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Tim Farley and the rise of the skeptics

The creator of sites Skeptools and What's the Harm? addresses Internet’s skeptic community and what’s to come for this booming crop of nonbelievers.


Aja Romano

Internet Culture

Posted on Sep 17, 2012   Updated on Jun 2, 2021, 11:03 am CDT

“Skepticism is awesome!” proclaims an audience member at DragonCon’s skeptic panel. “It’s like a superpower. It’s like you can suddenly see the Matrix code.”

Though skeptics are often stereotyped as cynics, the online skeptic community has evolved into a wide variety of enthusiasts engaged in combating hysteria and hyperbole in a number of different subjects. Users of Reddit debunk theories on r/skeptic. Podcasts Skeptoid and American FreeThought debate everything from chiropractors to Chupacabras. And sites like Skeptical Humanities take on Shakespeare and other conspiracy theories. .

It’s not all about skewering the gullible, either. Many skeptics argue that skepticism as a tool is best applied, not as a weapon with which to attack other people, but as a way to help yourself.  Take the 2012 DragonCon appearance of famed magician Brian Brushwood, called “How to Scam Your Way Into Anything.” Brushwood, who previously scammed his way into a free DragonCon party, used social engineering—manipulating people into behaving in predetermined ways—to teach attendees how to successfully break into the front of a line, get free drinks, and other small-scale tricks to use to their own advantage.

Then there’s Tim Farley, who gave a talk called “How to make the Internet more skeptical.” He told the Daily Dot that his aim is to help people avoid scams like Brushwood’s:

“I’m in the branch [of skepticism] where we’re more interested in science and critical thinking. I always pitch it as the intersection between science education and consumer protection. So where science tells you that the thing you’re buying, be it homeopathy, psychic services, or that ghost hunter video, is wrong—that it might not be real, that it might be fake. If you’re just [consuming] it as entertainment, that’s fine, but if you’re using it in place of medical advice or professional advice, that could get you into trouble.”

Farley got involved with the skeptics community by focusing on those kinds of cases. He created the skeptic website What’s the Harm? to document instances where actual harm had come from unscientific beliefs. Then he built resource site Skeptools to help connect members of the community with ways to be active online. The Daily Dot spoke to Farley about the Internet’s skeptic community and what’s to come for this booming crop of nonbelievers.

DD: Could you give us a rundown on the history of skepticism?

There’ve been people who’ve basically done what scientific skeptics did for hundreds of years, but as a national movement, that started in 1976, when members of the science and philosophy communities noticed that acupuncture and new age medical treatments were gaining popularity.

They had a conference in New York that year called the New Irrationalism, and out of it they formed the Committee for Scientific Inquiry [CsiCops]. It was an organization for investigation and debunking, and other organizations like the James Randi Education Foundation and Michael Shermer’s Skeptics organization, have followed on from that.

DD: Would sites like Snopes count as skeptical to people unfamiliar with the skeptics community?

Yeah, I consider them a skeptics site. They don’t tend to show up and speak at our events, but it’s kind of a loose term. Some folks are more interested in religion, atheism, that kind of thing.

Sometimes skeptics get reactions like, ‘It’s all Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster—why do you guys spend so much time on it?’ It’s because people do get led down the path of believing things that are wrong, and it can take you into bad science and bad situations.

DD: How do you feel about being at DragonCon with a track devoted to paranormal activity? Do you guys ever cross the hall and boo at them?

We don’t boo; we try to be nice. I’ve gone over to a couple sessions, and there really wasn’t a lot of meat on the sessions that I went to. But a couple of years ago, we had a guy who’s really the only full-time paranormal investigator who’s a skeptic, a guy named Joe Nickell. [He’s] been investigating stuff for years and does it very seriously. He gets down to the brass tacks of what happened and what evidence is there.

He’s investigated a lot of really famous cases, and he was here talking at DragonCon and a bunch of people from the paranormal track came. And they got up during the Q&A and got really angry with him, yelling at him. We were like, ‘Why would anyone yell at Joe Nickell?’ But they were angry because he’d debunked some of their famous cases. One of them involved a truck going by the same house every day at the same time, making ‘ghostly’ noises. And sometimes a truck is just a truck.

DD: What about conspiracy theories?

A lot of people anomaly hunt. They’ll notice differences between what someone says and does from one day to the next, and they’ll find these anomalies and build these elaborate theories. A lot of times it just boils down to, the world is a messy place. No one’s covering anything up. People make mistakes.

There’s also what’s called confirmation bias, where if you believe something, you’ll only remember things that confirm your belief system. We tend to notice the things that confirm our belief, and that’s why you need science.

DD: Do you think that the ability to access information has actually made the Internet more dangerous, now that more people have the ability to go online and spread misinformation?

There are lots of things you can do to try and put information in front of people who need to see it. In the old days, if someone was pushing a scam, I’d have to be on the street to intercept the scammer. But now they meet online. And there ways that you can put your content next to the scamster’s in Google so that it will appear next to them, or you can run a Google ad; there are ways that you can intercept a person before they ‘meet’ a scamster on the Internet and hopefully get their attention to say ‘before you send that check to that Nigerian prince.’

Photo via Tim Farley/Facebook

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*First Published: Sep 17, 2012, 9:00 am CDT