I used to think superheroes were the domain of fiction, existing only in comic-books and on film, their powers limited to battling their super-villain foe, equally the domain of fiction.
I didn’t realise superheroes and super-villains are actually real, living amongst us and effecting our lives in very real ways.
You see the problem was my limited world-view – my incorrectly formed understanding of what constitutes a superhero or super-villain. I previously thought these figures required super-natural powers in order to qualify, but that was clearly flawed right from the start. Batman immediately springs to mind – he had no super-natural powers at all, but instead relied on ingenuity, tenacity, and seemingly endless funds to fight evil, which also took the form of perfectly non-super-natural foe, themselves utilising whatever unlikely resources they could muster in order to further their desired outcome.
This realisation came to me over the last year or so, as I became increasingly absorbed in the activities of the science and skeptical ‘communities’ around the world through podcasts, online forums and more recently, Twitter. These superheroes are the groups and individuals who devote inconceivable measures of time and energy to the noble cause of countering the often damaging, usually misguided, and sometimes outright insidious activities of the villains, who draw their power from the ever-naive masses.
Why do I characterise these people as superheroes and not simply heroes?
Yourdictionary.com defines a hero as
any person, esp. a man, admired for courage, nobility, or exploits, esp. in war
Whereas the same source defines a superhero as
any person regarded as having extraordinary ability in some field
Put simply, the term ‘hero’ often describes someone who has been recognised as having performed an heroic act, often in the context of war, but usually as a result of some extraordinary circumstance. They’re often quoted as saying “anyone would have done the same in this situation”, pointing to the circumstantial nature of their heroic act. This is not to diminish their heroism, but highlight that these people usually find themselves in a situation which tests their character, and through their actions, they come out on top.
A superhero on the other hand is someone who seeks out circumstances which test their character, engaging with their villains time and time again, often driven by their passion for the truth, to protect or educate the public, and to improve the very world we live in. They are tireless, often working the equivalent of a second or even third full-time job in their battle against the many forms of woo the villains push into our homes, schools, government policy and shopping trolleys.
Their super-powers are simple –
Their numbers are many, and I couldn’t possibly name even all those whom I’ve become aware of, but I think it’s important they know that their efforts are appreciated, that someone notices their incredible contributions to our society, and at the end of the day, it truly is worth it.
Here’s a totally inadequate list of some of the superheroes who have inspired me;
- Dr Steven Novella
Host of the ‘Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe’ podcast, neurologist, blogger, web-skepticism pioneer and general all-round anti-woo powerhouse. Steve is arguably one of the most influential and inspiring individuals involved in the skeptical ‘community’, and the popularisation of science. Often referred to in other podcasts all around the world, there are few self-described skeptics who don’t respect this man.
- Bob Novella, Jay Novella, Evan Bernstein and Rebecca Watson
All co-hosts of the afore-mentioned ‘Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe’ podcast, each bring their informed and / or entertaining perspectives to the stories of woo they address on the show. With Steve, these folk have brought skepticism to the masses with their hugely popular podcast, inspiring countless others to become active in the pro-science, anti-woo movement. Rebecca also regularly features on other podcasts such as ‘Little Atoms’ , and founded the ‘Skepchick.org’ skeptical blog website.
- Dr Pamela Gay (aka StarStryder)
Pamela is a professional astronomer, Professor of Astrophysics, and half the team fronting the also hugely successful ‘Astronomycast’ podcast. It was partly Pamela’s blog at starstryder.com which led me to skepticism, and her passion for science education is so infectious I can’t heap enough praise on this incredible woman.
- Phil Plait (aka BadAstronomer)
Best known for his fantastic ‘Bad Astronomy’ blog, Phil is another passionate advocate for cross disciplinary science education, former President of the ‘James Randi Education Foundation’, an organisation founded by James Randi for the betterment of mankind through science education and critical thinking, author of award-winning books such as ‘Death from the Skies’, and most recently, host of a new Discovery Channel show based on his book called ‘Phil Plait’s Bad Universe’. Phil devotes many blogposts to highlighting the fantastic work performed by other skeptical superheroes around the world, and is a general all-round wonderful human.
- James Randi
Randi has been a tireless superhero fighting the evils of all manner of “woo-woo” for longer than just about anyone alive. After a successful career as a stage magician, in the early 70’s Randi turned his knowledge of slight-of-hand and foolery on the purveyors of woo, investigating many self-proclaimed ‘mediums’, ‘psychics’, and spoon-benders, eventually setting up the JREF and the Million-dollar Paranormal Challenge, an open-ended invitation to anyone professing to have paranormal powers to go ahead and prove it under mutually agreed testing protocols. To date, none have been able to do so, despite about a thousand people trying.
- Kylie Sturgess (aka PodBlack)
Kylie is a professional teacher from Perth, Australia who tirelessly promotes science and critical thinking through her activities on various podcasts, including ‘Token Skeptic’ and ‘The Skeptic Zone’, through her blog, podblack.com, and various other activities such as her campaign against the recently discredited Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), who seek to spread misinformation about vaccinations to undermine their health benefits. Kylie’s energy inspires me no-end, and I hope to meet her one day to tell her in person what an inspiration she is.
- Mike Hall, Michael Marshall and Colin Harris
Presenters of the highly addictive and very entertaining ‘Skeptics with a K’ podcast, founding members of the ‘Merseyside Skeptics‘ organisation, and active fighters of woo, these gentlemen spearheaded the 10:23 campaign against the dangers (yes dangers), of homoeopathy, which contributed to a UK government investigation and report that concluded homoeopathy doesn’t work, and should be removed from the health insurance schedule. This is a powerful example of how grass-roots skepticism can force real-world changes in government policy to the benefit of us all. Bottom line – these guys and their group are all superheroes!
- Dr Rachael Dunlop (aka DrRachie)
Co-presenter of the Australian ‘Skeptic Zone’ podcast, contributor to the ‘Skeptics’ book of pooh-pooh‘ and professional scientist working in heart-disease research, ‘Dr Rachie’ as she is known in skeptic circles is another tireless campaigner against the ‘alternate med’ industry, who has also fought tooth-and-nail against the aforementioned AVN in their wicked campaign against public health.
- Richard Saunders
Host of the ‘Skeptic Zone’ podcast, Richard also showed how grass-roots skepticism can make a difference with his involvement in tackling the Pharmacy Industry with their absurd endorsement of ‘ear candling’ products and other woo sold openly in Chemist shops around the country. In an open letter to Australian Pharmacists, Richard and Maggie from ‘Skeptics book of pooh-pooh’ challenged pharmacists to stop selling inefficacious, unproven or outright disproven products to an unsuspecting public who trust professional pharmacists to give them truthful, educated health-care advice. The letter effected change in Pharmacy Board of NSW policy, which recommended to their members to refrain from selling non-science-based products to their trusting customers.
- David Allen Green (aka Jack of Kent)
Through his ‘Jack of Kent’ blog, lawyer David focussed an international spotlight on the absurd libel case of the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) v Simon Singh. This was a case of critical importance to free press all around the world as it highlighted the insane English libel laws which greatly favour wealthy corporations and organisations that may dislike fair criticism, and allow for ‘liable tourism’ (google it), putting significant constraints upon free press around the world. Simon, another superhero, was sued by the BCA for writing that it “…happily promotes bogus treatments…” in a newspaper article. JackOfKent’s blog and ‘libelreform.org‘ are highly recommended if you’re thinking about ever commenting about any organisation publicly, including on social networks such as Twitter or Facebook.
There are so many more. The fact is, we’re surrounded by superheroes, each wielding their powers of passion, tenacity and reason fighting for a better world. Others include Sean The Blogonaut, Brian Dunning from Skeptoid.com, Adam Savage of Mythbusters… the list goes on.
Which superheroes have inspired you? Give them some fraction of the credit they deserve and leave a comment about who they are and what they did to inspire you.