The Skeptic Ink Network is proud to be a supporter of this year’s The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM) and we’d like to introduce our readers to some of the excellent voices which make the “4-day vacation from unreason” such a pleasure. With well over 80 names filling out the program, we’re not able to give every worthy speaker their due, so we’ve decided to focus on skeptical women that inspire us. We think they’ll inspire you, too.
It’s my pleasure today to write about (and interview) Sharon Hill, The Honest Broker of Doubtful News as her TAM talk is titled. The title refers to her skeptic news website Doubtful News. Hill has an academic background in geology and public policy. She writes for the Huffington Post on science and the media, pens the Sounds Sciencey column for CSI, and is a fixture on the Virtual Skeptics vodcast. Hill delivers indefatigable coverage of dubious claims from anti-vax to “cryptozoology” with a no-nonsense attitude which I find bracing. She’s also occasionally been viciously maligned by proponents of the paranormal which has proven at least two things: that she must be doing something right and that she is quite able to maintain her composure under fire.
Skeptic Ink Between Doubtful News, Virtual Skeptics, Sounds Sciencey, and your other projects, you seem like one of the busiest skeptics out there. When did you first become attracted to doubting things?
Sharon Hill Many of us are born that way, it seems. But I grew up in a fairly credulous family. Not overly religious but accepting of ghosts and strange phenomena. Since I can remember, I’ve always been curious about the paranormal and anomalous natural phenomena. Also being interested in science and nature meant I learned about a scientific approach to a problem and how careful and diligent you must be to investigate a question. When I got out of college, I had some time to dig into my favorite topics again and discovered the skeptical literature on ghosts, Bigfoot and UFOs. This was like the sun coming out for me. This was SMART inquiry, not endless anecdotes. It was thinking, not just believing. It was solid, not watery and weak. And it made more sense to me. So, personality and schooling was a foundation, but I’m grateful to skeptical publications and the Internet for allowing me to grow into a rational person.
SIN Did you somehow manage to contractually obligate the JREF into including you in every photo taken at TAM, as many of us suspect? You’re just photoshopped in, right?
SH I have no idea how that happened. It’s a bit embarrassing! I guess the skeptical movement needs some new female faces to spotlight. And I happened to be sitting in the front row a lot. SIN Your recent JREF lecture I Doubt That: The Media Guide to Skepticism and companion guide on the Doubtful News website deal with the role and nature of applied skepticism. Why did you wish to address this topic? Are there many (self-described) skeptics out there doing skepticism poorly/or are confused about what skepticism entails?
SH I wrote the Media Guide to Skepticism particularly because of the conflation going on with “what is a skeptic” and what they do. What is the scope of skepticism? I needed to probe that question for myself so I felt confident of my foundation. I thought it would be a good idea to let others know what I found. I asked many people more knowledgeable than me to provide their input. What resulted was a community document, an ideal of practicing skepticism. DJ asked me to develop it into a teaching video and I was VERY happy to do that. I’m really hoping that media people find it and figure out that not all skeptics deny climate change, or think the President was not born in America or hate religion. The perception of skepticism has to change in order to progress. If I can get the message out that practicing scientific skepticism is a benefit for humanity and that we are not all grumpy old white guys, then it’s a win.
SIN Like many excellent skeptics, you have scientific training; specifically, as a geologist. In your expert opinion, which rock is best?
SH I’m partial to metamorphic rocks because they have been heated, pressed, partially dissolved, warped and changed by stress and strain to make something that is endless interesting to look at.
SIN Have you had or do you have skeptic heroes that have inspired you? Or is the idea of having a hero incongruent with being skeptical?
SH That’s a good point. Skeptics make terrible “fans”. At least I do because I’m critical, I can’t just blindly follow what anyone says. But I’ve learned that we’re all human, no one is perfect. My biggest historic inspirations are Stephen Jay Gould and Thomas Huxley. I LOVED their literary voices, ideas and wisdom. But I also love Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson for being public and outspoken in their passion for nature and human progress. Today, my idols are people like Elizabeth Loftus and Carol Tavris who have forged incredible trails in their fields at some personal risk. I learned so much from them. I adore them both and they inspire me to find my thing, do it, and share the results with the world.
SIN Recently on Doubtful News you reported on a rock that looks suspiciously like a (fossilized) Bigfoot head. How do you respond to people who criticize you as a semi-pro buzzkill criticizing peoples’ apparently innocuous beliefs in such things as Bigfoot. They’re not harming anyone, the line goes. (granted, you do know rocks)
SH My talk at TAM will address a bit about how skeptics can be seen as buzzkills or intruding on personal enjoyment or fulfillment. I’ve been very dismayed at how “experts” in the paranormal have been hostile to my views, using skeptic as a bad word and taking critique of their work as a personal affront. Many seem awful insecure and surprising unwilling to discuss some major issues. They just want to have fun. That’s fine. But when “fun” becomes serious – like telling people their house has demons – that crosses the line. It’s not a overall benefit for humanity to believe things that aren’t true. Moderation is fine but paranormal ideas are so widespread and accepted these days that there must be a critical response, those who hold nonsense up to the light and reveal it. I’m very open to people’s beliefs, to each their own, but when it affects others and society at large, then there is a problem that must be dealt with. Specifically, the harm with pursuing Bigfoot, ghosts, UFOs and the like is complex and subtle in some cases, blatant and stupid in other cases. I’ve decided that I’m going to share my opinions on that, http://www.csicop.org/
SIN As a skeptic, how can you explain the unbelievable coincidence that you, Sharon Hill, live in a state with a place named “Sharon Hill” (which after some investigating, I learned is different from you) and you’ve studied rocks, which many hills are made out of? Doesn’t this evidence suggest you were mason in a past life and your soul-centroid was unwilling to move on from the work?
SH You should see the chuckles I get checking in at the Philadelphia airport which is near that town. Hill is my married name. I took it because I liked it and was easier to spell than my given name, Sharon Calpin. But I still have to spell “Hill” for some people. In my past fantasy life I was a taxonomist, I’m pretty sure – identifying, cataloging, naming and categorizing things – probably insects. I am totally going to go to Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania someday. I want to visit my own sheriff’s department and freak people out. Incidentally, there are a boatload of people in the world named Sharon Hill but only I have a wikipedia page. So, I’m pretty proud of that.
SIN What’s the number one reason everyone needs to be at TAM 2013?
SH To be immersed in the feeling of acceptance, knowing that there REALLY ARE lots of thoughtful, rational people in the world. You will meet friends for life. You will learn so much and be inspired. It’s full of smiling happy people who want to do good things to help society around the world. It’s helpful to your psyche to experience that at least once a year.
Thanks for dropping by Skeptic Ink for an interview, Sharon. See you in the desert for more talk of Bigfeet and the men who love them.
Read about more Inspiring Women in this series:
Susan Jacoby on Great Plains Skeptic
Sara Mayhew on Background Probability
Cara Santa Maria on Great Plains Skeptic
Susan Blackmore on Debunking Christianity