Anybody and their dog can publish on the Web says Dan Bye
Assuming a little technical know-how, anybody and their dog can publish on the Web. And it often seems that anybody and their dog does. If you thought we had a hard enough task trying to keep the superstitious and unsubstantiated at bay on television and in newspapers, welcome to the Internet, a medium where there are no editorial standards whatsoever. If it's weird, somebody will be promoting it on a web page. And if it is on the web, search engines will uncritically index it and the credulous millions will find it and lap it up. To rationalists, the danger is obvious. Yet the same ease of publishing that gives UFO nuts free rein, provides sceptics with an opportunity to make their voices heard more clearly and louder than ever. This issue's column is about some of the best sources of sceptical and rational information on the world wide web. But first, a friendly mention to Fortean Times. This "Journal of Strange Phenomena" is sympathetic to claims of the paranormal but witty and intelligent enough to interest sceptics and rationalists. It has a track record of exposing frauds, gives space to sceptical views, and sparks debate about controversial subjects such as "Is cryptozoology a science?" The FT's website contains a 'breaking news' section, as well as the text of articles.
CSICOP the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal aims to encourage "the critical investigation of paranormal and fringe-science claims from a responsible scientific point of view". CSICOP's web page contains many articles from its publications the magazine Skeptical Inquirer and the quarterly newsletter Skeptical Briefs and information about the organisation and its activities. But there is also a chat room, online bookstore and giftshop, "Chain Letters Anonymous", and a "Young Skeptics" section aimed at students, parents and teachers. And, as they say, much much more!
The UK's only magazine dedicated to sceptical examinations of pseudoscience and claims of the paranormal is The Skeptic. Founded in 1987, and published 4 times a year, I personally find it a livelier read than the sometimes dry (but still essential) Skeptical Inquirer. Their web page, typically, is enlivened with cartoons. According to the news section, they have had 100,000 visitors 1000 a week. Whether this indicates a very large readership or a smaller number of committed and interested readers who keep returning is unknown, but it is an impressive figure nonetheless. There don't appear to be any full text articles from back issues of the magazine available online, but an index is available to facilitate ordering.
Magician James Randi has long been a debunker of claims of the paranormal. For many years he has offered a million dollar prize to anyone who can prove in properly controlled circumstances than they have paranormal powers it remains uncollected. The James Randi Educational Foundation is an excellent information resource. It contains an entertaining weekly commentary by Randi himself, lecture series, and links to useful "critical thinking" links. Of particular interest is the online library, containing write-ups of Randi's investigations into paranormal phenomena. There were three available when I visited the site: The Cottingley Fairies, The Art of Cold Reading ("a technique by which a person in the role of a psychic or medium [offers] the subject generalities, guesses and suggestions... expanding on these generalities when the subject offers verbal or non-verbal feedback"), and The Matter of Dowsing. All are well written, impressively detailed, and documented with photographic and other evidence. Well worth a look.
Jim Lippard's sprawling Skeptical Information Links page compiles web pages giving rational views on paranormal subjects, or commentary on issues of interest to sceptics. Frequently updated, the site boasts over 430 links. The links are organised by general category, but there is also a search facility to make retrieval of material easier.
Probably the best one-stop source of sceptical information on the web is Robert T. Carroll's Skeptic's Dictionary. Essentially an electronic book, it contains over 400 definitions and essays, from abracadabra to zombies. Many entries include comments from readers, suggestions for further reading, and links to relevant web material. There is an alphabetical index, and a search facility. And, though the strengths of the online version are its dynamism and interactivity, it is also possible to download the entire book for free. A brilliant resource: rationalists and sceptics owe Mr Carroll a great debt.
Finally, two sites to help combat the bane of modern existence: urban legends. Since 1991, the archives of the usenet discussion list alt.folklore.urban have formed the backbone of www.urbanlegends.com. From animals (stories listed include: chicken stroking farmers; falling cow sinks ship; toad licking) to TV, this site delivers the facts behind the stories. An alternative to urbanlegends.com is the Urban Legends Reference Pages site. So the next time you hear a story about a friend of a friend, check it out on these web sites.