Why Aren’t You Reading This?

Not you in particular, nor this post specifically, but speaking more broadly, I do wonder why skeptics in general aren’t as interested in teaching as I would have expected them to be, based on what we tend to value.

Looking at the traffic on this and other “skepticism in education” websites, I would have thought that most skeptics didn’t care about what happens in the classroom, and yet this is the opposite of what I hear skeptics actually saying.

I spend a lot of my free time reading skeptical websites and listening to skeptical podcasts. There are some themes that recur almost constantly, and one of the big ones is education. I frequently hear about the importance of teaching critical thinking in schools and the problems with teaching intelligent design in science classes, and then it seems that the interest dies there. Why do I keep hearing skeptics say “Education is so important,” and then not see them looking at what is actually going on with schools (beyond a few notable cases)?

While skepticism can be useful in many different fields, there are some where it seems more important than others. For example, in so-called alternative medicine, where lives are literally at stake. Though I have no medical qualifications or particular interests in medicine, I read things like Science Based Medicine because I realize how important it is to be aware of these issues. I want to know what’s going on with medical pseudosciences so I can direct my potential activism efforts effectively.

Education, at least from the sound of many skeptics, seems to be one of these issues, and yet you (again, not you specifically) are not reading this. So, why?


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Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.


  1. December 7, 2015 at 5:04 am —

    Probably because skeptics are usually middle to high class people and in many Western countries teachers, at least at the sub-university level, are a low-class job, which is beneath their notice. Yes, we can all agree that theoretically speaking Teaching Is Important, but getting into the details of how exactly one educates a class of 40 kids, all with their own misconceptions and personal issues, is like asking Dawkins to propose better street sweeping techniques.

    • December 7, 2015 at 9:14 pm —

      I disagree with a number of your points, and find them a bit cynical too. First, regarding the “class” of skeptics. While you can certainly find some trends in the skeptical movement, there are more than a handful of skeptics who are not “upper-class” and yet they don’t seem to be any more interested in skepticism in education than other skeptics. Second, you mentioned that this would be “beneath their notice.” This is precisely the opposite of the attitudes I see most often in skepticism. The reason to fight against pseudosciences in the first place is precisely because people in more vulnerable positions are the ones who most need protection from nonsense. Much of the skeptical activism I see is specifically in the interests of “low-class” people.

      Third, you implied that teaching is a low-class job. This is a complicated and controversial point. On one hand, teaching seems like a blue-collar job in terms of pay, societal respect, and the presence of unions. However, teaching also has traits associated with white collar jobs: requiring a university education, spending hours sitting at a desk and working with computers, and having a whole set of standards for professionalism in behavior and dress beyond what one normally sees in blue-collar jobs.

      Finally, your analogy about Dawkins proposing better street-sweeping techniques is way off. Evolutionary biology and atheism have little to do with street sweeping, however skepticism and teaching go hand in hand. Skeptical activists are in the business of education, literally. It’s hard to find a skeptical organization that doesn’t include some kind of “education” somewhere in their mission statement. Yet when it comes down to actual classrooms and teachers, the interest in education apparently evaporates.

      • December 8, 2015 at 3:54 am —

        Leaders of the skeptic community are upper class, and they set the tone for others, hence why they’re leaders. The same can be said for many other movements (but not all, various trade unions and other socialistic groups are much better in this regard), including religious organizations that have an iron grip on local education. But that’s because they are a hierarchical  structures which have local cells in the form of the local church going community – a community that is of similar socioeconomic status to the surrounding community. What do skeptics have? A Youtube channel?

        Second, you mentioned that this would be “beneath their notice.” This is precisely the opposite of the attitudes I see most often in skepticism. The reason to fight against pseudosciences in the first place is precisely because people in more vulnerable positions are the ones who most need protection from nonsense.

        Some of the most pressing issues for teachers are class sizes, poor access to books and other necessary equipment (which some teachers are forced to buy by themselves for the children) and inadequate child nutrition which causes them many problems and reduces the teachers ability to teach. When was the last time you’ve heard a major skeptic figure even mention that – not create a campaign to fight these problems, but just mention that?

        Much of the skeptical activism I see is specifically in the interests of “low-class” people.

        I don’t see skeptics handing out food to the homeless, that’s being by religious organizations. Not exclusively, there are a number of excellent major non-religious ones, but they’re merely non-religious – not skeptic or atheist.

        Take, for example, the USA. About 23% of its citizens are non-religious, out of which 42% consider themselves to be neither spiritual nor religious. Suppose that half of them are “true” skeptics. That means that there are about 15 millions skeptics in USA. And yet, the social and economical support that the skeptics offer to each other, let alone anyone else, are weaker than that in any NY Hasidic group (for example), which have at most a hundred thousand people.

        The only reasonable conclusion is that skeptic leaders say that they care for the less well-off, but don’t really do anything about it.

        requiring a university education, spending hours sitting at a desk and working with computers, and having a whole set of standards for professionalism in behavior and dress beyond what one normally sees in blue-collar jobs.

        “Blue-collar” is an anachronism in much of the Western world. Currently the jobs that fell under that umbrella term have, in many cases, either moved overseas or are being done by migrant workers. The only thing that currently matters is how much you earn – not what education you have (now almost every jobs requires a degree, a BA is now the equivalent of a high-school diploma) or whether you work at a computer (everyone does that – smartphones are computers too) or any “standards for professionalism in behavior and dress” (that itself sounds very condescending, but have you ever looked at waiters? They have even stricter rules).

        Only the money counts and teachers earn way less than the national average.

        • December 8, 2015 at 11:51 pm —

          I would agree that many so-called “leaders” of the skeptical community are upper class. But when did we start talking about skeptical leaders? Isn’t that a bit of a red herring? In my post, I specifically said “skeptics in general” to clarify that I wasn’t talking about any specific subset of skeptics. You’re talking about hierarchical structures, which doesn’t describe the skeptical movement at all.

          “What do skeptics have? A Youtube channel?”

          No, we have many YouTube channels, hundreds of small organizations, thousands of groups that meet up, and a few big organizations and conferences. The skeptical movement isn’t a religion, it doesn’t have a set hierarchical structure. It is a lot of individuals who have one particular thing in common and do different things about it. But what exactly does this have to do with any of my arguments? I’m not following you.

          Next, you talked about pressing issues for teachers. Again, this doesn’t really relate to my arguments. My post, addressing “skepticism in education” is about skepticism in education, not about whether skeptics should be concerned with all the difficulties teachers face. You mentioned teachers buying things for the children. While that is an important issue for teachers, I don’t see how it’s important for skeptics. It winds up coming down to budgets, which tie to political values, which tend to fall outside of skepticism. (Skeptics hold varying political positions and values are different than facts.) In my post, I’m specifically talking about skeptical issues in education, not other issues in education. Once again, I am not sure why you brought this up. I don’t see the relation to my post.

          “I don’t see skeptics handing out food to the homeless”

          Wow. I’ll take this point by point. First, “handing out food to the homeless” is not the sole standard for helping people. Take Bill Gates for an example. He does a whole lot of philanthropy that isn’t just about handing food to homeless people. There’s a lot of other issues to be concerned about too, and some fall more into the skeptical realm than others. Second, even though you quoted me, you didn’t address what I said: “Much of the skeptical activism I see is specifically in the interests of “low-class” people.”

          There’s a very strong correlation between income and education. Many of the things skeptics rally against are perpetuated by a lack of education and strongly impact those in lower income groups. Over and over again, I hear skeptics talk about the reasons for fighting homeopathy and anti-vaccine woo: specifically to help those who aren’t in a position where they can really evaluate certain claims on their own. A common skeptic argument against the “what’s the harm?” question is that when people already have little money, they shouldn’t be wasting it on ineffective alternative medicines.

          Then you seem to be conflating skepticism with irreligion, considering the link you provided. Off the top of my head I can think of a number of skeptics who are religious, those are not mutually exclusive things. Once again you are confusing me about why you are bringing certain things up. What does you comparison between skeptics and NY Hasidics have to do with anything we were talking about? I don’t see where you’re going with this. Finally you bring it back around to the “skeptical leaders” thing again. I’m still not talking about them, I’m talking about skeptics in general.

          Finally, you made some arguments about the term blue-collar. Let’s look at Wikipedia: “In English-speaking countries, a blue-collar worker is a working class person who performs manual labour. Blue-collar work may involve skilled or unskilled manufacturing, mining, sanitation, custodian work, oil field, construction, mechanical maintenance, warehousing, firefighting, technical installation and many other types of physical work. Often something is physically being built or maintained.
          In contrast, the white-collar worker typically performs work in an office environment and may involve sitting at a computer or desk.”

          Correct me if I’m wrong, but we haven’t moved firefighters overseas or relegated that job to migrant workers. (Note: the previous sentence was used to make a point, not be an argument in itself.) Social classes involve more than just money, and the stratifications are not clear cut. Teaching falls in between different classifications because it has elements of different categories. I have very frequently seen the discussion of how to classify teaching, it was a major focus of my educational policy studies.

          If you really think that “The only thing that currently matters is how much you earn” and “only the money counts” I’d recommend reading up on Sociology or trying a less cynical outlook, I think you’ve missed some very important things.

          “that itself sounds very condescending”

          You’re right, it does sound very condescending when you remove it from context and ignore the rest of the sentence. Look at the list of jobs typically called blue-collar, and then look at the standards for professionalism and dress that you would normally see in those jobs. Compare that to the things a teacher is supposed to wear and do. We’re not supposed to even touch what we work with. (It was repeatedly drilled into me at teacher school that even a hand on a student’s shoulder to get her attention could easily result in a claim of sexual harassment.) I spent months in university learning about codes of conduct and all the things a teacher is and is not supposed to do in terms of “professionalism” beyond what comes up in a typical job.

          • December 9, 2015 at 9:16 am

            We appear to be talking past each other, so I’ll simplify this. I think skeptics have limited interest in education beyond creationism and similar issues (see article) because:

            1. There is a socioeconomic divide between most skeptics and most teachers, which means that neither can effectively relate to each other.

            2. Skepticism is a philosophical attitude which is defined, elaborated upon and otherwise examined and applied to modern issues by certain intellectuals. These people can be considered as leaders and their works are well read by skeptics. They are also almost exclusively white, middle to upper class men who have even less in common with the majority of teachers than the average skeptic. However, since they set the tone of the skeptic movement they in effect widen the divide between skeptics and teachers/students.

            3. Skepticism, as a movement, doesn’t have the organizational, political or monetary capabilities to produce the constant pressure that is necessary to improve education. Even worse is the fact that anti-skeptic organization do have all of those qualities.

            4. Finally, while skepticism is a very important part of teaching, it is only one part of it. The most pressing problems are often physical (i.e. lack of funds) and, as I’ve said above, these problems are not addressed by the skeptic movement. Given that physical constrains are generally more pressing than intellectual concerns, skeptics aren’t likely to contribute much unless skepticism is, in some way, coupled with a solution to those physical needs. That, however, is an intellectual challenge, which should solved by intellectual leaders, who, as I’ve said earlier, are far removed from the more basic concerns of most teachers and students.

          • December 15, 2015 at 4:10 pm

            “These people can be considered as leaders and their works are well read by skeptics.”

            And seem to get really pissed at people who “waste their time” on things that are not related to their “skepticism”. Funny enough, for those people, the question has started to become, “Who made them the leaders, and why do they even deserve it, if they won’t do anything about real problems?” And.. then everyone ignores the people asking this question, because… well, “the leaders and the people hanging on the coat tails never mention these things, or talk about doing anything about them, when paraded in front of the news media, or bowed to on a blog, or asked to speak at yet another conference.”

            Hmm… Something odd seems to be going on there, but.. can’t imagine what….

        • December 15, 2015 at 4:05 pm —

          You don’t see skeptics running out to do food drives because, “Private charity, even not overly religious private charity, doesn’t do as effective, or even adequate a job of helping to people as large scale public ones.” This is simply a statistical fact, and there are good reasons for it – 1. People do not always donate, and the ones that do are often the same ones that need it. 2. Private charities tend to be discriminatory – on a small scale this may mean, “Keeping the money local”, which while it certainly helps locals, assuming there are enough people with money to matter locally, it does nothing for people some place where there is no one who can, or will, donate. On a larger scale this may mean excluding certain people entirely, and often on religious grounds. And, the third problem is one of just plain effectiveness. Private charities, when they get larger, “tend” to have a high overhead to impact ratio. I.e., they spend more money advocating, or on internal management, than they should, and less on what they are supposed to. You sort of get the same thing from public/government systems too, but there is usually a way to offset this cost out of the revenue sources (like taxes). The problem with public systems is rarely that they work poorly than that they are apposed by a) those that don’t believe in helping at all, b) those that think most of the people being helped might be lazy/cheating the system and/or c) believe in the delusion that private charities can do better (just like private “anything” in their minds does, despite evidence to the contrary).

          So, no, you probably won’t, for these reasons, see a lot of skeptics running around trying to run local food programs. Its not an effective solution to the problem. But, beyond that, the fact that most charities, sadly, tend to be religious, or one sort or another, almost makes it a certainty that, even if they did think it was worth it, no one would **allow** them to either a) contribute, or b) compete by creating a similar program.

          There are  lot of issues that simply “are not solvable” by doing, “the same thing the non-skeptics think works so well, or would be a grand solution.” Is it really a huge surprise that skeptics would not participate in them?

          • December 15, 2015 at 4:39 pm

            All true, but the point of charities isn’t To End World Hunger, but to help people who are in need right now and have nowhere else to turn to. Besides this moral need, charities serve a practical advantage too – people tend to trust more the groups that help them visibly and continuously. Otherwise the helpers would be, at best, seen as detached well-meaning ideologues, and at worst a foreign influence with seemingly hidden motives.

            But aside from that, what is the alternative? If the opposition to charities is due to their various problems (which they do have, don’t get me wrong), what should skeptics do? Support government welfare and socialistic policies? I don’t see them do that either. And even if they were, there are many non-skeptic parties and groups that have those goals and are better at pursuing them. When I support my local social-democratic party I do so as just another lefty – to an outsider me being a skeptic is invisible.

            As for the leaders (in your other comment) – you’re right, and I have no idea what can be done about it. The mainstream likes certain people and then name recognition drives that cycle onward.

  2. December 7, 2015 at 8:27 am —

    That’s a very good question. And that’s coming from a fellow Skepchick Network blogger who writes about parenting, so maybe there is an issue here. I’m certain we should at least be doing some cross pollination between here and Grounded Parents.

    • December 7, 2015 at 12:01 pm —

      I agree, especially given our overlapping interests. I do think we here (perhaps inescapably?) give the impression that we are only for educators, as opposed to anyone with an interest in education (including parents and current students). I imagine this at least partially accounts for the traffic disparity, since it was immediate when the sites went public.

    • December 7, 2015 at 9:26 pm —

      Cross-pollination with grounded parents sounds like a good start, though I also think we should expand that to other realms of skepticism. Not sure exactly how though.

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