Not-so-sure guys

Pseudoscience debunkers and original thinkers unite in their lack of faith

The Boston Phoenix

By GEORGIANA COHEN | March 19, 2009

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EVIDENTLY, MY DEAR WATSON? Rebecca Watson’s Boston Skeptics group isn’t all about casting aspersions — there’s critical thinking and the occasional pi(e)-throwing contest, too.

It’s a few days after Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, and Rebecca Watson is posted up at the Asgard, a popular bar down the road from MIT, passing out leaflets promoting an upcoming “Skeptics in the Pub” event. The flyers suggest evolutionary-themed pickup lines: “I’d like to sail my HMS Beagle right into your Galapagos” and “If I were an enzyme, I would be DNA Helicase so I could unzip your genes.” The last time the Boston Skeptics gathered for Sunday brunch, they consumed 28 pancakes. (They keep records.) This time, they’ve been joined by members of the Boston Atheists group, so more than 40 diners overflow two long tables in the back room of the Asgard, guzzling coffee, ordering breakfast, and chatting about Battlestar Galactica — poised to break the pancake record.

But in the end, the flapjack tally somehow falls short. The tab, nevertheless, comes to $554 (including tip). People start tossing cash around. Then Scott Frazer, a 23-year-old software engineer from Brighton, throws down a credit card, complicating everything.

“I’m okay with being an asshole,” he says.

Fellow skeptic Jared Juliano reassures him: “You’re in the right crowd.”

Skeptics aren’t just assholes, though. When they’re not counting pancakes or making natural-selection puns, the Boston Skeptics double as public advocates for the cause of critical reasoning. They worship the scientific method and insist on filtering everything, from religion to the color of the sky, through experimental verification and critical reasoning.

“A lot of people, I think, get the false impression that science is something that only happens in a lab,” says Watson, “when, in fact, science is just a really great way of sorting things out, of stripping away your own senses, which can be fooled, and understanding how you can be fooled.”

They host talks at local bars — where guest speakers hold forth on topics ranging from atheism to the abuse of quantum mechanics — and organize field trips. They attend Harvard’s Humanist of the Year award ceremonies together. In December, 40 skeptics descended on Boston’s Museum of Science to browse the cryptozoology exhibits. They also just screw around.

On March 14, antic BSers held a “pi(e)” fight on the Boston Common. And this May, a group is heading down to Foxwoods to see Penn and Teller, minor deities in the skeptics’ world, perform.

The pies, pancakes, and pilsners are the skeptics’ comforting props — the glue of a community reinforcing what can be a lonely, challenging way to look at things. Members frequently discuss “interfacing” (i.e., coping) with a world that runs on blind faith.

Enter the Skepchick
Watson, a T-shirt-and-jeans kind of girl with geeky glasses and an ebullient demeanor, worked her way through Boston University as a magician. In 2005, while attending the Amaz!ng Meeting — an annual skeptics conference organized by magician and paranormal debunker James Randi — Watson was inspired to start a blog called Skepchick, which focuses on psychics, self-image, and “anything on Oprah, pretty much,” sorting fact from fiction, especially in areas where women may be targeted. Like a lot of skeptical activity, it’s done with a sense of humor; one of Skepchick’s early successes was a pin-up calendar featuring scantily clad female skeptics, Watson included.

“It’s a weird overlap,” says Watson, who also co-hosts the popular podcast “The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe” and contributes skeptic-centric articles to the blog Bostonist (bostonist.com). “When you’re a magician, you learn all the secrets behind everything. You see psychics like John Edward or Sylvia Brown doing magic tricks, but they’re calling them magical supernatural powers. They’re using that lie to manipulate people’s emotions or take their money.” Magicians like Watson see that as a call to action; Penn and Teller’s Showtime series Bullshit!, a skeptic touchstone, embodies that ethos.

But Watson saw the need for more. Taking a cue from friend Sid Rodrigues’s London-based Skeptics in the Pub organization, she started a Boston version a year ago. About 70 people showed up for the first event, a talk with local blogger Mike the Mad Biologist. Out of that effort, the Boston Skeptics were born. Since then, similar events have been launched in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Calgary, Phoenix, Atlanta, and elsewhere around the world.

Oh yeah?!
So who joins Boston Skeptics? And why?

“There are a lot of people out there who struggle with certain questions about how the world works, and they don’t know that there are other people out there who feel the same way,” says Watson.

Tressa Breed, a 42-year-old administrative assistant from Gardner, sees the group as an opportunity to make up for having “spent too much time living too quietly.” For Claudia Flores, a 32-year-old government researcher from Falmouth, the best part of the group experience is “realizing that I’m not alone, that your off-the-wall thinking is not unique.”

Others have professional objectives. “The more I can learn about [science versus pseudoscience],” says Elizabeth Grimm, a 26-year-old science-and-health-regulations lawyer, “the better I’ll be able to help folks separate fact from fiction.”

Groups like Boston Skeptics are also resources for people who may just be emerging from the shadow of a “long-held belief,” which suggests such things as a religious conviction, social prejudice, or superstition.

And some skeptics are activists. Atlanta-based software engineer and one-time pub-night guest speaker Tim Farley took the call to advocacy to heart. His Web site, whatstheharm.net, compiles accounts of the financial and physical victims of homeopathy, detoxification, psychics, chiropractic medicine, exorcisms, and more. (The site has been praised by no less than doubter-royalty Penn Jillette himself.) By Farley’s current tally — drawn from 790 sampled and documented cases — 368,379 people have been killed and more than $2.8 billion lost as a result of pseudoscientific practices.

“Why are we skeptics? Are we just complainers who sit in the corner and make snide remarks?” Farley asks rhetorically. “I needed to do something and not just be another skeptic.”

Another common denominator among many skeptics is atheism. That said, skeptics claim to be more concerned with separating church and state and the dangers of fundamentalism than with convincing someone there is no God. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to have a discussion.

“We tend to think that your religion or your beliefs about astrology are just as open to criticism as, say, the political party you’re in,” says Jackie Lavache, co-founder of Boston Atheists.

“Nobody’s going to tell you that you shouldn’t believe in whatever you believe in,” says Watson. “It’s more like, ‘Why do you believe that?’ ”

So, in a room full of godless heathens, what sayeth a person of faith? Catholic and self-described “pop-culture girl” Jen DeChristofaro works with Watson and spends a lot of time hanging with the Skeptics. “You have to be pretty willing to step outside your box,” DeChristofaro admits, adding that listening to Watson made her consider for the first time why somebody would be an atheist. “If you respect other people’s ideas, you’re going to learn something. Even if you don’t agree with it 100 percent, you’re going to know something you didn’t know before.”

Yes, mutual respect is a big part of the skeptics’ creed, despite the common perception that they’re a bunch of know-it-all jerks. Or assholes.

“A lot of people just take things on faith. I don’t come out and confront them about it,” says Scott Frazer. He has a friend who believes in shamanism — which Frazer calls “legitimate BS” — but he doesn’t call him out. “There’s no point in an argument. I’ll lose him as a friend.”

Georgiana Cohen doesn’t believe a thing Rebecca Watson told her — especially about the high price of pancakes at the Asgard. She can be reached at . Maybe.