Challenging fringe ideas in the Op-Eds

skepticismMy first few posts here have actually been letters to the editor that were published in my local newspaper, the Marietta Daily Journal.  The MDJ has been published in Cobb County Georgia, a northern suburb of Atlanta, since 1866 and the paper has a daily paid circulation of approximately 17,000 readers.  That’s quite a few minds, and that excludes the thousands more who read the paper for free online.

I give the scope of my local paper for a simple reason; to illustrate that what you write might actually have a bigger impact than you think.

I’m reminded of something that Michael Shermer, author of The Believing Brain and founder of The Skeptics Society, as well as Editor in Chief of its magazine Skeptic, linked to on his twitter account a year or so ago. He had found and shared a piece from Dan Johnson, a University of Lethbridge geography professor, that had been published in the Lethbridge Herald under a column called, “Public Professor.”

Unfortunately that column looks like it was lost in a Lethbridge Herald site redesign, but I managed to grab a key quote when I first read it. In the column, Dan wrote about something he called “healthy skepticism.” His piece, “Healthy skepticism is a useful tool,” proceeded to explain frankly, the public good that comes from skepticism and the need each of us carries, as stewards of good citizenship, to dutifully question dubious claims. Dan wrote,

“I am a believer in people trying to influence their local communities, and maybe contribute to the healthy skepticism of the typical person. I think if every skeptic did that, in a thousand local newspapers, we would be ahead.”

And there it was, “in a thousand local newspapers.” In other words, we skeptics, we freethinkers, we champions of evidence and reason, can’t simply roll over and concede the Op-Eds and the letters to the editor to the energetic conspiracy theorists, the global warming deniers, the creationists, the theocrats, the political extremists; in effect, the lunatic fringe.

My market has more than its fair share of these poor deluded souls, all too eager to bombard the press with their particular brands of “bizarre,” and the local paper, being fully aware of its market, is all too eager to publish them. I’m quite certain that this same storyline is played out almost daily in newspapers across a Untied States sill struggling to embrace progress and leave the Dark Ages of intellectual backwardness resolutely in its past.

We, the rational among us, have to write. We have to fill those newspaper columns, those letters to the editor, and yes, even those online comment sections, with reason, logic, science, facts, and compassion whenever we get the opportunity.  The crazy claims which spring forth from the heart of irrationality have to be met head on with demands for evidence to substantiate them. Outrageous, absurd, paranoid, and scientifically illiterate truth claims will whither in the light of healthy skepticism and it is incumbent upon us to shine it. “If every skeptic did that, in a thousand local newspapers, we would be ahead.”

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