The skeptical movement is having some (charitably characterized) growing pains. It’s nothing new, actually. Ever since I have been involved in organized skepticism (about 17 years) we have been struggling with the exact same identity crisis, and from speaking with older skeptics it seems much longer than that.
What is the skeptical community all about? What are the limits, if any, of skeptical analysis? What should be our goals, and our main focus of attention? There is also an even deeper question – are we, in fact, a movement at all?
These are all interesting and important questions. Recently PZ Myers wrote a brief but provocative blog post addressing some of these questions, which in turn was a response to a longer blog post at Grime and Reason. These posts reflect some common themes that crop up in this discussion, namely that skeptics should address more political, social, and religious issues. This position is nothing new – Paul Kurtz wrote about this years ago, arguing for “free inquiry in every area of human interest.”
At the other end of the spectrum are those like Daniel Loxton who feel that the skeptical movement is best served if we focus on the basics that have defined us as a movement – the scientific analysis of fringe claims.
Before I specifically address some of PZ’s points, let me just lay out my own position. I do think, first of all, that the skeptical movement is a movement. We have organizations, outlets, meetings, activists, and our own subculture. However, we are a movement of people who generally do not like labels, are very protective of their intellectual independence, and do not like, ironically, belonging to movements. Further, skeptics represent a wide diversity of backgrounds and opinions on many topics.
What we are discussing now (and always have) is – what is the intellectual core of skepticism?
I believe that skepticism has several facets, each of which could be an article unto itself, but I will try to briefly summarize. This is what I consider to be the common ground of most if not all self-identified skeptics.
Respect for knowledge and truth – Skeptics value reality and what is true. We therefore endeavor to be as reality-based as possible in our beliefs and opinions. This means subjecting all claims to a valid process of evaluation.
Methodological Naturalism – Skeptics believe that the world is knowable because it follows certain rules, or laws of nature. The only legitimate methods for knowing anything empirical about the universe follows this naturalistic assumption. In other words – within the realm of the empirical, you don’t get to invoke magic or the supernatural.
Promotion of Science - Science is the only set of methods for investigating and understanding the natural world. Science is therefore a powerful tool, and one of the best developments of human civilization. We therefore endeavor to promote the role of science in our society, public understanding of the findings and methods of science, and high quality science education. This includes protecting the integrity of science and education from ideological intrusion or anti-scientific attacks. This also includes promoting high quality science, which requires examining the process, culture, and institutions of science for flaws, biases, weaknesses, and fraud.
Promotion of Reason and Critical Thinking – Science works hand-in-hand with logic and philosophy, and therefore skeptics also promote understanding of these fields and the promotion of critical thinking skills.
Science vs Pseudoscience – Skeptics seek to identify and elucidate the borders between legitimate science and pseudoscience, to expose pseudoscience for what it is, and to promote knowledge of how to tell the difference.
Ideological Freedom/Free Inquiry – Science and reason can only flourish in a secular society in which no ideology (religious or otherwise) is imposed upon individuals or the process of science or free inquiry.
Neuropsychological Humility – Being a functional skeptic requires knowledge of all the various ways in which we deceive ourselves, the limits and flaws in human perception and memory, the inherent biases and fallacies in cognition, and the methods that can help mitigate all these flaws and biases.
Consumer Protection – Skeptics endeavor to protect themselves and others from fraud and deception by exposing fraud and educating the public and policy-makers to recognize deceptive or misleading claims or practices.
The above outline is what I have found to be the common goals shared by most skeptics. It is also my personal list of what I think the skeptical movement does best. I did not include a list of the various mechanisms by which we pursue these goals (like dealing with the media vs direct public outreach). You will also notice the distinct absence of any particular belief or position. A skeptic is not someone who doubts the existence of alien visitors specifically, but rather someone who follows certain methods in assessing any claim.
As we discuss disagreements over what the skeptical movement is or should be, I do think it would be invaluable to also discuss (and remind ourselves) what we consider to be our common ground. If there is something missing from the above list, or you think should be removed, let me know. Perhaps there are hidden assumptions that should be explored. But let’s focus as much, if not more, on what we share rather than focus mostly on what divides us.
Within the above framework there are many different opinions, backgrounds, areas of expertise, and even ideologies. People have different interests and goals. There are also many allied intellectual areas that overlap significantly with skepticism as I have defined it. There are those who promote atheism, feminism, progressivism, libertarianism, and other isms as skeptics.
My position has always been that this is all good. I have never endeavored to tell other people what to do with their own activism. If Penn and Teller want to have a skeptical/libertarian show, that’s their right. They can do what they want. The Skepchicks combine feminism and skepticism, and PZ combines (by his own account) skepticism, atheism, and liberal politics. My view – let a thousand lights shine. At the end of the day, we are all skeptics. Let’s celebrate that, and we can still argue about our differences but let’s not pretend that any skepticism-plus is the one-true-skepticism just because it’s our own.
There are also many differences in background. Some skeptics choose to focus on the application of skepticism to societal problems, or the incursion of ideologies into science education, or religious forms of pseudoscience, or philosophical issues. I don’t expect everyone to be a science-geek like me, or to think that medical pseudoscience is the most important (even though it is ).
While I think it is useful to talk about strategy, I would be very careful before claiming that one strategy is the right strategy. We are fighting a complex cultural and social problem (pseudoscience, anti-science, and mysticism) and this will take a complex multifarious approach. So let’s let our fellow skeptics follow their skills and inclinations, and see what happens. I don’t pretend that anything I have done is the right way – it’s just the way I have chosen because it fits me.
With all of this as background, let me address some of what PZ wrote in his blog. In response to another blog complaining that many skeptics (specifically naming the SGU) avoid political or economic issues, PZ wrote:
Yes. Yes. Yes. The modern skeptical movement is built on a very narrow foundation; a lot of the Old Guard spend an incredible amount of effort restricting the range of allowed topics to a tiny set of staples, which means that too often we hear lots about the bogosity of Bigfoot, but almost nothing about the bogosity of an economic system that maintains gross social inequities. And which belief do you think does greater harm?
I love the opportunity to disagree with a fellow skeptic – it usually means we are getting to an interesting and complex area, and it tends to be more satisfying than shooting more fish in a barrel. So let me disagree with everything that PZ wrote above (sorry, PZ). First, I do not think that the modern skeptical movement has a narrow foundation. I outlined it above – that is a massive foundation. It is, in fact, overwhelming. We need more than one movement to tackle it. Science-based medicine itself needs its own movement.
I am also left wondering who PZ thinks is the “old guard?” The oldest modern skeptical organization I know is CSI, and as I mentioned above its founder, Paul Kurtz, spent the last couple of decades arguing for a broadening of its mission in precisely the way PZ is arguing for.
Even within the more narrow scope of science and pseudoscience (in other words, not including overtly social or political issues) traditional skepticism addresses a very broad range of topics – all of alternative medicine, parapsychology, cryptozoology, conspiracy theories, scams, post-modernism, self-help, education, science and the media, neuroscience and self-deception, fringe science, and a long list of topics that do have political, religious, or social implications – genetically modified foods, organic farming, free energy and other energy issues, climate change, creationism, miracle claims, faith-healing, prophesy, channeling – the list is massive.
The term “bigfoot skeptic” which is now catching on in the comments to PZ’s post, is a dismissive straw man. I know it’s not meant to be literal, but just for fun I looked through my posts and in 1,284 posts there are 2 on Bigfoot, both a response to a major news item.
Further, as I have argued before, for skeptical outreach the impact of the specific topic is not the only legitimate concern. We cover topics that are of interest to the public, are in the news, and are fun to talk about. The purpose is to teach the deeper lessons about science and pseudoscience and to teach critical thinking skills – skills that can then be applied broadly.
I have to also disagree that anyone (old guard or not) is spending an “incredible amount of effort restricting the range of allowed topics.” Allowed how? I am aware mostly of skeptical activists justifying their own personal choices of scope and approach, not trying to impose that approach on others. Journal editors and conference organizers are gate-keepers only for their own outlets and events. I see, if anything, more atheist conferences than scientific skeptical conferences. As a conference organizer myself, I can tell you we consider and include a very broad range of topics, but we also have a certain editorial focus. We’re not trying to tell anyone else what to include in their conference.
Ironically I find that it is those who are complaining about the scope of skepticism that are trying to tell others what to do – not the people they are complaining about.
We’ve been struggling for years just to get the established skeptics to recognize that religion, that citadel of lies, is a legitimate target for public criticism. The arguments to exclude that topic have been strained and absurd; most commonly, we’re told that since the claims of religion are completely evidence-free and untestable, True Skeptics™ are not able to address them…and usually these gatekeepers are as bad as creationists in claiming that they have the mantle of science in so constraining their range. They disregard the fact that scientists tend to be extremely dismissive, and appropriately so, of extravagant claims made in the absence of substantive supportive evidence.
This one will simply not go away. No matter how many times I clarify and re-clarify my position on religion and skepticism the framing of the issue by those who think skepticism should address matters of faith does not change, which implies to me that they are not really listening. I know PZ is not specifically addressing me here, and there are true accommodationists out there (those who think religious thinking and scientific thinking are compatible and should be integrated), but since he is talking about prominent skeptics he should at least address what every prominent skeptic I know (Eugenie Scott, Massimo Pigliucci, Michael Shermer, Joe Nickel, and others) who shares my position has to say on this matter.
Here it is (again) – The issue is not with religion or religious-based claims. We address them all the time (creationism, miracles, faith healing, separation of church and state, secular moral philosophy, etc.) Really – we are right there shoulder to shoulder with organized atheists taking on every such issue. It is NOT that religious claims are untestable (some are, some aren’t), it is only that when claims (religious or otherwise) are framed as untestable then they are matters of faith and not science.
If you believe in the floating, invisible, heatless dragon then you do so as a matter of faith, because you have insulated that belief from every possible empirical test. You have ejected your own belief from the arena of science. As skeptics we can now say – that belief is not science-based. It is faith. Now the rules of faith apply – which means, in a secular society (see above) you don’t get to teach such belief in the public school classroom, and you don’t get funding for scientific research, you can’t impose your beliefs on others without violating their religious freedom, you cannot claim that insurance companies should cover your therapy, etc. It becomes a matter of personal faith only.
Further, no one is saying that it is outside the realm of skepticism or reason to argue that arbitrary faith-based beliefs are counter-productive, difficult to justify philosophically, or to point out when they defy logic (by being, for example, self-contradictory). The only restraint I would argue for is one not imposed by me but by philosophy (in my opinion) – I don’t think it is legitimate to say that a faith-based belief can be proven wrong by science. I would, in fact, condemn it with the far harsher criticism of being – not even wrong. It’s not even in the scientific arena.
When PZ writes: “They disregard the fact that scientists tend to be extremely dismissive, and appropriately so, of extravagant claims made in the absence of substantive supportive evidence,” he shows that he does not understand our position. His statement about scientists is correct, but irrelevant. It applies to scientific claims (anything testable), but not the untestable, to that scientists say – that is not even science.
On to the even thornier issue of politics, PZ writes:
Similarly, I can predict that skeptics will now struggle to exclude politics and economics from any debate; economics is notoriously fuzzy, and politics is wracked with extremes of opinion. But of course both fields do have hard evidence that can be addressed. Does the American political and economic system cause great hardship for many people? Does it promote stability and international cooperation? Are some of our expenditures unnecessary and others insufficient? Are there evidence-based alternative strategies that work better? Can we compare economies in different countries and assess their relative performance?
And most importantly, should rational skeptics take a stand on these issues, discuss and debate them, and come to reasonable conclusions? I don’t think it’s true that they are unresolvable.
Let me clarify my position with respect to political issues (and again, having discussed this many times with many skeptics I find this to be a common sentiment). Science and skepticism can absolutely inform political and social discussions. The list I gave above includes many political issues – GM food, farming practices, and energy policy. I would even include certain economic issues, gun control, abortion issues, gender equality, gay rights, and other similar issues. All of these issues incorporate empirical claims at some level. Can a woman’s body “shut down” pregnancy from rape? No. What does the evidence have to say about the relationship between specific gun control policies and gun violence? What are the risks posed by GM crops? What is the cost-benefit of recycling paper? Should we outlaw the hunting and shooting of Bigfoot? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
However, I do personally feel that it is important to tread carefully on such issues – at least for me, because I choose to cultivate a politically neutral skeptical approach. Others choose to do the same. This is partly strategic (maximizing outreach) and partly just personal style. Still others choose to promote skepticism alongside liberalism or libertarianism – good for them. That’s their choice.
If one’s goal is to be politically neutral, then when dealing with such issues it is important to thoughtfully distinguish between empirical claims and value judgments. It is one thing to talk about the medical effects of circumcision, another to advocate or condemn the practice based upon whether or not the balance of effects are worth it. The former is an empirical claim, the latter is a value judgment.
Issues of freedom vs security, individualism vs collectivism, meritocracy vs egalitarianism are all value judgments. It is not just counterproductive, it is simply wrong to frame these issues as empirical questions objectively resolvable with skeptical analysis.
This is what we mean when we say we don’t deal with purely political issues. We will deal with the empirical aspects of these issues, and try very hard to distinguish them from the inherent value judgments, while trying to avoid blurring the lines between science and personal choice.
By doing this we can have a broad skeptical movement with an important world view that we share as common ground. At the same time we can recognize that skeptics also have differing political views and cultural backgrounds, but we can all exist within the same activist movement. For me our common ground is more important than our differences. I also think our differences strengthen us because they help keep us honest – if we confuse our ideology with skepticism there are other skeptics with a different ideology who are likely to point it out.
Unfortunately, opening up the skeptic community to actually discussing these topics would lead to Deep Rifts that make the one over religion look insignificant. We’re riddled with wacky libertarians and their worship of the capitalist status quo (or worse, demanding a greater reduction in government and compassion). A libertarian speaker who openly espoused the opinions of a loon like Ron Paul — and there are people in this community who regard him as a saint — would pretty much guarantee a kind of noisy riot in the audience, and lead to a big chunk of organized skepticism decamping in fury.
Which would probably be a good thing.
Perhaps I am misunderstanding what PZ is saying here, and if so please correct me, but this sounds an awful lot like a desire to purge the skeptical movement of those with a differing political outlook. I find it hard to see how this would be a good thing.
The intellectual space filled by scientific skepticism, as I outlined above, is both huge and vastly important to our society. I choose to focus my efforts on promoting scientific skepticism (with a personal emphasis, of course, on my specialty of science-based medicine).
I am happy to find common cause with anyone who also wishes to promote scientific skepticism. I honestly don’t care if they also choose to promote skepticism plus some other agenda (as long as that agenda is not inherently anathema to skepticism). I understand that some skeptics wish to also promote atheism or feminism, or to argue for the virtues of their political ideology. Hey – I am an atheist and a feminist, and I support their promotion. I even see the need to promote feminism within the skeptical movement, if we wish to maximize our reach. I just don’t want them to be conflated with or confused for scientific skepticism.
I do object to others telling me what I should care about and promote. I am not telling anyone else what to do, and they have no right to tell me what to do. I am only defining how I spend my own efforts.
I will object if someone makes an illogical argument about what skepticism is, or blurs the lines between scientific skepticism and some other issue. These kinds of discussion are worth having – philosophical and logical arguments about the nature of science and knowledge, and how that informs our movement.
I am also happy to discuss strategy. We have goals (a more rational and scientifically literate world), and it’s perfectly reasonable to discuss how best to expend our resources to achieve those goals.
All movements have internal divisions, and these divisions grow as the movement grows. There is a natural tendency for movements to splinter over time into sub-groups based upon these divisions. I think that would be disastrous for us, given that we are still a relatively small movement with a monumental task before us, including highly motivated (and often well-funded) opponents who wish our failure.
In the end I hope this post helps us understand each other better so that we can be a more effective activist movement. I think we can survive intact if we recognize our vast and important common ground and keep that as our shared focus. Those skeptics who wish to also pursue other issues are welcome and have plenty of outlets to do so. Demands for skeptical purity on issues outside our shared common ground, however, are likely to be counterproductive.
This essay was originally published on Steven Novella's blog, Neurologica.
Steven Novella, M.D. is the JREF's Senior Fellow and Director of the JREF’s Science-Based Medicine project.