So What Is Skepticism?

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

What is skepticism? It’s a method of looking at the world critically and exploring the evidence that supports or debunks extraordinary claims, but, to paraphrase Frank Drebin, that doesn’t seem to be important just now.

Sciencepunk Frank Swain recently set off a storm in a tweetcup with his recent talk at Westminster Skeptics “A Critique of Skepticism”, including such pearls of wisdom as “a hashtag is not a campaign”, and discussing how the way in which some skeptics approach skepticism limits our reach, and excludes certain groups. I haven’t had time to fully digest the talk, but you can listen to it in full on the Westminster Skeptics podcast below:×200.swf?phlogId=22494&phonecastId=34886&channelInView=WEBSITE_CHANNEL_22494&callInView=local_34886

I intend to touch upon these points, going on to address them more fully, perhaps elsewhere as others have already done. However, in this post, I am interested in the greater “meta-issue” that this debate has yet (to my mind) to fully address. Hayley Stephens has already started the ball rolling with her thought provoking piece here.

Essentially, I would contend that, while critical reflection and self examination are worthwhile things for all skeptics and skeptical groups to take part in, there is little point applying the same principle to a “movement” or the like. This is simply because many people do not agree that such a movement exists, let alone what values drive it or how it should behave.

Other talks in the vein of  “how to do skepticism” have sprung up and appeared at various SitP events – Rebecca Watson’s amusing and highly entertaining  talk “Don’t Be A Dick” being one. This worries me slightly to be honest, as they all make some assumptions about how people should behave when being skeptics. This involves:

  • The assumption that people are in skepticism to engage with others
  • The assumption that the best way to do this is normally by being “nice”
  • The assumption that their way they do things is best

People should be free to comment on how people engage, certainly, but they should not assume that engagement is everyone’s aim. People come to skepticism for different reasons — skeptics are a very loose amalgam of people with different views about lots of different things. They are a ‘de facto’ community in many ways; however, they are one that lacks a huge degree of coherency. Skeptics are divided on moral issues, political issues and practically any issue that doesn’t involve psuedoscience and the paranormal.

We are less a community of the “shared ideals” type, and more of the “shared interest” type. Perhaps we should think of ourselves as the trainspotters of science? (Someone else can try and come up with a more glamorous name if they want!) This period of self reflection could amount to nothing, but I worry that sometimes it looks a lot like either the start of a movement or the death of a community. By being seen as (note very carefully the perceived nature of this) trying to “impose” a prescribed method of how to engage with people more effectively, ironically the likes of Frank Swain and Rebecca Watson are getting people’s backs up. Skeptics are seemingly now getting their own backs up without the need for chiropractors to assist!

I don’t want to comment too much at length on the arguments for and against this approach, but I think there is possibly an argument that, given the reaction in some quarters, some of the points are ultimately self-defeating.

To finally get around to what I want to talk about, I think there are different levels of “skepticism” to consider: Skepticism – the method, Skepicism – the brand. Skepticism – the community and Skepticism – the movement .

Skepticism – the method. “Being Skeptical”: This is where most (one would hope all, but realistically not I fear) skeptics start off. Adopting a critical and invetigative method of thinking about and looking at the world. It’s the first level of skepticism – adopting a critical outlook and self identifying (or not, at this stage you can just be skeptical) as a skeptic.

Skepicism – the brand. “Skeptics in the Pub, Skeptics on the Fringe, etc”: Skepticism the brand is where I personally think we are now. The very fact that we have adopted Skeptics with a K instead of the current English spelling (I am aware of the history) I think indicates this. The situation we find ourselves in appears to be folks in various cities have used the Skeptics in the Pub brand to advertise their events; events that have nebulous concerns: bringing skeptics together, public engagement  (to an extent) and in some cases even just entertainment. None of these are wrong, and they are all at the level of skepticism as a brand.

Skepticism – the community. “The fruits of 10-23?”: Skepticism the community is, to my mind, a recent development. I suspect there has been a thriving community based in London for quite some time (perhaps it extends beyond the M25) but this is more geographically based than it is on shared values and ideals. I also think that communities of skeptics are now springing up around the country. It starts when the regulars at SitP events start to talk to one another and discuss issues, meet people they met at SiTP away from the meetings and, I suppose, just start to make friends who are skeptics. I think this is something that all organisers of SitP should try and encourage, and assume most do already.

However, in terms of a community on a wider level: what is there? There is a loose affiliation of people and groups thanks largely to the goodwill generated from the 10:23 campaign, but it’s not really a coherent community. Nonetheless, I think one is building, but it will only continue to do so if it builds on its own terms. It will only be able to do so if it accepts the limitations of being a community as opposed to being  a movement. We won’t be able to tell people how to behave – we have little right to do that.

Skepticism – the movement: Does it exist? I’d say there is an embryonic skeptics movement there, but it’s fractious and prone to splitting. A proper “full-on” skeptical movement might be a step too far (at least now) when we have just built the first bridges for a community.

I would suggest that we build more on links between groups and respect each other’s differences in approach, with individuals and groups deciding as and when what is appropriate for them to be involved in.

It is no one’s place to tell a skeptic how to behave. There may never be a place for it. There certainly won’t if too many people try to force their view of what skepticism is and isn’t on others, particularly if they appear to be using skepticism as a synonym for “science communication”.