and if so, more power to you. But I think you should definitely consider a very tight specialization, especially at first, and maybe widen out your topic as you go. 

Yeah, there’s definitely a skeptical interdependence there. And I think if we all work together and focus on our strengths, that that will be useful overall to the movement. Absolutely. Tim, thank you so much for joining me today. It was a pleasure to speak with you. 

Thank you. I enjoyed it immensely. 

This is Ron Lindsay president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. I’m delighted to announce that we are once again sponsoring Camp Inquiry, a unique summer camp for young skeptics from ages seven to 16. Camp Inquiry encourages children to think for themselves free from the constraints of religious dogma and the myths of pseudoscience. I should let Dr. Andrew McQuaig, director of the camp, tell you more about it. 

We are proud to announce this year’s camp inquiry theme. Young Minds, Big questions. Who am I and why am I here? What can I know? And what I to do? Once the domain of theological and speculative thought, these questions are now increasingly being addressed by the sciences and by kids. Young minds. Big questions serve as the Center for Inquiry Central Mission of elucidating the philosophical, moral and cultural implications of the scientific outlook. Cameras will engage in Hands-On philosophy this summer, including games, team activities, dialog, outdoor exploration and arts projects to explore where we fit in the cosmic narrative offered by the natural sciences. Young Minds. Big Questions also serves as the title of a short feature documentary that campers will produce as the capstone of their summer experience and parents. You’re invited to join us for dinner with Dale McGowan, coauthor of Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers, in a very special evening with the amazing James Randi, the world’s leading investigator. And Demystify the paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. Camp inquiry will be held at Camp Seven Hills and Hall in New York between July 18th and 24th. For more information or to register, please visit Camp Inquiry dot org. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Tim Farley’s Web site. What’s the harm. Can be viewed at. What’s the harm? Dot net. To participate in the online conversation about this show. Please join our discussion forum at point of inquiry dot org. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Karen Stollznow. 

Karen Stollznow