Nature | Research Highlights: Social Selection

Scientific sceptics hit back after rebuke

A science writer challenges the sceptics community to move beyond tackling just ‘easy’ issues.

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Champions of rational, evidence-based thinking are seething after a public rebuke at one of their own conferences. Speaking on 15 May at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism in New York, science journalist John Horgan said that sceptics — researchers and other people who promote the scientific method — spend too much time debunking ‘soft’ targets such as homeopathy when they should be going after tougher, ‘hard’ issues, such as whether regular mammograms save lives. Whereas some attendees welcomed the message, conference co-organizer Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, took to his NeuroLogica blog to argue that sceptics have been grappling with both hard and soft targets for years: “We are already miles past the superficial framing that Horgan gives.”

The community of science-minded sceptics is organized through various societies such as the Skeptics Society and uses magazines, newsletters, regular meetings and lectures to discuss a range of issues. Historically, sceptics examined pseudoscience topics such as UFOs, something that Horgan homed in on in a Scientific American blog post on 16 May that recapped his conference talk (Nature and Scientific American are published by the same company, Springer Nature).

Horgan wrote that for sceptics to really have an impact, they need to tackle the “dubious and even harmful claims promoted by major scientists and institutions”.

For example, Horgan argues that sceptics should expose the harm that excessive cancer screening can have. “Americans are over-tested, over-treated and over-charged,” he wrote. He added that sceptics should take a hard look at geneticists who claim to have found a “gay gene” or an “ intelligence gene” or any other simplistic explanation for a complex trait.

His stance met with quick criticism online. Michael Marshall in Liverpool, UK, who is vice-president of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, tweeted to Horgan:

In an interview, he said: “I’d far rather people were encouraged to spread critical thinking in an area they’re passionate about than lose interest because they’re forced to join conversations they neither have the interest nor expertise to be involved in.”

Novella wrote on his blog that Horgan hasn’t been paying attention to the wide-ranging discussions taking place in sceptical circles. For example, he said that many articles in the sceptical media have covered the problem of cancer over-diagnosis and over-treatment. And conference attendee Mary Mangan, an independent bioinformaticist in Somerville, Massachusetts, commented on Novella’s blog that debunking headlines about “gene for X” discoveries is practically a full-time job for sceptics.

“[Horgan] hasn’t engaged with other sceptics,” Novella said in an interview. “He’s acting like we’ve never thought of these things.” He adds, however, that ‘easy’ targets still warrant attention — homeopathy is still a huge business, he points out.

P. Z. Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota in Morris who left the sceptics movement in 2013, defended Horgan on his popular Pharyngula blog. “What Horgan did was point out that there are a lot of things to be skeptical about, and skeptics have a peculiar fondness for picking the easiest targets.”

Speaking to Nature, Horgan says that he had an “impressionistic view” of the topics that were important to sceptics but that he hadn’t taken a full survey. He added that he is “thrilled” by the reaction to his talk and blog post, both negative and positive. “I’m trying to get people to see their own beliefs in a different light.”

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