by Susan Gerbic
Harriet A. Hall was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on July 2, 1945, and died on January 11, 2023, in Puyallup, Washington.
Soon after her death, Richard Saunders replayed a 2007 episode of his podcast, The Skeptic Zone, in which he interviewed Hall while they were both on a James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) cruise to Alaska. It was Hall’s first ever podcast interview, and listening to it again made me pause to consider how much she gave our community and how fortunate we were to have her with us for as long as we did.
On the podcast, Hall explained that for many years she had been a “passive skeptic,” attending the conferences, doing the readings, but never expecting to be more active than that. Then she attended the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) Skeptic’s Toolbox at the University of Oregon, led by Ray Hyman, Barry Beyerstein, Wally Sampson, James Alcock, Loren Pankratz, and—with his amazing optical illusions in tow—Jerry Andrus. Hall told Saunders that at the Toolbox she realized she had found her community, and, with some encouragement from the Toolbox faculty, she tried her hand at writing an article on medical quackery.
One thing led to another, and Hall became prolific, publishing in Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic, as well as a short stint in one of Oprah’s magazines, followed by the Science-Based Medicine blog. She started her writing career later in life but made up for it with blazing productivity.
I met Hall at one of the Skeptic’s Toolbox events, where I was also a passive skeptic, just hanging out and waiting to see where I fit in the wild world of scientific skepticism. I never ever thought in my wildest dreams that I would also become a writer for Skeptical Inquirer, and in some far-out year of 2023 would be asked to write a remembrance of her for the magazine. I think Hall would have called both our “careers” surreal, but within this community we both learned that all hands, skills, and motivations are needed on deck. Any hope of slowing down need to be forgotten, because there is work to be done, and she stepped up. Even after a career in the United States Air Force as a flight surgeon, retiring as a Colonel and receiving her pilot’s license, she kept on stepping up.
Hall had never published anything before, but her quick wit and snarky responses in print had editors seeking her out to write more. In 2008, she wrote her autobiography, Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon, about her military life from 1969–1989 and experiences living in Spain.
I know people thought of her as a feminist, but I’m not sure Hall thought of herself that way. We had conversations about the pressures she felt to be the female trendsetter in the skeptic community, and it wasn’t a role she wanted pushed on her. Hall was clear: she just wanted to be Harriet Hall, the SkepDoc.
A couple years ago, we both were added to one of those “females of skepticism” lists, and in an email exchange, I expressed my frustration at feeling like I was being placated—not good enough to be with the men—and she wrote me back: “I agree with you. I hope someday people will not even notice sex/gender but just recognize ability and accomplishments.”
Hall did step up—over and over—for our community. You might not be aware of how prolific she was: She became a fellow of both CSI and the German skeptics group GWUP; she was a founding member of the Institute for Science in Medicine; and in 2015, she published a series of videos for the JREF, titled “Science Based Medicine,” in which she attacked naturopathy, homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, and more. This series of ten videos has almost 100,000 views. Personally, I think it should be 100 million views. She gave the Australian Skeptics unlimited access to her personal published work, and I’m sure it will continue to be used to educate people about medical science and pseudoscience.
Hall’s frankness and pithy humor comes through in her videos and writings. The Guerilla Skeptics of Wikipedia (GSoW) project that I run often uses articles she had written as sources for the appropriate Wikipedia pages. In preparation for writing this article, I revisited some of the quotes we have left for others to find. On the Wikipedia page for colon cleansing, we quote her saying “The colon cleanses itself. … The idea that its walls are coated with years-old hamburger residue is preposterous.” On the Christiane Northrup Wikipedia page, we added this quote: “MDs who recommend quackery along with legitimate medical advice are arguably more dangerous than outright quacks because people are more likely to take them seriously.” She gave the Netflix series (Un)Well “two thumbs down,” and she called What the Health, another faux-health documentary series, “not a reliable source of scientific information.” Her local Tacoma, Washington, newspaper the News Tribune got a piece of her mind on their Wikipedia page when we added this quote: “Harriet Hall criticized the News Tribune in Skeptical Inquirer in 2019 for its acceptance of advertisements for health-related products that imitated the presentation of real articles with only a small disclaimer.”
You might think, “Big deal we all know these faux-health shows are full of misinformation.” But when these documentaries first came out and someone created their Wikipedia pages, there was no notable criticism to be found. Only fluffy positive articles existed. So the public, who was clamoring to find out whether what they were watching was real science or not, had nothing but positive nonsense to find. Hall stepped up and watched the shows, getting her reviews out fast so that viewers could find them and learn how they were being conned with slick, fast-talking quacks. After I asked her to watch one series and write a review, I received this email from her: “It was a truly painful experience. Sitting through hours of nonsense because I had to keep pausing it to take six pages of notes; laboriously organizing my notes into an article, fact-checking, etc. Two days of my life gone. You owe me one!”
That was Harriet: always stepping up to do what she could to help out—and with her unique humor. I have a photograph of her from the 2013 CFI Summit where she dressed up as a “Quackbuster.” She wore a spray bottle around her neck with a label that said “Quack B Gone.” In 2016, she attended the CSICon Halloween party wearing a sign that simply said “Oscillococcinum.” She said “This is a homeopathic flu remedy made with duck liver. They dilute it until there is nothing left but the quack.” With that, she pulled out a duck call and blew it.
For someone who at first appeared so quiet and respectful, she sure liked to tell jokes. She was quiet. You had to sit right next to her and pay attention to hear her. The only joke I clearly remember was the one where the guy asks his doctor if he would be able to play the violin after surgery. When the doctor said, “Of course,” the patient said, “That will be great ’cause I can’t play now.” I know—it’s a bad joke, but we all loved hearing her tell them.
Hall became known for the phrase “Tooth Fairy Science,” meaning that some people try to study a phenomenon before knowing it even exists. In 2022, Hall published the book There’s No Such Thing as the Tooth Fairy! about a little girl named Harriet who was trying to convince her younger brother, Henry, that the Tooth Fairy was all made up. It is a charming story, beautifully illustrated by Kevin Howell. I wrote to her soon after it came out and told her our community “needs to find more Harriets.”
For all that humor, she was a realist. She loved to travel, but she slipped on a hike while attending the 2016 Australian Skeptics Conference and was hospitalized for weeks before flying home. Then, when attempting to travel again, she had some other health problem. She suffered from congestive heart failure for years, and eventually she wrote to tell me she would be staying close to home and concentrating on her writing.
Back in 2012, Hall wore a yellow T-shirt to The Amazing Meeting that was so controversial it was removed from her Wikipedia page after the photograph I took of her was uploaded. I know she wouldn’t want to be remembered for the drama we lived through during those years, but I will mention what she had written on the back of the shirt because it still encapsulates her: “I’m a skeptic. Not a ‘skepchick.’ Not a ‘woman skeptic’—Just a skeptic.” I hear you, Harriet, and I agree. You have set a standard of productivity, quirkiness, and frankness that represents all of us, not just the females in the community. We all need to model your behavior and step up, because we are needed to fill the void you left behind.
Hall’s husband, Kirk, shared an email explaining that she skipped dinner that final Wednesday night. She had been feeling poorly for a few days and told him she was cold and going to bed early. Kirk went in to check on her at 10 p.m. and found that she had died in her sleep. She is survived by Kirk and her daughters, Kimberly and Kristin Ann. There will be no formal service; her cremated remains will be sent to the family plot in St. Louis, Missouri.
I haven’t yet mourned you, my friend. I’m sure I will soon. Thinking about what our community has lost, I’m looking at it like the realist you were. It’s not what we lost but how much we have gained. I wish it had been longer, but you will live on through your writings and wisdom. Damn, I still wish you were here. I miss you already, and so say we all. Harriet, you told me once that “you owe me,” and as usual you were right. But actually, we all owe you. Thank you, Harriet.
Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also the founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.