Dinner With the Unknowers: The NYC Skeptics Break Bread

Yet the transformation of Skepticism in the past decade from a niche hobby debunking specific lunacies–telepathy, yogic flying, ancient astronaut theory, anti-vaccine activism, 2012 Armageddon–to something like a distinct, aggressive and almost messianic mentality has been a distinctly Net-roots affair. Perhaps no subculture supports more podcasts per capita: Skeptoid, Skepticality, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Conspiracy Skeptic, The Skeptic Zone, Quackcast, Skepchick, to name a few.

In 2006, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP)–the preeminent UFO-, ghost- and goblin-debunking outfit founded in 1976–changed its name to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, reflecting the movement’s new ecumenism, and ambition.     

Back at the Italian restaurant, most of the table decided early on that language must have something to do with distinguishing the human from everything else.

Leslie, a psychotherapist, was having none of it.

“Whales can communicate 10,000 miles away,” she said. “They have a larger vocabulary than human beings. It’s a recent finding. They are now keying in to the code of the sounds of the whale, and they have a much wider range of communication patterns than we do.”

Slack-jawed, the other diners tried to move on politely, but Leslie sulked and eye-rolled all night.

At one point N.Y.C. Skeptics regular Mitchell Lampert, about half her size, bravely and semi-seriously challenged her to “take it outside.” Mr. Pigliucci does not appreciate side conversations at dinner.

 

The Observer caught up with Mr. Lampert at a Greenwich Village bar the next night. It was Drinking Skeptically, another monthly meet-up. The crowd here, about 15-strong, was younger and, among the males, much more likely to be pony-tailed.

Mr. Lampert runs an annual “open conference” (all topics are determined, and all discussions hosted, by attendees) called Skepticamp. This is distinct from the more formal Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, which drew more than 500 Skeptics, including most of the podcast luminaries, to Baruch College last month. 

Apropos Leslie, Mr. Lampert said, a bit ruefully, “We don’t ban people until they actually break the rules.”

This gets at the core difficulty of the Skeptics movement, by all measures booming. Julia Galef, cohost of Rationally Speaking, N.Y.C. Skeptics’ own podcast, said she made a conscious decision to move beyond the baldly paranormal and  to “try to influence science itself.” Can you do that while remaining interested in reprimanding–not to say, shaming–the fuzziest of fuzzy minds? Put another way, how often does an enlightened New Yorker really have to come up against the messy particulars of superstition unless he’s somewhat titillated by seeking them out?

Put another way still, what better way to attract kooks than to say you are constitutionally devoted to unveiling their kookiness?

Not that the Skeptics are entirely unaware of this themselves. “We’re kind of like a deviant subculture,” Larry Auerbach, another regular, explained over a beer.

He would know. “I spent my 20s in a cult. I’m now devoted to Skepticism because I want to understand how I ever could have believed the things I believed.”

editorial@observer.com