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Australasian ScienceThe More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

This month marks ten years since I first became involved with Australian Skeptics, although I had been reading skeptical literature for many years and I had been running my own web site devoted to exposing the fringes of uncritical thinking for some time before the Skeptics and I found each other. Decadal anniversaries are traditionally treated as opportunities for reminiscing about changes over the period, and who am I to resist tradition?

Looking back over the ten years causes a mixture of pleasure, disappointment and frustration. Pleasure that skeptics have become more visible in the community and more readily listened to, disappointment that some of the things we were concerned about back then are still with us, and frustration that there has been so little progress in ridding society of some of the more dangerous irrational practices.

A major change over the decade has been in the breadth and power of communications available, both to skeptics and the people we are skeptical about. Ten years ago there were meetings, magazines and some primitive web sites, but these reached a limited audience. (The best selling non-fiction book in Australia in 1997 was an introduction to the Internet for people who knew nothing about it. One statistic in the book was that the largest search engine in the world listed seventy million web pages. Lycos is long gone and Google were listing about nine billion pages when they stopped publishing numbers.) Now we not only have much more sophisticated web sites, but we also have immediate interaction with site visitors through blogs, almost instantaneous communication through social networks, and podcasts which can be on millions of iPods in less time than it takes to record them. Within minutes of updating a web site the details can seen on social networks and mobile phones across the world. There is also a lot more reliable information online in databases which a decade ago existed only on paper or were accessible only through esoteric and proprietary systems, usually confined to places like universities and large corporations.

The new facilities for immediate communication are also available for the spreading of misinformation, of course. As examples, when I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes it took me literally minutes to find about a quarter of a million web sites offering guaranteed cures (many of the cures contradicting others), and within hours of the NASA LCROSS experiment which crashed a satellite into the moon in October 2009 I received a widely-distributed communication headed "NASA Moon Bombing Hoax…".

The sorts of things that are major concerns to skeptics have changed over the years. Ten years ago we were more inclined to worry about astrology, UFO sightings, spoon benders and psychics. Now our concentration is much more on things that can cause real harm, such as Supplementary, Complementary and Alternative Medicine (or SCAM for short) and the anti-vaccination movement. Creationism has been a constant, not because it is religion but because it is religion trying to pollute school science classes. Back then, the people we criticised would generally either ignore us and carry on or claim that the evidence we sought to back their claims had been produced by copious research and had been published in journals which we might or might not be able to find in university libraries.

Now that it is relatively easy for almost anyone to search the Medline database for published medical research, or to access court records or databases of court decisions, or to find details of patents, trademarks and other commercial or government information the tactics of our opponents have changed. When we ask for evidence now they will occasionally refer to papers in the scientific literature, obscure patents or precedent-setting court cases. When skeptics challenge the existence or relevance of the supposed evidence, a relatively simple process in many cases, the common response now seems to be to reach for lawyers.

A well publicised case of this is the defamation action taken by the British Chiropractic Association against journalist Simon Singh for his claim that some of the treatments offered by chiropractors lacked scientific justification. Instead of producing evidence the BCA produced a writ. I was dragged into a long and expensive law suit by a company which had been found by the Federal Court to be operating an illegal pyramid scheme. My offence was to report the court action and comment about similar actions against the company in other countries. I was also threatened by a quack with a suit for trademark violation for mentioning her name, making it almost impossible to criticise her actions. I saw a large window display in a pharmacy recently for a product which I know (because the Cochrane Collaboration investigated the research supposedly supporting it) cannot do what its sellers claim, but I also know that the last people who demonstrated the fraudulence of the research were sued to bankruptcy.

So has any progress been made in the last ten years in bringing out more critical thinking and rationality in society? I think it has, but the problems aren't going to go away. Ten years from now organisations like Australian Skeptics will still be necessary. The targets might be different, but we will have had some victories along the way.

This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the November/December 2009 edition of Australasian Science
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