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Local Matters

Skepticism has experienced unprecedented growth in size and influence in recent times due in large part to the Internet bringing together a geographically disparate group of like-minded people. Standout blogs, podcasts, forums, and wikis have helped equalize access to the skeptical community, promote our positions, and inform about/organize against pseudoscientists, charlatans, ideologues, and those who are just plain incorrect.

As skeptics, we feel drawn to any cause, anywhere, where science and reason are under attack. Whether it’s government-abetted evolution denial in the southern United States, homeopathy mixing into mainstream culture in Britain, or fraudulent faith healers in Africa pushing fake AIDS cures, we use the Internet to inform and become informed about these issues.

Furthermore, we use the Internet to provide support to those who are personally affected by these issues and are in the trenches,” so to speak. It is that great ability to unite a relatively small, geographically diverse group into a loud, cohesive voice that is crucial to our success.

However, sometimes we may be guilty of farsightedness.

My introduction to the skeptical community only a few years ago was through the Internet, in particular the fabulous Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast and the Skepchick blog. Learning about the spread and influence of pseudoscience and the like captured my interest. While these blogs and podcasts are a great way to stay informed on topics of skeptical interest around the world, I realized that I was overlooking a lot of what was happening in my home town, Toronto, and Canada in general.

The last couple of years have seen gigantic growth in the size and influence of alternative medicine, with clinics and practitioners popping up everywhere and largely going unchallenged. As such, public perception has shifted and many people’s initial impression may be that there is validity to these practices, despite the fact that most of these modalities run the gamut from simply being unsupported by evidence to complete scientific implausibility.

Alternative medicine has also pervaded into the media, with daily and weekly papers running alt-health columns and, in my own community, a local television network even producing a show hosted by a homeopath who gives quack advice to people who may have legitimate medical concerns!

I have also documented a group calling itself Vote Fluoride Out that is gearing up to organize a campaign to stop the public health measure of controlled fluoridation of Toronto drinking water. Their information and arguments are steeped in pseudoscience, and they’re getting support from an unlikely local source (more on that soon).

As an example if acting local, take the New England Skeptical Society (NESS), which has done some great work investigating ghost hunters, particularly in New England. They took great advantage of their proximity and were able to actually meet Ed and Lorraine Warren, who are considered the progenitors of the ghost-hunting community. By taking part in some of their ‘ghost tours,’ NESS was able to do some great primary research and become local experts.

This is an example of how focusing on local issues will allow skeptics to become valuable information resources, not only for the skeptical community, but for our fellow citizens who may be oblivious to where the science stands on topics they encounter in their daily lives.

I hope that we, as Canadian skeptics, can turn more of our attention to what’s going on in our own backyard, as well as continue to stay informed about and support skeptical issues around the world.

In the next issue: The case for street-level skepticism.

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