Argument # 15: Skeptics are defending science and reason from a rising tide of irrationality.
This phrase has often been used in articles and websites of skeptical organizations and magazines, including CSICOP’s Skeptical Inquirer and others. Fortunately, this phrase is now critiqued by skeptics themselves, and used less. Michael Sofka of ISUNY and author of the article Myths of Skepticism points out that CSICOP often uses it in their fundraising requests. Folklorist Stephanie Hall comments on this in her article Folklore and the Rise of Moderation Among Organized Skeptics:
“Another change advocated by many Skeptics is in the choice of language used to represent skepticism to others. For instance, a phrase that has commonly appeared in articles by Skeptics and in statements in the brochures or Web sites of skeptic groups was an expression of concern about "the rising tide of irrationality." But although this phrase became an identity marker demonstrating alliance with organized skepticism and a statement of shared concern, it has increasingly been criticized by Skeptics themselves. At the NCAS Millennial Madness workshop in May 1999, Chip Denman critiqued this phrase as, perhaps, skepticism's own bit of Millennialism, asking questions such as, "What do we mean by irrationality? How is it measured? How do we know it is rising?" It seems that this phrase, as a marker of skeptical identity, may be going out of fashion.
These events are an indication to me as a researcher that Skepticism is going through changes as it grows, as we might expect in any social movement, and that local groups are beginning to discover the things they have in common. Perhaps because the movement has steadily grown and this may inspire confidence and stability, Skeptics also seem increasingly willing to critique themselves and express strong views on the ways they do and do not want skepticism to be presented to the public. This self-analysis is, of course, a good thing, for any rational endeavor should be willing to critique itself.”
Chip Denman, quoted above by Hall, makes a good point. The statement fails to define what is considered to be irrational. Most likely, what they mean by irrational is anything others believe in that doesn’t fit their world view or hasn’t been proven their way. Therefore, this is more a statement of bias and faith, rather than fact. If by irrational they mean unproven, then this is false too as there is strong evidence for many paranormal and psychic phenomena ( See Argument # 1)
In fact, there does not seem to be any evidence of an increase in irrationality or superstition. I would challenge any skeptic to show me a mass poll where a high percentage of people admit literally that they believe in “superstition and irrationality”. There probably aren’t any, because most people don’t label their beliefs as superstition or irrationality. It is the skeptics who label paranormal beliefs as such. That’s an important thing to remember. Even the polls published over the years in Skeptical Inquirer indicate at most a shift in emphasis as one belief replaces another in the popular imagination. Moreover, to the extent that polls have been done we find church attendance dropping, and people shifting from organized religions to less formal or more individualized forms of spirituality. In the traditional religious sense, our society is more secular now than before.
It appears that on the whole irrationality, belief, and credulity are at about the same level as they have always been, just distributed in different ways. What probably is going on is that this phrase is used to describe new and expanded beliefs (i.e. New Age type beliefs) versus established beliefs in society, with the new beliefs appearing as though there is an increase.