The Poverty of Skepticism

Over the last little while the radio station that we broadcast Radio Freethinker on is doing its annual fundraiser. Since it’s community radio and completely independent, listener support is the only way it can stay on the air. Of course, as a proud show on CiTR we’ve done what we can at Radio Freethinker to encourage donations and support from our listeners.

As this has been going on I can’t help but think about the similarities between something like community radio and organized skepticism. Or what I have termed the “poverty of the skepticism movement.”

Organized skepticism, which includes the Centre for Inquiry, the Skeptics Society, the James Randi Educational Foundation, and the other international skeptical organizations all have the difficult task of promoting skepticism and critical thinking to the general public. It’s nowhere near easy, as most of our readers know. Each group has its own ideas and agendas and goals, the common unifying theme though is that all their goals require money.

Now, since all those organizations are non-profit — meaning that they don’t pay their owners/operators/organizers any funds, they invest all they make in supporting their goals. For that, these organizations need donations from the public and government.

One problem. Who to donate to? Now this is not a blog post about which organization is better but I would like to point out the difficulty for skeptics in deciding which organization to invest in, obviously some of us can’t donate to all of them.

The problem as I see it is that these organizations are all trying to accomplish the same thing. Suppose you’re passionate about UFO’s. (I imagine each of these organizations has some programs to deal with UFOologists spreading nonsense.) And it basically divides the base. Instead of one really well-funded plan, you have 4 so-so funded plans.

Now this wouldn’t be such a problem if we didn’t have to worry about the proponents of pseudo science.
Take the Discovery Institute, their goal is to stamp out the teaching of evolution in favor of creationism. They’ve had a prominent role in court battles over creationism and evolution in the class room and have been a driving force behind many creationists plans to promote blatantly religious dogma in science textbooks and other media. According to Charity Navigator, in 2007 the Discovery Institute has revenue of over 4 million.
My concern is that when you have one, well funded, vocal organization with one primary goal, in this case, replacing evolution with creationism, it has an advantage in that all its resources and energies will be focused on that one goal.

Consider for a second Jenny McCarthy and Generation Rescue…I know I don’t like it any more than you but let’s just grit our teeth and get through it. When you consider the resources they have at their disposal: they are led by celebrities, thus they have access to large amounts of money, and they get lots of media attention, particularly from Oprah and Larry King. I don’t have to explain what a huge advantage that is.

This is all extremely problematic. Because of organizations like the Discovery Institute and Generation Rescue we’ve seen noticeable results both in schools where teaching evolution has become more and more a liability. And with drug companies who now view making vaccines as a massive public relations nightmare.

I think however that we all have reason to be hopeful since there are so many great grassroots skeptical projects and organizations out there that are combating this pseudo science on the ground floor. But even in that regard virtually all of skepticism, small time like campus clubs and big time like CFI, require the support of the public. Consider the organization Campus for Christ, it’s considered one of the most efficient groups at fundraising and is extremely effective at the grass roots level. Anyone who is a member of a campus skeptical group has probably run into them at some point.

With the internet and all the new tools at the disposal of some really smart people…I think the future is promising. But we have to remember that people like Kirk Cameron are also using those tools. While it’s great that podcasts and skeptical grass roots groups are popping up, they just don’t have the resources to say help out a group of teachers being sued by parents funded by the Discovery Institute. Nor do we have the ability to emotional plead with people like Jenny McCarthy can on Oprah and mobilize a movement around her manufactured controversy.

In turn we must be active. We must do what we can in our sphere of influence to counter this proliferation of pseudo science. And we must support those who do so on a grand scale. Because if we don’t who will?

This has been my big pitch for supporting skeptical activism and I hope it worked.

Thank you.

P.S if you are interested in supporting CiTR and Radio Freethinker please stop by and click here to see all the cool swag you could win by donating to the station and Radio Freethinker.

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  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.