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Skeptics on the Web
Brad Smith

Amazing claims of paranormal powers and products litter the Internet. Sometimes I feel as if there's not much else out there. So how do you discover the truth? A good way to start is to search for alternate viewpoints. Once you have examined both sides of the story, then hopefully the truth will become clear. That's what this article is about: where to go on the Internet to find a skeptical second opinion.

Since you're reading this, I can assume that you've discovered the Young Skeptics Program (www.youngskeptics.org). The purpose of this program is to help foster curiosity and understanding in today's youth, and to help them better understand the world around them. The program is sponsored by the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (or CSICOP), one of the largest and most respected skeptical organizations. Be sure to check out their site as well, at www.csicop.org.

If you can't find what you need here, another great resource is the Skeptic's Dictionary (www.skepdic.com), which features skeptical articles on (at last count) over 400 different topics, each one with references to other skeptical books and websites that you can look up for more information. This site is brought to you by Robert T. Carroll, Professor of Philosophy at Sacramento City College. The web site is often criticized for it's skeptical bias, but it is important to note that the purpose of The Skeptic's Dictionary is to present the best skeptical arguments and evidence regarding the topics that it covers, and does not try to approach them in a balanced way. In keeping with this purpose, the author has even specifically left out some topics on which he has not made up his mind. A paper version of the Skeptic's Dictionary will be coming out next spring.

If you're investigating a subject related to health care, be sure to check Quackwatch (www.quackwatch.org). It is currently the best Internet resource on health fraud and quackery. Since its founding in 1996, the website has been operated by Stephen Barrett, M.D., who retired in 1993 to pursue his medical writing full time. It would be a gross understatement to suggest that the website is enormous. The topics range from general characteristics of quack remedies to information on specific questionable therapies. But remember, not being covered by Quackwatch doesn't necessarily mean that a therapy is legitamate. As Barrett notes in his FAQ, "The number of scams and scammers is so large that nobody could possibly write about them all."

Another important skeptical resource is the Urban Legends Reference Pages (www.snopes.com), by Barbara and David P. Mikkelson. Although all of the categories are fascinating to read, from 'Cokelore' to 'Lost Legends,' the one that I find the most directly useful is the 'Inboxer Rebellion' section. I'm constantly receiving forwarded e-mails asking me to help some questionable cause by signing an e-petition, or to earn $10 000 from Bill Gates by re-forwarding the e-mail to ten more friends. It helps to be able to let everyone know about these frauds, and to point them to an site which debunks them with evidence, common sense, and often hilarious wit. Then again, it's also a great place to spend a few hundred hours wasting time at work.

For those of you who have never heard of him, James Randi is a famous magician, also known as 'the Amazing Randi,' who founded the James Randi Educational Foundation (www.randi.org) in 1996. The foundation offers a US$1 000 000 prize to anyone who can demonstrate a paranormal talent under controlled conditions. Naturally, the meaning of the term 'controlled conditions' varies based on what the actual talent is. For example, a dowser would be required to locate objects under close scrutiny that would prevent cheating or guessing. With the number of psychics and faith healers that appear on TV in a given week, I personally find it amazing that no one has snapped up this free money. Anyway, the website itself features a popular discussion forum and Randi's own weekly commentary, which is an integral part of my Friday afternoon.

The last website that I will be covering is a terrific shortcut to speed your research. It is a skeptical search engine called Skeptic Planet (www.skepticplanet.com). It searches the complete contents of all the websites that I have mentioned in this article, and lots more. If you want to find even more useful websites, just check the 'Indexed Sites' link for a complete list of the sites that they regularly archive.

This article only scratches the surface of the resources available, but I hope that it's enough to get you started. If I've left out an incredibly deserving site, my apologies, but I had to draw the line somewhere. Anyway, my advice to you is to read about anything and everything that interests you, and if something seems fishy, you know where to go for a second opinion.

Copyright 2002
Brad Smith
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