Interview with Rick O’Keefe – Branch Manager, Center for Inquiry Tampa Bay & Chair, Tampa Bay Skeptics


By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Rick O’Keefe is the Branch Manager of Center for Inquiry Tampa Bay, Chair of the Tampa Bay Skeptics, and works with Tampa Bay Post Carbon Council. Here we talk about skepticism and the electronic era, and Florida.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Looking at the landscape of bad science and junk science within Tampa Bay, what have been the main concerns of the skeptic community in Florida?

Rick O’Keefe: Your question seems vague. You ask about Tampa Bay as well as concerns about skeptic communities outside the bay region. I’m defining skeptics as those interested in the paranormal and pseudoscience.

The dedicated skeptic community in Florida seems to be almost non-existent, fragmented, and very local, mostly social. Many groups included “skeptic” as part of their humanist or atheist identities, but don’t appear to be notable for any concentration on skepticism outside their locales.

Because of the history of Tampa Bay Skeptics (TBS) in publicly testing people who claimed paranormal powers but failed to prove them, the number of testees has dried up.

Jacobsen: How is skepticism important in the electronic era?

O’Keefe: I think it is clear that skeptical thinking skills are sorely lacking. That leads to the rapid widespread embrace of spreading real fake news. Sadly, most who claim to be skeptics aren’t. (Yes, I confess to having fallen prey to some fake news on Facebook or Twitter!)

Jacobsen: Have there been any wins in the fight against pseudoscience and alternative medicine practices, recently?

O’Keefe: Tampa Bay Skeptics is an affiliate of Center for Inquiry Tampa Bay, a branch of the worldwide CFI and Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

While the local scene is moribund other than about Global Warming and its possible effects on coastal inundation, and teaching religious propaganda in schools rather than science (evolution, for example), TBS does support larger efforts such as the statewide Florida Citizens for Science, Quackwatch, CFI’s lawsuit against CVS (selling worthless homeopathic nostrums), Letters to the Editor, occasional puff pieces when called by reporters around Halloween or about crazy claims.

Jacobsen: In America, what are the main sources of pseudoscience, fraudulent claims? How does this impact the general public? What are some humorous examples and some tragic ones, too?

O’Keefe: The Internet is enemy #1 – both social media and fake-news/propaganda/hoax sites. Religious anti-science groups might be #2. They are well organized, fanatical, and hugely financed. (Look at the federal government current crop of appointees.)

Not to ignore primarily right-wing anti-science propaganda, leftie propagandists, antivaxxers, flat earth, ancient aliens, Atlantis …. True Believers.

Americans are so undereducated in both thinking skills and facts, thus gullible, that our diminishing competence to compete with other more vigorous and rigorous nations has become dangerous.

I see nothing humorous about seemingly laughable examples because they illustrate our incapacities.

Jacobsen: In the work of dissemination of critical thinking into the public sphere, what is important in the communication to the public for better receptiveness for them and delivery from you (or others)?

O’Keefe: It has been said that if one presents the truth often enough, the misled will come around to realizing their error.

I tend to doubt that. Brain science seems to have soundly demonstrated that instinct and the subconscious mind govern our behavior, and that the “rational” mind almost always rationalizes decisions implementing the incessant demands of the subconscious.

Bluntly, if young children aren’t taught the fundamentals of skeptical thinking and the truth about our world, then there will be no solution. I haven’t seen any of our programs/lectures sway doubters or even attract people wanting to cast off ignorance. We mostly “preach to the choir.”   

Jacobsen: How can folks become involved in Tampa Bay Skeptics and its efforts to reduce the level of junk thinking in Tampa Bay?

O’Keefe: Contact us, volunteer, pay the paltry membership fee, and show some leadership!

Jacobsen: What are the main concerns regarding false claims sold to the general American public moving into 2019 for you?

O’Keefe: Same old, same old. Increasing ignorance worries me.

A bit of history: Founded in 1988 by Gary P. Posner, M.D., Tampa Bay Skeptics is a nonprofit educational and scientific organization devoted to the critical examination of paranormal and fringe-science claims, and the dissemination of factual information about such claims. TBS’s $1,000 Challenge — Whenever possible, TBS attempts to put claims to the test.

A Compendium of Fact-finding Sites
A resource compiled by Center for Inquiry Tampa Bay and Tampa Bay Skeptics.
Thanks for assistance from “Doc” Dockery, Tampa Bay Technology Center.

Critical Thinkers Evaluation Tools

Learning how to evaluate what you read, view, and hear is an essential skill set for your academic and personal life

Use it to evaluate all kinds of information and to determine if a source is appropriate and credible.

How to use different types of sources in your writing.

Answering these questions can help you evaluate the credibility of all types of sources.

Simple checklist to help you identify “fake” news. The same principles can also be used to evaluate websites and social media.

Categorized news sources by degrees of conservative and liberal bias. (Take with a grain of salt.)

Interactive tool produced by EasyBib. Just paste the website address into the search bar and wait for the evaluation screen to appear. Answer the questions in the right column.

Websites to help you verify identities, places, images, and other factors.

Thanks to Middle Tennessee State University, James E. Walker Library
http://bit.ly/2GxrhqZ

Fact Check Resources

https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/ and https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/fact-check-resources/– “The purpose of these is not only to deliver news, but to also be a resource on media bias and fact checking.  When checking facts these are the 10 sites we find to be most valuable.  In most cases, one of these sites has already covered the fact check we are seeking, making the job easy.  Listed below you will find our favorite (most trusted) fact checking websites.  Bookmark them or just visit MBFC News and we will filter them for you.”

PolitiFact– PolitiFact is a fact-checking website that rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others who speak up in American politics. PolitiFact is run by editors and reporters from the Tampa Bay Times, an independent newspaper in Florida.  PolitiFact is simply the best source for political fact checking.  Won the Pulitzer Prize.

Fact Check– FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.  They are a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. They monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases.  Fact Check is similar to PolitiFact in their coverage and they provide excellent details.  The only drawback is they lack the simplicity of PolitiFact.

Open Secrets– Open Secrets is a nonpartisan, independent and nonprofit, run by the Center for Responsive Politics, which is the nation’s premier research group tracking money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy.  Open Secrets are by far the best source for discovering how much and where candidates get their money.  They also track lobbying groups and whom they are funding.

Snopes– Snopes has been the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation for a long time.  Snopes is also usually the first to report the facts.

The Sunlight Foundation The Sunlight Foundation is a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that uses the tools of civic tech, open data, policy analysis and journalism to make our government and politics more accountable and transparent to all.  Sunlight primarily focuses on money’s role in politics.

Poynter Institute– The Poynter Institute is not a true fact checking service.  They are however a leader in distinguished journalism and produce nothing but credible and evidence based content.  If Poynter reports it, you can count on it being true.

Flack Check– Headquartered at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, FlackCheck.org is the political literacy companion site to the award-winning FactCheck.org. The site provides resources designed to help viewers recognize flaws in arguments in general and political ads in particular.

Truth or Fiction– Very similar to Snopes.  They tend to focus more on political rumors and hoaxes.

Hoax Slayer– Another service that debunks or validates internet rumors and hoaxes.

Fact Checker by the Washington Post– The Washington Post has a very clear left-center bias and this is reflected in their fact checks.  Their fact checks are excellent and sourced; however their bias is reflected in the fact that they fact check right wing claims more than left.   Otherwise the Washington Post is a good resource.

Vote Smart and Vote Easy— which are the best and most thorough non-partisan analyses of politicians and their actual positions. While Vote Smart isn’t a factcheck org, it does get to the facts that politicians can’t hide from. Truly, “Vote smart, or vote stupid”.

Quackwatch—Quackwatch is now an international network of people who are concerned about health-related frauds, myths, fads, fallacies, and misconduct. Its primary focus is on quackery-related information that is difficult or impossible to get elsewhere. This site maintains a large compendium of information. (Quackwatch is an affiliate of Center for Inquiry)

health fraud and quackery http://www.quackwatch.org  
guide to questionable theories and practices http://www.allergywatch.org  
skeptical guide to acupuncture history, theories, and practices http://www.acuwatch.org  
guide to autism http://www.autism-watch.org  
guide to intelligent treatment http://www.cancertreatmentwatch.org  
legal archive http://www.casewatch.org  
chelation therapy http://www.chelationwatch.org  
skeptical guide to chiropractic history, theories, and practices http://www.chirobase.org  
guide to health-related education and training http://www.credentialwatch.org  
guide to dental care http://www.dentalwatch.org  
guide to questionable medical devices http://www.devicewatch.org  
guide to weight-control schemes and rip-offs http://www.dietscam.org  
guide to the fibromyalgia marketplace http://www.fibrowatch.org  
guide to homeopathy http://www.homeowatch.org  
guide to trustworthy health information http://www.ihealthpilot.org  
guide to an equitable health-care system http://www.insurancereformwatch.org  
guide to infomercials http://www.infomercialwatch.org  
guide to the mental help marketplace http://www.mentalhealthwatch.org  
multi-level marketing http://www.mlmwatch.org  
skeptical guide to naturopathic history, theories, and practices http://www.naturowatch.org  
activities of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) http://www.nccamwatch.org  
nutrition facts and fallacies http://www.nutriwatch.org  
guide to the drug marketplace and lower prices http://www.pharmwatch.org  
National Council Against Health Fraud archive http://www.ncahf.org  
guide to telemarketing scams http://www.stop-robocalls.org  
consumer health sourcebook http://www.chsourcebook.com  

Editor, Consumer Health Digest       http://www.quackwatch.org/00AboutQuackwatch/chd.html

Conclusion– A good fact checking service will write with neutral wording and will provide unbiased sources to support their claims.  Look for these two simple criteria when hunting for the facts.  Happy hunting!

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Rick.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Photo by codey vargas on Unsplash

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