Skeptics on the Web
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
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
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
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.