The Attitude of "SkepDoc" Harriet Hall Illustrates Problems With Skeptic Movement

This won’t be tremendously easy to write.  It’s tough using the name of a person you respect, and whose work you follow, to illustrate a flaw in the movement they are a part of.  But I hope readers will understand where I am coming from, and that this post opens a dialogue about an issue I feel is important.

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.

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12 thoughts on “The Attitude of "SkepDoc" Harriet Hall Illustrates Problems With Skeptic Movement

  1. Another PhD with a God complex. Ya know what Korbus, let it slide. People who are this cynical and self righteous end up dying alone anyways. If there is any type of God at all, this woman will meet her fate when her car dies in the middle of a Louisiana Bayou and her abductors harvest her body parts for use in ancient voodoo rituals.

  2. I was blown away by how dismissing this lady was. I mean, I've always thought that the skeptics practiced their own brand of high school clique-ism, but just being a downright cunt to someone who is genuinely interested in hearing and sharing her views and knowledge on a subject is pretty well uncalled for. Ah well, screw her. Maybe it's you who shouldn't want to be associated with her.

  3. @Sir John of Dockum – I done gone and let it slide. I think it made for a good blog post though. Hadn't really gotten the chance to tear into a particularly shitty skeptic recently, and this was a perfect opportunity.@Greggus Maximus -There's a number of skeptics I like, but I just don't understand her attitude of "I'm trying to teach people about medicine, but only if you already believe everything I'm going to tell you." The thing is, I'm sure I would have. But if I wasn't, shouldn't people like me be the audience she would want to reach? Eh, whatever. She was a total bitch. I'm over her.

  4. Dear Jason – Thank you for this post. You've hit the nail on the head in your observation that skeptics and believers alike tend to preach to the choir instead of to people with opposing beliefs. It's hard to stand up for what you believe in a room full of people who think you're a fool – but the rewards are significant. I have to admit that I was reluctant to be officially labeled a 'skeptic' on my show on the Oprah Winfrey Network (Miracle Detectives) because I feared that my viewpoints would be dismissed outright by our target audience. Too often, both believers and skeptics draw conclusions about each other that simply aren't warranted. But when we leave our preconceptions behind and really listen to each other, more often than not, we can find large areas of agreement, and begin to understand exactly where our differences lie. What I found remarkable during the shooting of my show is that none of the believers that I talked to were the least bit reluctant to have a conversation once I demonstrated that I was willing to listen. And despite the fact that our target audience was made up almost exclusively of people who believe in miracles, most our viewers at least had the decency to listen to my arguments before coming to their own conclusions. You're absolutely right in calling out the skeptic movement for being too exclusive – it's that exclusivity that makes the job of the champion of critical thinking in mainstream media that much harder. ~Indre

  5. @IDoubtIt & IndreThank you, ladies. You are, without a doubt, two of my favorites in this little community of critical thinkers. I have already learned a lot from both of you, and likely will continue to for quite some time. Thank you for everything you do.Sharon, that interview was FANTASTIC. Some of the things McLaren said really hit home for me. Excellent work, as per usual. And Indre, thank you for the supportive words. I still have issues to this day with calling myself a "skeptic." Sometimes I think I'm just more interested in having conversations with people who believe in the same stuff I used to and see if there is some way we can come to some type of understanding. Maybe even make a new friend. Either that, or just writing about a particular fringe belief or claim, tongue planted firmly in cheek, and having a little fun with it all.That being said, the subject of critical thinking, particularly about beliefs many people hold dear, is an important one. And I'll continue being a supporter of the movement in my own little way.Thank you again, friends.

  6. I hereby offer my sincere apology. I would also like to take this opportunity to point out a couple of things you may want to think about. Please try not to take offense.(1)For a skeptical show, the Internet sure doesn't give a good first impression. Googling to find out what your show was all about led me to a webpage listing subjects that you were interested in and even to a list of recommended books that included nothing about skepticism. The first list of guests I found consisted only of woo-woos. I now see that if I had dug deeper I could have found out that you had also invited skeptical guests like Randi. I apologize for not taking more time, but I suggest that you may want to do something to improve your internet persona.(2) It is good to have a dialogue rather than just preaching to the choir, but it can have a downside. It can sound like you are taking ridiculous ideas seriously, which can make you appear foolish. When true believers are challenged they may only be spurred to think up more rationalizations and may become just that more entrenched in their beliefs. Having weirdos on the same show as skeptics like Carol Tavris and Randi may lend prestige to the weirdos. In the past, I have had prolonged dialogues with believers of weird things and I have found it almost universally useless and counterproductive. You can read about one of my extended experiences in my article "Teaching Pigs to Sing: An Experiment in Bringing Critical Thinking to the Masses" at http://www.csicop.org/si/show/teaching_pigs_to_sing_an_experiment_in_bringing_critical_thinking_to_the_ma I joined a "Mingling of the Minds" group that invited astrologers, psychics, and so forth. I tried to understand their viewpoints and have a dialogue but they were not willing to listen or able to understand. It was very frustrating. Since then I have had a number of unpleasant experiences and I have become very wary of being sucked into discussions with people whose underlying agenda is to discredit me. Rather than dialoguing with believers, I prefer to concentrate my efforts on putting reliable information and skeptical thinking out where it can be found by those who have not irrevocably made up their minds.(3) Notice that I am not offering insults. I respect your approach but my approach is different from yours. Skeptics Guide to the Universe is more my style, and it has been very effective at bringing more people to skepticism without showcasing those who hold weird beliefs.

  7. I'm sorry for not getting to this sooner. For some reason, it went into the comment spam folder. I just found it.(1)As I wrote, I can admit that our website could use some updating. But I do think the description of the show as it is now online is pretty accurate. I'm not going to plaster the word "skeptical" all over the place just to make insecure people feel better. Again, I simply wish you had written to ask questions, looked further into our guest list at the time, or listened to a few minutes of an interview. You made a judgment based off little information. Well, you're only human after all, and I'm glad you have apologized for the error. But I doubt you would have had you not come across this post.(2)I've had many conversations with many believers in a variety of paranormal phenomenon. Some have been productive conversations, many have not. But none have ended poorly. Perhaps when you start off thinking of people as "weirdos" that can happen. Just a thought.(3) Enjoy your future appearances on Skeptic's Guide.

  8. Hi Jason,Wow, it's amazing where being a fan of "The Burbs" will lead you. This read has been full of drama and intrigue! I'm really glad you called Harriet Hall out on her "weirdos" remarks. I find it hard to have any confidence in her arguments if she needs to resort to name-calling to make her point.I am neither a true believer or a sceptic, more of a want-to-believe-but-deeply-cautious type. I have had two separate experiences of unexplained phenomena in my life, neither of which convinced me of anything, but certainly gave me food for thought. It seems to me that regardless of what side of the fence one is on, or if indeed one has the fence post firmly planted up one's butt, an open exchange of ideas is always the best way to get at the truth.Emma

  9. Haha, thanks Emma. You're right…being a fan of The Burbs has led me to some interesting people along the way. I'll consider it a point of pride to have become acquainted with you for that reason.My friend Greg Newkirk summed it up perfectly at the first Fort Fest back in early 2010. He said he was "skeptical, but not a Skeptic." I didn't know what he meant at the time. But from dabbling in the skeptic movement myself over the past year or so now, I now understand. To be a "skeptic" has become something of a bandwagon for people to jump on. Plus, a lot of skeptics take themselves waaaayyy too seriously. It's as if they lose their sense of humor and spirit of adventure and wonder. Sure, ghosts probably don't exist. Same with chupacabras and alien visitors. But what's wrong with going on expeditions with your friends seeking out the weird if for nothing other than cheap thrills? I've had a lot of fun ghost hunting, monster seeking, and doing related dumb stuff over the years. I don't play on stopping either. Hell, I'm buying amulets on the internet because I heard certain ones will help you attract otherworld entities and sometimes…yes, I like to dress up a werewolf and goof off with my friends, haha. It's all in the name of fun. To me, that's what the paranormal is supposed to be. It's not supposed to be scary, or heavily populated by joyless twits with a stick up their ass. Now, I don't want to make it sound like I'm lampooning the entire skeptic community. Some of my best friends are self-described skeptics, and there are many great people I've had the pleasure of spending time with or getting to know who are a big part of that movement. Harriet Hall probably just won't be one of them. As I wrote before, I still think she does important work. But to this day, judging by her emails and her comment on this very blog, she just doesn't get it. Oh well. There's a lot more just like her, but quite a few that are way more down to Earth. I'll stick with them.Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.PS: Check out Who Forted? Magazine, run by the dynamic husband and wife duo Greg and Dana Newkirk. It's an online magazine all about weird stuff…and it's FUN. I've contributed a couple things, but there are tons of amazing articles and videos from really cool amateur journalists that I would urge anyone to check out. I really think you'll enjoy it. http://WWW.WHOFORTEDMAG.COM Thanks again!

  10. I came to this blog after reading a few articles by Hall and being completely turned off by her dismissiveness, negativity and attitude. In reading her response to your emails and this blog I can see that my initial feelings about her were pretty accurate. I don't understand why she and others feel the need to call themselves "skeptics" and act in this manner. Calling anyone a "weirdo" is unprofessional and ignorant, no matter how outlandish you may consider their claims. Not so long ago, anyone who thought the earth was round was considered a weirdo too..so don't be so quick to judge.

  11. Don't let her color your attitude of all skeptics. This was just one negative experience among many positive ones. But I felt I should blog about it in order to continue a conversation I feel is important.Harriet Hall may have an attitude problem. But she also writes about critical subject matter and, more importantly, is right. I can, however, understand your perspective. Dr. Steven Novella popularly writes about the issue of science based medicine as well. Check him out if you haven't already. I think you'll find him informative, but more willing to engage with the alternative medicine camp than Dr. Hall appears to.Thanks for dropping by, and for sharing your thoughts.

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