It started Thursday night. I was sending out emails to an array of scientists and skeptics in an effort to book them on Strange Frequencies Radio, the internet talk program I host along with my friend and paranormal partner-in-crime Bobby Nelson. While our show covers “fringe” type topics, we generally point a critical eye at many of the claims being made. One of the fringe ideas we have been very interested in doing a show on is homeopathic medicine, as well as things like reiki and faith healing. So, what better way to do that than by inviting on a medical doctor; particularly one who is heavily involved in the skeptical community, and is a knowledgeable proponent of science based medicine?
That’s where Harriet Hall comes in. Known affectionately as “The SkepDoc,” Dr. Hall is a retired family physician, and former Air Force flight surgeon. She is a contributing editor to Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer Magazine. She also writes what I feel are informative and entertaining columns. I felt she would be perfect for the show, so I dropped her a line.
Imagine my surprise when I heard back Friday afternoon, and was completely blown away by how dismissive and condescending she was. She talked about how science based medicine was a “serious topic,” and one “with implications for health and saving lives.” I totally agree with her. But she goes on to write that, after having looked at our website to see what our show is about, she has decided that we are “simply not skeptical or science-based enough” and that she doesn’t think she wants to be associated with us. We are, she said, much too “open to every kind of nonsense.”
Well, I have to admit that I was angry. Furious, really. Not only because what she was saying wasn’t true, but because her tone was so incredibly snobby. It stung a little, I’ll be honest. It also got me thinking about a major problem within the skeptical movement: the lack of outreach and conversations they are having with those who aren’t as skeptical.
Granted, the problem exists on both sides. True believers in paranormal phenomenon talk almost exclusively with other true believers, and skeptics talk mainly with other skeptics. It gets to be an echo chamber. Too many are only hearing what they want to hear, and no one learns that much about the other side. I know because I used to be a believer in an assortment of paranormal, and other “woo” type topics. I rarely experienced alternate viewpoints or arguments because I never felt reached out to by the skeptical community. Now, I did eventually drop a lot of those beliefs on my own through tough questioning of myself coupled with further research. Believe me, I’m glad I made that transition. But a lot of people are still caught up in it because they don’t have the attention of patient teachers willing to reach out to them. Speaking only for myself, I had to find the skeptical community on my own. They sure didn’t come looking for me. Now having been a small part of the skeptical community myself, what I see are a lot of paranormal enthusiasts simply being labeled as “morons” and left to their own devices. I just ask: Who is that helping?
This is largely the reason we do things the way we do on Strange Frequencies Radio. We listen to skeptical podcasts, and they rarely, if ever, interview believers in alternative medicine or the paranormal. We listen to paranormal radio from the true believing crowd, and they rarely, if ever, interview scientists or skeptics, either. It is ludicrous, and doesn’t lead to meaningful dialogue between those with differing viewpoints. Strange Frequencies Radio is one of the very few internet radio shows and podcasts that operate in the middle of the spectrum. We may be a couple of skeptical guys, but we don’t shy away from talking to those that some may think believe in nonsense. We’ll talk to them like human beings, but we’ll also challenge them. We do the same thing with science based skeptics. If we don’t agree, or don’t understand what they are trying to say, we ask questions. What is wrong with that?
So, that is the big issue I had with Dr. Harriet Hall. She took a cursory look at our website, didn’t think we would be receptive to her message, and dismissed us. I’ll admit our website could use some updates. But science and skepticism are clearly labeled as topics we cover regularly. Still, if she had concerns, she could have written back and asked questions. We’ve had a few guests do that before, and have always been happy to help. She could have checked out the guest list and seen the large number of prominent skeptics we have interviewed. She could have listened to a few minutes of any recent podcast with a true believer and gotten an idea of how we respectfully challenge opinions we don’t agree with. Instead, she did something that was decidedly un-skeptical: she jumped to a conclusion without much evidence.
I wrote Dr. Hall back and expressed my disappointment. I told her that she was simply wrong in her assessment of our show. I explained to her who we are as people, what type of show we do, and went over a number of our recent guests. I was firm in my rebuke, but ultimately fair.
Now, I will let a number of things slide if the person I feel behaved poorly will apologize. A simple “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong” goes a long way for me. Instead, Harriet Hall wrote back what I feel was a backhanded apology, and basically said she might be willing to reconsider, if only we could prove to her we were worthy. She also essentially blamed us for the confusion.
Well, forgive me, but take a hike, lady. No one here is going to beg for your approval. I still feel as if Harriet Hall does important work, but my opinion of her as a person, as well as someone who preaches skeptical outreach, is severely lowered.
In closing, I think that science based medicine, as well as critically thinking about paranormal claims are important topics that should be covered as much as possible. I feel the best way to do that is for true believers and skeptics to loosen up their boundaries a little bit and talk more to one another. And hey, there’s a lot of great skeptics who do. Benjamin Radford, Joe Nickell, Matthew Baxter and Bryan Bonner are just a few. They don’t speculate, they investigate. And they do a great job as educators. But Ghost Hunters and Dr. Oz are two of the most popular programs on television, thanks in small part to the attitudes of people like Dr. Harriet Hall, who apparently feel it is more important to preach to the choir than it is to teach those asking to learn.