I would normally advise against introducing a line of lingerie called “Itches Like Hell,” or a line of cat food called “More Hairballs.” Likewise, if we were on the eve of birthing the world’s first critical thinking movement, I might look for a more positive-sounding brand name than "skeptic."
But let’s not waste our time. The eve has passed, the movement has been snowballing for years and, with it, "skeptic" has strongly emerged as moniker-of-choice. Trying to change the name now would be about as fruitful as trying to get old movie buffs to start calling the late, rough'n'tough cowboy actor John Wayne by his given name, Marion Morrison. "Skeptic," at least for now, is here to stay.
Not to worry. Many respected brands rise above names which, in isolation, might not seem optimal. For a modest sampling, consider names like Smuckers, Wii, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Grey Poupon, Virgin, Crab Shack, Dress Barn, The Beatles, PMS (Pantone Matching System), Chubb, Gap, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Allied Waste, Athlete’s Foot, Costco, Beano, and Seimens. By comparison, making something positive out of "skeptic" doesn’t seem so daunting after all.
Besides, a name isn’t a brand. It is a trapping of a brand, much like a logo or the use of fonts and colors. Ensuring that people have a consistent, positive experience with a brand matters more than what you call it. The fact that skeptics are a little-understood, little-trusted minority may be due in part to how the word "skeptic" resonates, and in part to ignorance about skepticism. But we should also consider the possibility of a causal relationship between how skepticism is perceived and the way that some of us behave some of the time.
So rather than obsess on the merits of the word "skeptic" perhaps we should focus on giving people a positive experience in our day-to-day dealings as skeptics. Here are a few suggestions for doing that, culled mostly from my own vast experience with getting it wrong.
Time and place, Part 1. When I’m asked to write an article or give a speech, I’m direct when it comes to debunking. That’s appropriate in a public forum, where people log on or attend expecting to hear strong views. But among friends, neighbors and associates--people I need to get along with on a day-to-day basis -- different rules apply. It’s one thing to say to a large audience, “Chiropractic should be outlawed.” It’s quite another to say that at a friend’s dinner party where serendipity has seated me next to a chiropractor’s adoring spouse.
Say what you’re for. I cringed when an associate referred to TAM as “that gathering of naysayers.” Though I am normally impervious to bouts of self-honesty, I have to admit that her perception was my fault. Over time, my serving up of one debunking after another had led her to conclude that the skeptical mission is to disbelieve everything. It’s important that we remember to talk as much (or more) about what we affirm as about what we reject. There was a holocaust. There was a lunar landing. Immunizations do save lives. We are one human family. Opening a conversation about skepticism with positive statements such as these plays better than, say, “Let me tell you why you’re nuts if you believe in psychics.”
Personal growth. In our zeal to debunk, let’s not overlook our own development as human beings. Living a life of integrity, broadening our horizons and perspective, developing listening skills and empathy, telling the truth, treating people with kindness and fairness, giving an employer an honest day’s work instead of tweeting--these are all good practices for anyone. We owe it to ourselves to grow. Coincidentally, it helps skepticism’s brand when we do.
Play nice. There’s no need to respect silly beliefs, but there’s also no need to treat with open derision the people who hold them. We may think we’re standing up for science, when in reality we’re only conveying, “Skeptics are ill-mannered.”
Resist urges to pounce. I have a hard time sitting still and listening to malarkey. But pouncing never serves. On the rare occasions that I manage to pause and use my head, I have better luck saying something like, “I can tell this is important to you. I have a differing perspective that I can share if you’re interested.” If the other person isn’t interested and says so, it’s just as well--something about not being able to make a horse drink. Note that I don’t shy from expressing disagreement. I simply leave the bludgeon in the armory.
Time and place, Part 2. I live in Salt Lake City, where twice each year the Mormon Church holds a conference. When they do, members of another church gather outside to brandish signs and holler at them for being in “the wrong religion.” Their timing, approach and choice of venue do not win many converts. So far, the count is zero. Moreover, the public sees this church only at its nastiest, which doesn’t do much for its brand. We skeptics might weigh that. Challenge your city commission for displaying the Ten Commandments on public property if you must. But be nice about it. And be sure that opposing what many in your community hold dear does not represent the entirety of your public presence.
Throw away some pawns. H.G. Wells said, “No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” Were he talking about skeptics, he might have said: “No passion in the world is equal to the passion to fixate on minutiae.” A compulsion to correct every detail doesn’t promote skepticism. It makes us tiresome. Knowing when to give it a rest makes us more interesting when we take on topics that matter.
A good strategic rule for advertising is show, don’t tell. If we want people to see skepticism as a positive movement, and to see skeptics as good people, it begins with our doing positive things, and with our being good people. Our brand is not what we claim. It’s what we live.