RIP: "Arch sceptic" Denis Dutton

By Guest Work 29/12/2010 2


Another Candle Goes Out….

By Vicki Hyde, Media Spokesperson, former Chair-entity, NZ Skeptics

We´ve lost another light against the darkness, with the death of
Denis Dutton.

Denis was a founder member of New Zealand Skeptics, back in 1984 when it was known as the NZ Committee for Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal. For many years he was the face of organised scepticism in New Zealand, fronting up to the media with many a pithy comment and a wry sense of humour.

I´ll always associate Denis with laughter – not scornful, nor
dismissive, but rather his genuine delight in the wonder and
absurdity of the human condition, and his joy in discovery and
debate. He challenged me, and so many others, to think, to critically
evaluate what we think we know, to be prepared to suspend judgement when evidence is lacking, to have the strength to acknowledge when we´d got things wrong, and to change our ideas in the face of a better explanation of how the world works.

Denis had a deeply moral sense in that he abhorred the exploitation
we so often see underpinning skeptical issues. He reserved his scorn
for the shysters willing to exploit vulnerable people for their own
gain – psychics claiming to be in touch with the dead, counsellors
convincing their clients that their problems stemmed from suppressed memories of infant ritual sexual abuse. He spent year after year fielding calls about everything from alien abductions to moa sightings, and managed to retain a sense of humour throughout.

What more could you wish from someone once referred to as New
Zealand´s Arch-Skeptic?

But Denis was so much more than that. He was an inspirational and
thought-provoking speaker whose reach extended way past his
University of Canterbury classes to a global audience through his
widely acclaimed Arts & Letters Daily website. He was a man of
intense enthusiasms and a willingness to get involved, whether
campaigning to keep National Radio uncommercialised or championing a Bad Writing Contest to highlight academic obfuscation.

The world is a darker place without him. But I also know that Denis
would be the first to remind me of a quote from Carl Sagan, another
skeptic lost far too early:

“It´s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”


2 Responses to “RIP: "Arch sceptic" Denis Dutton”

  • I didn’t know Denis personally but his formidable reputation as an academic and a skeptic was well known and respected by many.
    The world may be a darker place without him, but part of his legacy is that he has lit the wick of many an budding skeptic and in time their light will continue to push back the darkness.

  • I’ve no idea whether Carl Sagan also said ” It´s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”, but others had already made the expression famous.

    It’s derived from a chinese proverb that came to prominence in western society after Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International, used ( and correctly attributed ) it at a Human Rights Day ceremony on 10 December 1961 and provided Amnesty International with its symbol of a burning candle encircled by barbed wire

    Adlai Stevenson also incorporated the expression to describe Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy when she died in 1962. That appears to be the start of popular usage in the West.

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